The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The internet and the media are abuzz with commentary on the views that Patricia Arquette and other Hollywood stars expressed about various political issues at the Oscars. But it would be much better if people stopped paying attention to the political views of entertainment celebrities. Focusing on them does nothing to enhance the political debate.
Sometimes, voters can use the views of "opinion leaders" as an information shortcut to offset their own rational ignorance about political issues. Although such shortcuts are not as effective as often claimed, it does make sense, in some cases, for voters to defer to the views of scientists and other experts.
But, with very rare exceptions, there is no reason to believe that actors, directors, rock stars, and other such celebrities have any more insight into public policy than the average person on the street. When Republicans tried to promote the supposed insights of "Joe the Plumber" in the 2008 election, Democrats could quite reasonably point out that, however good a plumber Joe might be, he had no special expertise on public policy. Similarly, although Patricia Arquette might well be a good actress, it is unlikely that she has any special insight into the wage gap between men and women, or how best to deal with it.
I'm not just saying that because most celebrities are left-wing and I think their views are wrong. The same point applies to those cases where I do agree with them. For example, most celebrities support same-sex marriage, just like I do. But I don't think that in any way strengthens the case for my position. If you want to learn about same-sex marriage or any other legal or political issue, there is no shortage of real experts to choose from.
Our tendency to focus on the political views of celebrities is likely another example of our "rational irrationality" in evaluating political issues. Because the chance of any one vote making a difference in an election is so low, many people don't think carefully and rigorously about political issues. Instead of searching out those information sources that are most likely to be accurate and insightful, they often choose those that are most likely to be entertaining or to reinforce their preexisting views. And if there's one thing professional entertainers are good at doing, it is being entertaining and catering to the crowd. But relying on them as sources of insight on political issues is more likely to mislead than edify. Moreover, time devoted to these dubious information sources could be better spent on ones that are more likely to be useful.
The problem of political irrationality – like the more general issue of widespread political ignorance – is extremely difficult to solve. But, if we can learn to ignore the dubious political insights of entertainment celebrities, we can at least make things a little better at the margin.
For similar reasons, it is also a good idea to ignore celebrities' advice on vaccination. If you want to know what shots your kids should get, don't ask Charlie Sheen and Jenny McCarthy. Try calling a doctor instead.