By Steven Bonini
Washington, D.C. has the Lincoln Memorial dedicated to the country’s 16th president.
George Washington, the first president, is memorialized on Mount Rushmore.
And New York’s international airport is named for President John F. Kennedy.
The idolization of politicians is a common part of American culture, but more recently people have begun to ask what it means to idolize elected officials and how that affects their ability to function as competent public servants.
David Smailes, professor of political science, said public servants deal “with the issues of the day.” Figures who have “transcended” to a level of “idolization,” are seen a little differently.
“There have been good, competent presidents that we’ve had,” he said. “But I don’t think we look at them and say, ‘Wow, that’s another Lincoln, let’s go build a memorial...’ We don’t see it that way,” adding the figures who Americans truly idolize are those who represent the “American character.
“We always seem to have the idea that we want to have two things in our leaders,” Smailes said.
The first quality Americans look for in a leader is a figure who is going to “come and save us,” he said.
The second quality Americans look for in a leader is somebody who is “responsive,” and “listens,” as opposed to a person who gets wrapped up in “their own agenda,” he added.
When a political figure can have both these qualities, Smailes said it makes them popular and people begin to talk about them in “very inflated terms,” adding a good example of this is former President Donald Trump.
“People wanted a hero. They wanted somebody to come in and save them,” he said. “The status quo wasn’t listening anymore – wasn’t responsive to them. Here’s somebody who seemed to be listening to them and knew them and understood them, even though clearly he didn’t in many cases.”
Smailes added the real idolization for a politician tends to begin after a person leaves politics.
“While they’re in politics, they’re often very controversial figures,” he said. “After they’ve – for one reason or another – are not in politics anymore, then it gives us an opportunity to idolize them in a way. To be selective in our memory about them.
“We have a tendency to see, in them, the things that we would like to be ourselves. Our own aspirations, our own sense of what it is to be an American,” he added.
Both Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are good examples of this, said Smailes.
“Lincoln, for example, a very controversial figure in some ways, during his lifetime, and not widely recognized as the figure that we think of as Lincoln today,” he said.
“After his death, and perhaps because of his death – in the way in which he died – that almost began immediately after his death that people began to idolize him in the way in which they remembered him,” Smailes added.
In regard to Kennedy, he said, “Kennedy was more of a symbol of what we wanted to be rather than perhaps what he really was, and I think that tends to be true for politicians that we idolize.”
Smailes added even when people begin to write books about figures who society idolizes, in an attempt to “tarnish,” the way they are viewed, such as Kennedy, it still doesn’t phase the way people think about those figures.
“It’s the part of them we idolize,” he said. “It has nothing to do with them as a person, it has everything to do with what we see in them. It can’t really be taken away, even when we find out that they were very human, and they had their flaws, and things that they did and didn’t say, disappoint us.”
Although some individuals do tend to make up their own minds about how they feel about certain politicians, Smailes said the media also plays a big role, acting as a “selective medium,” by which the “idea of what these people represent get expressed.
“I think they have a way of de>ning it and writing the story of a legacy,” he added. “What they represent and putting it into words or pictures or whatever medium happens to be available at the time.”
Giuliano Espino, visiting lecturer of political science, sees the idolization of politicians a little differently and personally defined political idolization as, “a relationship in which an individual citizen looks up to that politician as a hero.”
Espino said he “absolutely” believes this takes away from a politician’s ability to effectively serve as a public servant using New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as an example.
“He was sort of painted as the anti-Trump leader of the resistance during COVID,” he said. “Rachel Maddow famously had a segment saying, ‘there’s really two presidents in the United States right now.’”
Because Cuomo was idolized as a national figure in the early days of the pandemic, the power went to his head, said Espino.
“Hiding and fudging the numbers and cooking the books on nursing home deaths,” he said.
“And then writing a book on the awesome job he did handling COVID. And then using his own fudged nursing home numbers in that book, as an example of how great a job he did,” Espino added. “There’s definitely something to be said that the power goes to people’s heads.”
He said, all in all, he does agree that the idolization of politicians does have more to do with “historical memory,” than “contemporary politics.”
Espino added he doesn’t believe there is any politician on the current contemporary political scene who will be able to transcend the boundaries of time.
Jon Huibregtse, professor of history, said political idolization can be a negative for society as it might diminish a politician and the way people see them.
“It sort of dehumanizes them and raises them into a position where we look at only the good they do and not the bad,” he said.
“In our current political climate, if you start to say something bad about someone who’s been idealized by one portion of the American political electorate, all of a sudden, they start calling you all kinds of things,” Huibregtse added.
He also went on to talk about the media and the ways in which bias has affected politics.
“When I was in college, I worked on my student newspaper ... and we had three major networks that we watched for news, and that was it,” Huibregtse said.
“Newspapers had their political leanings, but they were also committed to being somewhat equitable in their treatment,” he added. “The fairness doctrine was still in existence.”
Returning to the days of radio, Huibregtse said at the time if stations aired a “Republican talk show,” then they would also air a “Democratic talk show,” to create a balance in the media.
“That’s all disappeared for the most part,” he said.
Huibregtse said social media can cause a problem too, highlighting the misinformation that gets spread on sites like Facebook or Instagram and people taking it as the “gospel truth.”
Olivia Beverlie, SGA president, gave her two cents on the subject, calling the idolization of politicians, “fan behavior” and said political idolization is treating politicians as “celebrities” rather than politicians.
Beverlie attributes pop culture and social media to this idolization phenomenon, using representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) as an example of a politician who has gained traction by connecting with her constituents via social media.
“Because of that, I feel like our generation has really latched on to her as being relatable, and has thus idolized her because of it, even though she’s not the perfect politician that everyone likes to make her out to be,” she said, adding AOC has been put on a “pedestal,” but has yet to do much to “create substantive change.”
She said idolization of politicians “clouds people’s judgment,” adding citizens are not viewing politicians for the work they’re doing, but instead “they’re judging them for the persona that they’re putting out.”
Beverlie said she can’t recall a time when she idolized a politician and said there’s no politician “worthy” of being idolized in the United States or across the globe.
Politicians are “harmful” because “they are involved in a system that is biased and inadequate,” she said.
“Even if they’re not doing harm themselves, they’re buying into the system that does harm to others,” Beverlie added.
She said she doesn’t believe anybody should idolize politicians and has personally been critical of people who do.
Student Trustee McKenzie Ward agreed with the notion that political idolization is when citizens see politicians more as “celebrities” than “the common figure” who’s “supposed to be representing us.”
When citizens look at politicians in this way, Ward said it “minimizes the importance of the voices of the community,” and “amplifies the voices of one individual by acting as if politicians are better” than those they represent.
She added some people will build their political views around a politician, using the idolization of Donald Trump as an example.
“I never realized how dedicated some people can be and have kind of formed their whole personality and life around a politician and their political background,” she said.
“We saw this with Trump and the ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) slogan and his use of merchandise that kind of became – for many people ... an everyday wear,” she added.
With Trump no longer being in the political “spotlight,” she highlighted the fact that some people still wear MAGA hats and other pieces of Trump gear.
She added the younger generation has changed political idolization with the use of social media, adding the TikTok app has been used by politicians to connect with young people, and said it again makes politicians look like celebrities instead of elected officials who “have to be held accountable.”
Being an Irish Catholic, Ward said she “loves” the Kennedy family and adores Joseph P. Kennedy III.
Even so, she said it’s still important to hold him accountable to his actions as a politician regardless of her feelings about him and his family.
Ward said the idolization of politicians should be more about a person’s historical significance “than the actual person itself.”
[Editor’s note: McKenzie Ward is Opinions Editor of The Gatepost.]