Last year at the 89th Annual Academy Awards, then-Vice President Joe Biden walked on stage to a standing ovation to introduce Lady Gaga. He gave a passionate speech on the topic of campus sexual assault, about the need to speak up and “intervene in situations when consent has not or cannot be given.”
In 2013, Michelle Obama appeared at the Oscars via satellite from the White House decked in full evening gown and flanked by U.S. military service members to announce the winner of the best picture Oscar, which just so happened to go to director Ben Affleck’s “Argo.”
These are just two of the most prominent examples of how closely the Obama administration – and with it, the Democratic Party – has been tied to Hollywood, using them as messengers to push their agenda out to the mass public.
The late night hosts who only last week were happy to help Chuck Schumer push the Democrats’ gun control message are suddenly mute when it comes to Weinstein. And this is exactly where the Democrats find themselves in a bind. The party has depended on celebrity messaging for eight years.
It’s also the reason why Democrats can’t easily undo their connections to the sexual assault scandal involving super mogul Harvey Weinstein that is currently rocking the foundations of the industry.
Weinstein once stated that Hollywood “has the best moral compass, because it has compassion” – and for the past eight or so years, the Democratic Party has embraced Weinstein and his philosophy on Hollywood.
The flirtations between the party and Hollywood were not simply brief cameos at awards shows. President Obama used Hollywood to push almost every social action program his administration rolled out.
On ObamaCare, he enrolled the likes of Lebron James in a promotional video, Bill Murray in an Oval Office visit, and his famous “Between Two Ferns” appearance with Zach Galifianakis. Several celebrities, including Amy Pohler, Connie Britton, Olivia Wilde and Lady Gaga, Mark Ruffalo, Alyssa Milano and Mia Farrow participated in hashtag campaigns to “#GetCovered”. Liberal news outlet Mother Jones was kind enough to cull most of them into one piece.
When Obama wanted to give the impression he was tackling prison reform, he went to HBO and Vice. On Opioid abuse, he enlisted pop rapper Macklemore and MTV to film a video at the White House. Tom Hanks wrote about the virtues of free community college for the New York Times. Christina Hendricks was invited by the White House to speak at a family values summit. Alison Janney of West Wing fame cameoed to a twitterpated White House press corps.
On the Iran Deal, Obama enlisted Morgan Freeman as well as comedian and nuclear physicist Jack Black. Saturday Night Live, which refused to address the Weinstein scandal altogether last weekend, sang “To Sir With Love” to send Obama off into the sunset after eight years of Hollywood doting. By the end of his term, Obama had gone full Hollywood, appearing with Jerry Seinfeld simply for the fun of it.
This was why, despite very few actual legislative accomplishments, Obama’s presidency always felt more relevant in the moment than perhaps it actually was. It was so intertwined with the same faces in our culture that we see on magazine stands, album covers, movie screens and sitcoms. Obama always felt fresh and cool among the Hollywood elite, despite his party being decimated out from underneath him in consecutive congressional wave elections.
Obama and his administration wanted to be as much a part of Hollywood as Hollywood wanted to be a part of him. This was his chosen path to push his agenda -- through the people in culture with the loudest microphones whom he felt could influence the largest number of people to fall in line with his ideas.
Hillary Clinton tried to mimic this same strategy with her campaign, enlisting athletes, TV stars and pop stars to help drag her over the finish line. Clinton chose high-priced Hollywood fundraisers at the homes of stars like Gwenyth Paltrow over campaign stops in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Names such as George Clooney (also a personal friend of the Obamas), Ben Affleck and Matt Damon offered public support. Clooney alone raised $1.5 million for Clinton at a fundraiser in April of last year, with such names as Spielberg and Katzenberg in attendance.
Clinton regularly appeared on the campaign trail next to celebs such as Jay Z (a personal friend of Weinstein’s) and Beyoncé. Lena Dunham appeared with her in Ohio (a state she lost), as did the cast of the long defunct “West Wing.” Katy Perry was a Clinton campaign staple, even outfitting herself in dresses with Hillary’s slogan and logos. Actress Elizabeth Banks appeared at the Democratic Convention this past year, expertly mocking Donald Trump’s strobe light spaceship entrance onto the stage.
None of this, it seems, worked against Trump – who was able to tap into the forgotten voters of the rural rustbelt. These are the voters who don’t much care what Jimmy Kimmel or Sean Penn or Leonardo DiCaprio are preaching to them about the Earth’s climate or gun control – maybe because they’re more worried about the fact that they can’t afford their health care premium and have to use money to pay for their ObamaCare tax penalty that they could have used to fix their house, or car, or take their family on a vacation instead.
In fact, it seems the more Democrats have depended on Hollywood stars to sell their message, the more that most of the middle class in the middle of the country have tuned them out as their legislative and electoral majorities shrink.
Actress Alyssa Milano and other entertainment types campaigned actively for Democrat John Ossoff, who lost a money-soaked election in Georgia’s 6th District in June. Hollywood was also vocal in Montana’s May congressional election, where Republican Greg Gianforte coasted to victory, even after being charged for assaulting a reporter only days before.
The question now, heading into 2018 and 2020, is where does the party go without its celebrity base – which they have almost no choice but to shun in the fallout surrounding Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood’s pathetically lame (and delayed) response to the “open secret” (according to many) of his decades-long sexual exploitation of women.
Weinstein’s connections run deeper than simple campaign donations. Weinstein sold influence. He was so “in” among the Democratic Power Base that President Obama felt comfortable enough allowing his teenage daughter to intern for his film company. For the Democrats and their party, hoping to catch the coattails of the Obama cool they’ve been severely lacking since his exit, severing their connections to an industry facing a crisis of character will be easier said than done.
The late night hosts who only last week were happy to help Chuck Schumer push the Democrats’ gun control message are suddenly mute when it comes to Weinstein. And this is exactly where the Democrats find themselves in a bind. The party has depended on celebrity messaging for the better part of eight years, and were clearly planning to depend on it heading into the 2018 and 2020 elections (remember Maxine Waters appearing to raucous applause as a voice of The Resistance™ at the MTV Movie Awards?).
But the days of happy backslapping with Ben Affleck and George Clooney are coming to an end for a party that now has to distance itself from celebrity-spokespeople who were content to lecture the rest of the country about their religion, their guns or their politics – but who couldn’t seem to bring themselves to clean up their own house by calling out one of their closest friends and business colleagues for preying upon vulnerable young women – for years.
If the Democrats were a smart party – and they’ve done nothing of late to suggest that they are – they would be huddling in offices around the parts of the country they lost, devising a plan of action on how to move on without Hollywood spokespeople who will do nothing but remind voters of their association with Weinstein.
Distancing themselves from Hollywood and Weinstein could, in fact, ultimately be a gift to a decimated party flailing for a message beyond symbolic resistance. It could force Democrats to get back to the dirty work of organizing at a grassroots level and focusing on a message that appeals to that big useless chunk of land between Los Angeles and New York.
But just as it was apparently evident with Harvey Weinstein, the rest of Hollywood isn’t particularly good at taking “no” for answer.