The most heated healthcare debate last week wasn’t on Capitol Hill. It was between late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and Sen. Bill Cassidy.
Kimmel attacked Cassidy over the healthcare repeal plan the lawmaker crafted with fellow Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Dean Heller, and Ron Johnson as their failed last-ditch effort to replace the Affordable Care Act. Kimmel argued that the legislation “will kick about 30 million Americans off insurance.”
Cassidy dismissed Kimmel’s asessment of the plan. “There are more people who will be covered through this bill than under the status quo,” he said.
Months after President Donald Trump took over the Oval Office after promising to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the host of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” waded into the debate when his infant son, Billy, underwent open-heart surgery after birth. The television star’s use of his show to discuss his son’s preexisting condition — coverage of which is guaranteed under Obamacare — has made Kimmel one of the more prominent voices in the health policy debate.
But not everyone was interested in hearing the funny man’s take on a very serious issue. Some people — particularly conservatives — expressed frustration and even disgust that a television personality with no public policy expertise has become so vocal on an issue that Trump himself called “so complicated.”
“Jimmy Kimmel can be funny, and he loves his son,” wrote Theodore Kupfer in the conservative National Review. “Well and good. But Jimmy Kimmel knows policy? To paraphrase another comedian, comedians are not public intellectuals.”
Historically, the idea of seeing celebrities solely as entertainers who should not wade into political conversations has been embraced by conservatives because “Hollywood types” tend to lean left. Sure, Republicans were able to count actors, such as President Ronald Reagan, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee as part of their fold.
But over the past 20 years, most celebrities weighing in on politics have been overwhelmingly supportive of liberal politics and, more specifically in the last two years, anti-Trump. This doesn’t mean that Trump hasn’t had stars get behind his presidency and specific policy ideas. Musicians Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, and Gene Simmons have proudly boarded the Trump Train.
But while “shut up and sing” has been a fashionable demand of those on the right who argue that policymaking should be left to those with policy experience and knowledge, it is getting harder to make that case when their party elected a former reality television star with no government experience.
At the end of the day, this is a conversation about identity.
One of the reasons that Kimmel gets people to listen to them — even on matters of healthcare — is because we live in a culture in which celebrities have become influencers not just in the arts but in society as a whole. It is why people allowed the host of “Celebrity Apprentice” to critique President Obama’s economic policy and why Fox News hired “Clueless” actress Stacey Dash to bash Obama’s foreign-policy approach to terrorism.
But the lack of expertise aside, the reason many of us tolerate celebrity engagement in policy is because we know that behind their public images celebrities are real people. They are fathers, employees and employers and, perhaps most importantly in this conversation, taxpaying American citizens. And it is these things that give them a right — and the freedom — to be in on this conversation.
The approach of Kimmel, a father of a child whose life was on the line, harks back to a point made by ESPN’s Jemele Hill before she called Trump a white supremacist in a tweet earlier this month.
“I know there are sports fans looking for me to provide them with an ‘escape,’ but as a woman and person of color, I have no escape from the fact that there are people in charge who seem to be either sickened by my existence or are intent on erasing my dignity in every possible way,” Hill said at a Sports Illustrated event last month.
Celebrities carry the same concerns of many Americans have, but they have one thing most of us don’t: a giant microphone that allows them to make a dent in important conversations. As long as this is the case, and voters keep choosing celebrities to take on the world’s issues and politicians keep seeking stars’ endorsements and campaign contributions, these folks likely won’t be cutting off their own mics anytime soon.
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