Should politicians be celebrities? A look at the US vs. EU approach

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The divergence in how politicians are treated on either side of the Atlantic presents a curious study in contrasts. One might as well be comparing apples to committees: in the United States, politicians are theatrical titans, their every utterance and gesture analyzed as if a portentous line in a grand national epic. In Europe, however, these public servants are just that—servants, diligent clerks in the machinery of governance, often as drab as the bureaucracy they oversee. This striking dichotomy not only reveals much about each society’s expectations of leadership but also opens a window into the cultural frameworks that shape our very understanding of power, duty, and celebrity.

In the United States, politicians are rock stars, messiahs, and often, cultural icons. From the Kennedy mystique to the Obama “Hope” posters, politicians are elevated to a quasi-celebrity status, woven into the very fabric of American pop culture. Campaigns are Hollywood-esque productions, replete with curated soundtracks, tailored costumes, and gripping plot twists. A child in the U.S. could well aspire to become the next president, not out of a sense of duty, but perhaps for the sheer glittering spectacle of it all.

And then there’s Europe.

Here, politicians generally fulfill the unremarkable role of middle managers, running the machinery of governance with all the flashiness of a well-executed spreadsheet. In countries like Germany, politicians like Angela Merkel are seen as able functionaries, tasked with solving problems rather than embodying a national zeitgeist. While Americans buy merchandise emblazoned with the visages of their political heroes, few in Europe could fathom, say, sipping tea from a mug adorned with the face of Jean-Claude Juncker.

So why the difference?

First, one must understand the underpinnings of American exceptionalism. In a country founded on the audacious premises of rebellion and freedom, politics assumes a narrative quality. Political contests are battles in an ongoing epic, and politicians become the standard-bearers of deeply entrenched ideologies. The ideological divisions in American society provide a fertile ground for politicians to become larger-than-life characters in a grand narrative.

Europe’s political culture, by contrast, is deeply rooted in a history replete with monarchy, empire, and a touch of colonialism. The continent has witnessed the pitfalls of political deification—from Napoleon to Mussolini—and has perhaps emerged more skeptical of messianic leadership. The parliamentary systems that dominate European governance also lend themselves to coalition politics, where compromise is prized over grandstanding, and collective decision-making over unilateral action.

Moreover, media treatment contributes significantly to these differences. The United States, home to a hyper-commercialized media landscape, has elevated political reporting to a form of entertainment. Talking heads, 24/7 news cycles, and high-octane debates serve to heighten the celebrity of American politicians, placing them on a pedestal that their European counterparts seldom reach. In Europe, where public broadcasting still holds significant sway, political coverage tends to be more subdued, more analytical, and, dare one say, less sensational.

Cultural norms also play a role. American politicians are expected to bear their souls, to share their personal stories as parables of national identity. European politicians, in general, are not burdened with such theatrical expectations. Their electorates are less interested in a politician’s journey and more concerned with their policy acumen.

It’s a curious divergence, this American penchant for political deification against Europe’s more utilitarian view of leadership. Both approaches have their merits and their pitfalls. The American style can lead to a politics of personality, divorced from substantive policy, while the European approach may risk dulling the electorate’s engagement. Yet, in an era where politics increasingly infiltrates all facets of life, these differing attitudes toward politicians on either side of the Atlantic offer a revealing glimpse into the cultural frameworks that shape our world.

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