No Queen: the Case Against Having Political Idols
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
As we come to the close of 2020 and lose more and more historical civil rights and social justice figures, we need to have a serious conversation about the celebritization of politicians. To be clear, I do not mean the politicization of celebrities; if Donald Trump was able to be elected as President, I really don’t care that award shows are getting increasingly political, which honestly appears to just mean increasingly liberal. Rather, I mean the process by which so many politicians have become pop culture icons. To be sure, politicians need to exert a certain amount of youth and pop culture appeal in order to influence their elections: just look at Ed Markey. What I am much more worried about is when a politician’s celebrity status only continues to grow when they are not up for an election, and effectively overshadows the work that they do or do not do. This process has many times over turned politicians from some people’s political heroes into idols.
Yes, I am talking, in part, about Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Following her death, the left wing of the country was divided into two prominent groups: those who were openly mourning her and those who were bringing to light her past failings, particularly when it comes to whether or not she should have retired years ago, her harsh criticism of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests, and her mixed record on Indigenous sovereignty, specifically of the Oneida Nation. There have been many other articles written about Ginsberg’s impact on womxn and about how to celebrate her accomplishments with a critical eye, so what I am much more interested in is why this schism between these people—all decidedly left-of-center to varying degrees—happened in the first place.
Across small and large businesses, RBG was made into an icon. Long before she passed away, RBG was made into an infallible legend, and, as would be expected, her actual image was everywhere. If you have ever explored Etsy or Society6 and think you have never seen an image of RBG with a crown saying “Yas queen” on a laptop sticker, you are lying to yourself. This notorious image of her only grew more popular when Trump was elected, as she made comments suggesting that she wanted to stay alive through his presidency so as to make sure that he could not replace her with a conservative justice. She even made that specific request in the days before her death, which was promptly ignored by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
During Trump’s presidency, RBG became the woman holding democracy together as the country slid further into far-right insanity. On its own, I do not think that there is an inherent problem with people—specifically womxn—being inspired by her or her accomplishments before or during the Trump administration. The problem, however, occurred when she became more goddess than human. The awkward conflict of reactions to RBG’s passing happened because her unfavorable court decisions—at best, less than progressive and, at worst, harmful to marginalized communities—were never openly acknowledged before this, or at least they were not paid attention to. People had equal reason to not mourn her as others had reason to mourn her, which had never been addressed before. This discourse has only further proved that there is no perfect politician. When you do sufficient research about any political or historical figure, you will learn things that disappoint you. And if you don’t, I think that says more about your values than the person you idolize. To that end, I think that if you can recognize a person’s faults equally with their accomplishments, then you can keep them as your political hero, but idolizing them and making them out to be perfectly progressive saints is misleading and inherently dangerous.
I will go so far as to say this is dangerous because this kind of idolization ultimately equates a single person with an entire movement. Losing such a visible leader can be—and indeed recently was—incredibly demoralizing. If activists are taught to look towards their leaders and inspirations as the reason they are doing their work, their removal can have disastrous effects on morale, when organizing is already an incredibly emotionally laborious task.
Additionally, our culture of political idolatry ignores the fact that change cannot be brought about by a single person. While RBG did make many important court decisions protecting and furthering womxn’s rights, it is important that we also talk about the womxn and men who were in the street demanding these rights. This same thought process can and needs to also be extended to the most progressive of politicians: Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have done more in the last few years to get our country to take climate change and universal health care seriously, but they are not the face of the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. That face belongs to the thousands of organizers across the country who are fighting to get such legislation passed and the millions more people—currently living and yet to be born—that will benefit from it.
Moving forward, we need to focus more on the policies that we want to enact than the politicians who put them forward and, ultimately, remember that politicians are, in fact, people. We can and should put hope and energy into getting progressive politicians elected, but we also have to hold them accountable to the promises that they make. We cannot simply make them into god-like figures and expect that they will do what is best for us.
Finally, I want to be clear that by no means am I saying that you cannot have politicians as inspirations or that you should get rid of your RBG stickers. I myself have a photo of Robert F. Kennedy on the wall in my room, but I also know that he was not perfect. In one sentence I can tell you that he would have been a significantly better president than Nixon, and then also tell you about his imperfect civil rights record while acting as Attorney General. RFK is someone who reminds me to never be afraid to do the morally right thing, even if it is unpopular. I know many young women who feel that same way about RBG.
If seeing women like RBG or AOC in places “where decisions are being made” inspires you to go to those same places, then let them inspire you. But when you get there, be better than them, and remember who actually put you there.