6 June 2015

Limousine Liberals: Do what I say, not what I do


It’s no secret that celebrities have a lot to say about pretty much everything. From banning fur to former President Bush, from pregnancy bumps to police protests, you’ll hear prominent members of Hollywood giving their opinion, solicited or not. In today’s modern media environment, celebrities have more opportunities than ever to communicate with their fans and the rest of the world. Sometimes we appreciate this, like when Guardians of the Galaxy’s Chris Pratt posts shirtless selfies on Instagram. Other contributions have significantly less value. Just this week, singer Charlotte Church announced that she would “certainly be happy” to pay taxes at 70% (leading to the obvious question being asked on twitter: what’s stopping her?).

Fame, fans, and media attention make celebrities inclined to lecture on a topic many feel fervently about – politics. It’s fair enough for them to have opinions. In fact, it’s hard to follow politics at all and not form an opinion. But given that these people are multimillionaires, any comments about the dangers of capitalism, the woes of the working poor, income inequality in the U.S., and so on are particularly grating. It’s one thing to have an opinion. It’s another thing to be a total hypocrite.

In the States, we have a special name for this group of famous phonies – “limousine liberals.” This applies to mega-rich people who complain about the unfairness faced by the underprivileged. They also like to suggest ways the rest of us should change our lifestyles, as to best help alleviate the suffering of others. Championing lower socioeconomic classes is an admirable cause. But doing so from the comfort of a $12 million Malibu mansion, especially without doling out dough yourself, takes some chutzpah.

Ironically, the term “limousine liberal” was first coined by a Democrat, then-mayoral candidate Mario Procaccino. He was describing his incumbent Republican opponent, John Lindsay, and his wealthy Manhattan backers. These days, the definition of the term has expanded, and is used to encompass many kinds of celebrity hypocrisy.

Perhaps the most egregious example of limousine liberalism is Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. This film famously chronicled the dangers of climate change, a topic that the former Vice President seems to feel very strongly about. It turned out to be an extremely lucrative position. According to Bloomberg Business, he’s paid about $175,000 per lecture to discuss the urgency of decreasing greenhouse gases. It doesn’t seem to trouble him, however, that he often uses private jets, SUVs, and literal limousines to be transported to these lecture sites. And his immense personal carbon footprint is not limited to travel. According to TIME Magazine, Gore’s estate in Tennessee gobbles up “20 times the electricity used by the average American home.”

Another name at the top of the “limousine liberal” list is the larger-than-life Michael Moore. Known for anti-business documentaries like Roger & Me, Moore and his former wife have an estimated net worth of $50 million, including nine properties. In a particularly ironic twist, attacking capitalism has allowed him to leap up the ladder to the loathed top 1%, certainly the highest leap anyone of Moore’s bulk could imagine.

Like Michael Moore, rock star Bruce Springsteen has also played on his working-class roots. His iconic songs about marginalized groups in American society have earned him the title “blue-collar hero.” Mr. Springsteen is certainly long on talent, but he might be short on candor. For all his lyrics about the unfairly treated underclass, he avoids huge property taxes that help finance government programs. By leasing part of his 200 acres to an organic tomato farmer, Springsteen dodges taxes on this ample abode in his home state of New Jersey. But we don’t want to single out The Boss – U2’s Bono also likes to identify with the working poor, despite being worth around $600 million himself. Bono has even criticized oil companies for not “returning the wealth to the people,” but at the same time, his band sidestepped an enormous Irish tax bill by moving to the Netherlands.

Another popular topic in celebrity circles is green energy – Al Gore is far from alone. Surely, wind power is an issue that green-minded Cape Cod residents can get behind In fact the highly controversial “Cape Wind” project was supposed to be the first American offshore wind farm, but residents were aghast at the thought of structures breaking up their sightline. Among the opponents to the project was the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who owned a property overlooking Nantucket Sound where the project was proposed, and the late Walter Cronkite, the former CBS anchor and Martha’s Vineyard’s most famous resident. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of President John F. Kennedy’s brother Bobby, even wrote an article in The New York Times about how detrimental the windmills would be for the region – despite claiming to “support wind power.”

So basically, these celebrities and others like them are big proponents of green energy in general, just not when green infrastructure will mar the view from their expensive beachfront properties.

The latest case against so-called environmentalists has been revealed quite recently, with the California drought. This year’s drought has evoked grim predictions, with some experts estimating less than a year’s worth of drinking water left in the state reservoirs. Residents have been required by an emergency law to cut back on water use, or risk a penalty. But stars like Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, Barbra Streisand, and others are willing to pay the fine for the sake of their lawns, which remain in flourishing health.

To be fair, Kim and J-Lo never claimed to be particularly green, but Barbra has vehemently argued with U.S. senators about “the perils of climate change.” Nobody’s allowed to rain on her parade, I guess, but probably someone should.

But why should it matter what celebrities do, anyway? Why not let them say whatever they want? As long as they’re not hurting anyone, who cares?

As it happens, a lot of people care – and that’s the problem. Most private citizens have a relatively limited scope of influence, and have to work very hard to communicate a message to a larger audience. But not so with celebrities. There’s a reason they’re paid to promote cosmetics, clothes, cars, and nearly everything else on the market – they’re popular and influential. They can and do affect public opinion on political and economic issues.

The movie Erin Brockovich, for example, made cancer scares (particularly those caused by public utilities) a cause célèbre. In the movie, residents of a small California town fall ill with breast cancer, uterine cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, and several other highly serious conditions. The culprit, as discovered by the eponymous Erin Brockovich, was pollution in the water from a local power company. There really was a woman named Erin Brockovich, and she successfully organized a case against Pacific Gas & Electric that settled for $333 million. Much of the rest of the movie was just Hollywood magic.

In reality, scientists including Dr. John C. Bailar III of the University of Chicago have stated their skepticism. Can the medical history of the townspeople be reliable proof against Pacific Gas & Electric? And were the residents even “sicker” than other groups of comparable size? That’s questionable all by itself – nearly 50% of adults develop some form of cancer in their lifetime. Furthermore, biological agents cause illnesses in very specific ways, so it’s rather unlikely a single agent would cause all the symptoms portrayed in the movie. Unfortunately, the dubious nature of the “science” in the film doesn’t matter much. After the movie premiere, power companies in the U.S. were forever given a bad name, whether they deserved it or not.

The power that celebrities (and their creative products) hold can have a real impact on public policy, courtesy of their wealth and fame. Whether or not celebrities are interested in politics is beside the point. They should be participating in the democratic process the same way all other private citizens do, by voting. If they’re not prepared to pay the “Fame Tax” proposed by Daniel Hannan, we’d all be better off if celebrities stuck to what they knew best – and that’s probably not economics. Or the world’s energy needs. Or foreign policy. They’re best at acting, singing, and looking good, and making a pretty penny while doing it. If only celebrities shared their wealth as freely as they share their opinions.

Rebecca Konolige previously has worked in the External Relations office at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, and on a get-out-the-vote campaign for youth for the UK election. She is currently working on outreach policies for young people.