The Atlantic, November 2021
Democrats are still licking their wounds from defeats in last week’s elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere. Some are calling for the party to refocus on popular moderate policies. Perhaps that’s the most realistic path forward; it’s the formula that top Republicans settled on following their own stinging electoral defeat in 2012. But instead of following its party leadership’s prescription, the GOP base nominated a celebrity, and rode his popularity to electoral triumph. Why can’t Democrats do the same?
After all, former President (and former reality-TV star) Donald Trump is currently tied with the two-term wartime president George W. Bush for the rank of most famous Republican, according to YouGov. He is also the second-most-popular Republican, after Arnold Schwarzenegger, another former entertainer. The late actor Ronald Reagan consistently ranks among Americans’ favorite presidents. But if you define celebrity as “initially well known for something other than politics,” the Democrats—the party that once counted the comedian Al Franken, the basketball player Bill Bradley, and the astronaut John Glenn among its elected officials—now have no celebrities among their 20 most well-known or 20 most popular politicians.