American Politics and Creation of the "Cult of Personality"

James R. Coffey By James R. Coffey, 13th Oct 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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In the mid 1960s, the pitting of Jane Fonda against Ronald Reagan in the media marked a decisive utilization of the "Cult of Personality" by America's elite. This maneuver changes forever how politics are played out in the American arena.

Enter: Jane Fonda, activist

In the mid 1960s, American film actress Jane Fonda drew international attention when she openly opposed American political policies regarding women’s rights and the treatment of Blacks and Native Americans in the United States. As a highly visible and outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Movement (and later leading marches in protest of the Viet Nam War), Fonda became the face and conscience of America. Although celebrities had long been the voices and faces of various special interest groups in America, this was the first time that a well-known pop figure—male or female—had independently taken such a decisive and overt opposition to American domestic and foreign policies. Fonda’s activism opened the door for Americans to see celebrities as never before--as powerful champions of the down-trodden and oppressed--models deserving trust and aspiration.

Enter: Ronald Reagan, actor

In 1966, Californian republicans nominated lagging-in-the-popular-polls actor Ronald Reagan for Governor of California. In his campaign speeches he emphasized two main themes: “to send the welfare bums back to work,” and “to clean up the mess at Berkeley”--a wink and conservative nod to the anti-establishment, anti-war rallies Fonda had recently fronted at the University of California. This political pitting of charismatic celebrities marked a decisive utilization of the Cult of Personality the media had coaxed into being two decades before, a conformance that can be tracked to Reagan’s eventual election as President in 1981, and then to the elections of Sonny Bono in Congress, Sheila “Zelda Gilroy” Kuehl to the Senate, Fred “Gopher“ Grandy to Congress, Jessie Ventura to Governor, George Murphy to the Senate, Shirley Temple Black to Congress, Clint Eastwood as Mayor, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor, as well as to Oprah Winfrey’s direct involvement with Obama’s 2009 Presidential election.

For the American-at-large, this decisive utilization of celebrity figures to shape public perception via the media was not just a shift in what is often considered “hero-worship,” it reflected the installation of a system that fast-tracks those ideologies the elite of America wish to emphasize in their bids for power and control. Although the media has always been a tool of special interest groups jockeying for position within the reining political machine, the successful creation of the American Cult of Personality regarding pop stars, movie idols, musicians, and other entertainers, established direct access for the media to function as an even more effective set of tools in promoting the language of sexism, racism, and ultimately, the interests of the wealthy white male elite who have long defined American status quo. Access, some seventy years in the making.

Creating the “Cult of Personality”

Since the very early days of radio and television, celebrity endorsement has been a common tactic used by special interest groups to sway public opinion. Various celebrities played important morale-boosting roles during W.W. I and the Great Depression, and radio stars were regularly called upon to endorse sponsorship products, beginning in the late 1920s. Corporate executives realized early on that entertainment industry idolization easily translated to predictable emulation and often, blind obedience. During those early days of the “industry,” celebrities were encouraged to keep their personal, political, and religious views private so as to maintain the mystique that best benefited newspaper sales, radio listening, and box office ticket sales. The crafting of celebrities often resulted in celebrity imaging that didn’t remotely resemble the individual inside it.

The power of celebrity endorsement

In the early 1940s, a marked change occurred. Several Hollywood actors including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Huston, and Edward G. Robinson were enlisted to promote the sale of U. S. War Bonds in an effort to counteract mounting anti-war sentiment among the American population. This tactic not only proved remarkably effective--as American housewives went running in droves to buy U.S. Savings Bonds--this concerted effort to establish a Cult of Personality proved once and for all the ultimate power of celebrity endorsement. More significantly, perhaps, it set the stage for what would transpire over the next two decades as the American public learned to trust in the reality celebrities brought to them through print, radio, TV, and the big screen. By the time of Jane Fonda’s burst into the public forum during the mid-1960s, the well-established “Cult” was already luring members from all across the nation, from every walk of life. And this cult has been used with increasing frequency in an effort to exert power over the masses through celebrity appeal.

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America, American Counterculture, American History, American Media, American Politics, American Values, Celebrities, Celebrity Endorsements, Cult Of Personality, Edward G Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Jane Fonda, John Huston, Lauren Bacall, Ronakd Reagan

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author avatar James R. Coffey
I am founder and head writer for James R. Coffey Writing Services and Resource Center @ where I offer a variety of writing and research services including article composition, ghostwriting, editing...(more)

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
13th Oct 2010 (#)

added to facebook, this was a really good read and I would agree that it is pretty much correct as I have often payed attention (although not necessarily intentionally) to celebrities and personalities.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
13th Oct 2010 (#)

Thanks, Mark. In psychology and political science, this phenomenon is traced back centuries (even to Hitler).

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author avatar Jerry Walch
13th Oct 2010 (#)

Ditto Mark's comments for the most part. In all honesty I have to confess that Jane Fonda and I held antipodal political views, especially about Nam.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
13th Oct 2010 (#)

Oh, that's understandable, Jerry. But it needn't have been her in particular--just someone, anyone to pit against Reagan.

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author avatar Denise O
14th Oct 2010 (#)

I feel you have hit the nail on the head with this article.
I wish more Americans would do their own research and make their own decisions.
I am so glad I do not allow any person to sway me, well known star or not.
Great piece.
Thank you for sharing.:)

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author avatar aden kendroemen
14th Oct 2010 (#)

Brilliant as always Mr. Coffey, as you said in a previous comment, “ The Cult of Personality”, has been around for quite some time. How could Alexander have conquered so many lands, without some dam good propaganda? His soldiers idolized him, and would gladly give their lives to protect him. How much of that was earned through his deeds, or his “ Personality.” At the risk of pissing people off, I would also suggest that Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and Abraham, Had the ultimate “Cult of Personality.” American propaganda, is the enhancement of this construct, gleaned from thousands of years of observation. You know us Americans, always trying to one up everyone else.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
14th Oct 2010 (#)

You touched on a very good point, my most astute friend. You're alluding to "charisma," the underlying trait at the heart of cult attraction. There are, in fact, several Biblical terms referring to Jesus' qualities all of which translate to "charisma."

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