Kevin O’Leary announced his intention to run in the Conservative Party leadership race on Jan. 18. Photo: CC, Randstad Canada.
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From Kevin O’Leary to Bono, we need to learn to look past celebrity “qualification”

On Jan. 18, Kevin O’Leary announced his bid for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. Headlines from mainstream Canadian news outlets described O’Leary as a millionaire and television star, and O’Leary’s announcement was met with warm public reception from a variety of Canadian voters from across the political spectrum.

Absent from many mainstream media headlines, however, were mentions of O’Leary’s several business and investment failures, O’Leary’s massive French language barrier as an English-only speaker, O’Leary’s ambivalence towards climate change, the racism allegations faced by O’Leary after calling two black women “cockroaches” on live television, or the now infamous viral video in which O’Leary celebrates the poverty of 3.5 billion people.

Rather than focus on O’Leary’s gaffes or policy positions, mainstream Canadian media has largely presented O’Leary as an astute and ruthless business man—a statement which couldn’t be further from the truth.  

Instead, the heavy focus on O’Leary’s wealth and celebrity status as a measurement of success is immediately reminiscent of the politics of personality that dominated the previous American election cycle.

Politics of personality can have dangerous consequences on the effectiveness of a democracy—that is, neither wealth nor celebrity are representative of leadership quality, despite what media headlines have implicitly or explicitly presupposed.

In Canada, all citizens hold the right to become involved with the political process. Despite their success, the rich and famous have the same right and legitimate reasons as other Canadian citizens to get involved in the electoral process, vote, and run for office. The same as other Canadian citizens, celebrities also have full right to make political statements. However, it’s important for voters to be mindful of who they’re supporting and why.

The Internet era and the nature of new media journalism all but guarantees celebrities a far-reaching platform for their political opinions should they chose to voice them, and O’Leary isn’t alone in exploiting his popularity for political profit. Most recently, Donald Trump leveraged his wealth and brand to amass a populist following that won him the American presidency, and other celebrities have leveraged their status to make political statements such as rock-star Bono and his wife Ali Hewson.

Although Bono has never run for office, mainstream media has positioned the U2 singer a cultural icon for his humanitarian efforts and foreign aid initiatives. Bono is celebrated far less in the academic discussion on foreign aid, where it’s argued by experts that his celebrity status as an aid activist has been not only exploitive, but helped to perpetuate false narratives about the state of the African continent.

Celebrity status and wealth serve as perhaps the most effective shields to criticism possible in the mainstream media. The media cannot criticize Bono’s style of philanthropy without acknowledging he’s the millionaire frontman of one of the most successful rock bands in history. The media cannot criticize Donald Trump or Kevin O’Leary without acknowledging either individual’s massive accumulation of wealth.

For the sake of an effective Canadian democracy, a cultural shift is required in both society and the media where celebrity and wealth become disregarded as demonstrable measurements of success. Although celebrities have full right to a political opinion and a political voice as citizens, the size of the platform available to them has high potential for abuse. In the case of Bono, they might not even know they’re part of a problem.

Canadians: don’t judge Kevin O’Leary on his wealth or his celebrity status. Judge him on his record, his platform, his actions, and his words. In the weeks following the American election on Nov. 8, dozens of articles have been published detailing the regrets felt by Trump voters who feel duped by the new administration. Canadians aren’t above being duped by celebrities.