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Rising above celebrity: Warren Beatty

If Hollywood is the most significant cultural force around, then does it have any real political clout — or no clout? In a town where the political values of the average individual are far left of center, this is the question Steven Kotler posed to Ben Affleck, Warren Beatty and Lionel Chetwynd, three of the industry’s most politically active denizens. What follows is Beatty‘s answer.

I don’t buy the premise that Hollywood has no political clout. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, Helen Gahagan Douglas are all people who came from here and were elected. Reagan, who was a friend of mine and a very smart man (even though we disagreed on almost everything), once said to me: “I don’t know how anybody can be in politics without being an actor.”

But there is an inherent tension between the aspirations of the artist, which are hypothetically uncompromising, and the aspirations of the politician, which necessitates compromise. What you seem to be asking is why — if this is such a liberal town — has Hollywood been unsuccessful at electing liberal candidates.

And the answer is money. GE, Disney, News Corp., Viacom — these are the four most powerful companies in Hollywood. Certainly, there are Democrats in all of them, but in general the corporate interests are more conservative. Elections are hugely influenced by campaign contributions. Many of the people who are making the largest financial contributions feel that the country is better off with corporate guidance. Furthermore, big business has an organizational structure that lends itself well to political activism.

At the moment, the country has trouble knowing what to believe, so it asks who to believe. Once it’s about who to believe, the 30-second commercials — which is what those campaign contributions buy — become paramount in importance. For instance, Ohio, during the last election, had big economic problems, but the manipulation of the gay-marriage issue superseded the other issues.

It costs a lot of money in organization and television advertising to convince a majority that they should put aside unemployment, and the war in Iraq, and worry about gay marriage.

Look, this isn’t a new problem. Lincoln spoke eloquently about the dangers of the corporation. Madison also warned about the tyranny of the rich. This is an eternal problem in democracy. We don’t want to destroy the ability for people to get their message across, but we do need a better answer to the question of how to regulate money in politics. We can say that television advertising is free speech, but you and I know it’s very expensive speech.

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