Taylor Swift can teach us all a lesson in how democracy works – The Guardian

Democracy, by its nature, requires participation. You have to give a damn. Taylor Swift does, and so should we all
If you’re any kind of a Taylor Swift fan, you’ve seen the footage of the pop star arguing with her father. The subject is politics. Or, more specifically, whether Taylor should express herself publicly on political issues and candidates, in this case in defense of women’s reproductive rights.
Dad makes the case against it. In protective mode, he wants his daughter to stay in her lane: music. It’s not good for her safety or her career or her mental health to go prancing through this minefield of controversy, alienating people and drawing abusers along the way. One of her managers agrees – does she really want to see only half as many people at her next show?
Taylor is, at times, in tears. Speaking out about her core beliefs is simply something she feels a moral obligation to do, she tells her father. And, of course, she does just that – in fact, eventually, she went so far as to endorse Joe Biden for president in 2020. (It must have worked; he did win, after all, despite what certain ex-presidents would have you believe.)
Swift spoke out again this week when she urged her fans to take some basic democratic action.
“I wanted to remind you guys to vote the people who most represent you into power,” Swift said on her Instagram story on Super Tuesday. “If you haven’t already, make a plan to vote today.”
In this case, she wasn’t pushing for a specific candidate – merely telling her millions of followers to be engaged citizens. It wasn’t just “vote” – it was “make a plan to vote”. Swift was specific: she told people to check the locations and hours of their polling places, in her state of Tennessee and beyond.
For November, “make a plan to vote” means getting registered, something that Swift has urged before, and which has resulted in voting registration spikes in the tens of thousands. The Biden campaign, of course, hopes that she’ll go further eventually and endorse him again.
But even this basic message is important. And simple though it is, it made some people angry. Why can’t she shut up and just be an entertainer, they seemed to think? The Guardian reported one response posted on social media: “WOW: Taylor Swift has officially begun interfering in the 2024 election. She tells her young female fans to vote the candidate that ‘most represents you into power’.”
Horrors! Representative government at work! There’s a strong “stay in your lane” vibe from that and other negative responses.
I admire Swift for using her vast influence for something important. And she serves as a good role model for the rest of us. We may not have her mass numbers of followers – no one does – but we can all play a role in sustaining American democracy, which is looking rather fragile right now.
Last year, when I interviewed scholars, authors and commentators on my podcast, American Crisis, I asked each of them for a pro-democracy “call to action” for both the media and for citizens. They had plenty of pointed advice for the media – like prioritizing journalism’s public service mission instead of focusing on polls, the horserace and chasing clicks. And they were in general agreement about what regular people – non-celebrities – can do.
“We face a really existential choice about the type of country we want to have and how we want to be governed,” the author Garrett Graff warned. He added that he had been shocked at how radically and quickly the guardrails of democracy have crumbled in recent years and how “cynically” the news media has played along for the sake of profit.
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So, Graff counseled, citizens need to be intensely focused on the stakes – the consequences – of the coming presidential election and down-ballot elections as well. And to act accordingly.
As Ruth Ben-Ghiat told me, staying well-informed is crucial. An expert in authoritarian leaders and the author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, she knows how important it is that citizens resist the temptation to tune out and throw up our hands. Taking advantage of a passive electorate is one way that strongmen manage to gain power.
Democracy, by its nature, requires participation. You have to give a damn. That can mean donating to a campaign, volunteering as a poll worker, helping people to register or to get to a voting location. And make your own plan to vote; then carry it out.
Being an engaged, vocal citizen isn’t the easiest thing to do, as Taylor Swift’s father tried to tell her.
But she went ahead anyway. And so should we all.
Margaret Sullivan is a Guardian US columnist writing on media, politics and culture

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