Nor is it true that Gallup merely measures celebrity, since athletes and Hollywood icons are largely absent. Looking at the winners across the decades, the most common denominator is power. Indeed, the only female winners not in close proximity to political power are Mother Theresa in the 1980s and 1990s and Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse who gained fame treating polio, in 1951.
The men tell a similar story. Presidents almost always win. When they’re deemed weak or unpopular, the public anoints another strong political figure: Douglas MacArthur supplants Harry Truman in 1946 and 1947; Dwight Eisenhower tops Lyndon Johnson in 1967 and 1968; Henry Kissinger replaces Richard Nixon between 1973 and 1975. Even the religious figures who do best are the ones closest to power. Although he never wins, the Reverend Billy Graham—famous for pastoring to presidents—makes the top-10 list more than other man between 1948 and 2005. The other highest-scoring religious figures are popes. Missing are any of the clergy, like William Sloane Coffin or Daniel Berrigan, who made their names fighting the Vietnam War.
In fact, activists protesting injustice rarely rank highly. That includes Martin Luther King. He doesn’t make America’s top 10 most admired men in 1963, the year of the March on Washington. King comes fourth in 1964 and sixth in 1965 but then falls out of the top ten again in 1966 and 1967. The same is true for Nelson Mandela. By the mid-1980s, the global anti-apartheid movement had made Mandela a household name. But as far as I can tell, he doesn’t crack Gallup’s top-10 list until he is elected South Africa’s president in 1994. (To be fair, I was only able to check 1983, 1984 , 1986, 1987, and 1992. For 1993, I could only find the top five. After 1994, Mandela becomes a top-10 regular. But by then, the Cold War is over, the controversy surrounding his communist sympathies has evaporated, and he’s become safe.
I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised at this. Part of it could be that people get to vote for some of the political positions so they feel like they had a voice. Additionally, the media tends to cover the most powerful a lot. Celebrities may get a lot of attention but they tend not to do too well, whether star athletes or Hollywood stars, in job prestige rankings.
Beinart suggests the American public should pay more attention to activists, people fighting for justice rather than people holding the reins of justice. These two things are not mutually exclusive: powerful leaders can be good leaders. But, this could be a problem if people are admired simply for the power they command rather than for what they actually do with that power.