Oprah Winfrey gave a moving speech at the Golden Globes that could have very easily been construed as the moment that she launched her bid for the presidency. It may actually have been, as CNN’s Brian Stelter is reporting that two people close to Oprah claim that she is “actively thinking” about a run for president in 2020. However, simply judging the speech by its words proves it to be a message to the citizens of this country—not our politicians—telling us how we can take the painful lessons from the #MeToo movement and make them a reality. It was incredibly powerful, and its political brilliance has been proven by the fact that nearly everyone pivoted to President Oprah the minute she concluded, as this since-deleted tweet from NBC demonstrates.
Our political culture is frankly, pathetic. Americans gave up caring about policy long ago—and any cursory review of our political knowledge reveals the fact that America has more subjects than citizens. Being a citizen means always voting and generally understanding the basics of how government affects you, while a subject simply takes whatever is given to them by their government. A big reason why our politics are so oligarchic is that we have abandoned the idea of a citizen-run government, and instead have depended on “good” and “bad” politicians who inevitably all eat from the same lobbyist-funded trough. Believing that people like Al Franken are irreplaceable is an indictment of our democracy. The entire point of our government is that all politicians are disposable—as they are simply vehicles to accomplish various tasks for the rest of us—which is why I think that we should not completely dismiss the potential of President Winfrey.
I have no idea what Oprah’s policy beliefs are, and neither do you. Until we have this answer, any statements about her candidacy are purely theoretical. If you want Oprah to be president solely because she made a good speech and seemingly is someone you like, then you’re making a decision on the exact same merits that hardcore Trumpists made theirs. You don’t want their cult of personality, you want your cult of personality. This is why the backlash to the Oprah praise was so swift and brutal: making political decisions because a celebrity said a thing you like is exactly what led us to Donald Trump, and it pushes the American experiment further in to the dustbin of history. Paste’s Shane Ryan had a great tongue-in-cheek piece about this incredibly destructive mindset, titled “Maybe [Insert Celebrity Name] Will Save Us.”
However, as Hillary Clinton demonstrated, expertise without the ability to articulate it is also useless in a politician. Politicians are surrounded by various (supposed) experts nonstop, so Oprah’s lack of experience in the political realm is not completely damning. Not to mention, the more experience you get in politics, the more you’re connected to special interests. There is a universe where an Oprah candidacy is not just plausible, but desirable. However, that universe begins and ends with policy.
Policy is why the Republicans control most aspects of government in the United States. Despite the basis of their platform sitting on the morass of unfiltered anger that is white nationalism, the GOP has actually done a very good job communicating their policy beliefs (and dog whistling as to how those policies will aid the cause of white nationalism). The Democrats have empirically better policies, but cannot communicate nor enact them—so even when “liberal” bills get passed by Democrats, they often don’t have the impact that they’re sold with (ie: the Affordable Care Act). This dichotomy was perfectly summarized by the 2016 election. Trump is the opposite of a policy wonk, and Hillary is far more wonk than politician. When it comes to policy, it should have been a landslide, but Trump communicated his policies far better than Hillary did.
When you think of Trump’s candidacy, a simplistic policy narrative emerges: immigration and trade have hurt middle class wages. When Clinton’s candidacy made its case for why wages have stagnated, it cited so many issues that none resonated. Seriously, why was Hillary Clinton running for president? Trump could very easily explain his candidacy (Make America Great Again), but Hillary could not. Democrats are atrocious at communicating not just basic elements of policy, but why that policy will better people’s lives. Barack Obama’s oratory talents are likely the main reason why he was able to stand out from a group of milquetoast candidates all running on more or less the same platform in 2008, and it’s also why his legacy is largely secure amongst liberals—despite being the most conservative Democratic president since WWII. Losing to Trump proved that campaigning on our opponents’ shortcomings is a hopeless strategy for the left, and we should be looking for a new generation of fresh blood who not only can advocate liberal policies, but can elucidate and enact them too.
Oprah clearly has the rhetorical talents to pull this off, and dismissing her simply because “we can’t validate the presidency as a celebrity” doesn’t pass the sniff test. Americans have always looked at the presidency as our favored celebrity—Trump is nothing new (and neither was Ronald Reagan, nor JFK, etc…). When we speak in hallowed tones about our presidents, it’s not usually about their actions—but their words—unwittingly expressing our preference for spectacle over policy. We shouldn’t reject celebrity candidates simply because they’re celebrities. We should reject celebrity candidates because they have bad policies. We should reject all candidates because they have bad policies.
And who knows, maybe Oprah does espouse bad policies—as one of the architects of the Iraq War has been seemingly trying to highlight with his endorsement.
The scant evidence that we do have seems to point Oprah in the direction of the hopeless neoliberal left. Much of her messaging focuses on bettering yourself within an oppressive system, as opposed to changing the system itself. If this is truly the case, then her candidacy should be dismissed as the vanity project that nearly all celebrity candidacies really are. However, selling books and TV shows is not the same as running for office—and if she is willing to use her candidacy to upend the existing order which was hurting millions of Americans long before Trump got his teensy hands on the levers of power, then she should be on the short list of potential Democratic candidates for 2020.
If you removed all of Oprah’s celebrity and solely graded her off the speech from the Golden Globes, President Oprah Winfrey wouldn’t seem like such a ridiculous notion. For someone with such obvious political talents, Democrats should at least figure out if Oprah could deliver on a liberal agenda. The fact that this debate spread like wildfire speaks volumes about the dearth of leadership at the top of the Democratic Party, as well as Oprah’s ability. It remains to be seen whether Oprah could credibly deliver any policy victories for the left, but that same question lingers for any candidate endorsed by the Democratic Party.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.