Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A star-spangled ballot?

Following praise for her Golden Globes speech, should television star Oprah Winfrey run for United States president in 2020? Sam Bright and Henna Shah debate the topic that has gripped American politics this week

YES

There are few things more politically damaging than complacency. Complacency stops politicians from listening to the electorate, and the result of complacency is, usually, failure. In the United States, the Democratic party has been gripped by this problem.

When Donald Trump first stood for the Republican nomination, it was assumed that the former/current television reality star was unelectable. This complacent belief was maintained long after he won that nomination. Democrats thought that they could, to some extent, just stand back and let Trump self-destruct.

This week, however, the Democratic party has started to stir from its slumber. The cause of this, to the bafflement of many, has been the media mogul and talkshow host Oprah Winfrey. Her speech at the Golden Globes captured international attention, and has sparked fresh debate around who the Democrats should put forward to beat Trump in 2020.

There are many easy reasons to dismiss Winfrey (not least because she has not declared a desire to run), and it is certainly plausible that the whole thing could be a star-spangled disaster.

But I do not think the keenjerk criticisms of a Winfrey candidacy are as persuasive on second glance as they might be on initial sight.

There is a belief in liberal-left circles on both sides of the Atlantic that everything Trump embodies is wrong. It is professional suicide to suggest that a figure from popular culture should run against Trump in 2020. After all, we do not want another presidency governing by Twitter. But this anti-Trump reflex neglects the massive political benefits of a celebrity candidate. They possess immediate, mass name recognition – everyone knows ‘Oprah’. They are not sullied by an association with the ‘self-serving political establishment’. They dominate media coverage – turning scores of journalists into de facto press officers.

Even if you are sceptical about her political credentials, it is difficult to doubt that her candidacy would captivate the nation. This, in turn, would benefit the image of a party that has lost the passion and flair of the Barack Obama years. With Oprah on stage, the Democratic primary would be a national spectacle – which could only bolster the pervasiveness of Democratic principles.

Trump’s flaw is not that he is a celebrity president. Trump’s flaw is that is that he has warped, narrow-minded beliefs about how domestic and international problems should be solved. Therefore, in this sense – in the most important sense – Winfrey is not Trump. She is evidently a liberal, progressively-minded individual with both the will and the capacity to stand up for the downtrodden and the demonised. She has donated millions of dollars to educational causes across the world, whereas Trump has sought to accrue a personal treasure trove, with little regard for anyone else. On every single political issue, I would rather have Winfrey than Trump.

The Democrats need someone to renew energy and hope within the party – and to engage a mass audience with their values. Winfrey should run for president. And if she emerges from the primary as the best candidate to dump Trump, then progressives in the new world and the old should join the cause.

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Sam Bright is digital editor at Progress. He tweets at @SamBright_Ltd

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NO

Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes was a tour de force. The image of a global celebrity espousing the values that many of us feel have been disregarded by the Donald Trump presidency was truly inspirational. Her vision for the future of the #metoo movement sparked an outpouring of support, with tweeters from across the globe throwing their hats in the ring for #oprahforpresident and #oprah2020.

Yet, while we should commend Winfrey for her extraordinary rhetorical capacity and her astonishing climb out of rural poverty, this does not mean we should rush to create her as a political leader – a ‘Trump of the left’.

The arguments against celebrity politicians are simple: celebrities are likely to lack policy experience, political nous, and an understanding of the issues that matter to their would-be constituents. Although these things are not necessarily barriers in themselves, they do lead to a more worrying conclusion – that an endorsement of a celebrity candidate as a response to disillusionment with the existing political class is tantamount to swapping one oligarchy for another. Replacing the rule of one elite with another – a ‘millennarchy’ of sorts – the rule of the shiny and the ‘instafamous’, ruling class for the millennial generation.

This is not the most troubling concern, however. The domination of pop culture by the cult of the celebrity is not an entirely new phenomenon – and, indeed, not entirely without utility – the harnessing of the star power of cultural figures, such as Stormzy by the Labour party, has skyrocketed young people’s engagement in politics in an entirely new way.

What is problematic, is the prospect of Winfrey’s candidacy in relation to the myth of the ‘model minority’. Democrats have argued against the painting of a potential Winfrey candidacy as a ‘Democratic Trump’ by citing her personal story – her journey from poverty and obscurity to one of the most successful African American women in the world. Therein, however, lies the problem.

Winfrey’s reception (much like Meghan Markle’s here in the United Kingdom following her engagement to Prince Harry) is predicated on her membership of a class of the international super rich, of ‘black made good’, leaving her disassociated from the intersectional issues that define the lives of ethnic minorities in the United States, and around the world. Endorsing Winfrey as a presidential candidate would do nothing to eliminate the structural inequalities faced by African Americans. Instead, it is likely to encourage complacency on the part of the Democratic establishment who will be able to ignore the need for real structural and policy change to tackle racial inequalities by using her as a figurehead, rather than a real agent of progress.

Finally, the endorsement of a celebrity minority candidate distracts us from the harder, but arguably more important, task of ensuring diverse talent is nurtured in all areas of public life. Winfrey’s star power has the potential to drive liberal politics, but this is best done by doing exactly what she did in her speech – setting the public agenda and casting a critical eye over the actions of the establishment – rather than silencing her by making her part of that establishment.

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Henna Shah is editorial assistant at Progress. She tweets at @hennalikespie

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Henna Shah

Sam Bright

3 comments

  • Of course, “Oprah for President” has been planned for at least 20 years to my knowledge. Everyone has always been able to see it coming. Yes, she is a black woman. And yes, she is a self-made billionaire with a remarkable, and in many ways an admirable, life story. But politically, in what way is she anything other than an Establishment liberal of the kind that has already managed to lose to Donald Trump? The bandwagon left the station in style at the Golden Globes. But it can still be derailed.

    Ann “Bannon Was Trump’s Brain” Coulter seems to be preparing to run in 2020. Even she would beat Oprah Winfrey. This will be the last chance to prove that the Democratic Party, which has always been a most imperfect vehicle, still served any useful purpose. If it nominated another Establishment liberal, then it would simply need to be replaced. Not reformed. Replaced. Winfrey is a hardcore neoliberal capitalist who supported the war in Iraq. And I’d take the Daily Mail over Richard Branson any day. It ought to start a campaign to renationalise the railways, as most of its readers probably want. Liberals are not the Left.

  • Sorry, I really don’t get all the excitement around the idea of an Oprah presidential run, for a number of reasons. The idea seems to totally to miss the fact that Trump did not become president just because he is a celebrity.

    I have yet to hear of anyone who voted for Trump over Clinton saying that they would vote for Oprah.

    I am sure Oprah would do well in many parts of the north-eastern states and the West Coast, perhaps even better than Clinton. But winning California or New York by a bit more would not in fact increase the number of electoral college votes won by the Democrats at all.

    The Democrats lost because they lost the confidence of voters in the Rust Belt states and did too little to win new votes in the Sun Belt states. How would Oprah change the balance in either?

    I’d urge readers to buy Thomas Frank’s excellent “Listen Liberal” to show precisely where the Democrats have gone wrong and lost the blue collar voters that used to be their bedrock. For all the great work Obama did, those voters think that he failed them. They think that Bill Clinton failed them and there was no reason to suggest that Hilary would not do the same.

    And I don’t yet see why they should have any more faith in Oprah.

  • Oprah has repeatedly endorsed pseudoscience and its proponents, giving airtime on her show to Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, anti-vaxxers, psychics and faith healers, with next to no effort to present any of the scientific evidence against their ideas. It is not clear if this is just a cynical ploy to increase ratings or means that she herself is credulous. Is this someone who should be in charge of the country? Especially given the damage the current incumbent will have done by his ignorance of all things scientific.

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