The Oprahfication of politics: Will Oprah run for president?


Beginning on Sunday night and continuing into the week, major media in the United States seem to be transfixed and absolutely preoccupied with what they see as one major, unavoidable political question. That question is this: Will Oprah Winfrey run for the office of president of the United States?

The spark to all of this was Winfrey's acceptance speech for a major award at the Golden Globe ceremony on Sunday night. That speech seems to divide into several different dimensions. It was in one sense a testimonial, another a thank you in the form of the kind of acceptance speech that those kinds of ceremonies expect, but lastly it also appeared to be a massive speech intended to make a political point. As at least some observers indicated, it was the kind of speech that at least many Democratic voters wish a presidential candidate would make. One observer suggested that all the speech needed was a massive balloon drop after Winfrey ended.

Here’s how major newspapers are reporting the story. Robert Costa reporting for the Washington Post tells us:

“From Hollywood to Iowa, a sudden wave of enthusiasm for Oprah Winfrey as a potential presidential candidate swept through the Democratic Party, beginning as a social-media sensation after her rousing remarks at [the] Golden Globes ceremony and escalating nationally as party officials and activists earnestly considered the possibility.”

Alexander Burns and Amy Chozick in a front-page story in the New York Times declared:
“With a booming speech at the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey, the billionaire media entrepreneur and former television talk-show host, launched a thousand fantasies for Democrats: Of a historic campaign to put a black woman in the White House. Of a celebrity candidate, known for her big-hearted optimism, taking on a reality-show president defined by his thirst for combat. Of a presidency, some joked, where everybody would get a car.”

The headline wasn't subtle. “Oprah 2020? The Idea Makes Democrats Giddy and Skeptical.”

In the front-page article in USA Today, Nicole Guadiano began by saying: “If Oprah Winfrey has her eye on the Democratic presidential nomination, she [could] be hard to beat.”
That was followed up with this explanation: “The media mogul with worldwide first-name recognition fueled speculation about her prospects on Sunday after [that very speech already referenced] at the Golden Globes.”

The USA Today piece cited Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Howard Dean's campaign in 2008, who said: “If she decides to run, she certainly would be the top contender, no doubt about it. … All of the politicians who would think about running, she’d be one of the people they’d have to get past.”

Predictably, the more low-key Wall Street Journal didn't even feature the story on its front page, but in an inside page it acknowledged the fact that there is rampant Democratic Party speculation about the possibility of an Oprah candidacy. But in a more interesting twist, the Wall Street Journal actually ran an editorial statement about the possibility.

The headline of the editorial: “Could Oprah Out-Trump Donald?”

The important dimension of the editorial statement in the Wall Street Journal is that the editors got to the obvious. This tells us a great deal about America and our current political moment, when at this point the two most often discussed candidates for the next presidential election are both celebrities known by and large for television and, furthermore, celebrities who are known to the public with just one word: either Oprah or Trump. Both of these celebrities, we should note, seem to put their name on everything; that's about as true of one as it is of the other. The Wall Street Journal editors wrote:

“It is a commentary on the evolution of our politics that the next presidential election could be a contest between two first-name celebrities: Donald and Oprah. Ms. Winfrey,” they said, “says she isn’t running, and it may be that the Oprah boomlet isn’t much more than wishful thinking by Hollywood’s effervescent dream factory. But,” the editors said, “we can see how the possibility might cause the hardest professional Democratic hearts to flutter.”

This would be a very interesting turn, just in terms of worldview analysis. By any measure, Oprah is a very big factor on the American scene, but it's really interesting to note that over the last 20 plus years Americans have come to know the major messaging Oprah is trying to send. It is a message perfectly fitted for our postmodern and post-Christian times, a message that is mostly about self-actualization and, for that matter, the development of the self as the primary lifelong project. Oprah is all about affirmation, and, in particular, about the kind of affirmation that is particularly acceptable and celebrated in not only elite culture but in what we can see is the cultural trend line, the trend line towards self-affirmation. And that means that in terms of a moral worldview the center of it actually is the self and the major verb that could be used in a moral sense is indeed affirmation or its close cognates such as acceptance and celebration.

In her television program that ran for so many years, Oprah Winfrey intentionally, rather self-consciously, used the program in order to drive the moral revolution, not so much in the form of hard arguments as in the form of a soft power of entertainment and persuasion. For example, over 10 years ago Oprah would have programs in which she would feature very young children struggling with their gender identity and openly shamed parents who wouldn't go along with the experiments in transgenderism. But in terms of how celebrity culture works, it is interesting to note that Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey have both developed very public personas that on the one hand don't necessarily tell us who the person really is, rather who the constructed personality is, but they also tend to be very different. That mention of Donald Trump as combative and Oprah Winfrey as affirming, well that's how they have both built their brands, right down to their respective television projects. Donald Trump's answer seemed to be, ‘you’re fired,’ whereas Oprah Winfrey's answers seem to be always, ‘you’re great.’

The New York Times front page article said that the excitement among Democrats, giddiness was their word, about the potential of an Oprah candidacy “underscored the unfulfilled hunger among Democrats for a larger-than-life leader to challenge President Trump.”

But the Times also cited serious political analysts and politicians who are having second thoughts about the whole idea. For one thing, Oprah Winfrey isn't particularly well identified in terms of her politics, but what is known is that those politics trend significantly to the left on political and moral issues. That would please the Democratic Party, but it wouldn’t necessarily rest well with voters who would find Oprah Winfrey a very different person as a presidential candidate than as an entertainer. One Democratic analyst said that celebrities are often flattered when someone suggests they should run for high office, but when they find out what will actually happen in a campaign and what will be expected of them, well, that's a very different scenario. And furthermore, politics is a bloodsport; it is combat. Someone who has made a persona out of affirmation could find it rather vexing that affirmation is, if anything, a minor key in a political campaign. One observer writing from the left in the pages of the New York Times Thomas Chatterton Williams suggested to Oprah don't do it. In his words: “If liberals no longer pride themselves on being the adults in the room, the bulwark against the whims of the mob, our national descent into chaos will be complete. The Oprah bandwagon,” he said, “betrays the extent to which social causes and identities — and the tribal feelings they inspire — have come to eclipse anything resembling philosophical worldviews. American politics,” he says, “has become just another team sport, and if suiting up a heavy hitter like Ms. Winfrey is what it takes to get the championship ring, so be it,” referring to the logic of many Democrats excited by the possibility. But when it comes to the bottom line, Williams says, Oprah don't do it; it won't be good for you, it won't be good for the country.

From a Christian worldview perspective, the possibility of an Oprah candidacy opens up all kinds of moral and political and policy issues to be sure, but the concern about the celebrification of the culture, that's probably the more important issue. Neither Donald Trump nor Oprah Winfrey would've held any elective office before running for president of the United States. That's an unusual fact in itself, but what this tells us about our current moment and the excitement about Oprah's potential candidacy among Democrats is that it looks like the Democratic Party has decided that the only way to answer one celebrity is with another celebrity.

Finally, on this issue we should remember the back during the 1990s, virtually almost a generation ago, there was already public concern about what was called the Oprahfication of politics. That was during the Clinton years with the suggestion that Bill Clinton had mastered the art of making hard issues appear soft; giving vague answers of ambiguous affirmation rather than clear policies, especially during his campaigns. The Oprahfication of politics met the victory of feelings over the kind of hard arguments that had been the stuff of politics. But now look from the 1990s to not only 2018 but potentially to 2020, and what we have seen is that the Oprahfication of politics in the 1990s could actually result in the Oprahfication of Oprah running for president of the United States. I would suggest it is still unlikely, in terms of the risk that Oprah would take, but it tells us a very great deal about the kind of moment we are living in the United States of America.


Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, offers a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


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