#Oprah2020 Isn’t the Way for Democrats to Succeed

At Sunday night’s Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey received the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. On a night where actresses wore black to protest sexual assault, Oprah gave an impassioned speech, promising girls that a “new day is on the horizon” and warning abusive men that their “time is up”. She was dignified, poised and…well, presidential.

Sure enough, #OprahForPresident and #Oprah2020 were soon trending. Some comments were tongue-in-cheek; many people, though, were genuinely stoked by the idea of Oprah in the White House. Realistically, though, is that the best way of defeating Trump?

I get it – American politics is pretty shameful right now. All we see from the Oval Office are tantrums and grandstanding from a man who would be an autocrat if only he had a little more intelligence. He’s propped up by a malicious inner circle who spew out “alternative facts”, and spineless Republicans grabbing their chance to force through historically unpopular bills. December’s hastily-passed tax bill proved that America’s most powerful are undemocratic and unprincipled.

Oprah’s speech, by contrast, was a reminder of what dignity looks like. It was a taste of Obama-esque class in a time of Trumpian fire and fury. Nominating Oprah in 2020, however, would just be buying into the Trump playbook.

There’s dozens of reasons why Trump never should have been elected. His temperament, his hateful beliefs, his history of abuse. One of his chief flaws, though, was sheer incompetence. His political career consisted of little more than ranting on Twitter; he had no understanding of government, and no curiosity to learn. He was a novelty candidate fuelled by pure ego.

Hillary Clinton’s biggest advantage, by comparison, was experience. “She’s the most qualified candidate to ever run for President!”, her supporters rightly cried. Democrats in 2016 presented the Presidency as something serious, something with massive implications for the world. It takes judgement and know-how, they argued. It’s more than just a platform for billionaires to increase their brand.

Heading into 2020 with a celebrity candidate of their own would undermine all this, rendering previous Democratic attacks on Trump void and hypocritical. Without a doubt, Oprah has integrity and the ability to inspire. Being President takes more than just looking the part, though. Oprah vs. Trump could easily descend into a primetime reality deathmatch.  

I appreciate that the Presidency is different to our parliamentary system. There’s a much higher focus on the individual; whereas British elections are framed as party vs. party, American elections are candidate vs. candidate. This was especially true in 2016 – it was all about Hillary’s advantages and flaws versus Trump’s. The future of the country rests on one pair of shoulders, voters are told. It all centres on how capable and charismatic the owner of those shoulders is.

 

Democrats shouldn’t need to rely on a celebrity candidate

I appreciate that the Presidency is different to our parliamentary system. There’s a much higher focus on the individual; whereas British elections are framed as party vs. party, American elections are candidate vs. candidate. This was especially true in 2016 – it was all about Hillary’s advantages and flaws versus Trump’s. The future of the country rests on one pair of shoulders, voters are told. It all centres on how capable and charismatic the owner of those shoulders is.

As such, the President occupies an interesting space in the national imagination. Besides wielding executive power, they act as a figurehead – someone to represent Americans on the world stage, an embodiment of what America is at that moment in time. Perhaps that’s why the position appeals to power-hungry narcissists like Trump. For all the practical good a President can do, it’s equally easy to see it simply as a position of power – the head of the country, the numero uno.

If Democrats nominated Oprah, they would only be reinforcing that misconception. Oprah is as positive a representation of America as you’ll ever find – a black woman born into poverty who rose to become one of the most influential people in the world. She’d have the figurehead part all sewn up. But what about practical knowledge of foreign affairs, tax or healthcare? While she’d undoubtedly prepare far more thoroughly than the semi-literate Trump, would that be a sufficient substitute for years of experience? If Oprah was aiming for a governorship or seat in the Senate it would be a different matter, but the Presidency is surely more than a ceremonial role for parties to parachute their favourite personality into.

What’s more, Democrats shouldn’t need to rely on a celebrity candidate. After success in last year’s special elections, plus Doug Jones’ astonishing victory in deep-red Alabama, Democrats can look ahead to this year’s midterms with cautious optimism. While Trump languishes in the approval ratings, Democrats have an engaged, energised base. There’s every chance they’ll re-take the House in November.

They also have a pool of rising talent, several of whom would be solid picks for 2020: Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Ted Lieu and Kirsten Gillibrand, to name a few. I suppose you could dismiss these as “establishment candidates”. Many argued in 2016 that it was necessary to bring in somebody from outside politics to shake things up and “drain the swamp”. But look how well that turned out.

Yes, some career politicians are self-serving, disconnected, or bound to vested interests. Many aren’t, though, and the last time Americans were convinced to elect a novice, they wound up with a con-man. I’d much rather have someone who worked their way up and proved their integrity through years of public service, over somebody who wakes up one day and decides they want to be the boss of everything.

Of course, if Oprah did run, she’d be fuelled by far nobler motivations. She’s one of the few people who could pull the media’s gaze from Trump, and she’d certainly ‘go high’ far more powerfully than he ‘goes low’. Still, nominating a big name with no prior experience would ultimately mean playing the same gaudy game as Republicans. It’s a tempting prospect. However, if Democrats want to prove they mean business, then – as with other high-profile potential candidates like Mark Zuckerberg, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and, god forbid, Kanye West – they’ll say no to #Oprah2020.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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