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Oprah 2020? Why the political appeal of celebrities endures.

putting it in perspective

Oprah Winfrey’s impassioned speech about the #MeToo movement at the Golden Globe Awards lit Democratic hopes and dreams. Part of that may be because voters want to connect with their leaders on an emotional as well as a political level. 

Oprah Winfrey, speaking at a rally for then-candidate Barack Obama in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2007, is now reportedly 'intrigued' by the idea of a run for president herself.
Ramin Rahimian/Reuters/File
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Why do voters – some of them, anyway – thrill to the idea of a celebrity serving as President of the United States?

President Trump is Exhibit A here, of course. The developer/reality show star has broken the norm that all US presidents have experience in political or military office. But now many Democrats are excited about a candidate that in their dreams trumps Trump’s celebrity strengths: Oprah Winfrey. Ms. Winfrey is rich, famous, and beloved, and on Sunday she gave an impassioned speech on #MeToo that lit Democratic hopes and dreams like a spark in dry underbrush.

Part of this boomlet is due to unique circumstances. Mr. Trump has broken the norm that presidential candidates can’t win without high political or military experience. Winfrey is a singular figure with a following that borders on a religious movement.

But part of it may also be based in voter desires to feel an emotional relationship with their leaders – and the failure of the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties in recent years to deliver that kind of link. Like Trump, Winfrey has a personal magnetism that in today’s social media age transcends traditional politics.

“Voters want to connect with leaders on an emotional level as well as a political level. Charisma allows them to do that,” says Jeremy C. Young, an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, who studies emotion and politics. 

A January surprise

The Oprah-for-President explosion came as a January surprise in Washington. Her Golden Globes speech, however, was finely honed, perhaps to produce just such an effect. It moved effectively from her personal inspirations as a young girl, to historical injustice against women such as Recy Taylor, a black woman raped by six whites in Alabama in 1944, to the present day exposure of sexual exploitation and harassment. 

Winfrey has occasionally made overtly partisan moves in the past – most notably when she endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. But in general she has been political without being obviously political. On television she often discusses lifestyle issues in a slightly political way, tinged with a self-help, live-your-best life philosophy. Right now she has a following that transcends race, class, and political lines, says Dr. Young. In some ways, it is quasi-religious, he says, making it almost unfair to compare her with more prosaic celebrities who have hinted at political ambitions, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and businessman Mark Cuban.

Winfrey is uniquely qualified to make the jump from entertainment to politics, according to Young.

“She is really charismatic. She is a trained actress. She has this incredible following,” he says.

Like Trump, Winfrey is a person whose actual ideology is a bit fuzzy. Is she a liberal? Is she a moderate? Still, she could probably unite factions of the Democratic Party in part due to her overwhelming celebrity. There is nothing wrong per se with famous people running for political office, says Young. But they need to see holding office as something important in itself, not an adjunct to their existing fame. 

“I don’t think necessarily having a celebrity become a politician is a problem if the celebrity is serious about it,” he says.

Winfrey’s intentions aren’t clear at the moment. It’s possible the Sunday speech was a calculated opening political move. It’s also entirely possible it was intended as an acceptance speech and she’s been as surprised as anyone else by the pent-up explosion of Democratic desire she run for president. 

“I do think she was intrigued by the idea,” said CBS Morning host Gayle King, a friend of Ms. Winfrey’s, on Monday, adding that at this time Winfrey isn’t actually considering a presidential run. 

President Trump said on Monday that he doubts Winfrey will mount a serious candidacy. He boasted that if she did, he would beat her.

Such a race would “be a lot of fun” Trump told reporters during a meeting with US Senators on immigration reform.

“I did one of her shows. Her last week,” he added.

Brand versus boring

If Winfrey does run, it may be Trump that made it possible, of course. He’s the pioneering celebrity president, someone who proved that a well-established entertainment brand could have appeal for something beyond ratings.

He’s also proved that many of the warnings about the chaos that could result from a president who seems unprepared for the job can come true. It is possible that celebrity might be a negative with voters in 2020. They may want someone more boring who they can ignore for days or weeks at a time.

“Even people with experience have trouble with the job,” says Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government at American University in Washington, noting that Bill Clinton struggled to adapt to the presidency’s demands.

It’s hard to gauge for sure how many voters are really excited by the prospect of President Winfrey, Professor Edelson says. Her favorability numbers are very high, but that is not everything. According to Gallup, Hillary Clinton remains the most admired woman in the United States. It takes 60 million votes or so to win the Oval Office.

The second Winfrey declared a candidacy her numbers would tumble.

“To the extent people are excited, she is starting from a high point right now,” Edelson says.

Fame before office?

Is America developing into a nation where fame becomes a prerequisite for high political office? That’s unlikely, but possible. The mixture of celebrity and power – common in some other countries, such as Italy – is entirely new in the US.

Perhaps the problem now is that many Americans view the established party structure as corrupt, or ineffective, or hard to get through to, says Steven White, an assistant professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University in New York.

“They see celebrities as something that can break through that,” he says.

It’s also possible that voters are less interested in the policy aspects of the presidency and more focused on its performative aspects. Under Trump, the Oval Office is indisputably more dramatic and showy. Consider his upcoming “Fake News” awards, and the celebratory parties he has held at the White House following successful congressional votes.

“There’s a possibility that a lot of people view the president as being the spokesperson for the country, and what it stands for and values,” Dr. White says. “They see Oprah as able to espouse a world view that inspires them.”

But Winfrey might actually have a harder time winning the Democratic nomination than many people anticipate, he adds. Democratic Party elders have more control over their process than Republican counterparts, due to so-called “superdelegates,” who are typically elected officials. They might think a boring politician a better foil for Trump than another celebrity.

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