Why does the celebrity candidacy still hold appeal?
Okay, I wrote the headline as a reaction to my ongoing shame after having missed the mark on Donald Trump’s candidacy so many times. After Oprah Winfrey’s moving speech at the Golden Globe awards last night, there’s buzz about her being “our next president.” The response among political scientists has tilted, in a strongly negative direction. Over the summer I wrote about the pitfalls of an amateur approach to politics, especially presidential politics. Now seems like a good time to jump into the implications of this debate.
First of all, a few things I could have explained better in the first piece: The amateur approach to politics is an attitude as well as a biographical feature. It implies that what’s needed to fix politics is someone who is innocent of the whole mess. Second, the amateur argument is especially focused on the presidency. Political leaders have to start somewhere — Congress or the state legislature, or perhaps city politics are great entry points. For a variety of reasons, the presidency is not a good launching point.
Having people from different professional backgrounds in office can bring benefits. Substantive expertise from another field — science, business, or the military — can help inform the policy debate. But it has to be mixed with an understanding of government and politics. This includes comprehension and appreciation for the nature of public service, the checks and balances of the Constitution, and the complex trade-offs of democracy.
In particular, democracy can be slow and inefficient, incorporating the needs of many constituencies and coalitions. Governments do not perform the same functions as businesses, so leaders moving in from the private sector will adapt their approach accordingly.
Another implication of amateur politics is that in order to govern, you do eventually need to build a coalition. Even the most charismatic president can’t govern alone. For Trump, this has meant relying on the most loyal partisans as well as the most committed movement conservatives, in many ways creating the opposite of an independent, flexible presidency.
Republicans and Democrats function somewhat differently, but there’s no obvious reason to believe that a Democratic outsider would be any different. We could probably expect a celebrity with few formal party ties to be similarly dependent on partisans and ideologues to work through the details of governing.
The dynamics for a potential Oprah candidacy could be a bit different, however. For one thing, she endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and has ties to the Democratic Party in that regard, and so it’s not inconceivable that she could tap into the former president’s elite networks if she did decide to enter politics. The substance of a celebrity campaign would also matter — if Winfrey ran as an anti-party outsider, she’d likely encounter this problem — if not, she’d probably have access to the usual talent pool for executive branch positions. But that would partly undercut the whole appeal of such a bid.
Perhaps more important than the debate about whether Oprah should seek the presidency is the reason why such arguments appear viable. A pervasive distrust of institutions and parties marks the contemporary political landscape. In particular, the 2016 election illustrated the obstacles faced by candidates with baggage from past administrations. During the primaries, Donald Trump was able to distance himself from the Bush administration in a way that many of his opponents found more difficult. Hillary Clinton had to answer for her Iraq War vote, the policies of the Obama administration, and positions she took during her time as first lady.
This principle applies to professional politicians as well, conferring advantages to those who aren’t as clearly tied to the status quo. It’s important to hold politicians accountable. But if experience and political linkages are politically toxic, we’ve got problems.
It’s tempting to suggest that the response to compelling speeches — whether Obama’s 2004 DNC speech,* Trump’s rallies, or Winfrey’s recent words — suggests that too many Americans don’t really get what the presidency is about. Certainly there are some key drawbacks to a rhetorically fueled rise. It undermines party building by cutting off public servants who have built their careers at the state and local level. Furthermore, speeches are only one of the functions of the presidency — there’s a lot of decision-making, coalition-building, and administration management.
But before political scientists dismiss reactions to these speeches, we might do well to consider their appeal. What Winfrey’s speech last night has in common with Obama’s 2004 speech and Trump’s campaign rhetoric is that all of these confronted race and national identity. Obama leveraged his heritage and background to reframe American political divisions. Trump staked out a much different position about national identity and nationalism, promising to “Make America Great Again” and put “America first,” and sending strong signals about race and belonging. Winfrey spoke of injustice along racial and gender lines, and what it looks like to overcome these challenges.
In the modern era, mainstream politicians have demonstrated an immense capacity to dodge and equivocate on these crucial and divisive issues. Does the political environment prevent politicians from addressing race and identity in a way that sounds authentic — and still be considered viable for the presidency? I’m not sure this is completely true, and it’s probably changing as these issues gain more salience. But it seems possible that this is a factor behind the appeal of outsider politics. If that’s the case, then we have much larger problems to consider.
*Note: I’m not suggesting any of these three individuals are alike, or that Obama was a political amateur. But his ability to deliver a certain kind of speech was crucial to his rise to a presidential-level politician.