Are the calls for Oprah to run for President a sign of a wide and accessible party, or one that is failing at promoting strong and diverse candidates from within?
If the 2016 Presidential candidate field seemed unusual due to having a celebrity take part, then that’s nothing to how 2020 might be shaping with rumours around everyone from Oprah and Tom Hanks to the Rock. Has Trump triggered a new age of politics or is this a wider reflection of the problems within the Democratic Party?
The Democrats should be – and to an extent, are – flying high for an opposition party right now. Trump is their greatest enemy but more than occasionally, also their greatest PR campaign machine. As Trump stumbles from one crisis to another, that gives the Democrats credibility. However, credibility is something the Democrats have learned not to put their full trust in. They did have the most credible and qualified candidate ever – and lost, to a man almost everyone (including within the GOP) thinks is an impulsive caricature. The floating of Oprah, and to a lesser extent, Tom Hanks and even the Rock is in part due to the media fixation on celebrities, particularly since the election of Trump. Now, stars becoming presidents doesn’t seem like such a wild concept. Yet, it raises questions about how we treat celebrities and what we expect from politicians.
Politicians are often a safe bet as candidates because they have already been scrutinised by the public. They’ve already held office, and they have a clear voting history. Even if they’ve only been elected for one term previously, they likely would have voted on dozens of bills and would have taken the floor, spoken to press and given the public at least some insight into their political motives and credibility. Those elected from outside of political office, have swerved this path. There’s no real litmus test until they are in office. With Trump, that’s been disastrous. However, there should still be a chance or opportunity for those outside of politics to run for office – and not just the richest and most powerful celebrities. The political world should be accessible; that’s the best way of getting truly great representatives.
“The political world should be accessible; that’s the best way of getting truly great representatives”
Yet, the response that Oprah should run for President of the United States based upon her popularity and a speech at the Golden Globes asks tremendous questions about what we consider as qualifying factors to run for office. There has to be a better response than a celebrity we admire running for president. We have little insight of Oprah as a potential political leader. Being a household name is far different to having to take positions on everything from agriculture, fishing, climate change to social justice as well as fulfilling the demands of diplomacy. Oprah might be a great leader but that’s the point – she might be. We have know way to really test that. The calls for Oprah to run for President don’t run far beyond the fact that she is incredibly popular.
The support for her potential campaign (and Hanks, and whichever popular celebrity is next trending) also risks undermining the cultural power she already has. Oprah steers her own course, and empowers people on a daily basis. Political office would severely risk stifling that. There are many ways to bring about change.
The Democrats though generally seem to be toying with getting a name that grabs attention immediately. Biden has floated the idea of running, particularly since he’s taken the internet by storm due to his memes with Obama. Yet, Biden will be in his 80s and this is at a time when there are already questions around Trump’s health. It opens up criticism from the opposition – unless, it is only women’s health which is up for discussion (as the case of Clinton’s pneumonia alluded to). There are also concerns over Biden’s vision. He was a great Vice President because he was firmly in the shadow of Obama. Where does Biden stand on his own? He absolutely has to make his vision clear when that’s precisely what he criticised Clinton for lacking. More worrying though is the scrutiny over how Biden acted during the 1991 hearings amidst the allegations of sexual assault by then Supreme Court nominee Thomas Clarence By Anita Hill. with Hill recently questioning whether Biden really “took ownership” of his actions. Clarence was confirmed, and in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, Biden’s behaviour during that period has drawn concern.
Then there is Kamala Harris whose career gained momentum during 2017 with calls for her to consider throwing her name into the ring. Harris was largely chosen to get so much focus because she was seen as progressive, which reveals how woeful our standards of ‘progressive’ are seen as she would not support sex workers. Harris is probably a better choice than those floated already; there is public experience which means her commitment on social justice issues is more transparent (if in places completely lacking) but there are still huge problems with her candidacy. It makes it hard to know what the Democrats are really looking for. Do they want a rising but problematic star or are they looking for someone who had the masculinity of Sanders but isn’t as radical, such as Biden?
The party as a whole is pushing on, picking up victories and calling out Trump’s administration but they seem to be treading water, unsure of what their larger future is beyond that of being disgusted by Trump. They’re going to have to figure out exactly what their vision is and whether they are prioritising style over substance, at a risk of stifling the great qualities of the names they’re considering. The Democrats certainly have a wide field, but it’s their depth that is raising concern.
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