Is neoliberal Oprah Winfrey really the president progressives want?

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No-prah Winfrey, says Jacob Debets (Image via @KangarooCaught)

Putting another celebrity in the White House after the Trump experience – especially one dedicated to vociferous consumption, like Oprah Winfrey – would be a huge mistake, says Jacob Debets.

I GET IT. Oprah Winfrey is a damn inspiring woman. Born into abject poverty and disadvantage, she went on to make the honour roll at high school and earn a full-scholarship at Tennessee State University. This was after having overcome molestation and the death of her first and only child at 14 years old. At 19, she began her television and radio career, and by 31 launched what would become the highest rated talk show of its era, The Oprah Winfrey Show. She’s the first black woman to become a billionaire and a transcendent cultural icon in her own right. Her speech at the Golden Globes last week, where she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille award, was a proverbial banger.

But presidential candidate? Leader of the “Free World”? The one to reverse Trump’s destruction and division, and address the great challenges of the 21st Century: climate change, gaping economic inequality, geopolitical instability and the spectre of nuclear war?

That this sentiment is even moderately debateable – much less being actively supported by mainstream media organisations and members of the left – is offensive and absurd.

It should go without saying that the manifestly inexperienced and breathtakingly incompetent man currently serving his first (and god-willing, only) term in the White House, should not be succeeded by someone with a similar lack of public office experience. Granted, much of the harm Trump has caused – from emboldening neo-Nazis, to his attempts to dismantle the healthcare system – stem from his deeply problematic agenda, but his ignorance of how the organs of government work have had similarly calamitous consequences. His failure to fill key positions in his administration and his sluggish response to the devastation in Puerto Rico are just two examples of what it looks like when a president doesn’t know what their responsibilities are or how to discharge them.

Some commentators will claim that this can be overcome by installing the right advisors to counsel Oprah on the right decisions — something that every president and office-bearer requires given the breadth of their responsibilities. But there’s a difference between having advisors recommend certain courses of action versus having to explain basic concepts and institutions that any community organiser or first year political science undergrad should be across. The latter is, at best, a recipe for inertia and ineffectiveness; at worst, it opens up the possibility that Winfrey would be a puppet to an unaccountable shadow government.

Even if we assume Winfrey – against the dictates of common sense and the track record of her celebrity-turned-politician predecessors – possesses a threshold level of preparedness for the responsibilities of office, it is mystifying that progressives would support her cause. It is true that she has several points in her favour. For example, she is a celebrated philanthropist and a cultural ambassador for greater racial, gender and sexual equality. And her speech at the Golden Globes shined an ongoing spotlight on the role gendered power structures play in oppressing and silencing women. Also, her historical opposition to the Iraq Invasion and support for the LGBTI community are rightfully lauded as courageous defections from the contemporary status quo.

But, as The Guardian’s Nicole Aschoff so eloquently articulated back in 2015, Oprah’s liberal convictions on social issues are framed by an equally distinct brand of neoliberalism — pushing the narrative of personal responsibility that obfuscates the role that political and economic structures play in creating and entrenching inequality. Far from possessing the antidote to the compression of the middle class and pervasive labour market insecurity – significant contributors to the resurgence of far right groups that elected Trump – Oprah has historically promoted dubious self-help philosophies and pseudoscience, framing the symptoms of class subjugation as spiritual and emotional imbalances.

By relentlessly exalting the role of individual choice in achieving – or failing to achieve – “success”, Winfrey has used her platform to shield those responsible for America’s decline and mask the attendant crisis in democracy. Her messaging, “only you can take responsibility for your life” and “make your own luck”, is antithetical to solidarity and class-consciousness, and discourages speaking truth to power. In Oprah’s world, citizens need not join unions and scrutinise power structures for their salvation, rather they need to lose weight, think positively and consume vociferously. The prospect this message could be charismatically broadcast in the political arena – however tailored to her constituents – is not the cure to the Left’s malaise, it’s another strain of the virus afflicting it. 

The fact Democratic strategists are actively weighing up a Winfrey presidential run is a testimony to the cynicism and soullessness of a party that lost the unloseable election in 2016. Granted, Winfrey would still need to win the primaries to make it onto the ticket, a field that is predicted to include Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. But if Trump’s run through the Republican primaries is any indication, the tsunami of media attention she will attract gives her a significant advantage. The risk of substantive policy debates being displaced by Oprahfication-infused personality politics is bone-chillingly real.

To succeed the most “qualified candidate in history”, in Clinton, with a billionaire talkshow host who would be the most profound of ironies, all but conceding that the only concern of the modern party apparatus is electability and brand power. They would be retaining the same problematic neoliberalism that Clinton espoused, with none of the proficiency.

Unless and until Winfrey definitively rules out running – according to reports, she is still on the fence – this will not be the last that we hear of “Oprah 2020”. With traditional news organisations struggling to adapt their business models to the digital economy, the prospect of a Winfrey presidential bid is sure to generate readership and advertising revenue in much the same way Trump’s degeneracy has over the past two years. As a nation stares down the barrel of another government shut-down, chronic over-incarceration and poverty, and unprecedented social division, talking heads on NBC will speculate how a Trump-Winfrey debate would unfold. And the policy-solutions the country so desperately needs will continue to be ignored.

If Winfrey cares about the national interest, she should recognise that the country does not need another neoliberal celebrity billionaire in possession of the nuclear codes. Those giving the prospect oxygen – especially progressives – should do the same.

You can read more of Jacob Debet's work at jacobdebets.com and follow him on Twitter @jacob_debets.

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