Politics & Policy

Wonks Made Celebrity Presidents Possible, Maybe Necessary

Winfrey signs autographs at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2014. (Reuters photo: Mario Anzuoni)
This is how we get Oprah.

After Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes, her friends are urging her to run for president. Meryl Streep says Oprah “doesn’t have a choice” but to run. Oprah’s speech — about how women are rising up to speak “their truth,” telling “those men” who have oppressed them that “their time is up” — has some dreaming of the day she announces her candidacy by telling a certain misogynist in the White House that his time is up, too. Democratic congresswoman Jackie Speier of California was tweeting, “Run, Oprah, run! An Army of women would fight for you in the #2020 election.”

This isn’t the first time Oprah has been talked up for president. Michael Moore, of all people, suggested her or Tom Hanks right after last year’s election. Heck, even Donald Trump had suggested her as his own running mate in the year 2000. Other celebrities have had boomlets recently, including stars of cinema like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and businessman–cum–television personality Mark Cuban.

The average voter is going to be blamed for this. The great disdain of the educated class will fall on the Uhmurkans who have been hypnotized by their televisions. Maybe some of that’s right. But I blame the wonks. It was the wonks who, unawares, made the celebrity president not just desirable but logically necessary.

The wonk’s role is well-fitted to the centrist political ideal in the post–Cold War West. For them, government is most highly admirable when it is totally denuded of questions of value or morality (these having obvious and uncontroversial answers), and reduced to a purely technical exercise. The politician working with the wonk finds that his job is reconciling the public with what’s good for them. And this fits the machinery of the executive branch, which is filled with hundreds of thousands of civil servants, overseen by a much smaller retinue of political appointees almost all chosen from within the governing class of the country. Where this model of government is most advanced — in Europe — policy questions are routinely taken away from the passions of democratic peoples, and quarantined for expert management.

Taken together, these trends are more or less the abolition of traditional democratic politics. And so there is little use for the traditional politician, a person of judgment and charisma who represents the community from which he or she emerges, using his own wisdom in reconciling the diverse interests and needs of his nation and constituency.

Having eliminated the need for real probity in politicians, why shouldn’t the parties turn to celebrities as their political leaders? The celebrity will do the job of winning elections and riling up the public, but the machinery of government will go on, almost undisturbed.  We can see how the permanent class of Republicans in government almost immediately tamed the Trump presidency. Instead of the populist presidency Trump promised, Trump is ushering in much of the pre-existing “moderate” Republican agenda of corporate tax cuts and economic deregulation. The political class and the media allied to it were able to expunge most of the populist figures from the administration. Soon, they might even succeed in expunging Trump, too.

Oprah Winfrey is perfect for this moment. So what if she believes in, and spent gobs of her career promoting, New Age quackery. That will be as relevant to her presidency as Donald Trump’s critique of military adventurism is to his: not at all. The wonks’ dream is coming true: A bureaucracy has come into shape, one that is able to fend off all democratic challenge, even as it uses a celebrity to gain democratic legitimacy. Wonks are now the producers, behind the scenes. The celebrities are just the talent, reading lines and leveraging their brand for the great project of governance.


Why ‘Oprah for President’ Makes Sense

Oprah’s Strange Pseudoscience

Here’s Why You Should Take Oprah Seriously

— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review.

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