On Jan. 7, 2018, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association held the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards, in which Oprah Winfrey received the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. Her remarks were enthusiastically received both by those in attendance and by the public at large.
In fact, her speech was so well received that, almost immediately, serious speculation began that she would run for president in 2020. A Marist poll showed that, were the election held today, Oprah would defeat sitting President Donald Trump. The same poll showed that 47 percent of Democrats wanted her to run for president, compared to 40 percent that didn’t (NPR, “Oprah Beats Trump in NPR, But Most Americans Don’t Want Her to Run for President’,” 1.12.2018).
While Oprah has, on numerous occasions, denied any plans to run for president, she is far from the only celebrity who may run. Dwayne Johnson and Mark Cuban have both expressed serious interest in seeking the position, and there is talk of Howard Schultz or Mark Zuckerberg running as well. None of these individuals have any political experience whatsoever, and for the most part they have never demonstrated any qualities that would at all suggest that they would be effective presidents.
Yet, Dwayne Johnson, Mark Cuban, Mark Zuckerberg, Howard Schultz and Oprah are all under genuine consideration for the highest office in the United States—by the American people and by the political establishment. The election of Donald Trump seems to have opened the floodgates for anyone charismatic and well-liked to run for President. They don’t need to have political experience or clear positions on key policy issues as long as they can be convincing and can say what people want to hear. Elections have become popularity contests.
Of course, this isn’t a particularly new development. The American people have a long history of electing bad leaders simply because they’re likable. One of the earliest examples was Andrew Jackson, an irrational, nearly illiterate demagogue who won the presidency over an experienced public servant because of his popular habit of crusading against Native Americans. In more recent history, George W. Bush won the presidency over John McCain, Al Gore and John Kerry at least in part because the voters felt like they could have a beer with him. And, of course, Barack Obama declared his candidacy after a mere two years in the Senate, defeating a slate of far more qualified candidates before becoming one of the most disappointing presidents in recent memory. Even if Obama seems to have been a great president in comparison to Trump, it is important to remember that he was so unprepared for the position that he failed to properly utilize a Democratic supermajority to achieve any tangible reform besides a watered-down health care bill that moved the country further away from a single payer system.
But all these candidates, for the most part, had something remotely resembling experience. Andrew Jackson had previously served in both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. George W. Bush served five years as Governor of Texas. Barack Obama served seven years in the Illinois State Senate and over three years in the United States Senate. None of those men were novices to politics entirely. Those on this new slate of celebrity hopefuls, however, are. Oprah Winfrey has never held public office. Nor has Howard Schultz. Nor has Dwayne Johnson. Nor has Mark Zuckerberg. Nor has Mark Cuban. Frankly, I, a 21-year-old liberal arts college student whose greatest achievement is writing articles for a school newspaper, would be just as qualified to be president as Dwayne Johnson—were it not for my age. At least I have worked for the government in some capacity.
If any of them wanted to run for the House of Representatives, I’d consider supporting them. But it takes some chutzpah to believe that you are ready to take on what very well may be the most difficult job in the world just because people like you. Still, I wouldn’t blame Oprah Winfrey if she ends up running for president. I would blame an American populace that has sent a message that we prefer likeable leaders over effective leaders. I blame an American populace that sent Donald Trump to the White House despite him being completely unfit for the job.
This is not a phenomenon that exists only on the right. The Democratic Party base has to commit to not encouraging celebrities to run for president and to not voting for them if they do. Voters have to commit to researching candidates before going to the ballot box, so that they have a thorough understanding of their policy positions and the kinds of leaders they will be.
However, I am less than optimistic about our future in this regard. While I doubt that Oprah Winfrey or Dwayne Johnson will run for president, the presidency will still be a popularity contest. And I fear that the lasting lesson of Trump will be that anyone, regardless of how improbable and unqualified they are, can be a legitimate candidate. A democracy in which that is true cannot stand; it is doomed to die as the nation chooses increasingly ill-suited leaders.
The reaction of the left to Trump has already proven that the American populace can remain politically motivated without an election, which represents a change from contemporary norms. Now, we have to prove our ability to make reasoned decisions and not simply vote for some celebrity who gives a nice speech. This does not mean that we can’t vote for charismatic people, or that it is necessarily wrong that charismatic people do well in elections, but rather that we should vote with a firm understanding of who we’re voting for, what our candidates believe in, and what qualifies them to serve public office. It also means that we cannot lower our standards because of Donald Trump. Just because the current president is bad at his job does not mean that we are under any obligation to support a candidate who shouldn’t be president.