Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Count Me A #NeverOprah (#NeverClooney, #NeverStewart, #NeverYadaYadaCelebrity) Democrat

The brief frenzy set off by Oprah Winfrey's Golden Globes speech is a distressing bellwether of American politics. The notion that the Democratic Party might "fight fire with fire" by nominating a TV celebrity to oppose Donald Trump in 2020 speaks to how far down the rabbit hole our entire political culture has fallen. This is not to suggest that Oprah Winfrey is not far superior to Donald Trump in many respects. She is more articulate, more knowledgeable, more basically decent than the current president. But we must remember what a shockingly low bar that is.

The greatest problem with Ms. Winfrey is not any aspect of her character or intellect, or even her lack of experience in government. It is the raw fact of her celebrity and her career in entertainment. This should be an object lesson drawn from the fate of Al Franken. When the photo of Mr. Franken mock-groping Leeann Tweeden went viral, his apologists argued that we should discount it because it was done when he was a comedian. But they misread the moral of the story, which was not that we should forgive our senators their sins as comedians, but that we should not elect comedians to the Senate.

Much moreso than in the days of Ronald Reagan, our media culture is pervaded by a transgressive "shock and awe" sensibility that invariably causes celebrities to make gestures and statements that are impolitic- that are provocative and tolerably controversial in the context of "infotainment" or gossip but that would be execrably divisive coming from an elected official. Al Franken became the poster child for this phenomenon: a person who is going to wield real power over questions of sexual harassment and discrimination can not be on record as joking about such issues, as it fatally undermines his credibility, both in the eyes of the people hoping for his protection and the people who may be the target of his censure. Oprah Winfrey, if she stepped into the political arena, would be even more freighted with these liabilities, because she has enjoyed a much higher public profile for much longer than Al Franken. One need only briefly peruse the strident postings under the "#NeverOprah" tag on Twitter to see that her long record of public pronouncements is a goldmine of easily-taken-out-of context statements and distortion-prone provocations.

Beyond these admittedly instrumental cautions, we need to forswear celebrity candidates to cultivate our own integrity as an electorate. We have become so vapid, so intellectually lazy as a country, that we are no longer willing to learn anything about a person with whom we have not already been made familiar in a non-challenging medium. "The Apprentice" bottled Donald Trump for millions of voters so that they felt they knew him better than Marcio Rubio, Jeb Bush, or Hillary Clinton. Al Franken was a familiar face from late night television and book jackets. I myself fell into the trap of endorsing a petition asking Jon Stewart to run for my local congressional seat. The Tweeden affair was my come-to-Buddha moment. That way lies Idiocracy.

Our whole body politic has suffered terrible injuries under the Trump presidency, not the least of which is the president's breach of a basic article of the unwritten social contract: he was elected after making direct insults to and threats against whole constituencies of the electorate (Muslims, women, people of color) for which he has never apologized or sought redemption or reconciliation. The resulting climate of fear and anger is insidiously corrosive of our institutional order and must be redressed. An Oprah candidacy would only exacerbate the problem where a remedy is needed. Her entire campaign would be freighted with rationalizations ("she didn't really mean that," "she said that as a joke/provocation, but would never govern that way") and her administration, if it ever occurred, would labor under a credibility deficit from which it could never recover. We need politics to become less impolitic. To that end we must stop nominating and electing entertainers.

This is my message to fellow Democrats: don't nominate Oprah (or George Clooney, or Jon Stewart, or whatever celebrity becomes the flavor-du-jour in the next 35 months). If you do, I will not vote for her (him), even if it means that Trump is re-elected. As disastrous as I know a second Trump term will be, it would be the lesser of two evils weighed against the direction our country would be taken by another celebrity presidency following on the heels of the current one.

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