Two days ago, media mogul Oprah Winfrey seemed to reconsider a presidential bid — despite saying just a few months ago that she would “never run for public office”. I don’t know what changed, but I can guess: her realization that her qualifications far exceed those of our current president.
Immediately, I began seeing comments on social media (and under the news stories themselves) in this vein: “No! Not another celebrity president! Isn’t one enough?”
It gave me pause because it never made sense to me to disqualify someone simply because they’re already famous.
Celebrities aren’t new to politics, of course, and they’re not even new to the presidency. Elections often depend on name-recognition, relatability, and public relations skills, so it’s no surprise that people who became famous outside of politics sometimes succeed in breaking through. Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse “the body” Ventura, Sonny Bono, Al Franken, and so on. (I don’t include Jerry Springer, who was in politics before becoming a celebrity.)
And now, of course, we have a celebrity for president again, and in Michigan a long-haired, Confederate-flag waving rapper is running for U.S. Senate.
Each time a new name pops up, reactions seem divided into two main camps: (1) those who think a celebrity should never run, and (2) those who would love a celebrity to “shake up the system”. Of course, it also depends on the celebrity and what his or her views are, but my impression is that the great majority of people make their decision based only on whether someone is famous outside politics. “He’s an actor, not a president.” “He’s a comedian, not a senator.” And so on.
In my mind, someone’s previous fame is basically irrelevant to whether I want them in elected office. Two things are incredibly more important to me than whether they were famous. First, do they hold informed and morally defensible views? And second, are they competent to serve in the position they’re running for? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves about any candidate.
Instead we’re immediately dismissing someone because she got wealthy from TV, without considering whether she would be a competent office-holder and without considering whether her views are informed and/or morally defensible.
Clearly, the famous people who’ve held office in our country are not equally competent. On one hand, we have those like Ronald Reagan and Jesse Ventura, both of whom served in the armed forces, and both of whom had been involved in politics before seeking higher office. On the other hand, we have those like Kid Rock and Donald Trump, crude and rowdy braggarts who seemingly entered politics without any idea of what to do about it. (Privately, I am eagerly awaiting Kid Rock’s victory in 2018 because having him in the U.S. Senate promises to be entertaining beyond what even Trump can muster. But I also hope that he accidentally does the right thing on occasion.)
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we elect more celebrities in the future. With presidential election cycles now lasting four years (Trump has been officially campaigning since January 2017 for the late 2020 election) and costing billions of dollars, it is reasonable that celebrities’ chances are increasing. They are already accustomed to being regularly in the public eye. They daily deal with media, fans, and haters. Their scandals are already known. At the same time, the U.S. electorate has spent the past 30 years shortening its attention span to the point where 140-character tweets seem like in-depth research. Emojis! (Just in case I lost you.) By and large, we aren’t reading policy papers anymore. More than a third of voters don’t know which party controls the houses of Congress.
IF we’re going to succumb to rule by celebrity, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we will go the route of Idiocracy. We can elect celebrities who will also be competent public servants. We can elect celebrities who are informed, and who will make morally defensible decisions while in office.
Would Oprah Winfrey be such a person? Perhaps I’ll write more about that if/when she decides to run.