Oprah 2020? Why the appeal of ‘celibreticians’ endures

Why do voters – some of them, anyway – thrill to the idea of a celebrity serving as President of the United States?

President Trump is Exhibit A here, of course. The developer/reality show star has broken the norm that all US presidents have experience in political or military office. But now many Democrats are excited about a candidate that in their dreams trumps Trump’s celebrity strengths: Oprah Winfrey. Ms. Winfrey is rich, famous, and beloved, and on Sunday she gave an impassioned speech on #MeToo that lit Democratic hopes and dreams like a spark in dry underbrush.

Part of this boomlet is due to unique circumstances. Mr. Trump has broken the norm that presidential candidates can’t win without high political or military experience. Winfrey is a singular figure with a following that borders on a religious movement.

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But part of it may also be based in voter desires to feel an emotional relationship with their leaders – and the failure of the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties in recent years to deliver that kind of link. Like Trump, Winfrey has a personal magnetism that in today’s social media age transcends traditional politics.

“Voters want to connect with leaders on an emotional level as well as a political level. Charisma allows them to do that,” says Jeremy C. Young, an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, who studies emotion and politics. 

A JANUARY SURPRISE

The Oprah-for-President explosion came as a January surprise in Washington. Her Golden Globes speech, however, was finely honed, perhaps to produce just such an effect. It moved effectively from her personal inspirations as a young girl, to historical injustice against women such as Recy Taylor, a black woman raped by six whites in Alabama in 1944, to the present day exposure of sexual exploitation and harassment. 

Winfrey has occasionally made overtly partisan moves in the past – most notably when she endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. But in general she has been political without being obviously political. On television she often discusses lifestyle issues in a slightly political way, tinged with a self-help, live-your-best life philosophy. Right now she has a following that transcends race, class, and political lines, says Dr. Young. In some ways, it is quasi-religious, he says, making it almost unfair to compare her with more prosaic…

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