Celebrity Democrats: ignore the haters

Profanity laden rants aside, we really appreciate having you on our team.

Rob Lanphier
May 1, 2018 · 9 min read
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Jeffrey Vanderwerff and Oprah Winfrey at Vanderwerff’s 2,000 acre farm. Vanderwerff was one of 14 panelists interviewed in “Oprah follows up with the partisan voters in Michigan” on 60 Minutes (and also: “No, Oprah’s not running for president in 2020…”).

We need the wealthy (especially charismatic celebrities) as part of our coalition to win in a two-party system — at least as much as Republicans still need Dixiecrats for any hope of maintaining their power. Do Democrats need a celebrity at the head of the ticket? Not necessarily, but we shouldn’t rule celebrities out, and we definitely shouldn’t rant about how their financial success and charisma as if that somehow disqualifies them. It doesn’t.


Back in February, my friend Mike McCrory posted a rant titled “A celebrity President [blah blah] wrong [..so there]” directed at my earlier post “A celebrity would be alright”. His is not the only rant on the subject of the celebrity presidents. Last year, Hamilton Nolan at The Concourse published a similar piece, which started off as a reasonable critique of New Democrats’ pandering-to-the-wealthy strategy, hinting that he might continue a long line of neoliberal-targeted resistance that started at least as early as Christopher Lydon’s 1977 expose “Jimmy Carter Revealed: Rockefeller Republican”. However, Nolan’s “Celebrity Democrats Fuck Off” then devolves into an f-bomb laden bro rant:

Do you know why so many people are unenthusiastic about the Democratic party? Because the Democrats don’t fucking do what they’re supposed to do. They are supposed to be the party of the oppressed. They are supposed to fight for the little guy. They are supposed to represent the poor, and the downtrodden, and the marginalized. Instead, they fawn over political dynasties and search madly for our own rich and famous people to counteract the rich and famous people of the other side. They are supposed to be opening doors for people who have never had the chance to be rich, or famous; instead, they are busy creating their own team of celebrities and billionaires — but ours are nice.

Some liberals may pine for the days when Democrats united behind FDR and the New Deal. However, FDR relied on stitching together a broad coalition of Dixiecrats (with all of the rampant racism and corruption) with northern industrialists that were terrified of fascism and communism, and a strong core of support from the ascendant labor movement.

If we give up on both Dixiecrats and Rockefeller Republicans, we’re asking for one party rule. Taking aim at celebrities like Oprah Winfrey (a truly self-made billionaire who regularly displays empathy, compassion, and thoughtfulness) is circular-firing-squad stupidity.

This ain’t rocket science

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An easy potshot against having a “celebrity” is that we need a qualified candidate with experience in policy making. As I pointed out in my original piece, one of the 2016 candidates was extremely qualified.

However, as my friend Rob Brown put it on Quora:

One thing Trump has done is prove that our government is robust enough to not completely fall apart if the president has a ton of money but zero political experience. In fact, it’s now clear that it won’t fall apart if the president is completely nuts, utterly stupid, seemingly illiterate, lacking empathy, lacking decency, and disrespectful to the extreme. But Oprah is none of those things. So yeah, I think we’d be fine if she ran and won.

Neither Rob nor I suggest that anyone prematurely anoint a frontrunner in 2020. But like Rob, I’m eager to have other candidates up their game.

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The rest of the world was counting on us in 2016, and we failed. The American people are not good hiring managers.

Jon Favreau from Pod Save America explained this really well on Pod Save America 2018–04–26 (13m52s) :

When the whole Oprah thing happened, everyone’s like: “we can’t have our own celebrity to their celebrity” Well, you know what? There’s a big fucking difference between Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump and Kanye West, because she knows what the hell she’s talking about, and she’s brilliant. [..] It’s not just easy enough to say “no celebrities anywhere!”, because I do think people who are widely recognized (who have a large following) could potentially be good leaders, but it has to do with: are your values in the right place? do you know what you’re talking about? do you have the base of knowledge and policy (and everything else to actually articulate a coherent and inspiring message)? I think that could come from someone who has gone up through public service their whole life and who’s been an elected official. And it can also come from someone who’s outside of politics. I don’t actually think it’s the resume specifically that’s gonna tell us who that person is, but it’s actually what they say and what their message is (and what they know).

What’s insane about our current situation is not the suggestion of a celebrity. The whole hiring process is insane. The American people were put to the test in 2016, and we failed miserably. Or rather, our hiring process failed us. How many times does our electoral system have to fail us before we fix that.

Punching up

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Warren Buffett meeting with Barack Obama in July 2010

Many people point out that we aren’t the meritocracy we romantically believe we are. Still, there are many rich-and-famous people that weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouth, and may have important things to say about policy. For example, Warren Buffett came from relatively modest means to build his fortune. As many answers on Quora suggest, Buffett has supported Democratic candidates the past few elections. Sure: he’s not a raging socialist, and in fact he also supports many Republicans. Still, he’s also smart enough to be skeptical about “trickle down economics” (as he put it: it’s “surged up”). We need swing voters like him to support Democrats.

While punching up to celebrities with profanity-laden prose may be a lot of fun (and I appreciate Mike’s gracious intro to his smackdown attempt), this “bro”-style writing is what made the “Bernie Bro” epithet stick. Especially when it’s directed at a female celebrity like Oprah Winfrey.

Emotional intelligence (or rather, power of persuasion)

The only reason why Republicans got any traction at all in the 1970s and 1980s was because of the chronically underestimated Ronald Reagan, who was the masterful salesman of the absurd “trickle down economics” concept as a antidote to FDR-style socialism. As Rick Perlstein notes in his 2014 book “Invisible Bridge”, Reagan’s intelligence was even maligned by politicians who “got their ass kicked by him” or those who barely managed to sidestep that fate (e.g. Richard Nixon).

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Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger came to admire Reagan’s quick thinking in complicated social contexts. As Perlstein tells the story of Reagan’s accidental involvement in the Yom Kippur war:

Richard Nixon thought [Ronald Reagan] was dumb. In 1971 there’s an Oval Office conversation between [Nixon] and Kissinger, talking about how they can’t possibly imagine [Reagan] sitting in this chair, he’d start a nuclear war. And then, lo and behold, in 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, they’re facing this geostrategic dilemma, in which the Egyptian government keeps claiming that they’re shooting down Israeli planes that they’re not really shooting down, and they give Ronald Reagan a call — what they call in politics a “stroking” call, and Ronald Reagan says, “oh, it’s easy, just say that you’ll replace all the planes that Egypt claims to have shot down on a one-to-one basis.”

And suddenly, no more problem. And Kissinger says, “I wish I had someone that smart on my staff.”

This sort of diplomatic crisis is one where the emotional intelligence to understand the motives of the players is a key skill. It’s really easy to overestimate the power of book smarts over the ability to understand people.

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Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland” (from 2008) and “Invisible Bridge” (from 2014) explain with harrowing detail the design of the Republican playbook of the past 40 years. Trump is a well-trained actor in this play.

Perlstein continues:

By the opposite token,[Jimmy Carter’s 1980 reelection team believed] they could have the election in the bag if they could just get Ronald Reagan on the stage and debate him, and people would see how shallow and stupid he was. They do. It comes a week before the election. From that moment forward, Reagan takes the lead and builds it into a landslide. How dumb is that? Who’s the stupid one there?

There was a lot of derisive commentary in the 1960s and 1970s about the actor famous for his leading role in Bedtime for Bonzo. Yet Reagan helped Republicans frame the political debate for decades.

Power of the presidency

Ronald Reagan proved that we don’t need someone competent at the top. What we need is to figure out how to lower the stakes of presidential elections. Perhaps we need to do what other countries have done: give political parties better legal standing. This would require that we have more than two of them, and acknowledge that we would need to figure out how to have coalition governments that work. But let’s get out of the business of trying to find one single person that we can burden with the job of making all of the hard tradeoff decisions. In 2016, we proved we’re not up to it.

John Dickerson wrote the cover story for The Altantic titled “What If the Problem Isn’t the President-It’s the Presidency”. I haven’t had a chance to read this and figure out what I think, but the conversations about it have been very interesting (e.g. the discussion on Radio Atlantic about it).

Many people have suggested that the 25th amendment should be the way the Trump presidency ends, and I’m not going to argue against it. Ultimately though, we should keep in mind why we have the 25th amendment. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke, and his cabinet suspected that his wife was pretty much running the show. It was a lesson in how fragile having so much riding on a single, flawed human. Had Woodrow Wilson been healthy enough to continue fighting for his League of Nations dream, we might not have had World War II. Banking our future on the physical/mental health of a single individual seems like a shaky foundation for our institutions.

One big constitutional catch for Oprah that I didn’t consider in my original pro-Oprah post: the Emoluments Clause. Trump, of course, blew through that one just like he blew through many of the norms of the office. But the Emoluments Clause isn’t merely a norm…it’s in the friggin’ Constitution. It doesn’t disqualify all celebrities, but the ones that conflate their personal brand and their corporate brand (like Trump and Oprah), it’s a deal breaker.

Conclusion: Oprah isn’t running, so does this matter?

60 Minutes published an “Overtime” interview titled “No, Oprah’s not running for president in 2020…” as a companion for her story that aired on February 18 (Oprah follows up with the partisan voters in Michigan). So you could say this discussion is moot. However, I think that’s where we need to set the bar, and we definitely shouldn’t scoff at a candidate who is as brilliant as she is.

Despite his being completely incorrect, I really appreciated Mike’s “A celebrity President [blah blah] wrong [..so there]” writeup. My post clearly got under his skin, and I unleashed an entertaining rant out of him. It’s a fun read if you can endure the f-bombs. But he’s still wrong. He didn’t (as he put it) metaphorically kick anyone down the stairs “in the most brutal fashion”.

Democrats have no power. We need to work with the system we have, not the one we wish we had. We need to focus on getting power, then fix the system.

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