Obviously Oprah Winfrey Should Not Be President

by Benjamin Studebaker

A number of pieces have come out suggesting that Oprah Winfrey should run for president on the strength of the speech she delivered last night at the Golden Globes. It’s very obvious that this is wrong, and it’s disturbing to me that it needs to be said. This is not to say that she didn’t give a nice speech–it was a fine expression of empathy for some groups that are hurting badly. But the ability to give speeches like this has nothing at all to do with governing a country, and the Trump presidency ought to have long since made this very clear.

Donald Trump is really good at convincing a certain group of Americans that he cares about them and takes their problems seriously. Oprah’s speech accomplishes the same thing for a different group of people. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it does not overlap in any way with statecraft. And let’s be clear–statecraft is a craft, and it requires a particular set of skills. It is not reducible to the art of rhetoric, as beautiful and moving as that art can be. To be good at statecraft, a person needs to be able to do several things:

  1. Understand what the people expect from the state.
  2. Understand which expectations can be met and which cannot.
  3. Devise and implement policy to meet the expectations which can be met in a sustainable way.
  4. Revise the expectations which cannot be sustainably met such that they can be.

Here we meet an expectation in a “sustainable” way when doing so is broadly consistent with our other expectations and will not undermine the legitimacy and/or stability of the state.

Think of how much a person needs to understand to even attempt to do these things–it requires an understanding of the intersecting relationships among all the social sciences, among all the relevant social forces and groups. This requires substantive abstract theoretical ability. Practitioners of statecraft have to be able to insert themselves into lots of complex debates across a wide range of disciplines.

People think that businesspeople can do this, but business is entirely different. Business is about generating revenue, and it is usually done in a straightforward way–by making goods or providing services that people want. If you’re in the television business, you make television programs which make the target audience happy such that it continues to watch such that you can continue to sell ads to firms that want to appeal to that same audience. If you do this well, you’ll make enough ad revenue to pay for your content and have some money left over to invest elsewhere. Easy, right?

In statecraft we have to manage conflicting expectations. People want the state to manage the economy in a fair way, but they strongly disagree about what sort of management counts as “fair”. Statespeople have to negotiate these different notions of fairness. It’s not obvious that any one policy will appear fair to everyone. It’s not obvious that the policies the state has at its disposal won’t have side-effects which undermine other expectations we have of the state, even if they would meet our notion of fairness. It’s not obvious that the policies in question even work in the way we expect them to economically. That’s just one issue. Every political issue introduces new complications and any political issue we introduce might affect those we thought we had handled. There is no tougher job than statecraft. Many people with decades of political experience still can’t figure out how to do it very well. In my years writing about politics I’ve written hundreds of posts and only scratched the surface of many issues.

Oprah Winfrey has a degree in communication, and it prepared her very well to work in television and give moving speeches. It did not prepare her to do statecraft. Oprah Winfrey is a media mogul–she owns lots of publications and media outlets which are financially successful. That means she’s good at picking content her audience will love and good at selling ads. That’s great–an economy with an entertainment sector needs people who are good at such things. But it in no way qualifies her to run the state. The same is true for tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg (who shouldn’t run for the presidency anyway because he’s deeply uncharismatic and would probably lose). Making a social media platform which many people are willing to regularly use such that you can sell ads and sell user data is useful to our economy, but it’s fundamentally different from running the state. Microeconomics is not macroeconomics, much less international relations theory or social policy.

Being a rich businessperson who cares about some of the people who deserve to be cared about is not good enough to qualify a person to be the head of state of the largest and most powerful country on earth. Experienced politicians are often bad at this job. That’s how hard it is. We cannot allow Donald Trump to trick us into lowering our standards. Yes, a person can win the presidency without any relevant political qualifications. But campaigning is not governing. As Plato put it thousands of years ago:

In politics we presume that everyone who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. When we are ill we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one.

We do not need a celebrity Democrat–we need someone who understands how difficult statecraft is, someone who is committed to putting together a team of people dedicated to deliberating at a high level about what the relevant expectations are and how best to meet them so that our institutions can restore public confidence insofar as this remains possible. That person needs to be capable enough to participate in sophisticated deliberations about policy and normativity and make good judgements about right and wrong.

Sure, the person we pick also has to be able to win the election. But there’s no point in winning if the candidate is missing most of the skills that are necessary to do the job well.

People like me should not have to write pieces like this every time some celebrity says something nice in public. The celebrity president was a terrible idea and it doesn’t become a good idea just because the celebrity is a Democrat. Journalists and op-ed writers–who should know better–should stop trying to sell the public on these people.

But of course they won’t, because articles about celebrities potentially running for president get clicks. I mean, you’re here, aren’t you? Then again, so am I…