Analysis

Oprah for president? The political economy of fame: Don Pittis

Oprah Winfrey's famous name could win the White House. But experience from the U.S. and elsewhere says fame may be a bad qualification for good government.

Stardom helps a candidate raise money, run and win, but governing requires some real skills

Oprah Winfrey receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2013. Following a speech at the Golden Globes last weekend, it suddenly feels as if she could soon be giving them out. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

A woman so famous that she's known to the world by her first name suddenly seems to be a front-runner to be the next president of the United States.

This happened following a speech widely judged by the media to be "presidential" after she won the Cecil B. deMille Award for "outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment" at the Golden Globes this past weekend.

Since then, whispers of a run by Oprah Winfrey for the White House top job have turned into blaring headlines.

As she strolls through the door flung open by Donald Trump, all at once it feels to those of us who lived through and handicapped the rise of the current president from reality TV host to Oval Office, that Oprah is the one to beat.

The tyranny of fame

This has led to fear among political observers that the transition from candidates with substance to candidates with stardom has become a trend and is simply more evidence of a steep decline in the democratic process.

"It's terrible. It's awful, this, what I call the tyranny of fame," explodes Dennis Pilon, author of Wrestling with Democracy: Voting Systems as Politics in the Twentieth Century West.
'I'll beat Oprah,' said U.S. President Donald Trump this week. Critics point out that while fame helped Trump win, it demonstrated nothing about his ability to govern. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

People like Pilon, a scholar at Toronto's York University whose work includes election financing, may be shouting into the wind. For proof you only need look at the reaction of those who don't want Oprah in the White House.

As a sure sign it sees her as a threat, this week Fox News took a bead on the former talk show host, linking her to Clinton scandal.

'I'll beat Oprah'

Trump himself has declared "I'll beat Oprah," which, as in the case of his attacks on the tell-all book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House that soared to best-seller status after his dismissive tweets, seem likely to have the opposite effect.

The notion that Oprah might be a better alternative to Trump does not change Pilon's mind. 

"Fame is a profoundly undemocratic phenomenon," says Pilon. He calls it part of a system of social control that tells ordinary people they are not beautiful enough or talented enough to do any more than watch from the sidelines. "It encourages a kind of non-participation."

And while he objects to what it does to the political process, in an era when publicity and the money to buy it are keys to winning, he understands the attraction of parties that end up supporting famous candidates.
South Indian film star Rajinikanth announced on Dec. 31 that he is starting a political party to make the leap from celebrity to politics. (Babu/Reuters)

For one thing, the rich and famous have the personal cash to begin the expensive process.

Perhaps most important, says Pilon, as stars in their own right they garner wall-to-wall coverage from media outlets seeking to attract readers and viewers, a persistent complaint by the Hillary Clinton campaign about Trump's free exposure.

As Ronald Reagan once quipped, "Politics is just like show business."

That may be true for attracting money, giving campaign speeches and even winning, but according to Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff speaking on CBC Radio's The Current yesterday, for a president like Trump, actually running a country is a different job.

Governing requires skills

"Anything that we would associate in any traditional ways with governing, which has to do with process, which has to do with goals, which has to do with making choices and decisions, has to do with weighing a lot of information, and a lot of data," says Wolff in the interview with host Anna Maria Tremonti, "none of these things are within the president's interests or, frankly, ability."

In an office a few floors above Pilon's, York's dean of liberal arts and professional studies, Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, has looked at the concept of fame and politics from a perspective outside North America's.

Mukherjee-Reed is a political economist who keeps an eye on the politics of South Asia, where making the jump from fame to public office has become commonplace.

Just two weeks ago the Indian mega-star Rajinikanth announced he was forming a political party in a bid to succeed Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu, who was also a film star before she ran for office.

"It's not value-based. It's not politics based on vision," says Mukherjee-Reed. "It's basically based on charisma."

In a country where top movie stars, even regional stars, earn huge salaries, it's also based on wealth. Indian movie stars have the cash and the fan base to take a run at politics.
Ulysses S. Grant parlayed his fame as a Civil War general into the presidency. (U.S. Treasury)

Of course, politicians have to come from somewhere. Famous generals have stepped up to serve as their countries' leaders.

The Duke of Wellington became British prime minister after winning his spurs against Napoleon. U.S. presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower parlayed their fame from the Civil War and the Second World War, respectively.

But arguably they had transferable skills in managing complex organizations.

Trump has compared himself to Reagan, but whether or not you liked his politics, there is no question Reagan worked his way up to the top job, first as head of the Screen Actors Guild, then as two-term governor of California.

But in the Indian example, says Mukherjee-Reed, celebrity-based politicians — including those famous for their political families — who come without political skills or policy experience do not do as well.

"From within the celebrity culture, there's no great shining examples of huge political leadership."

Instead, she says, media stars are often driven by the same thing that motivated them in their first career: Fame.

"It's really the expansion of their celebrity status into a political realm which furthers their celebrity status," she says.

"Because after a while, if you're not such a hot movie star anymore, you still have another realm in which you can be present in public life."

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

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About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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