WITHIN HOURS OF Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech last week, the internet had somehow transformed the moment from the capstone of an exceptional career in entertainment to the launch of a new political ascendant: President Winfrey. #Oprah2020 surged on Twitter. Quinnipiac University tweaked their polls to pit Trump against Winfrey. Etsy sellers began rolling out Oprah campaign merch. It was on.
Why not Oprah? Politicians have long used rousing speeches as a ticket to a national campaign; Obama’s 2004 DNC keynote address charted a path that led to the Oval Office. And for viewers, the presentation of the Cecil B. DeMille Award looked a lot like political convention, albeit a glitzier, more attractive audience (and a significantly more presidential-seeming speaker than the current holder of the office).
Besides, as many love pointing out, the floodgates are open. While Donald Trump’s presidency may be an anomaly—the result of a strange confluence of events that landed a reality TV show star in America’s highest office— it may also be is a tipping point that, once breached, allows celebrities to become serious candidates for president. Certainly, the combination of a rabid 24-hour news cycle and social media has been a powerful tool for the aspiring self-appointed politician. If Trump could weaponize his social following into votes then why not, say, Selena Gomez, who boasts the largest following on Instagram? How long before President Kim Kardashian? What happens when Jake Paul’s fans turn 18 and can vote? The idea that leading a nation requires experience governing something other than a billion-dollar company and a Twitter empire no longer jibes with today’s true governing metric: social reach.
But blaming social media misses the point: that’s only one small factor in the rise of the celebrity candidate. Name recognition has always been the biggest hurdle for politicians entering the national arena—a fact celebrities have capitalized on since long before the internet. Political dynasties hinge on it; George W. Bush, Justin Trudeau, Hillary Clinton, were aided by their familiar last name. “Pappy” O’Daniel, a musician and radio host, used his show to allow Texas families intimate entre into his personality; this recognition landed him the governorship of Texas and a stint in the U.S. senate.
Blaming social media misses the point: it’s only one small factor in the rise of the celebrity candidate.
That name recognition is exactly why celebrity endorsements have been meaningful throughout modern electoral politics. John Kennedy called in the Rat Pack to stump for him, which may have helped him keep his narrow edge over the less glamorous Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan was an actor campaigning for Barry Goldwater, when an inspirational endorsement speech launched his own political career. (When Reagan campaigned for president later, he had his own team of celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, boosting him on the trail.) And let’s not forget Oprah’s 2008 endorsement of Obama, which social scientists at Northwestern estimated generated him an additional one million votes in the general election.
Admittedly, Twitter enhanced the ability of the masses to nominate people for higher office at a whim. “Social media allows a new issue to take hold quickly,” says Joshua Tucker, the director of the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, who studies effects of social networks on political systems at New York University. “It’s a function of two characteristics: virality, and the sheer speed of the digital media.”
According to Tucker, social networks allow a group of people to take hold of an idea quickly, which can spread through a community launching a speedy narrative. “A bunch of people tweet about it, then the media writes articles about someone running for president, and then WIRED writes an article about why everyone is writing about the potential candidate,” he says. “Then the cycle is complete.”
Speaking of those articles: the media’s not innocent in this. Difficulty capturing readers attention propels outlets to post polarizing content that’s imminantly shareable, explains Lisa-Maria Neudert, a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute. “Media, of course, would rather write a story about an unlikely candidate than something that’s going exactly as planned.”
Above all, though, it’s the political system at large that leaves an opening for candidates—especially those who inspire divisive narratives—to break through. In America, trust in government sits at near historic lows, a reality that’s been fueled by the weakening of the political party system. Changes to campaign finance laws throughout the last decade have made it easier for candidates to raise money independently of the two-party system, which makes it easier for, an independent like Bernie Sanders, or an outsider Republican like Donald Trump, to best a party darling like Hillary Clinton.
An insurgent candidate who is disconnected from the muddied political system seems like a fresh choice rather than an irresponsible one and a celebrity with billions at their disposal and a wide social reach (whether the cause or result of those billions) has all the tools necessary to make use of our political disdain. Yet none of that makes the Winfrey presidency anything more than a meme bubbling up across Twitter, until we make it more.
David Karpf, who wrote The MoveOn Effect and studies how networks affect politics at George Washington University, believes that the Trump presidency is an anomaly; however, Trump’s mere existence in the Oval Office makes us more likely to identify prospective candidates who fit his profile. Those people aren’t likely to progress beyond social-media banter—but if they do, it’s a risky trend. “There’s a possibility if everyone just decides, ‘OK, you’re a celebrity and that’s the way things are gonna be now,’ then that’s the way it is,” says Karpf. And if that proves true, Twitter will be the perfect tool for selecting our next world leader.
Featured Image: KEVIN WINTER/GETTY IMAGES
This article first appeared in www.wired.com
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