The ‘Oprah in 2020’ talk is proof of our democracy’s degradation

She’s a self-made billionaire, as opposed to one who inherited much of his money and business. She’s a genuine philanthropist, with a real foundation instead of one under a cloud. She unites people instead of dividing them, promotes positive emotions instead of hatred and fear, seems the perfect antidote to the sour, bigoted occupant of the White House. Nevertheless, the fact that anyone takes “Oprah for president” seriously is yet another illustration of how degraded American democracy has become.

There has long been a troubling divide between the qualities that it takes to get elected to the White House, and the qualities that it takes to be successful in the White House — between the chutzpah and sheer charisma that it takes to win and the knowledge and sheer experience it takes to shepherd legislation through Congress, negotiate with foreign leaders and build coalitions at home and abroad. You don’t need an elite education, and you don’t have to belong to a special political caste to do these things. But you need to invest years of your time into politics, as opposed to business or television, and to build a huge range of contacts while you are at it.

Even President Barack Obama — who had been a state legislator and a one-term U.S. senator — suffered from his relatively short career and his consequent lack of contacts in Congress, especially, but not only, on the other side of the aisle. As for President Trump, his aggressive ignorance has led him to bungle not just his legislation but also his executive orders, the vast majority of which are superficial anyway.

But Trump’s total lack of qualifications shouldn’t lower the bar. In an age when you can buy anything with a mouse click, or press a “like” button to express your views, it’s tempting to think political change should be equally simple. It isn’t, and it never will be: In a constitutional democracy such as ours, all of the important changes necessarily happen slowly, preferably starting at the state level and proceeding through cross-party coalitions. They succeed because a lot of people make them succeed by working together over time. The desire for an instant solution, the longing for an outsider to come and “fix” things, is not just undemocratic; it’s also delusional, a form of magical thinking or perverted religious belief.

If Oprah Winfrey is serious, she should run for the Senate, learn what it takes to turn emotions into issues and issues into law. She should decide whether she likes that kind of work, which is not anything like what she does now, then decide if she is good at it — and then run for president. Our presidency is not a monarchy: The president is not just a national symbol, but rather a functioning, active part of the political process. Anyone who aspires to be president should be willing to take the time to understand that process. If they aren’t, then the American public shouldn’t be willing to take them seriously either.

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