Oprah's Politics of Aspiration

Oprah Winfrey wants to sell you something. It’s what she’s sold her entire career, repurposed: that in America a poor, oppressed, abused young girl can become one of the wealthiest, most famous, and most admired people on the planet. It’s a powerful message that’s been a beacon for millions, helping them to deal with the struggle of everyday life, strive to improve themselves, and continue to seek and perhaps even find happiness. While it may be ideal for a television show, or a book club, or a magazine, now more than ever, it’s a message that is downright dangerous politically.

I’m about as unfamiliar with Oprah’s work as someone culturally conscious can be, which is to say I am fairly familiar. And with her recent speech at the Golden Globes kicking off a “Draft Oprah 2020” movement on social media, two observations come to mind: she’s more competent than the current president and she’s not what the country needs in its government.

In her work, Oprah preaches the gospel of self-improvement, using her experience as a case study on the power of positive thinking, hard work, and perseverance. Through these qualities, she assures us, all things are possible. While that may be life affirming, it’s a worldview that’s decidedly neoliberal: boiling the world down to the individual, promoting the feel good end of a rags-to-riches narrative instead of questioning the how a person ends up in rags.

The decimation of middle- and working-class political and social capital has led many of its members to seek comfort in the stories of Oprah and her band of purported experts like Drs. Phil and Oz and Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret. If Oprah inadvertently benefited from the immiseration of the masses, she has also offered us a solution, encouraging us to eschew monetary gain and follow our passions and find fulfillment in our labor. It’s a contradiction expertly documented by Nicole Aschoff in her vital book The New Prophets of Capital. In it, Ashoff quotes Oprah’s commencement speech: “When you’re doing work you’re meant to do it feels right, and everyday is a bonus regardless of whether you’re getting paid,” and offers a valuable critique:

“The ‘do what you love’ message is at the heart of the work-identity fusion. It advises you to follow your passion. If you’re unhappy, it’s because you’re not following your passion. If your job sucks, you’re at the wrong job.” This is a paradigm that leaves workers responsible for their well being individually, and encourages them to be dutiful and grateful employees.

This cannot be the message of the leader of the country’s (nominal) working class party. Of course we’d all love to play centerfield for the Yankees, but, as the saying goes, the world needs ditch diggers, too. And it must be the mission of the country’s working class party to guarantee material benefits like free education, free health care, protected leisure time, and publicly accessible transportation, for all.

This will require a fundamental shift in the balance of power. But Oprah’s outlook, like so many of the “good billionaires,” whose support Hillary Clinton touted during her 2016 campaign, seems to ask little more of the collective 1% than whatever they are willing to give.  That makes sense if you believe that the country is a fundamentally good place that leaves people’s destiny in their own hands. But maybe people’s destiny now has more to do with the widening gap between CEOs and workers, the over-policing of disenfranchised communities, the lack of union representation and collective bargaining power, or the massive burden of health care and education costs.

It seems that to the extent Oprah is interested in the presidency it’s more to restore the office’s dignity and to offer an admirable, but ultimately immaterial, level of respect to the affronted. I doubt that a President Winfrey would have the will or the desire to reckon with the reordering that is needed to truly help the people she seems to genuinely empathize with. 

Although I have to admit, her gifting all audience members a car leaves me with some hope that she understands the power of a universal benefit.


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