For the first time in a while, there was a feel-good atmosphere in Hollywood on Sunday evening as Oprah Winfrey delivered a Golden Globes speech that many described as “presidential”. She sounded all the right notes about sexual harassment and rape, managing to present women–especially, black women–as righteous victims and brave fighters simultaneously. She pointed the finger of blame squarely at “brutally powerful men”. And she expressed the very cognitive dissonance at the heart of liberal, Democratic America when she stressed the importance of “uncovering the absolute truth”, only to exhort all women a mere two sentences later to tell “your truth”.
After years of postmodernist preaching that has trickled all the way down from the Ivory Tower to talk shows like Oprah, the chickens finally came home roost with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Coincidentally, at that very moment, American liberals discovered the importance of objective truth, claiming to be on the side of the facts, against “fake news”. They mocked Kellyanne Conway’s phrase “alternative facts”, even as they continued to elevate the “lived experiences” of those belonging to minorities, above other considerations.
Conor Friedersdorf, in a recent piece in The Atlantic, documents just a few of the quacks Oprah has promoted over the years: the self-help writer Louise Hay, who theorised that Holocaust victims could be paying for the sins of a previous life; the “psychic medium” John Edward, who claimed to be in communication with the dead relatives of Oprah’s audience; Suzanne Somers, who promoted oestrogen creams and vitamin supplements to prevent aging; and Jenny McCarthy, the Playboy model who swears that her child’s autism was caused by vaccination. As he notes, these people were all speaking “their truth”, which was put on an even footing–at best–with expert opinion.
The list of possible subjective “truths” does not end there, however. “Your truth”, Friedersdorf points out, could also include the notion that “immigrants are ruining America; or that the white race is inherently superior to all others; or that the rules set forth in Leviticus or the Koran are the only way to live; or that the latest Alex Jones conspiracy theory is correct; or that climate change is a hoax cooked up by liberals to gain control over all aspects of life in the United States”. In her Golden Globes speech, Oprah tells the story of Recy Taylor–a black woman gang-raped by six white men who were never brought to justice–and of the courage she showed in speaking “her truth” about this appalling crime. But would we really want to put the truth of what happened to Taylor on a par with all the other aforementioned “truths”, asks Friedersdorf.
We should not discount the value of individual subjective experiences, but at the same time we should be aware of the perils of calling these “truths” without measuring them against any objective factual standard. Of course there are many sensible Democrats who are well aware of such perils, even when these come from their own side. But one can already almost hear some of them saying, as some Republicans said of Trump: “Never mind all that. We just have to beat the other side. We just have to win!”
Ross Douthat of the New York Times has a somewhat more forgiving attitude toward Oprah, arguing that for all her faults, she is one of the few remaining unifying forces in the American cultural and spiritual landscape. At first sight, “with her Obama-endorsing, #MeToo politics and her tendency to mix spirituality with pseudoscience” she seems to belong firmly in the Democratic camp. However, he points out,
…the divide between blue-state spirituality and red-state spirituality is much more porous than other divisions in our balkanized society, and the appeal of the spiritual worldview cuts across partisan lines and racial divides. (Health-and-wealth theology is a rare pan-ethnic religious movement, as popular among blacks and Hispanics as among Americans with Joel Osteen’s skin tone, and when Oprah touts something like “The Secret,” the power-of-spiritual-thinking tract from the author Rhonda Byrne, she’s offering a theology that’s just Osteen without Jesus.) Indeed, it may be the strongest force holding our metaphysically divided country together, the soft, squishy, unifying center that keeps secularists and traditionalists from replaying the Spanish Civil War.
Is that not all the more reason for her to run in 2020, Democrats might ask. Douthat is somewhat doubtful, raising the possibility that the whole plan could backfire; that “Oprah would cease to be a figure of the spiritual center the instant she assumed a partisan mantle.” Indeed, this fear seems to be what lies behind Oprah’s own reluctance to run for any political office, let alone for president.
Yet this is a risk Democrats appear willing to take, convinced that the only way they can beat Trump is by fighting fire with fire. Moreover, the situation gets more desperate by the day, as even fervent “Never Trump” publications such as National Review and The Economist have begun to concede that the economy is booming under Trump. If the tax cuts really do end up offering financial relief for most Americans in the coming year, the Democrats may fail to retake the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections this November. 2020 is still quite far off, and much can happen in the meantime, but if all they have to offer by then is Oprah Winfrey and some Twitter-inspired slogans, the Democrats could well ensure that Trump wins a second term. This is especially likely if they double down on identity politics and political correctness, factors which drove many people to vote for Trump in 2016. Even in the best case scenario, these approaches will not help them win over any voters in the so-called “flyover states”. And given the nature of the American political system, even millions more votes in the coastal areas will not move the Democrats any closer to an Electoral College victory in 2020.