A few weeks ago I was passing through Dulles airport, outside Washington DC, when I spotted a rack of T-shirts on sale. Each of them carried a gigantic “O” — emblazoned in red, white and blue — and the words: “Speak Your Truth: Oprah 2020.”
Welcome to the next round of the American political fight. Until now, Oprah Winfrey has been best known as host of a cable television show and lifestyle guru. But these days she is being whispered about in terms of another role: a possible candidate to challenge Donald Trump in the 2020 election, either on the Democratic ticket or as an independent.
To be fair, this is not something Winfrey herself has ever said she intends to do. On the contrary, she has repeatedly played down the idea. But these days the Democrats are under pressure to find somebody — anybody — to unseat Trump.
While the names of established politicians — such as Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Tim Kaine or even former vice-president Joe Biden— are being tossed around, it is the non-traditional candidates who are grabbing the most attention. Last week, for example, Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, indicated he was considering a bid. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been mentioned as a possible contender, as has the actor George Clooney. And after Winfrey gave a speech this year at the Golden Globes that sounded almost presidential, her name also popped into the frame — and on to those T-shirts.
Is this a good thing? Most traditional political observers would say not. Many see the rise of personality politics as a lamentable sign that western democracy is being dumbed down. After all, Trump is the ultimate celebrity politician, who has shown himself to be extraordinarily uninterested in the finer details of policy making. Maybe Schultz or Winfrey would be entirely different but right now it is unclear what policy views they hold.
There is another way to frame this development: politics is simply echoing some of the big 20th- and 21st-century shifts in consumer culture. Last year, Naomi Klein, the leftwing commentator, suggested in her book, No Is Not Enough, that Trump’s victory was best understood as an extension of the rise of branding in the 20th-century consumer world. Trump shot to fame by becoming the ultimate brand, winning voter support through name recognition. So it is perhaps no surprise that Democrats are mulling other candidates with brand appeal. Winfrey is one of the few individuals with a personal brand almost as strong as Trump’s. While Schultz is not as well known, Starbucks certainly is (although, as some Democrats lament, it is a distinctly elite brand.)
What voters really seem to like are celebrity politicians who transcend prepackaged party lines
In addition to this, there is a second, less-discussed, consumer trend that may also be playing into the mix: customisation. It is sometimes said that the second half of the 20th century produced the “me” generation, or a time when people started to assume that the world revolved around them, rather than the other way around. Now, however, advances in digital technology have given the “me” generation a new twist: today, we not only presume that we are at the centre of our world, we also want to customise it to our individual tastes.
Think about it. Fifty years ago, when people bought music, it came in prepackaged record albums. Today we have personal music playlists. Once, we bought newspapers with preselected news and consumed programmed TV and radio. Now we create personalised news hubs, stream our own choice of TV whenever we want to and download the podcasts that appeal to us. We customise our meals and drinks; just think of all the options Schultz has offered at Starbucks. The same goes for our clothes, identities and online friendship circles.
At first glance, this customisation trend — or pick ‘n’ mix culture — may not have much in common with politics. But the key point is that during most of our living memory, politics in the west has been presented to consumers (ie voters) just like a music album, namely in preselected packages known as political parties. In some senses, this pattern still rules around the world: the Democrats and Republicans and the UK’s Conservative and Labour parties, for example, still predominate. But many “consumers” are rebelling and taking their taste for customisation from the consumer world into politics.
What tends to incite passions these days, particularly among younger voters, are single issues such as immigration, the environment, equal rights, nationalism or Brexit. What voters really seem to like are celebrity politicians who transcend prepackaged party lines. It is no accident, perhaps, that Emmanuel Macron swept to power in France by creating his own party (En Marche) nor that Trump — and Winfrey and Schultz — cannot be easily pigeonholed. In many cases, personal brands transcend party platforms right now — not least because voters can project whatever they fancy on to them.
So after I saw that Oprah 2020 T-shirt, I bought it — for $14.99. No, I do not plan to wear it, let alone champion her; nor do I really expect her to run. But, if nothing else, that T-shirt is a good souvenir of a world in flux — expressed via an eye-catching brand.
This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.