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  • Max Stearns

Oprah Ambivalence

I watched the inspiring Golden Globes speech. I listened to those ready to anoint a new Democratic hopeful. I reflected on those who urged caution, even deep reluctance, to respond to the supposedly populist entertainer-in-chief with a more congenial, liberal, enlightened, and thoughtful entertainer-in-chief, one who’s “personal Vietnam” was not womanizing without catching an STD, but rather was surviving brutal beatings as a young girl, along with having been victimized by rape as early as the age of nine, to then succeed as one of the most inspiring women of our age. And I’m ambivalent.

My first instinct is to eschew any attempt to seize upon someone, so apparently convenient, as the antidote to another, so obviously reckless and unqualified. There are many lessons to draw from the Trump presidency: the need for experience, thoughtfulness, education, intellectual curiosity, empathy, basic decency, or perhaps most simply, uprightness.

This brings to mind two seemingly opposing stories:

George W. Bush initially nominated his close friend and personal advisor, Harriet Miers, to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the United States Supreme Court, extolling as Miers’ principal qualification: “I know her heart.” Virtually no outside observer, conservative or liberal, but especially conservative, thought that the capaciousness of that vital organ qualified her for the enormity of the task. After all, she never served as a judge, was not a legal scholar, and had written, as far as anyone knew, nothing of significance. She was a blank slate, albeit one who was close to a conservative President.

Barack Obama spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, nominating Hillary Clinton. Obama described Hillary as the single most qualified person ever nominated by a major party for the Presidency of the United States. That included, he pointed out, the likes of Bill Clinton and himself. He was almost certainly correct. Hillary Clinton was nothing if not eminently experienced, having served as Senator from New York; as Obama’s Secretary of State; and yes, as First Lady, watching an eight-year presidency up close and personal. And before that, she had done substantial work as a lawyer for the Children’s Defense Fund. We all saw how that turned out.

In thinking about the importance of experience, I’m reminded of well-documented studies of how one acquires genuine world-class expertise in any field. What makes an outlier and outlier? Although bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell, addressed this in his book, Outliers, where he popularized the famous ten-thousand-hour rule, in some ways, the more relevant insight is reflected in his earlier work, Blink. My good friend, Professor David Hyman (Georgetown Law), aptly described Gladwell’s Blink thesis this way: “Always go with your gut, except when you shouldn’t.” Richard Posner was not a fan of Blink, a perfectly fine, and fun, popularization of social science mixed with some history, and he wrote, by my reading, an unnecessarily scathing review. Even so, Posner pointed out a critical anomaly, or mischaracterization: When a genuine expert exhibits a gut reaction contrary to an otherwise broadly received wisdom, doing so is not an exercise of blink. Rather it is an exercise in cumulative expertise, acquired over years and years of devoted study and hard work. You know, ten-thousand hours.

Those who study bureaucracy understand that sometimes legislatures delegate to agencies to avoid hard choices; other times they do so rolling the dice, willingly accepting outcomes the content of which they cannot anticipate but are willing to risk. Some view politics more generally that way. In the 2003 California recall election to succeed Governor Gray Davis, 135 candidates emerged, so many that Jay Leno invited them all to fill a section of his audience. This was all very notable until, that is, he later invited Arnold Schwarzenegger as a guest, whereupon Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy. At that point, everyone knew the race had ended. Economist and Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling’s eponymous theory explains it best. Sometimes loci emerge that are so obvious and compelling that virtually all other points of reference fade, becoming background noise. This can happen even if we know little about a person's politics. Schwarzenegger immediately emerged the “Schelling Point” in the California Governor’s recall election. Just like Trump before her in the 2016 Republican primary, Oprah promises to do the same in the 2020 Democratic primary should she choose to run.

But should she? Some have discussed how this might affect her personal popularity, as she has to fill the blanks with public policy positions that are apt to offend. Who cares? The presidency is not a Lifetime Achievement Award. Saying that the Presidency is far more serious doesn’t come close to capturing how much more serious it is. Presidential misjudgments can result in losses of enormous magnitude—lives, sovereignty, wars, economic well-being, religious or other personal freedoms, and more, at home and around the globe—often beyond our wildest imaginings. The policy issues we focus on in elections often prove the least consequential in the long run of history. Instead, it is those momentary judgments, the ones we didn’t anticipate—the blinks if you will—that prove most lasting, most damaging, and most vital.

Oprah appears to be an extremely well-meaning person, one capable of great empathy. And yet, she is likewise capable of self-absorption. A magazine featuring personal close-ups on virtually every cover seems just the sort of thing one might have expected on a Trump Magaine, or simply T, had he thought of it. Surely this is a trivial, perhaps even petty, observation, and the practice ultimately bored even her. Enormously successful individuals are almost invariably led by large egos. But enormously successful Presidents are led by a genuine depth of understanding, about government, politics, history, economics, foreign affairs, sociology, international and interpersonal relationships, power structures, management, and the list goes on. The O industry renders Oprah top of the heap on some, but surely not even most, or the most significant, of these areas.

Why the ambivalence? I fear today’s Republican party, and its willingness to acquiesce in virtually all things Trump. Even so, I have substantial anxiety about the Democratic party. Both have blindspots. And I worry that the ascendant Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing holds vastly excessive confidence in their Sixth Sense, for locating market failures, like dead people, just about everywhere. I worry about a lack of caution, the flip side of hubris, when those in charge are entirely confident of their top-down understanding of how economies should run.

But do I really think Oprah would exhibit more constraint, govern as a Democratic centrist? It’s truly a roll of the dice. I don’t like the casinos. Last time I went to Las Vegas (to give a paper), I brought along a roll of quarters. I left The Luxor weighted down $8.50 in change. And those were just slot machines. Thankfully, even as a lifelong registered Democrat, I won’t be consumed by dragon fire if I decline, for now at least, to bend the knee.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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