Oprah Winfrey needs no introduction; she has one of the most instantly recognizable faces in the United States, and when she voices an opinion people tend to take note. She knows how to throw her weight behind causes and issues that interest her, and she knows how to sell books, if the legions of Oprah’s Book Club devotees are any indication.
It is for all of these reasons that the country is taking note now that Oprah has pledged her highly coveted support to a relatively unknown congressional candidate.
Have you heard of Lavern Chatman? No? Neither has most of America. She’s a Democrat running for congress in northern Virginia. Oprah’s political appearances have been relatively rare in recent years, so why now? And why Chatman?
On April 5, Oprah will join Chatman in Arlington, Virginia, for a fundraiser. One of Chatman’s primary campaign platforms is women’s issues — an interest she shares with Oprah, and one of the likely reasons why the two have entered into this partnership.
While Democrats have presided over the 8th Congressional District for some time now, the Democratic primary looks like it’s going to be a doozy. Chatman, along with 11 other people, is seeking a seat that will shortly be vacated by Rep. Jim Moran, who is retiring.
Lavern Chatman has been eager to thank Mrs. Winfrey for her support, admitting that “to win a race like this, you need a lot of support and a strong grass roots effort.”
Whether Winfrey’s support of her will push her ahead of the other 11 candidates has yet to be seen, but it certainly can’t hurt her cause.
One might remember that Oprah became particularly invested in politics when she became involved in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Since then, however, she’s largely kept her distance from political entanglements.
With contentious Congressional races on the horizon, along with a presidential election that promises to be one of the most divisive in our nation’s history, perhaps it’s time to take an objective look at celebrity endorsements themselves.
There is, of course, a well-established precedent for celebrity endorsements of political candidates. Some of them are newsworthy, as is the case with Mrs. Winfrey’s endorsement of a heretofore unknown House candidate. It’s proof positive that it’s rather advantageous to have famous friends.
There are also a host of positives and negatives. On the one hand, celebrities have proven fairly successful over the years in bringing our attention to issues that otherwise wouldn’t have seen the light of day. For better or worse, the cult of personality is fairly effective in making the general population take notice of, well, just about anything.
So, on one hand, we don’t really look twice when people like J.J. Abrams or Leonardo DiCaprio lend their verbal — if not their monetary — support to a presidential candidate like Barack Obama, as they both did in the 2012 election.
On the other hand, Mitt Romney boasted support from the likes of Kid Rock and Donald Trump. One has to wonder if he’d been better off without any celebrity support at all, since the former has all of the political sagacity of a tree stump, and the latter spent more time with his foot in his mouth than on the ground.
There’s no denying that 2013 was a big year for political endorsements, whether we’re talking about products or political campaigns. Ignoring for a moment how frequently this type of endorsement can backfire, arguably the more important question is whether celebrity endorsements do more to obfuscate the situation than they do to clarify.
It’s easy to believe that celebrities have a sort of responsibility to bring their fame and fortune to bear on important issues. But, when the cult of personality holds sway, the general public tends to gravitate toward these issues, or politicians or products, for no reason other than because somebody famous told them to.
The link between celebrity endorsements and general behavior has long been a point of contention, particularly among parents who worry about their children emulating the behavior they see in the media. According to Newsweek, for example, some 77 percent of Americans believe that celebrities have too much influence on teenage girls.
Maybe this is all a straw man argument, though. So what if Oprah, or anybody else, lends their support to a politician? Is it really going to sway people one way or another? People who are actively invested in the outcome of an election may not be swayed by the voice of a celebrity, but it stands to reason that people who otherwise wouldn’t have taken an interest, or perhaps wouldn’t have voted at all, might become invested if their favorite celebrity encourages them to. Is this good or bad? Who can say, really?
Again, maybe celebrities have a responsibility to champion worthy causes. Then again, maybe they have an equally compelling responsibility to remain politically agnostic — that is, remain willing to, when it’s appropriate, steer clear of political entanglements for fear of distracting from the real issues.