Oprah and the Politics of Consolation

Abstract

Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the 2018 Golden Globes elicited widespread calls for the media mogul to enter the US presidential race in 2020. At the time, the passionate outpouring of support was generally interpreted as a reflection of Democrats’ desire for a liberal answer to President Donald Trump’s celebrity. Building on cultural sociology’s engagement with the symbolic dimensions of democratic power struggles, this article argues that commentators largely missed a crucial element of Winfrey’s appeal: namely, her focus on engaging the meaning of suffering, a task that has long been integral to the American president’s role. Moreover, Winfrey’s specific mode of engagement exhibits a striking homology with public representations of collective suffering in the United States, especially the suffering associated with terrorism. Drawing on a trauma framework, Winfrey encourages individuals to re-live past experiences of suffering and indeed to make such experiences the linchpins for their identities. Similarly, official memorials and museums cast episodes of terrorist violence as collective traumas—inviting visitors to re-experience these events and the grief they left in their wake, and portraying victimhood as central to American national identity. Identifying this homology not only helps to explain the appeal of a Winfrey candidacy, but also illuminates the role of suffering in contemporary US politics more generally.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Obama’s speech opened with the image of his family, and the dreams transmitted from his grandparents, to his parents, and on to him. It continued by praising the “true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people,” while reckoning with the work to be done to improve the prospects of workers “in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico,” the father “who was losing his job and choking back tears, wondering how he would pay $4,500 a month for the drugs his son needs,” and “the young woman in East St. Louis . . . who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.” And it concluded with a call to Americans who “feel the same energy I do, the same urgency I do, the same passion I do, the same hopefulness I do” to “rise up in November” so that “this country will reclaim its promise, and out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come” (Obama 2004).

  2. 2.

    Compare the American political system with the United Kingdom’s constitutional monarchy, in which the royal family bears substantial responsibility for the symbolic dimensions of politics while parliament governs, or the German parliamentary system, where the president is largely a symbolic figure and the chancellor serves as head of government.

  3. 3.

    In this way, Alexander synthesizes Weber’s theory of charisma with Durkheim’s theory of ritual to explain election outcomes.

  4. 4.

    As Alexander (2010a: 18–19) emphasizes, and in keeping with Weber’s (1946b) original statement, charisma is intrinsically unstable, and, in the case of US presidents, often fades quickly following the inauguration, amidst the (frequently unglamorous) day-to-day labor of governing.

  5. 5.

    Though the question it describes is much older, the term “theodicy” was first used in the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s treatise on the subject (1985 [1710]).

  6. 6.

    “Theodicy represents the attempt to make a pact with death,” Berger (1967: 80) argued. “Whatever the fate of any historical religion, or that of religion as such, we can be certain that the necessity of this attempt will persist as long as men die and have to make sense of that fact.”

  7. 7.

    As Turner (1996: 170) puts it, “Any sociology which comes up against pain and death, accident and misfortune, inequality and injustice in social life must necessarily find itself confronted with the problem of theodicy.”

  8. 8.

    The immediate impact on Clinton’s approval rating was modest: in the Gallup poll, for instance, his numbers rose from 46 to 51% (Gallup n.d.). Yet it marked the beginning of a steady turnaround. As Peter Keating (2010) pointed out on a 15-year retrospective for New York Magazine, in the months that followed the bombings, Clinton managed to link “the terror of Oklahoma City to the federal shutdown, and both to the Republican Congress,” most of all in his 1996 State of the Union. The association was personified by Richard Dean, a Vietnam veteran who worked in the Murrah Federal Building and immediately assumed a role in the rescue effort—then worked without pay during the government shutdown. “On behalf of Richard Dean and his family . . . I challenge all of you in this Chamber: Let’s never, ever shut the Federal Government down again,” Clinton (1996) said.

  9. 9.

    For instance, the New York Times (2005) excoriated Bush’s initial rhetorical response to Katrina—an address delivered from the White House Rose Garden on August 31, 2005—as “one of the worst speeches of his life,” “of a quality more appropriate for an Arbor Day celebration” than a national crisis that had palpably generated “the need for words of consolation and wisdom.”

  10. 10.

    In The Atlantic, former speechwriter and longtime political journalist James Fallows (2015) described the eulogy as Obama’s “most fully successful performance as an orator.” More strikingly, on the eve of Trump’s inaugural, Patrick Brennan (2017) lamented in the National Review that conservatives had paid too little attention to Obama’s speech in Charleston, and sought to shore up the outgoing president’s legacy in his own way. “It bothers me that I was either so busy figuring out what was wrong with the president’s next tax proposal or the way he paints crime statistics that I didn’t notice what an amazing thing he did. . . . The president of the United States—the country we worry is losing all touch with religious faith, with Christian values, with any spirituality at all—there he is, going solo in what might as well be a beatitude of the black church, singing a rousing spiritual, with AME clergy, in their purple robes and two centuries of tradition, joining him in heavenly praise.”

  11. 11.

    The earliest version of this argument was Rieff (1966).

  12. 12.

    As Illouz points out, Winfrey’s style weaves in elements of traditional religion as well—a factor that surely increases her appeal in a political culture that has long traded on Judeo-Christian imagery (Bellah 1992).

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Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank James L. Nolan, Jr., Doug Bafford, and the students in the Brandeis Workshop for Critical Inquiry and Education for their engagement and feedback.

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Correspondence to Christina Simko.

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Simko, C. Oprah and the Politics of Consolation. Soc 56, 273–281 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-019-00364-7

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Keywords

  • Politics
  • Suffering
  • Trauma
  • Terrorism
  • Oprah Winfrey