When world leaders came together in 2015 to settle on a framework for action on climate change, the resulting agreement set a goal of limiting the rise in global average temperatures from preindustrial levels to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. The climatologist Michael Mann, voicing what has been the scientific consensus for some time, has warned that warming beyond that could lead to “environmental ruin.” Recent research suggests, in fact, that if all carbon emissions worldwide ceased tomorrow, the Earth would still warm as much as 1.3 degrees by this century’s end. If we continue on our current path, we, and our children, and our children’s children, will face a world of not only immiserating and constantly spreading heat and sea-level rise but also intense storms that will devastate major cities, crop failures that will disrupt access to food, violent conflicts over environmental resources, communicable diseases given the conditions to spread far more widely and severely than they otherwise would, and a perpetual refugee crisis dwarfing many times over the Syrian exodus that has been exploited by a resurgent far-right in Europe—one rough guess suggests 1.4 billion people may be displaced by 2060. Many, many people will die.
Averting the worst of all this will not only demand the global leadership of the United States but also sweeping, disruptive, and permanent changes to the American energy economy—changes that will require government action and intervention to a degree not seen since the New Deal.
Now. Close your eyes and picture an ideal president. Someone capable of seriously engaging with not only the above but all of the challenges the 21st century will require us to face: inequality and economic stagnation for the vast majority of Americans, a health care system that still fails millions, and all the rest. Who have you pictured? Is it Oprah Winfrey? Is it really?
A few decades from now, if some poor historians put themselves through the trouble of assessing the hundreds of thousands of words the major press has dedicated to explaining why and how Donald Trump won the presidency, they will find few of them have been devoted to a fact that contributed to both his rise and the reception of Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech: The major figures on the contemporary American political scene are impossibly boring. With a few notable exceptions, every major presidential contender of our recent past seems small against the backdrop of the grand historical narrative we’ve weaved for ourselves. It is doubtful that there will be a movement someday to carve Marco Rubio into Mount Rushmore; contemporary politicians who speak at places like the site of Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, as Hillary Clinton did in the summer of 2016, generally come off, to this observer, looking like children wearing their parent’s coats. Bored people can do inadvisable things, especially when alternatives to the status quo seem possible. We recently had a president who seemed, and was at least stylistically, out of the ordinary. He is gone now, although for $400,000 or so you can have him stir and inspire your corporate function. His absence makes the actual state of American political rhetoric more obvious—if you’re a largely nondescript white man with a clean record who can drone about “common-sense solutions” in a tone that meshes well with stock footage of rolling fields and manufacturing plants of ambiguous productive activity, a party headhunter will assuredly have a look at you.
We’re all, whether we know it or not, a little tired of this. In 2016, half of the country found itself tired enough to elect a television celebrity who, stupid and unpolished as he may be, is at least fascinating to watch and follow. And now, a number of Democrats who’ve spent the year wailing about this find themselves tired enough to consider a TV star of their own for the office.
They are not the same, obviously. Winfrey is articulate, has had a career defined more by its successes than its failures, and spoke more frankly Sunday night about the darkness that has shaped our history—racism, patriarchy—than most politicians. She is probably about as decent and noble a person as someone with over 40,000 times the net worth of the average American can be. These are, obviously, all qualities that would make her a highly compelling candidate to an electorate that will want to turn the page from the Trump presidency. It should be just as obvious that these qualities say little about her capacity to preside over a nation that faces a set of intractable and complex structural crises.
None of this is to say that political experience—that old, dry chestnut—is what counts the most here. Honesty with ourselves would force us to admit the country would be better off if we replaced every politician currently serving in Washington with a committee of social scientists, historians, and anxious, sweaty climatologists selected from the country’s major research universities at random. This is, of course, not the system of government we have, and we generally prefer filling the major political offices with people who know little, if anything, about the problems they are elected to fix. That’s an inevitable outcome of democracy, but ideally we’d be wise enough to save at least the presidency for those with deep knowledge of public policy.
The solution here is to select a president who can shape deep knowledge into a robust, truly ambitious agenda that promises a future for this country beyond the incomprehensible misery we are all barreling toward, a candidate who can wed expertise and vision with the novel political rhetoric and expression voters clearly crave. Finding that person may require us to demand more from the cast of political characters we’ve already given ourselves. It does not require that we settle for Oprah.