One of the things I liked about that speech was the way it essentially commissioned a new generation of activists and citizens, while letting them know that the generations that went before them would have their back. She shared her own story of being inspired by earlier leaders — Sidney Poitier, Rosa Parks — and spoke of her own sense of responsibility to do the same for those coming after her. This bit, from the end, was especially powerful:
So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say “Me too” again.
In an aside there, Oprah also addresses the immediate audience present in the room with her, but the focus of this conclusion is primarily directed to “all the girls watching.” This is what the whole speech leads to: “I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because … they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”
They become the leaders. That “they” is, of course, neither first person nor singular.
I think this is why it bothered me that so much of the response to this rousing speech turned into speculation about Oprah running for president in 2020. The speech wasn’t about her becoming the leader who would take us forward — or about any one person becoming that leader. It was about “all the girls.”
I think Dahlia Lithwick gets it right here:
What I heard in her speech wasn’t a bid to save us all, but rather a powerful charge to the young girls watching at home to tell their own stories, to fight for their own values, and to battle injustices with the certainty that they will be seen and heard.
The point, she says, is about:
… the limits of top-down power. It is one of the great sins of this celebrity age that we continue to misread this message as a call to turn anyone who tries to deliver it into our savior. When someone tells you “I alone can fix it,” you should run screaming for the emergency exits. When someone tells you to get off your ass and fix it yourself, you should think first about running for office yourself.Since the 2016 election, the cry one hears constantly from the left is “who will lead us?” But Democrats should have learned more than they have from November’s stunning electoral successes in Virginia. The lesson should have been that extraordinary and unknown candidates, including inspired and inspiring first-timers, could win elections without fame or fanfare.
… It was a speech about moving from passivity and acceptance to furious, mobilized participation and a call for allies in that fight.
We are, as Oprah said, living in “complicated times,” which is why, as Lithwick says, it’s tempting to want some top-down savior who can ride in on a white horse and simplify everything.
But that’s not how this works. Sitting around waiting for some anointed one to fix all our problems for us isn’t what we need to be doing.
And looking for a top-down savior to rescue us from galloping authoritarianism is itself, as Nancy LeTourneau notes, the very outlook that allows authoritarianism to flourish.
Some folks were pushing back at the sudden speculation about “Oprah 2020” by pointing out that our more urgent concern right now should be the midterm elections in November. That’s a vitally important reminder because, as Matthew Yglesias put it, “2019 could show us Trump unleashed” if he and his enablers are not restrained by losses in the fall.
Yet we can’t allow ourselves to think of control of the House and Senate as a just the legislative-branch variety of that top-down savior whose arrival will allow us all to shrink back into passivity. If we start to think that retaking the House and Senate will fix all that needs fixing, then we’ll sit back and await that correction — thereby ensuring that Congressional control will remain out of reach.
Ending Trumpian control of the House and Senate may be the next step, but we can’t think of it as the last one or as The Solution. Stopping Trumpist authoritarianism and white nationalism in the midterms will require “furious, mobilized participation,” but that furious, mobilized participation will need to continue, and to accelerate, after the next Congress gets sworn in.
As Nancy LeTourneau put it yesterday, it’s foolish and futile and self-defeating to get caught up in passive, horse-race thinking that imagines “the big story is about who is going to run for president in 2020.” Our business — our responsibility — should instead be to “create a wave that will dwarf the story about who runs for president.”
It’s not up to them. It’s up to us.
(As for Oprah herself, she already has a job: being Oprah. And as she reminded us Sunday night, she’s very good at that job. I’d hate to see her give it up for an attempted career in politics.)