THERE’S SOMETHING BIG happening in politics.
When I say “AOC,” you know what I mean. Is this new? No, but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is building on what others have done and making more of it. Are the reactions to her new? No, but the intensity of what is happening for and against AOC is new, and many of the techniques she uses are new to politics. All of it is social, emotional, digital, physical. It’s fandom and anti-fandom. They’re in politics and always have been — but not like this.
Politics has never been rational. It has always been emotional. People vote against as much as they vote for, and most non-nerds are low information voters. Commentators and politicians who like to think of themselves as sensible claim not to have an ideology, shy away from the idea of personalized politics, and talk about policy or transcending the old divisions of left and right. They think it is an easy win to disparagingly talk of supporters of the opposition or candidates they do not like in terms of “fans” and “cults.” (But who do they think runs the fundraising events, knocks on doors, posts online, does all the unpaid work of campaigning?)
Since 2016, there has been a lot of noise about partisanship, polarization, and populism. But what is far more interesting is fragmentation. According to Gallup, 42 percent of people in the United States consider themselves to be independents, although they usually vote along partisan party lines — or not at all. UK voters, polled by YouGov on their preferred prime minister, consistently poll at 35 percent or higher for “Don’t know,” despite the country running post-2016 on what is functionally a two-party system and both those parties sharing the bulk of the 2017 vote and subsequent voter intention polling. Fragmentation is not hugely evident at the ballot box, due to the political systems involved and the fact that voters lean toward a party even if they don’t identify with it. AOC benefits from being a member of the Democratic Party, not outside it, and winning their primary. Fragmentation can however be seen in the thousands of tiny echo chambers across the internet and in offline spaces where ideas far from the mainstream become shared and stable ideologies among micro-groups. Conspiracy theories, fake news, hoaxes, and memes abound, and not just on Facebook and YouTube.
Francis Fukuyama’s end of history theory that liberal democracy would be the final form of government has collapsed, along with the neoliberal consensus that followed the breakdown of the postwar consensus in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Washington consensus, the view that free market economics is the best form of economic development, is also looking shaky, as economists such as Joseph Stiglitz have long been warning. Trust in politicians is at an all-time low, which has led to “anti-establishment” candidates like AOC doing well in both the United Kingdom and the United States — and in other parts of the world. There’s populism, again, with Trump and Corbyn and the new UK breakaway bloc of MPs, The Independent Group, talking about politics being broken and the people, the people, the people instead of the elites, the politicians, the system.
All of this fervent feeling and fragmentation is intensified by the internet and social media, where in echo chamber groups dedicated to specific parties, single issues, and individuals, people post frequently about their most loved and most hated politicians, policies, and parties. Political fans are constantly excited and outraged by the content they see and hear, but do not encounter the same news stories, ideas, and sources as those outside their bubble, or at least not with the same spin. I call this the digital dissensus.
In the digital dissensus, people post and consume content in support of individuals like AOC, policies, and parties, and they post and consume content that attacks individuals, policies, and parties. That’s normal for the internet, if you know about fandoms and anti-fandoms. Jonathan Gray has written about the phenomenon of anti-fans, who create their own version of the object they are reacting against and have their own theories and anti-fan practices, distinct from those of fans. You can communicate with the objects of your fandom or anti-fandom and people connected to them, because social media has made them more accessible. You can also find other fans and have conversations about your interests, whether or not you consider yourself to be part of the fandom or “an AOC fan.” It makes the world feel less fragmented, because you find the other people like you, even if the thing you love is really niche and none of your other friends know or care about it. Defending the object of your fandom is also common. You want people to know that your team is the best in the world, and you feel affronted when they are criticized or attacked, especially if you perceive those attacks to be unfair.
AOC understands fandom, and how it works. Like the Korean boy band BTS or current biggest artist in the world Ariana Grande, part of her appeal is being open, emotionally available, and relatable. She produces feelings of identification and empathy in those who not only agree with her message, but also the way in which it is delivered. They feel it, they want to be her friend, they wish they were as cool and articulate as her. That makes her relatable to young people, but also to older people on the left across the world, who were waiting for someone with their politics and modern appeal. Most of the candidates are on social media, but she tries to own social media. Her (frequent) use of Instagram Stories is perceived to be authentic, because the Stories are posted from everywhere, including her apartment, and shot from her own perspective, rather than obviously by a staffer (e.g., Warren’s content or O’Rourke’s). She is young, fashionable, and talks about issues people understand and her own experiences in ways that seem current and honest.
AOC has built a following across the world by using Congress as a platform, rather than waiting to be noticed or coming in to politics as an existing establishment star. Trump was an outsider to politics, but an entertainment and business insider. The Green New Deal — a set of proposals aimed at decarbonizing the economy and addressing climate change — has got traction on both sides of the Atlantic because AOC knows how to work social media and communicate with her fans, from clipping her own Congress appearances to go viral to turning Fox News disses into manifestos. She uses the techniques of musicians and social media influencers to turn relatability into more than personality politics: adding images, emoji, and video to nearly every post, engaging with fan content, sharing cute pictures, asking for food recommendations, and offering pep talks. In an age of low trust in politicians and the sense they are all corrupt, she openly calls out corruption and tries to seem like a regular person who happens to be in Congress.
AOC has also learned from both entertainers and outsider politicians like Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn the value of communicating directly with your (fan)base — not just by using social media, but by tailoring and targeting messages to appeal to that base and not always trying to communicate beyond that group. Jeremy Corbyn knows that many of his videos and messages are not of interest beyond his hardcore supporters; but keeping that base happy and well fed with content and approval is important. Bands and sports teams do that all the time. So when AOC throws out a snappy message about moderates at SXSW, the home of cutting-edge music, digital culture, and film, it is not going to make anyone outside the left scream with joy — but critics of centrist politics are all over it.
Paolo Gerbaudo, in his book The Digital Party (Pluto, 2019), talks about the promise of digital democracy versus the reality. The participatory platforms for digital organizing offered by parties and movements supporting party candidates and activists, such as Momentum (affiliated with Labour in the UK, supporting Jeremy Corbyn) and DSA (the biggest socialist organization in the US, which AOC is a member of), can offer more members a voice, but as in the branch or chapter structure of traditional organizing, the loudest voices are the ones who are most often heard. Organizers engaging with voters primarily as individuals does not lead to increased solidarity if you only share some, not all, of the views of an activist or candidate, and can simultaneously over-personalize and depersonalize the relationship between supporter and politician. What Gerbaudo calls the “superbase” is a big, diverse group of supporters, who love their leader and/or spokesperson, but start to distrust them if their charisma starts to seem opaque or the hope invested in them is dashed. The superbase is also mostly reactive to stimulation from above, rather than universally active, which fits with fandom and outrage culture online. There are the “big name fans,” the lurkers, the slacktivists, and the street warriors.
Fandom is not new to politics, and did not arrive with social media, however much fun early Hillary Clinton fans had on MySpace. It dates back to the early days of celebrity, in the 19th century, and politicians have long received fan mail and been met with screaming crowds. Aspirant interns and staffers are often fans of the politicians they work for. However, fandom has become more mainstream — comic cons are no longer seen as just for geeks and nerds, and superhero movies are the biggest draws. Digital practices allow more (sometimes parasocial, sometimes truly interpersonal) contact with the objects of fandom, and that involves a lot of what Nancy Baym terms “relational labor” for those heroes, in her book about musicians, Playing to the Crowd (NYU Press, 2018). More positively, digital practices also allow for participatory and productive fandom, where fans make fan works and can be involved with their fandom on a level beyond consumption, and this has been transformative for politics fandom, just as other fandoms. You can make a video, and it can be shared by a politician. You can make memes and end up working in politics. With someone like AOC, this process from social content to political action is accelerated — she is listening, responsive, and willing to act quickly.
While AOC has benefited from a highly engaged, productive fandom, she also has to contend with anti-fandom, and as a female politician, she will be subjected to more of it than most men. As a woman of color, she is the subject of more anti-fandom than many white women, a problem shared with fellow rising star Ilhan Omar. Anti-Fandom: Dislike and Hate in the Digital Age, a new book edited by Melissa Click (NYU Press, 2019), covers a wide range of case studies. In that book, Cornel Sandvoss calls anti-fandom “the politics of against,” but his chapter is more early claim-staking than claim-making, in that it does not engage with the thrill of being part of a political fandom and how that often leads to anti-fandom and its specific methods of communication, which goes beyond expected political engagement and even the “norms,” such as they are, of online abuse. There are people who dedicate large portions of their time to anti-fan action, aimed at those perceived as activists on specific issues (trans rights, feminism, racism, no-platforming) as well as actual politicians, and many of those anti-fans engage in positive fandom, too, also of a range of figures from Jordan Peterson to Katie Hopkins. Anti-fandom comes from left and right, as does fandom.
There are Instagram accounts and Facebook pages and groups full of anti-AOC memes, videos, and hate screeds. This is on top of all the ad hominem attacks and criticism she receives from hostile media and other politicians. This is a trope seen in the UK too, with Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, a black working-class woman, receiving over half of all abuse sent to politicians. Abbott is the subject of hundreds of horrible, degrading, sexualized memes that depict her in racist, misogynist scenarios and make her out to be stupid, a liar, a token appointment, and worse. White middle-class journalists are also critical of her media appearances and critique her every mistake in a way they do not for white politicians who make similar errors.
The anti-fandom and misogynoir (combining sexism and racism, a term coined by Moya Bailey) aimed at Diane Abbott is both tacitly and explicitly sanctioned by the establishment and the media, and we also see that with AOC, and other high-profile women, particularly women of color. Fandoms popular with women and girls are derided and stigmatized, and female objects of fandom are too. You can’t possibly like that; it’s not credible. You can’t possibly support that idea; it’s from that source. Trying to raise issues of sexism and racism in anti-fandom activity, especially when that anti-fandom is framed politely, just leads to defensive claims that these are not ad hominem attacks and no prejudice is involved. Jewish UK MP Luciana Berger fears for her physical safety, but solidarity offered to her while she is facing online abuse is met with similar equivocation from critics in her former party about her views and performance in her constituency, even though a friend and colleague, Jo Cox, was murdered in 2016. Gabby Giffords survived an assassination attempt in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, but six people around her died and her life was changed forever. The death threats and constant anti-fan action aimed at Abbott, Berger, and AOC are not just talk to be brushed off.
However clever AOC is at managing her burgeoning fanbase, and however good her ideas are so far, there are some aspects to this way of thinking about politics that can’t be so easily controlled, and that does not just apply to the anti-fans. Some of the “relatable” things said by outsider politicians that play well with the base are populist (in the definition provided by Mudde), rather than merely popular, and AOC strays close to that at times. Sometimes plain speaking and calling out starts to sound like the people versus the elite, which is populism, and attacking your attackers can end up plain Trumpian. In her February interview with Rolling Stone, Ocasio-Cortez said: “I go where people tell me to go, and I mean, like, the People.” Being led by the People can lead to bad decisions, just like making Doctor Who and Sherlock full of nods to the fans of those shows led to convoluted story lines that not everyone could follow. Only with politics, it’s real life, not entertainment. The Blair Years is not a Netflix boxset, it was a government that went hard on listening to focus groups and authoritarian approaches to law and order, and Corbyn is now doing well talking about the problems of police cuts. The popular rhetoric on immigration across Europe led to electoral and policy-moving successes for right-wing populist parties like AfD, Fidesz, and the various vehicles pushed by the UK’s Nigel Farage. AOC is, like other politicians of hope, a repository for the feelings of the left. So much is invested in her, and she’s feeding back what we want to see right now, but we know from Obama that fandom can fade when you move from oppositional ideas to the compromises of governing. No viral video can fix that.