Politicians have always been performative. Performance is part of the job description. A good politician needs to be willing to horsetrade anything and everything, sell the unsatisfying comprise to the public, and maintain the façade of a hardened ideologue. That is what it means to be a politician.
Or what is used to mean. The rise of social media and the subsequent development of influencer culture has transformed culture and society. Politics is no exception. Almost two generations of youth have been raised on what amounts to glorified skinner boxes and as these once adolescents have begun to enter young and middle aged adulthood, their effect on national and local politics is reaching a local apogee.
Instead of meaningful discussion on the substance and core of issues, politicians simply now prefer to own each other on Twitter. Rather than craft and develop substantive legislation, politicians spend all their time clout chasing. Instead of moving to actually gather real allies to make substantive change, politicians spend all day creating “powerful tweets” and “strong demonstrations” in an attempt to dominate social media narratives. Votes on the Floor matter less than Likes and Retweets.
The most egregious example of this New Age of Congressional “Action” are the (former) Freshmen Democrats nicknamed “the Squad.” Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib are all young (particularly by the gerontic standards Congress operates by) politicians. Their ages range from 31 to 44 with Rep. Alexandria being the youngest and Rep. Rashida the oldest. While they were not nursed by Instagram and Twitter, their young adulthoods were molded by them. Critical notions of value and self worth became intrinsically tied to for-profit corporations’ consumer products. Success was measured in follower count. The value and legitimacy of an idea measured in retweets. Self worth was found in a “banger tweet.”
When elected, they took Congress by storm. Their ultra-progressive ideas, nurtured and grown via social media, and their willingness to flaunt them, sucked the energy of the Democratic Party towards them. Supporters loved them, detractors hated them, but everyone knew them. That fame gave them power. “The Squad” could do what Bernie Sanders had failed to do for decades: push through real hardline progressive legislation.
But what was done with that fame? A great deal of tweeting, photo ops, and “standing” with various causes, but demonstrably nothing truly substantive. The numbers speak for themselves. Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Tlaib between the three of them have only sponsored a total of 76 substantive bills with only one of them becoming law. Perhaps what is most interesting, is that Tlaib, the oldest of “the Squad,” at 44 is the sole individual responsible for helping shepherd legislation into law. She is also the sole individual to have gotten her sponsored legislation to receive ‘Action in Committee’ and ‘Action beyond Committee.’ The younger members of the group, Reps. Alexandria and Ilhan, have accomplished literally nothing.
This does not seem to be much a coincidence, particularly in the case of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her tweets regularly achieve virality and she possesses an extraordinary popular appeal. The very fact I am writing about her demonstrates her acumen and skill in controlling and whipping up public support. She is a true political-influencer.
And like any influencer, she has a game to play: generate energy (positive or negative) on social media, redirect it towards herself and her sponsors, and run interference on all negative press. Nowhere in the “rules” are influencers required to actually enact real change and be pillars of morality or ideological consistency. They are single person, for-profit businesses and their money comes from sponsors. If those sponsors demand something, then they will do it. And Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sponsor, along with the rest of “The Squad,” is the Establishment Democratic Party. “The Squad,” for all their bombast is not about making change, but growing their own brands.
When Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, long criticized by progressive supporters was facing the Speaker re-election of her life in 2021, Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Tlaib all voted to a women in favor of Pelosi. When there was a real chance of Speaker Pelosi being dethroned and where paramount power was afforded to even a few dissonant votes, where was stand against business as usual? Where were the backroom deals demanding key seats of power or powerful establishment weight being thrown behind substantive progressive legislation? Where was the fierce fight in hallways and offices of Congress that these Reps. love to display on social media?
It is easy “fight” or “take a stand” on social media. When the time came to put to use their following and demand real change and power, they all caved without meaningful concession. They feared the potential backlash. The potential ostracization both in the halls of Congress and on Social Media. There is nothing more feared by an influencer than losing their sponsorships and relevancy.
Even now the subservience, shown in particular by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, continues and is leaking into the realm of social media. Timelines and feeds once filled with spirited attacks against the status quo are now being filled with explanatory and defensive tweets regarding the anti-progressive measures and stances being espoused by the establishment Democratic Party.
Yet despite it all, her fame (and infamy), and those associated with her grows. That is, of course, the natural result of being a good influencer. Energy is built up in the beginning through controversy. That energy allows the influencer to grow a cult of the individual and deflect any substantive issues or problems regarding their personality, ideas, or methods. To the influencer’s supporters, it’s not about what the influencer does, but the the influencer themself. There are no higher principles that the influencer can be measured by; the influencer is the principle.
The United States is only just entering the age of influencer politics. It won’t be long before those who have grown up with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram since childhood will be voting and seeking seats in Congress. I fear it will be a vapid age, where the height of political achievement lies in a “banger tweet,” and where politicians publicly squabble over minor “beef” and over who liked and followed what post. Rather than working towards a real goal and actual change, politicians will spend all their time developing the next great social media trend and photo op. It will be a politics built from our culture.
And we will deserve it.