Even a year ago, it would have been (almost) unimaginable that a rising political star would live-stream his dental cleaning as a potential stepping stone to the White House. But that’s the reality we live in today, shaped and suffused and reconstructed by social media. And Beto O’Rourke’s visit to the dentist while discussing the border wall impasse, along with Elizabeth Warren drinking a Michelob Ultra to announce a potential run for president in 2020, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lip-syncing to Edwin Starr’s “War” to mock critics of another dancing video that went viral all represent a new front in the perpetual campaign wars that dominate American politics.
It’s the Democrats’ response to President Trump’s Twitter feed which, as everyone knows, allowed him to attract voters in 2016 and has served as a bully pulpit to spread his message, disarm his opponents, and spread misinformation. And so far, it seems to be working for the resistance–due to its visual appeal, its light tone, and its appeal to younger voters.
It sounds ludicrous, but building a friendly social media personality can make a candidate seem relatable, likable, and fun, and while none of those should be qualifying attributes to be the president of the United States, in the digital age it can’t hurt and it probably helps. After all, what better way to prove likability than with Instagram likes?
While Trump dominates Twitter–which to be honest, has a limited appeal since it largely attracts other politicians, journalists, and publicists rather than regular Americans–Instagram Live attracts a younger and bigger demographic (700 million monthly users). At the front of that wave of Instagramming political celebs is, of course, Ocasio-Cortez. And while she’s too young to run for president in 2020, she has set the standard for engaging social media presence. Her Twitter feed is informative, entertaining, and sassy, but it’s on Instagram that she really shines.
She made headlines when she went on Instagram Live to make macaroni and cheese in her Instant Pot while dishing up civics lessons to her 500,000 followers. This wasn’t the first time she cooked and politicked, either. She spent Halloween on a livestream with her Instant Pot, making ramen, using the VCR filter, and even posting the results on her Pinterest account. Yes, she figured out how to make Pinterest political. It’s that social media savviness that makes her so frightening to the old guard. When conservatives come for her–and they have, either judging her clothing or unearthing videos of her dancing in high school–her social media clapbacks are already legendary (even within her own party) and she’s been in office less than a week. While Hillary Clinton was good, she wasn’t this good.
It makes sense that Ocasio-Cortez is a natural at social media–as the youngest member of Congress, she’s a millennial and social media is her natural platform. She unseated a long-time Democrat incumbent with a grassroots, shoestring campaign powered by social media. While the conservative wing of the political spectrum spends hours analyzing her every post, her supporters are smitten by having a representative in Congress who is truly representative of them in their mac-and-cheese eating, dancing in high school, Ben & Jerry’s loving ways. And when Fox News does come for her, she trolls them back by tweeting lyrics in Spanish, claiming they’re obsessed with her. “She makes politics seem relatable, doable, possible for any young person watching,” wrote ELLE magazine.
She’s not the only one in the new class of Congress that is good at social media, either. As of this writing, 118,000 people viewed Boston’s new representative, Ayanna Pressley’s Instagram post declaring she was rising in “opposition to the occupant of the White House.” Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar has 469,000 followers on her Instagram account, compared to incumbent Senator Ted Cruz who has 297,000.
Speaking of Cruz, he was very nearly unseated by a barely known congressman from El Paso named Beto who not only used his own social media outlets to campaign, but also managed to use Cruz’s social media to his advantage, like when Cruz tried to frighten people by posting a clip of O’Rourke speaking out against police brutality, which, much to Cruz’s chagrin, quickly went viral as people applauded his words. During the course of his campaign O’Rourke frequently went on Instagram Live to eat guac and chips, make homemade slime with his daughter, or visit Whataburger. It was his way of generating press for free, getting out his message directly to voters, and meeting his fans, or at least his 756,000 Instagram followers, where they were–online–and giving them the relatable, quirky, real content that they craved and hopefully driving them to the voting booth. It nearly worked, too. His unlikely bid to turn at least one senatorial seat in Texas blue turned into the closest race in 40 years, according to the Texas Tribune, falling only roughly 220,000 votes short out of 8.3 million.
As rumors swirl that he’s considering a run for president in 2020, O’Rourke’s dental-cleaning diatribe on border security earned plenty of guffaws but free publicity is still publicity. It’s silly, but it’s humanizing and effective and helps his message rise above the din of talking heads. If done well, social media can make people remember your good deeds and your humanity. (Remember when New Jersey’s Senator Cory Booker, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, was the mayor of Newark and used to talk a constituent through a Hot Pocket crisis?)
As the new, diverse crop of representatives enter the U.S. Capitol, they seem to be bringing with them a level of transparency that strikes many as both refreshing and unprecedented. Sure, GOP House minority whip Kevin McCarthy shares pics of his dog, who is a very good girl, but it’s not the same as Ocasio-Cortez Instagramming her bus ride home from freshman orientation, Texas freshman Rep. Dan Crenshaw sharing video of his swearing in, Rep. Ilhan Omar snapping a selfie on the floor of the Capitol, Rep. Pressley toting Compass Coffee, or newly elected Deb Haaland walking into work, social media is making our government—the ones we elect and whose salaries we pay—seem like it’s actually made up of real people. Though it’s also an easy way to build some grassroots cred even when the reality is far different, like former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, a millionaire, posing by his pick-up truck in one of his first campaign ads.
So get ready for a presidential cycle that includes politicians in the kitchen, at Cheesecake Factory, hanging with their dogs, getting haircuts, and doing it all for the ‘gram (and the likes, too). Just don’t be surprised if some of them turn out to be Russian trolls purporting to be politicians doing embarrassing things on social media (after all, fake video technology is advancing fast).