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What happens when politics is pushed into a pop culture box

Several memes envision current Democratic candidates as the main Harry Potter characters. Warner Bros. Pictures

Whatever persona Elizabeth Warren hopes to project in her presidential campaign, it is probably not that of a child witch. But that is the persona that some of her biggest fans have chosen for her.

Images of Hermione Granger, played in the “Harry Potter” films by a young Emma Watson, materialize at Warren’s every move. Warren steps onto the debate stage, and her fans craft tweets where Hermione stands in as her, rolling her eyes at the boys in wizarding class. Warren reads the whole Mueller report, and Hermione smugly wags her wand. In one extremely cursed tweet with zero likes, Warren’s face is transplanted onto Hermione’s frame, posed alongside Beto O’Rourke as Harry and Pete Buttigieg as Ron Weasley.


What is this strange chimera of presidential campaigning: a candidate’s head on pop culture’s body? It is the product of a great convergence between politics and culture, citizenship and commerce, ideology and aesthetics. Civic participation has been converted seamlessly into consumer practice. It is democracy reimagined as fandom, and it is now a dominant mode of experiencing politics.

You can see it in the efforts to sort the candidates into “Harry Potter” houses, converting the election to a personality quiz in a children’s book, and in the mashup video that distills the 2020 candidates into quotes from Michael Scott, the buffoonish boss of “The Office.” A photograph of three congresswomen of color is published and instantly compared to a Whitney Houston GIF, as if women interrogating Michael Cohen are analogous to Houston confronting her cheating boyfriend. Politicos of all stripes are styled as saints and stamped onto novelty devotional prayer candles.

Here, political engagement slips easily into the habits of consumption. President Trump’s fans follow him around the country like groupies, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s boosters fetishize her funnel-neck coat as a symbol of the #resistance. Candidates’ supporters now identify as stans — a term derived from the 2000 Eminem song about a fan who becomes so obsessed, he kills.


Political stanning has a way of remapping the landscape of mainstream politics — maybe even overwriting physical reality itself. Frantic online cultural production swarms around Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whenever she experiences a health scare, as if memes alone could sustain the octogenarian’s life. Trump’s fans imbue him with improbable prowess when they edit him into pro-wrestling videos showing him smacking down CNN. But perhaps the most explicit riff on the trend was the infamous Beto O’Rourke sex tweet, which translated his political positions into sexual ones.

On its surface, stuff like the spiriting of Warren’s image into the world of Harry Potter is an innocent Internet parlor game. But the fan-fictioning of political candidates can be a dark art, too. The power to viscerally manipulate Warren’s image can be used to undermine her ideas rather than boost them. Take the “Elizabeth Warren always” meme that swept Twitter this summer: Though it warmly characterizes her as a relatably decent person (“Elizabeth Warren always replaces the toilet paper” and “Elizabeth Warren always boards with her correct boarding group”), it has a way of obscuring her political message. As Warren advocates progressive changes, the meme is fundamentally conservative in its valorization of the polite competency of the individual.

The Hermione comparison also flattens Warren’s pitch into just two facets of her persona — her gender and her smarts. It also traps Warren in the same pop cultural avatar that Hillary Clinton’s fans bestowed on her in 2016, which has a way of eliding the substantial ideological gulf between the two women. When politicians are converted into culture, often the first thing that’s lost is the politics. As one critic wrote in response to a 30-GIF thread offering “proof” that Warren “is Hermione Granger”: “Delete this immediately we are going to lose.”


You could spot the roots of political fandom in the sarcastic sign-waving crowd of the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s 2010 effort to convene Comedy Central viewers for an exercise in preaching political moderation. Or in Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle, the 2008 single-serve website that surfaced pleasing fictions about the candidate, including “BARACK OBAMA FOLDED YOUR LAUNDRY.”

But before that, the phenomenon was a little harder to spot. There has long been a political valence to pop culture, and, separately, a fan participation that bordered on grass-roots activism. Fifty years ago, the original “Star Trek” series exemplified the former, and viewers’ efforts to keep it on the air the latter.

There is great opportunity to be found in the fanning of politics — for candidates, corporations, and sometimes, even for us. When civics is converted into a pop culture product and set loose online, it is capable of engaging people who might not otherwise participate. And networks of fans aren’t just used to generate content; they can also mobilize when news breaks or polls open. Enthusiastically memeing Warren into a treasured fantasy world drums up attention and energy that theoretically align with grass-roots campaigning. Media scholar Henry Jenkins has likened photoshopping a meme to writing a letter to the editor: just another mold for citizenship, cracked open to new groups.


Besides, experiencing politics as fandom is not necessarily more harmful to our self-rule than, say, the horse race analogy sometimes favored by the traditional political media, which promotes campaigns’ competitive acumen at the expense of the likely consequences of the outcomes. Memes do carry values across the culture, even if subtly or strangely. Styles of humor vary markedly between political perspectives. A pop cultural alliance can open a window on a candidate’s priorities or so we have come to think. Aesthetics have become the shorthand for ideas.

It’s not that a politician’s actual politics have become unimportant in these fandoms, but they have become sublimated into spectacle. A candidate’s political reputation — as a centrist or a radical, a liberal or a conservative, independent or corporate — helps inform the online personality that is built up around her, and from there it is inflated or distorted by cultural clues.

All this can make people feel like they have a great deal of control over the political process. But this feeling can be deceptive. Citizens may be the ones creating material about the candidates, but they are also helping to build cults of personality around politicians that erode their accountability. Fandoms are fundamentally about promoting their central celebrity, not holding them to account. Our political representatives are supposed to work for the people, but fandoms reverse that proposition: They make us work for them.


And this is questionable work that we are doing. The point of translating politics into pop culture may be to make it more accessible, but it can also make politics feel oddly remote — as if it is all just a television show to watch, or a fantasy novel to read or a game to play. And while presidential candidates need to pitch a wide tent, swaying other people — people who are not like them — to their cause, stans are intrinsically agents of exclusion, posturing above those who don’t already agree with them or just don’t get the jokes. Though political stans ostensibly exist to promote their favorite candidates, you get the sense that they are also looking to build micro-fandoms around their own online personalities.

The stanning of the presidency is a fresh form of civic engagement, but it is an agent of disengagement, too. It is a new way of seeing democracy and of obscuring it. In 2019, the democratic nature of online creation masquerades as democracy itself.