Pop Politics and New Apps: Lessons From AOC

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an example of how to make progressive politics accessible and interesting to a broad audience.


Anna Steinmeier is an #FESFellow 2020 who is interested in political communication and digital culture. She hosts the podcast "Politainment for Change". A series of blog posts based on her podcast will appear here on the FES DC blog.

This is the fifth and final blog in the series, based on the  fifth episode of the podcast. 


With 2020 coming to a close, many people are looking to 2021 – often with a sigh of relief. In 2020, more celebrities stepped out of entertainment and into politics through social media than ever before, and famous people positioned themselves along party lines. This raised the question whether or not a reality star or a tv actor should voice their political opinion and try to use their platform to influence people.


So, is it time to separate pop culture and politics in 2021, and in the years to come? 

My opinion is – no! Undoubtedly, pop culture and politics will remain interrelated and relevant in the years to come. I am sure we will see a lot of the pop culture phenomena of the 2020 US presidential election – like gaming and political influencers – in coming elections, like in the German federal election in 2021. While some argue that political pop culture content is less about the message, and more about the looks or platform, it reaches audiences and evokes potential political action beyond the political elite. With a new year and new elections on the horizon, we will see a lot of new faces and ideas when it comes to political pop culture content, and we’ll see this communication on a lot of new channels. But to really gain momentum from the 2020 election and beyond, progressives need to become better at creating content on the fine line between politics and pop culture. And there is one person to turn to. 


Who’s that woman?

Even though she was not running for election as a candidate for President of the United States, her name was one of the most mentioned in the 2020 campaign and election: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the future of the Democratic party for some and the personification of a “socialist nightmare” for others. Her political star has skyrocketed like few others in American political memory after she was the youngest women ever to be elected to congress in 2018, and her profile will continue to rise following her reelection to the House of Representatives for New York’s 14th District in 2020. 

Representative Ocasio-Cortez, nicknamed AOC, was a bartender before defeating the 10-term Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley and being elected to congress against all odds. Since then, she has had to face scrutiny and praise from the very beginning of her time in Congress in 2018. Her unusual path into politics has brought her a lot of media attention. While she and her team excel with their political know-how, another area in which AOC and her team stand out is her pop cultural impact and how pop culture influences her political campaigning and communication. 

Usually, it is highly unlikely for people who are not focused on politics to know the names of first-time members of Congress – let alone if they live outside of the US. But with AOC, people immediately recognize her by those three letters. How has she become such an icon after just one term in Congress? Her political instincts and knowing exactly what her community wants and needs are extraordinary, and so are her unmatched social media skills - in addition to her signature look and red lips. Her appearance in a video for VOGUE that showcases her beauty routine has more than 3 Million views on YouTube.


Authenticity is key 

This level of authenticity mixed with humor and pop culture references is the secret formula that makes AOC so successful online. She is witty and fun one minute, and fighting passionately for working-class Americans the next – while mixing a margarita. In addition to being easily approachable through social media, AOC’s history is one that makes her relatable. She is Latina, working class, and unapologetic. And she inspires people to run for office. 

AOC’s authenticity is her superpower. Often when politicians use social media, it feels dishonest and overly polished. Their voice and visuals simply do not match the daily lives of the people they want to reach. AOC takes difficult issues and discusses them in an entertaining way. Yet she never mocks the issues or belittles people – because she seriously cares. 


Pioneer for new channels

She stays up to date on trends that feel genuine to her. Over 400.000 people watched her play the popular game “among us” on the growing streaming platform “Twitch” to raise donations during the presidential election. While she had never played this exact game before, she had stated in the past that she is into nerd culture, online gaming, and open to use new platforms for innovative concepts. 

Since the election there has been a rise in new media platforms. The day after the 2020 election, the app “Parler” topped the download charts. Parler and other apps like “Rumble” ´, a self-claimed alternative to YouTube for conservative creators, claim to be free speech social media networks in contrast to what some believe to be a bias in mainstream social networks like Facebook and Twitter. While the number of Parler users remains quite small at the moment compared to other platforms, the danger comes not from the number of users alone but from the echo chamber the platform creates

While conservatives’ platforms are currently on the rise, it is not unlikely that there will be progressive platforms that pop up parallel from the current mainstream ones. While this is not yet the case, the University of Pennsylvania has created a list with resources for progressives on the internet. Once a progressive platform will be created, one can be fairly certain that AOC will be there.


Unbothered and forward-looking

Even more important than showing up is having a clear message. There are a handful of topics that are connected to AOC: universal healthcare (which she often connects to her late farther) and the Green New Deal to fight climate change. She comments on other topics like migration, free education, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. AOC puts in the work and her positions are well-researched in areas that she believes in which she has shown in several congressional meetings.While AOC is constantly under scrutiny from her opponents and her every move is documented, she shrugs it off and stands strong in her beliefs.

Looking into the future, it might look gloomy. But for progressives, there is hope. The 2020 election showed a record turnout, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an example of how to make progressive politics accessible and interesting. While some disagree with her positions on the issues, her political influence and instinct show how important it is to understand pop culture to influence politics. 

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