On Tuesday night, noted gamer and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez streamed hit game Among Us to over 430,000 viewers — nearly a million if we take into account the streams from her Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook gaming co-stars, such as Pokimane and Valkyrae. AOC’s Among Us stream now holds the distinction of having the third-highest number of concurrent viewers ever on a single person’s Twitch stream.
To put it in context, an enormous Bernie Sanders rally in New York City in 2019 drew a crowd of 26,000 people. Such attendance rates, along with a palpable enthusiasm online with young voters, made the recent Sanders campaign feel like a movement.
And a single off-the-cuff online event with AOC encouraging people to vote blew those rally numbers out of the water. This is what is possible when a modern, tech-savvy politician attracts not just supporters, but fandom. Fans who clip her expertly executed government proceedings on C-SPAN. Fans who lip-sync AOC’s firebrand speeches on TikTok, turning it into a challenge enjoyed and attempted by millions of people. Fans who take AOC’s best Twitch stream moments and turn them into a “fancam” highlight reel.
Cult of personality has always been a part of politics — arguably, Donald Trump’s success was predicated on his supporters’ ability to turn him into a meme, and on the name recognition that came with his reality TV show. Before Trump, celebrity helped people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, and Ronald Reagan crack into politics. Fandom is hardly a new phenomenon in politics.
What’s different in 2020 is that fandom doesn’t just prop people up. Fandom organizes.
K-pop fans came together this past summer to tank Trump’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally by pretending to RSVP to the event in droves. Fandom also controls the machinery of the internet through raw numbers — if enough fans pretend that Tom Holland has been canceled for doing absolutely nothing, the associated hashtag will show up on your social media page, even if it’s not real. Many of the year’s biggest protests started as calls to action on social media as well.
Fandom, in other words, has power — and many fans know how to wield it. Combine that with an authentic politician who knows how to speak candidly with her constituents, and you’ve got a potent combination of visibility and enthusiasm.
What does a political landscape look like when it mixes with parasocial relationships that are eager to treat public servants as our best friends? Many smart commentators have expressed concern that these sycophantic dynamics might make it harder to hold politicians accountable. Still, we may not be giving the AOC fandom enough credit.
The young people making AOC memes grew up in an Obama presidency. They saw how that win made Democrats comfortable enough to overlook Obama’s shockingly conservative history while in office. They paid attention when the same man critiqued protesters this year and when he reportedly ended the NBA strike by players lobbying for justice for people killed by the police.
The movement that both Bernie Sanders and AOC represent only exists because people are fed up with hope as a manufactured brand, and are instead interested in seeing real, concrete change. The instability of the United States right now is a direct result of the blind optimism that saw a Trump presidency as an impossibility, and thought that buying a pink hat was the same thing as activism. “Stanning” AOC does not erase the fact that the 31-year-old Bronx native is putting in the work, and she’s doing it where everyone can see and critique it.
The future of politics isn’t just young, tech-savvy, and meme-literate. It is accessible. Ocasio-Cortez talks to everyday people on Twitter and Instagram Live, and even visits constituents in Animal Crossing. These sustained efforts allow her recent Twitch stream to seem less like a political stunt and more like another genuine attempt to reach people where they live. “Pokémon Go to the polls” this is not.
The flip side of accessibility, of course, is that everyone is paying attention. Ocasio-Cortez regularly goes viral for holding politicians’ feet to the fire, a phenomenon that could easily be turned against her by the same fans who make her popular. Should Ocasio-Cortez ever fail her people, they will be the first to let her know.