Political fandoms are ruining democracy. Here’s how we can fix it

By Abby Amoakuh

Updated Jun 22, 2024 at 08:32 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

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It’s difficult to put into words how some of us feel about politics right now. In a democracy, it’s supposed to be the vehicle that we use to effect change. However, in the face of compounding crises and wars, many of us are starting to feel incredibly disillusioned with our institutions and the power we hold over them as democratic citizens. Yet, politics in free countries also reflect what is happening in society and a notable political trend that we’ve seen emerge is politics as fandoms.

What is political fan culture?

Political fan culture or political fandoms refer to the phenomenon of political engagement resembling the passionate and tribal behaviour observed in pop culture fandoms for celebrities, books, movies, and sports teams. This particular way of engaging with politics has proliferated through social media in the past few years.

Instead of mobilising behind party directives, policies and legislative proposals, people are increasingly rallying individual politicians. These individuals are seen as emblematic of certain values and struggles such as feminism and shattering the glass ceiling as evidenced by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s celebration as the notorious RBG, or conservatism and an ‘America first’ mindset, as embodied by Donald Trump and his cult-like following.

Despite the cult of personality around RBG and her reputation as a progressive powerhouse, she was historically more conservative on many issues like criminal justice issues, including prisoners’ rights and racial justice. RBG also noted few to no victories towards the end of her tenure. Trump’s rhetoric, on the other hand, famously doesn’t match his legislative track record.

This shows that political fan culture is based on what a person or cause symbolises rather than their objectives or skill and pragmatism in achieving those.

In December 2018, American left-wing writer Osita Nwanevu stated: “[I] still find myself surprised by people who are incredibly into politics without any concrete policy objectives per se, particularly on the Democratic side. It’s basically fan culture.” This sentiment carried a lot of weight two years after the 2016 presidential election caused such a large rift between the US Republican and Democratic parties and saw both factions become more entrenched in their views. This drastically lowered the occurrence and potential for cross-party coalitions and gave rise to many populist politicians, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Ron DeSantis.

The consequence is an eroding political centre as parties and leaders are moving towards the outer ends of the political spectrum. The right’s vitality is now increasingly found in xenophobia, protectionism, and archaic family ideals, whereas the left has found its fuel in new social justice movements such as racial equality and environmentalist directives.

At the same time, politics is increasingly being used as a springboard to launch careers in reality TV, social media influencing, or Cameo, as we’ve seen with George Santos and Matt Hancock. Both politicians have proven to be incredibly irresponsible leaders, yet people have interestingly absolved over their entertainment value of all things.

Politics, culture, values and aesthetics have emerged together in a way that makes them difficult to distinguish from each other. The consequence is a political culture that is personal, opinionated, blindly defended, and ultimately ineffective.

Why is political fan culture accelerating?

Of course, it is true that politics, just like fandoms, requires engagement, intense emotion, and close attention to the elected officials who carry our mandate.

And we’re all at a point in time where we feel understandably scared. As I’m writing this, our leaders continue to compromise values of equality and human dignity that we’ve been taught to hold as true and self-evident for most of our lives. The far-right is making significant gains across Europe and seized a large number of seats in the new EU parliament, and hard-right beliefs are flourishing in the Tory-led UK government without meaningful opposition from the left.

On top of this, climate catastrophes are ravaging our globe, pushing many of us into displacement and socially and economically precarious positions.

To increase the horror, we are also continuously confronted with the suffering of others in images from Gaza, Ukraine, and Sudan.

These emotionally charged topics are leading to emotionally charged political participation where individuals are more likely to rally behind charismatic leaders and individual causes rather than comprehensive policy debates and solutions.

With the war in Gaza, journalists and organisers have frequently bemoaned a tendency to speak of sides and treat the war like a spirited team sport. “I am either an unapologetic neoliberal supporter of the open-air prison that is Gaza or I’m a radical leftist who wants Israel wiped off the map,” Charlotte Clymer, former press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, wrote. Clymer penned an essay on her website, where she described the backlash she received after calling Palestinian liberation a moral imperative, while also condemning Hamas and its use of rape as a weapon of war. She pinpointed a political climate in which both silence and statement had the potential to be complicit.

War inevitably involves significant human suffering, loss, and tragedy. When discussing such topics, especially online, the gravity of the situation demands a certain level of seriousness, empathy, and respect for all those affected that a fan culture response can’t quite capture.

At the same time, the Blockout movement, an online movement to block the social media accounts of celebrities and organisations related to their silence over the war in Gaza, became the subject of debate between Gen Z researchers and journalists Chase DiBenedetto and Elena Cavender.

While they agreed on the necessity of exposing the system of distraction from the reality of life that the entertainment industry represents, the researchers critiqued that transferring debates over the war onto celebrities rather than political stakeholders was another system of distraction at work.

DiBenedetto, in particular, highlighted the pitfalls of performativity and problems inherent in using one single issue out of all global conflicts as the sole basis to judge someone’s worth and morality.

Singer Macklemore, who was recently canonised through his song ‘Hinds Hall’, for instance, had previously been regarded in a more critical light by netizens due to questions around appropriation and his performative engagement with racial justice. Kim Kardashian, on the other hand, who has been subjected to the digitine, was lauded in the past for bringing attention to the Armenian genocide and campaigning for the Biden administration to take action against the ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“You often see fans and celebrity-obsessed users fall into the same patterns for global movements as they do for stan wars,” DiBenedetto stated.

“In a way, they are weaponizing a social movement to campaign against a celebrity they already dislike,” Cavender added, with specific reference to the backlash faced by Joe Alwyn, after he sported an ‘Artists for Ceasefire’ pin.

However, this culture is not only haemorrhaging political discourse but also our understanding of political action.

Literacy about activist practices is also being undermined. Many are now calling for boycotts and divestments, often seeing them as end goals rather than means activists have historically used to achieve concrete demands that can be turned into legislation.

What is the problem with political fan culture?

Simply put, the problem is that critical evaluation of political leaders, parties, causes and participants often takes a backseat to uncritical adoration or vilification.

Nuanced discussions are often overshadowed by the need to defend or attack personalities or sides, making it difficult to find common ground or pursue pragmatic solutions. This can lead to increased polarisation, as we retreat into fandom echo chambers that reinforce our existing beliefs and biases.

Political fan culture is having serious consequences on political literacy, the practice of sustainable and focused activism, and democratic processes, as we are driven by oversimplified and one-sided narratives, rather than common ground to achieve collective liberation and improvement.

But please do not mistake this as a rant or moral panic about political engagement online. Instead, view this as a call to speak with intention, test your knowledge, build coalitions, and come up with concrete policies to take back democratic institutions.

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