In the wee small hours of the morning of November 7th, President Barack Obama passed an historic milestone many had expected would go to a different kind of person altogether: a snapshot he posted on twitter, with the caption “Four more years”, became the most retweeted message in the history of the six-year-old microblogging platform. Such dizzying heights are normally attained by, well, Justin Bieber, but – never mind the millions of people who’d just voted for him – the President’s got a lot of fans.
And those fans have engaged with this election like no other. Every word said by both sides, as well as being scrutinized and analysed and spun in every way imaginable, has been reproduced in a staggering array of creative formats, from autotuned remixes that turned stump speeches into music videos to colourful graphics emphasizing emotive words, and printed (or hand drawn) on to t-shirts and tote bags and badges and baked goods.
I don’t live in the US anymore, and having never been a citizen, I couldn’t vote to re-elect the President. So I threw him my support the only way I knew. I tweeted, I Facebooked, I read and reposted funny or inspirational things he said, I bought a sweatshirt expressing my allegiance and then posted pictures of myself wearing that sweatshirt. I tossed in a bunch of West Wing references for good measure, and got possibly a little bit overexcited whenever anyone else either understood them or did it too.
It was a lot of fun. A lot.
And it made the bleary-eyed morning (as an aside, I maintain that the time difference actually made it better – there’s something terribly romantic about waiting until dawn for the results) waiting for Romney to just get over himself and concede already feel meaningful and moving, in a way that the policy implications of the result (however vital), just didn’t.
Of course, this is all feels slightly detrimental to the business of politics and governance, but it’s not like before animated gifs (the latest thing in instant debate commentary) the sparkle and flash of the campaign trail wasn’t already getting in the way of reality.
But here’s the interesting thing: in the face of the biggest criticism of the process overall – that it costs an enormous amount of money, an obscene, staggering, shocking amount of money – the “fandom” elements are actually, in and of themselves, almost free. You can’t buy quotability. And selling people t-shirts with your face on them actually raises cash.
The tools of modern fandom are free and widely accessible. They’re the social media platforms: twitter, tumblr, facebook, pinterest, reddit, youtube, the list goes on. Their reach is tremendous, and instantaneous. And in the fast-paced, brightly-coloured, emotionally-driven world of Twihards and Whovians, a picture of the President’s dog appearing sandwiched between a One Direction video and a misattributed inspirational quote in a whimsical font is an assertion of allegiance as powerful as the color of your Hogwarts scarf or your preference for Sherlock or Watson (personally, I’m team Molly). What it isn’t, is disrespectful. And what last week proved, is that it doesn’t mean that fan isn’t also going to vote.
In fact, fans of democracy got a bit carried away. You couldn’t click on anything without another blurry self-portrait-with-I-Voted-sticker appearing on your screen, which is all well and good (and yes, I was really jealous), but when folks started instagramming their ballots, things got a bit sticky. There have been no reports of anyone actually being cited for it, but in many states, it’s against the law.
Another extraordinary thing. It’s not new for people to idolize political figures. Many people would probably characterize themselves as “a fan of voting”, even if not quite to the extent of buying a t-shirt that says so (I did though). But in the aftermath of this election, a statistical analyst named Nate Silver, who cut his teeth on baseball predictions and got every electoral result of the night except for one single Senate race right, became an overnight sensation, spawning several trending topics on twitter and the website IsNateSilverAWitch.com. A STATISTICAL ANALYST. Who now has a legion of fangirls and fanboys hanging on to his every word. His words being mostly about polling data. Don’t let anyone tell you the politics fandom is superficial.
Of course, some of the other names of the “political fandom” are better known. The merest mention of Hillary Clinton sends the internet at large into a frenzy – speculating, yes, about the chances of a 2016 run, but also passing around favorite versions of the “Texts from Hillary” meme. The beauty of that is that was funny, without being in any way mocking, derogatory or sexist. It was affectionate, a way to express awe and admiration, that captured people’s imagination.
It’s naïve enough to think that the people who typically attract fan followings – sports stars, actors and musicians – are real life heroes, and even more so to think that about politicians, who are bureaucrats with enormous PR teams (although before you make up your mind on that, do look up Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark New Jersey. He might be the exception to the rule.). But while the trivial aspect of it is frustrating to policy wonks, it’s an engaging, inspiring way for people to take ownership of the process, and of the leaders that come out of it.