Phony Populism in the Instagram Age

Politicians engaging the masses on social media is a recent electoral strategy that has become more and more widespread. It’s become a hallmark of so-called populism on both the left and right. The reason this is essentially a populist trend is the way social media cuts out the middleman of communication between political leaders and “the people” that they can now address and listen to directly. Many commentators primarily associate this with President Trump’s legendary and outrageous Twitter account, but recently this method of communication has been adopted other political figures on different social media platforms.

The left has taken advantage of this strategy to capture younger voters by using Instagram, more specifically Instagram Live, the social media platform’s livestreaming feature. Recent DSA poster-girl Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines after livestreaming herself cooking mac and cheese while discussing politics on Instagram, capturing the hearts and minds of the Millennials’ and Generation Z’s future wine aunt cohort. Similar cries of “Yaaassss queen!” reverberated across social media after Massachusetts senator and possible 2020 candidate Elizabeth Warren took to Instagram Live in an attempt to prove her #relatable credentials by cracking open a cold beer in her kitchen on New Year’s Eve. In the most recent (and perhaps most disgusting) iteration of this trend, Beto O’Rourke livestreamed uncomfortable closeup footage of his dentist appointment while sharing his thoughts on the crisis on the southern border.

You might be wondering, why is it only left-wing populists who love to share intimate “slice-of-life” posts on social media? When was the last time Donald Trump tweeted a video of himself making Ramen noodles, or Viktor Orban livestreamed a colonoscopy appointment to his Facebook followers? Progressives seem to be prone to oversharing. The only exception to this rule that I can think of is the Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, who often posts selfies and pictures of food and drink to Instagram. Even so, it appears that this more of a display of an appreciation for the finer things in life rather than a contrived attempt to appeal to the public. This difference fundamentally rests on the way the left and the right understand (or misunderstand) populism itself.

What really is populism? It’s a question that neoliberal scribblers in The Economist and rightists alike have been asking, and it’s not one that is easily answered. In its most basic sense, populism is any flavor of ideology that focuses heavily on issues affecting the common man or “the people”. In an Moldbuggian sense, populism is necessarily at least somewhat left wing due to its demotist aspects and appeal to popular sovereignty, but most political scientists would say there is a significant difference between right-wing and left-wing populism.

Right-populism is defined by nationalist sentiments including immigration restriction, non-intervention in foreign policy, and country-first trade protectionism. Left-populism, at least in America, is associated with social justice issues such as Medicare-for-all, tuition-free college, and a philosophy of intersectionality regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, et cetera. As you can see, besides rhetorical signaling to the working and middle class while disparaging the elites, leftist populism and rightist populism have little in common. As a historical example hammering this point home, the last true left wing populist was Huey Long who would never be allowed into the current year American left.

The right tends to understand populism as opposition to chronic societal mismanagement by a self-interested elite that are themselves opposed to sensible conservative values and best the interests of the country. It is perhaps best represented by Tucker Carlson and is particularly focused on the elite’s libertinism and decadence. The left’s variant of populism is more focused on economic and social inequalities, not only opposed to a greedy elite made up of 1 percenters, but in many ways opposed to the idea of an elite itself. You’ll find this attitude more explicit in politicians who are more publicly socialist. Rightists don’t want the elimination of hierarchy in general, they want one that works for all of those who belong to it. Hence the reason that President Trump, for now, has managed to be a more successful populist figure than Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

One of the hallmarks of populism is authenticity. Progressive politicians have to hide their rich and privileged upbringings and present themselves as average working-class citizens at the expense of their authenticity. That’s why they’re livestreaming themselves doing mundane things on social media. It’s so desperate, you can almost hear them shouting “Look, I’m just like you!” between sips of cheap beer. One can easily scrape away this thin façade of relatability to find left-wing politician’s upper-class origins. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tried to portray herself as a typical girl from the Bronx in a bid to appeal to the working class, despite the fact that she was raised in Yorktown Heights, a small town in Westchester County NY with a median family income of $137,580. Elizabeth Warren was a Harvard Law professor making six figures a year and climbed the credential-driven social ladder of academia by boasting of alleged trace Native American descent. Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke’s nickname certainly can’t hurt with Hispanic support in his native state of Texas, despite being of Irish descent who married a billionaire’s daughter.

On the other hand, Trump doesn’t have to hide his wealthy lifestyle to his conservative constituents. In fact, he often brags about his golden penthouse, massive business empire, and connections with the rich and famous all over the world. His base doesn’t care about class struggle, and there’s no reason why any right-populist politician’s voters would, as long as he enacts policies that are in their interest. Trump’s rhetoric positioning him as a class traitor further proves his bona fides.

A true rightist does not need his leaders to be just like him. He recognizes that aristocracies decay over time, and sometimes need to be replaced with new ones, lest they take the whole society down with them. Ideally, populism results in government that is responsible to the needs of its citizenry, not in vulgar officials oversharing by posting clips of themselves getting their teeth cleaned on Instagram Live. Populism that is effective must be balanced out with a healthy dose of elitism. Otherwise, it looks banal and contrived, which is why the term “populist” itself is more readily associated with the post-liberal right that is rising in power and notoriety across the world, because it is this very elitism that puts the left at a disadvantage.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Alfonz Cavalier says:

    Decent analysis, but I’m not sure everyone in this sphere fully gets that for many leftists, economics is THE issue. Classic Marxism casts a long shadow and plunder economics will always be more popular than woke social agendas. Radical leftists tend to be discontented bougies who have a bit, but feel they deserve more, while lacking business acumen or any knowledge of economics. They rationalize their feelings of material/ status inadequacy by claiming it’s a concern for the poor – and to be fair some do genuinely care about poverty from the perspective of a sort of perverted, deracinated Christian charity.

    In terms of electoral politics, I expect a pattern we’ll see more and more is left wing parties using economic issues (tax the 1%, spend more on schools and healthcare) to mobilize the support of middle Americans and the disaffected working class, to get a mandate for their deranged social policies. They know that ‘woke’ stuff isn’t popular, even with large parts of their base, but they can always gain support by promising bread and circuses at the expense of millionaires. To me, that’s the essence of left-wing populism: plunder economics covering for insidious cultural agendas.

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  2. Jon Malley says:

    I think that you exaggerate the incompatibility between right and left populists. In addition to the elements of right populism you mention there tends to be strong support for many New Deal-type policies, while among left populists there is a whole anti-identity politics wing (something in which CTH itself once played a stronger role than it does now). Most importantly, there is a common enemy in an elite/ruling class that is now largely hostile to everything an authentic right holds dear. I’m not naive enough to believe that populists of the left and right will unite into one happy family, but there is the possibility of cooperation, a blurring of lines and a recognition of a common enemy. Indeed, this is one of the reasons for the fretfulness on the part of certain leftists over a “red-brown convergence” which they see as underway.

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