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Pinkerton: Digital Natives in Politics–Wannabes Are Seeking the Warmth of a Billion Suns

Beto O'Rourke, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
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JAMES P. PINKERTON

In Part One of this series, we observed that politicians such as Beto O’Rourke have proven that they are “digital natives.”  That is, they’ve grown up with social media, and their “fluency” is already reshaping campaigns. 

In this second part, we can consider more closely the impact that social media will  have on our politics in the future.  As we shall see, it could get . . . interesting.  

The New Media Style

For instance, we come to Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the new darling—and perhaps even the new leader—of progressive politics.  She boasts 1.61 million Twitter followers, which is more than the followership of the other 63 new Democrats coming to the House combined.  

Born in 1989, Ocasio-Cortez has lived and breathed the Internet life.  The signature media moment of her underdog primary campaign was new media—specifically, a  two-minute video that was never a TV spot, but that went viral on YouTube and other sites.  

In this new digital environment, the key values are authenticity and transparency, or at least the appearance thereof.   Thus Ocasio-Cortez’s social-media followers, clicking on her livestreams, see her commenting about anything that come to her mind—including in Spanish.  And when she’s not leading protests, we see her  cooking dinner or dancing.  Or revealing that she has Jewish ancestry, although in a follow-up tweet she added that she was also proud to have the blood of Africans, Taino Indians, the Spanish, and “likely others.”  In other words, she’s got the world—at least a lot of it—in her multicultural hands. 

Another key aspect of digital life is intense interactivity.  When journalist Haley Byrd seemed to minimize Ocasio-Cortez in a tweet, the New Yorker pounced.  Byrd apologized, and then Ocasio-Cortez graciously accepted the apology.  So we can see: You can attack online, and you can also conciliate online.  

The trick for digital natives is always to be displaying a sense of breezy effortlessness.  The Italian language has a word for this idea of working hard to make it look easy: sprezzatura.  It’s this quality of effortlessness that separates young digital natives from the older folks in politics—those who must sweat to keep up with the pace of 24/7 engagement.  

Still, one downside of being “on” all the time is that you make mistakes, including factual mistakes.  That is, you can’t fact-check something you just said or tweeted.  And so on December 4, The Washington Post awarded Ocasio-Cortez a “Four Pinocchios” anti-prize for an incorrect assertion about the Pentagon budget.  And the Fox News host Kennedy declared that Ocasio-Cortez’s tweets and streams show how “empty” is her brain.

Yet if Ocasio-Cortez is getting punched, she is also throwing punches.  She has taken potshots at White House chief of staff John Kelly, as well as House Speaker Paul Ryan (and by extension, the Main Stream Media, which she judges to have been too easy on him, and too hard on her).  

And while the objects of her scorn don’t always respond, sometimes they do, as has been the case with conservative pundit Mark Levin and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.  Indeed, her fans are now keeping score of her many tweet-tiffs, and it seems fair to say that most of Ocasio-Cortez’s nearly 6,400 tweets are calculated to elicit some sort of reaction from someone—and it’s been working for her. 

Ocasio-Cortez has also been increasingly willing to express her gripes about the MSM.  On December 18, she tweeted an attack on a Politico story she deemed to be wildly inaccurate.  Why, she even sounded a bit like a Republican in her exasperation: “This story has—Not a SINGLE named or verifiable source, Only ONE on-the-record comment, which is a denial.”  Her two-word summation of the piece: “Birdcage lining.”

In the meantime, digital conservatives are in full attack-mode on Ocasio-Cortez; the attacks include even her outfits.  And so, of course, “AOC” attacks right back—and her fans love it.  In the meantime, digital worker bees of the right are filling up the Internet with cartoons and other meme-worthy items.

Yes, as we all know, the Internet’s all right for fighting, but in the meantime, others, on the conservative side, are responding in a different way; they are building their own distinct digital domains.

One such is another incoming Member of Congress, Dan Crenshaw, Republican of Texas.  Born in 1984, Crenshaw also boasts an active social-media presence, 175,000 followers.  As a wounded war veteran—he lost an eye in Afghanistan—he routinely holds forth, via his many Net “channels,” on such topics as the right sort of eyepatch to wear.  (Crenshaw, of course, also had his own brush with fame after he was mocked by a “comedian” on Saturday Night Live in November; his subsequent appearance on the show was a triumph of media-savvy magnanimity.) 

Psychic Income Meets Political Ambition

So what we’re seeing now is a new kind of “wealth.”  That is, neither Ocasio-Cortez nor Crenshaw has even so much as been sworn into the 116th Congress, and yet already, they are “name brands.”  That is, wherever they go, they will attract attention—and, as a result, inevitably overshadow more senior members of the House.  

But will all this prominence translate into actual substantive accomplishments?  That remains to be seen.  

Ocasio-Cortez, in particular, has attempted to use her social-media presence to further her causes, including her campaign against an Amazon “headquarters” near her district.   She has even blasted the omnipresence of lobbyists in Swamptown.  We’ll have to wait and see how she does in those efforts. 

Yet her signature cause has been a “Green New Deal.”   As this author has written, the idea of a Green New Deal has legs, at least within the Democratic Party, although it’s uncertain whether Ocasio-Cortez will have much to do with the actual legislative legwork. 

Yet at the same time, we are seeing that, policy or no policy, these new social-media activists have created not only a new digital lifestyle, but also a new digital currency.  That currency is what economists call psychic income.  Psychic income has nothing to do with anything supernatural, and you can’t even spend it, and yet  it’s nevertheless real.  Merriam-Webster defines psychic income as:

Rewards (as in prestige, leisure, or pleasant surroundings) not measurable in terms of money or goods but serving as an incentive to work in certain occupations or situations.

Another word for psychic income, of course, is more familiar: fame.  And all through history people have yearned to be famous; they’ve been eager to gain fame through military conquest, or artistic achievement, or political advancement, or crazy stunts—anything. 

So now comes social media, which offers everyone the opportunity at least to try to become famous.  That is, one need no longer travel to New York City, or Hollywood, to seek fame and fortune—one can now just flick on an app.  Most such dreams go nowhere, of course, but a few hit it big; the Internet is making many new celebrities.   

And of course, even those who don’t see their name on a theater marquee or on the silver screen still get a nice consolation prize—the dopamine rush of that “hit send,” or comment, or retweet.  That is, big or small, everyone can play in social media; in their fashion, the social-media companies are making new stars all the time, one new star, in fact, for each of us—even if, of course, all but a few of these stars are just the tiniest of dots.  

Running Toward the Warmth of a Billion Suns

So this celebrity-making process is currently ongoing in politics.  In the case of Ocasio-Cortez and Crenshaw, social media has become a supplement to familiar political ambition; after all, they both ran for Congress, and won.  

Yet in other cases, social media seems to be an end in itself; some people are using political social media not to actually win office, but, rather, simply to get better known.  Indeed, some folks, thinking grandly, are even using social media as an opportunity to run, however quixotically, for president.  That’s right, president of the United States. After all, if being president is a sure ticket to fame, well, maybe running for president, too, is a ticket. 

One who wants a piece of the action is Marianne Williamson, the best-selling New Age author.  On November 15, she announced on YouTube that she was running for the White House.   

And then there’s Michael Avenatti, the pugnacious porn lawyer, who announced on October 10 that he was “seriously considering” running for president.  Amidst a hail of negative publicity about his past life and loves, Avenatti un-announced in December.  Yet for all his trouble, he still has his 863,000 Twitter followers.   Indeed, a look at his Twitter page shows him in a favorite fame-pose, surrounded by reporters and cameras.  

In the meantime, others, with more plausibility, albeit no more elective experience, are also thought to be seeking the presidency.  One such is green billionaire Tom Steyer; he pokes along with just 211,000 Twitter followers, but with all his money, he could get more followers, right quick.  Another billionaire is Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks… oh wait, he hasn’t tweeted at all.  Still, he has written a book and regularly comments on public issues, and so we’ll have to see if he does, in fact, have a rage for presidential fame.  If he does, Twitter will be the first to know. 

If Williamson, Avenatti, Steyer, and Schultz all seem implausible as presidential timber—that is, even to get a place on the ballot, to say nothing of actually winning the White House—well, they probably don’t care what the rest of us think.  

After all, they are on their quest for fame, fame, and more fame.   And thanks in large part to social media and the resulting psychic income—all those dopamine hits—they can have a lot of fun running.   

In other words, running for president, or just running for something, becomes an exciting lifestyle.  That is, you’re always busy, always doing interviews (admittedly to an interviewer who might be wearing pajamas, and to an unknown number of viewers), always rushing from place to place, always holding forth on important issues. 

Is this the lifestyle that most people crave—or can afford?  Of course not.   And yet as we are endlessly reminded, people, especially the rich, are different.  Social-media politicking might thus be seen as an expensive vanity, like collecting art, or racehorses, or cover stories in Town and Country.

A great example of a high-end political dabbler is Michael Bloomberg, who’s so rich, he could buy most other billionaires and still have plenty of money left over.  Bloomberg is more qualified than most other self-driven wannabes, insofar as he has actually held elective office; he was the three-term mayor of New York City.  Yet still, he’s in his mid-70s and has hardly the personal profile to appeal to Democrats, or the ideological profile to appeal to Republicans.  

Yet you can bet that nobody is saying “no” to Bloomberg.  And why should they?  After all, they’re on his payroll—and who wants to argue with the boss?   In the meantime, his campaign-style Twitter account boasts 2.28 million followers. 

Of course, not everyone running for president is rich.  For instance, there’s Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana.  And he’s having to get by on just 80,000 Twitter followers, although, that’s not bad for the leader of a mid-sized city.

One might think that Buttigieg, who’s only in his mid-30s, would be well advised to seek, say, a seat in Congress, or the governorship of his state, rather than running for president.  And yet Buttigieg may figure that his home turf is too Republican, and so he’s better off casting the net of his ambition wider than just Indiana.  

Or he might figure that it’s simply more fun to be on the national circuit, slinging tweets from, most recently, a progressive conclave in Iowa.  With apologies to the old World War One-era song about soldiers being gobsmacked by Paris, we might ask: How’re you going to keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen Des Moines?”

Another dark-horse figure perhaps making similar calculations is Richard Ojeda, a Democratic state senator in West Virginia who lost a bid this year for Congress.  That defeat notwithstanding, he, too, is running. 

To be sure, there are plenty more folks who might be tempted into the race.  They’ll be told, of course, that they have no chance—to which they can tell themselves, That’s what they told Trump.  For reference purposes, here’s a list of possible 2020 Democratic presidential candidates; it’s a safe bet that there are some names you’ve never heard of—and it’s an even safer bet that the list will grow.

One might ask: Is this proliferation of candidates good for the Democrats?  That is, if presidential “cattle shows” become unruly stampedes, might the resulting chaos enable some unelectable maverick to lope in and steal the nomination?  For sure, party chiefs will be trying to ride herd on their hopefuls, and yet we also know that in the new social-media landscape, a rogue with a big enough Twitter following might be capable of just about anything.  

After all, the lesson of social media is that now, more than ever, a self-starter can be a player.  These days, as Beto O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez have demonstrated, politics is personal ambition plus social-media ignition. 

Yes, the siren song of Fame—Pheme in ancient Greek—sings loudly to men.  And to women.  And to anyone else not fitting in those two categories. 

So now, in conclusion, we might turn to the reader and ask: Are you feeling lonely, and cold, in your obscurity?  Are you simply not as famous as you deserve to be?  Then perhaps you, too, should consider running for president in 2020.  It will warm you up!  

To be sure, you probably won’t win, and you might even go broke and make a fool of yourself.  And yet, thanks to social media, there’ll be some fine dopamine rushes along the way.

Yes, the light, and warmth, of billions of media suns will be there for you, beaming radiantly.  Okay, it’s true that this new social-mediated process is mostly fake, and hollow—that is, the warming suns might be nothing more than cool and distant pinpricks of light—and yet still, some find the chase to be bewitching, thrilling, and, for sure, stimulating. 

And of course, out there, amidst all the cold stars and dashed dreams, somebody will, in fact, win the presidency. 

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