Pinkerton: From AOC to Beto — The Political Stars Are Brighter Than Ever

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Bryan Bedder, SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images

When They Know You by Your Initials, You Know You’ve Made It

Here’s something interesting: As first reported by Axios, a data analytics company called Crowd Tangle finds that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez enjoys vastly more Twitter interactions than any other Democrat, and any media portal.  

Think about that. Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC as she is increasingly known, is 29 years old, and yet she is more viral, in social media terms, than any other Democrat, including former President Barack Obama. And she also boasts more interactivity than any media portal, including the nation’s largest-circulation newspaper, USA Today.  

To be precise about it, during the period December 11 to January 11, AOC claimed a combined total of 11.8 million retweets and likes, more than twice the number for the runner-up Democrat, Sen. Kamala Harris, and nearly quadruple the number for the top-ranking news portal, CNN.  

Not surprisingly, President Trump led all people and portals, with a massive 39.8 million interactions (more than nine times the total for Barack Obama, by the way). Yet still, AOC’s second-place total, 11.8 million, is impressive, considering that she’s been in elective office for only a couple of weeks. 

AOC has succeeded because she brings big issues—whether one likes them or not—to the fore, and she does it with urgency.

As we know, she has highlighted many lefty causes, from “Abolish ICE” to a “Green New Deal.” And in pursuit of her agenda, she’s never afraid to mix it up. In the words of Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), another rising young social-media star, “If you put yourself out there and throw stones, you’re going to get stones thrown back at you. She operates in the same style that, say, President Trump does. Throw stones, stones get thrown right back.”

Yet at the same time, in addition to immediacy, she offers whimsy. On January 15, she tweeted, “My congressional live-streams stay up for 24 hours. The Instagram handle to follow is @repocasiocortez.” Then she added a further note, complete with an emoji: “My personal livestreams don’t get archived and that’s the magic of them :).” (That last admission only guarantees, of course, that others, friend and foe alike, will be busy archiving them.)   

Most recently, in response to the partial government shutdown, she’s been leading a new social-media campaign, “Where’s Mitch?” which is a known wink to the classic “Where’s Dee?” TV spot—the spot that got Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) elected back in 1984, five years before AOC was born.

Put altogether, it’s working for her. And lately AOC has been championing another cause: dramatically hiking taxes on the rich; we can look to Google Trends to see how usage of the phrase “70 percent tax rate” has spiked. Indeed, a new poll finds that a sizable majority of Americans agree on raising the top tax rate. That’s the power of star power.

One left-wing economist who also supports dramatically higher taxes, Stephanie Kelton, spoke of AOC to the New York Times in admiring terms: “I’ve been trying to open up this rhetorical space for many, many years”—and failed. And yet now, Kelton continued, the soak-the-rich cause is gaining: “They used to talk about the ‘Oprah effect.’ I think it’s the ‘Ocasio effect’ at this point.”

To be sure, this prominence cuts both ways. That is, with all her luminescence, AOC’s ideas attract some, but they repel others. In the words of the Times, “Many Republicans are downright giddy at the notion that a self-described democratic socialist is driving Democratic policy discussions.” The newspaper quoted Steven Cheung, a former communications aide in the Trump White House: “Whether Democrats like it or not, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez is now the face of their party.” 

Of course, the fascination with AOC is easy to mock. As The Onion put it in a satirical headline: “Fox News Debuts Premium Channel For 24-Hour Coverage Of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” 

Yet even more sober observers insist that AOC is, in fact, a big deal. In the words of Gerard Baker, editor of the Wall Street Journal, “The more I see of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez . . . the more I think she is building a claim to be one of the most important political figures of our age.”

Stars Are Born

So yes, in AOC’s case, a star has been born. Of course, across the cultural spectrum from PewDiePie to Marie Kondo, social media is creating galaxies of new stars. To be sure, these new stars owe much to the past success of reality TV, and yet, without a doubt, they are doing things in their own new ways.

And the same is true for politics. We’ve already met Dan Crenshaw, the war hero with the eye patch, and let’s also not forget liberal heartthrob Beto O’Rourke—who  provides a cautionary tale about the danger of excess, too much information.

For instance, on January 10, O’Rourke went to the dentist, and, of course, there was a camera taking pictures of the dental procedure. Some said that this was a case of “jumping the shark”—that is, the moment when something goes too far, inviting ridicule. Thus, CNN analyst Harry Enten was moved to tweet, “Can this just stop? What next? Is someone going to film themselves on the toilet because they want to show they are just like everyone else?” 

Yet for his part, O’Rourke is determined to keep sharing. On January 16, he posted the following psychological self-assessment: 

Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk. My last day of work was January 2nd. It’s been more than twenty years since I was last not working. Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure, go where I don’t know and I’m not known, it’ll clear my head, reset, I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.

Some will find these thoughts charming, others will be reminded of Jack Kerouac, author of the 1957 beatnik classic, On the Road. Kerouac is a cult figure, but nobody ever thought of him as presidential timber. And oh yes, speaking of non-presidential timber, Willie Nelson sang a variation on this same theme. (In the anarchic new spirit of social media, O’Rourke’s musings have even given rise to a parody account—or maybe it’s self-parody.) 

Still, O’Rourke seems to be doing something right—at least in the eyes of the MSM. Here, for instance, is the January 19 headline in Politico: “Beto O’Rourke’s road trip drives home his message: His musings might be mocked but he’s generating a torrent of media coverage.”

Whatever happens in the future to any of these new political stars, left or right, this much seems true for sure: We are seeing, as I have written recently, a new species of media personality, the political digital native, and a new kind of media, the personalized micro-channel—although some channels, of course, might not be so micro.

These developments are taking us into yet new political-media territory, although it might, at the same time, seem distinctly familiar. 

The Stars Will Always Seek a Better Galaxy

If, as we have seen, political stars are bigger than their portals, then what does that tell us? We might go back and ponder again the numbers on Twitter interactions—the data showing that in a one-month period, AOC had 11.8 million, while CNN had just 3.1 million, ABC 2.2 million, and the Washington Post 1.5 million. 

Looking at this newbie star power, one wonders if AOC, as well as others, will be tempted to seek a new arrangement. That is, if they’re the ones with the brightness, then why are they sharing their wattage—and, of course, their data, and the data of their users—with Twitter and the other social media platforms? Wouldn’t they be better off on their own platforms where they could control everything about their interactions with their followers? Why not get rid of the middle man? If there’s ABC-TV, then why not AOC-TV—or its digital equivalent?  

The two-dollar word for this process is “disintermediation.” That is, a media relationship is reorganized with an eye toward greater efficiency—and, of course,  greater benefit for the people doing the disintermediating.  

We know this disintermediation can happen because it’s happened before, and quite successfully, in another kind of media. 

In fact, it was almost exactly a century ago, on February 5, 1919, that four of the biggest movie figures of the age—actors Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, as well as director D.W. Griffith—joined forces to create United Artists (UA). That glittering quartet was reacting to the monopolistic abuses of the Hollywood studios—most egregiously, Jesse Lasky’s Famous Players. UA’s idea was that artists should control the movies, not the studios and distributors; in other words, UA aimed to disintermediate the status-quo system. 

As recorded by film historian Tino Balio in his 1975 book, United Artists, 1919–1950: The Company Built by the Stars, Fairbanks declared at the outset of UA: 

We are going to make pictures, and make them as we want to, without the hampering restraints of set dates of release, and we are going to put the distributing profits into the pictures, where they belong.

For a time, UA was the hottest thing going. In its heyday, it attracted the talents of some of the greatest film legends, including Sam Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck, and Walt Disney. Over the decades, UA was responsible for many memorable films, from City Lights (1931) to Rebecca (1940) to Some Like it Hot (1959) to the James Bond series.   

Yet along the way, UA changed and lost its uniqueness. Today, UA is just another brand, subsumed within MGM Studios. (For its part, Famous Players became Paramount, which is now a part of Viacom.) 

Yet the disintermediation idea is a kind of permanent revolution, not limited to any one time or any one sector. Just as new media have been disintermediated by old media—and new media has been disintermediated by newer media—the same process of “creative destruction” is happening in, for example, streaming music and video. And did I mention that all the content-producers are plotting to disintermediate Netflix?

Politics, of course, is next.  

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