Don’t Let Politicians Meme Themselves Out of This One

Senator Bernie Sanders’ bird.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s State of the Union clap.

President Donald Trump’s … everything.

From Facebook allowing Russian propaganda to proliferate illegally to influence elections and with both Democrats and Republicans accusing Twitter of silencing their political viewpoints, social media’s impact on politics is, understandably, the (exhausting) conversation of our generation.

When discussing politics, we need to stop overemphasizing the superficial traits of politicians through memes and satire. It damages our political culture as a whole.

Nancy Pelosi’s now “internet famous” clap at President Trump during his Feb. 5 State of the Union address became the subject of countless memes circulating social media, with people touting it as an example of Nancy Pelosi’s “resistance” to Trump. Journalist Garance Franke-Ruta captioned the photo on Twitter with “thank u, next,” a reference to pop star Ariana Grande’s hit single. Dr. Eugene Gu, a popular political pundit on Twitter, referenced the photo as showing that Nancy Pelosi was going to “dog-walk” the President and described the clap as “iconic.”

All of this notwithstanding Speaker Pelosi’s explanation: the clap was not intended to be sarcastic. It was in genuine support of some of the President’s talking points.

My problem with this is not about making jokes about politicians or political situations. It’s the fact that social media is trying to portray this simple clap as some kind of act of resistance. In my view, it was not. Not a single person was helped by the clap and, more generally, the clap changed nothing. A common element of any resistance has to be the intent to cause meaningful political change.

What change can be attributed to Speaker Pelosi’s act? Has any policy been impacted, or even scrutinized, as a result of the clap?

This is not a one-off issue. In 2016, the progressive left used social media to portray a bird that happened to land on Senator Bernie Sanders’ podium during a campaign speech as a sign of support of his progressive policies. There are countless examples of President Trump, often referred to as the “Twitter President,” setting social media on fire with a one-liner or an over-the-top act that’s significance is exaggerated beyond reason by both his supporters and critics.

Politicians want the young vote and they know that the young vote is on social media. That’s why they expand their social media presence. If you told someone 20 years ago that sitting senators would be discussing a Cardi B video, you would have been laughed out of the room. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rising prominence has made politicians, especially those on the left, try even harder to appear relatable to young voters.

However, politicians are not celebrities and it is dangerous to treat them as such. I have celebrities that I love and politicians that I support. However, while there is no “right” reason to like a celebrity. The only reason to support a politician is because of their policies.

Politicians rely on social media presence because they know that some of their policies do not satisfy their constituents. They may be more hawkish than their target audience, or simply have no firm understanding of what young voters are looking for in a politician. In any case, their increasing reliance on social media is an effort to create the superficial appearance of being “connected” with young voters, while concealing the fact that their social media behavior is as vacuous as their political platforms.

I worry that this online trend is unhealthy and that we will replace real political positions with glib, but eminently “memeable,” gestures for which social media, and not the politician involved, provides the substance. Making a joke about Beyoncé is easy, suggesting that it shows that the politician making it is actually supporting black lives is wrong and dangerous. Similarly, wearing a rainbow flag is easy, posting pictures of a political act in social media as evidence that they support for protecting the rights of the LGBTQ community without understanding that this is, in fact reckless. While I understand why politicians do this, as constituents we need to resist their pandering and interrogate them as to what their actual political positions are.

To be fair, I am not immune to the trappings of social media. I, too, feel excitement when a politician references an artist I support or uses the hashtag of an issue I support. It makes the politicians seem more relatable to me. But we need to remember that in the end, we elect politicians because we believe that they have ability to fix problems we care about deeply and we can not let superficial acts make us forget that.


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