Political “Fan Culture”: Knowing vs. Needing Politics

Matt Huber
Feb 17, 2019 · 12 min read

Well, it seems like the 2020 debate is upon us. And, it seems like many of the tropes and divisions of 2016 are coming back with a vengeance. I want to elaborate on a perceptive tweet I saw recently basically calling out a particular twitter style of “politics” as “basically fan culture.”

I want to differentiate this notion of politics as “fan culture” from what I want to call politics as politics. For me, politics is — or at least should be — a coordinated movement of people with a particular set of interests and principles who struggle to improve their conditions of life. This is why the above tweet notes many people are obsessed with “politics” yet appear to have no concrete policy aims they care about. Isn’t that odd?

Politics as “fan culture” is different. It’s based on a strong “identity-based” psychological attachment to a party. This is “fan culture” because you’re essentially rooting for your team to win regardless of concrete material or policy outcomes.

More than anything, fan-culture politics is rooted in knowing rather than needing politics. One develops knowledge of politics by devouring the news in print, yelling at cable news on TV, and spending inordinate time crafting and revising lines of political argumentation on social media. Your knowledge also serves you well “in real life” at dinner parties and family gatherings where you can dazzle people with your nuanced and informed takes on the political state of things.

Why do these people not need politics? As the tweet suggests, this form of politics is particularly common “on the Democratic side.” Democratic party politics as “fan culture” also emerges largely from a particular class location — what could be called the the “professional class”. As Thomas Frank argues, it is this professional class that is now the “base” of the Democratic Party. Lily Gesimer shows from the 1980's on, the party consciously shifted its strategy to appeal to more moderate suburban professionals. This includes journalists, academics, tech workers, and other “creative” knowledge economy positions. This professional class is a healthy portion of the top 20% of U.S. society is essentially doing OK amidst grinding poverty for the nearly 1/3 of the American workforce making less than $12/hour and the masses above them trying (and failing) to maintain middle class existence. This Democratic fan culture is also rampant among extremely wealthy and affluent people in finance, medicine, law, etc. It is this class of people that explains the stunning statistic that after the 2018 mid terms, 42 out of the wealthiest 50 congressional districts are now blue.

The Democratic base is now affluent professional class “smart people” who study and know politics very well. Moreover, they care about politics a lot.

These kinds of college-educated professionals are prone to approaching politics as something you study and follow — not something you organize around or build.

The most important point is those who secure a relatively stable career in the professional class have a degree of material security so that “politics” is not really about anything specific they need in their lives. They might think “Medicare for All” is a good idea, but they have stable employer-provided health insurance (although even the most affluent are surely annoyed their premiums keep rising and rising). They might be fervently against racism, but they send their children to an ethnically homogeneous elite private or affluent suburban school. In many ways, they have actually achieved what the Republican neoliberal “free market” program asks of them — a kind of individualized economic self sufficiency. Yet, they understand intellectually why this anti-social free market ideology is bad overall — so they support a generous “liberal” welfare state hypothetically, even if they don’t need it.

Politics as “fan culture” is not only about knowing — and not needing — politics, but it is also about feeling politics. For those on the Democratic side, our strongest emotions are rooted in the trauma of experiencing political news when Republicans are in power. This is not a new thing with Trump, but stretches back to Nixon. The horror that [insert latest Republican goon] is in the White House is simply psychologically infuriating. But, again, for many of the richest professional classes, the terrible right wing politics of these evil men don’t affect them very much in real terms other than having to bear with the daily onslaught of the news. The cut to the Food Stamps feels terrible when you learn about it. But, it does not affect the professional class liberal’s actual life circumstances in any significant way.

Conversely, having the Democrats in power also feels great. At a basic level, this could mean feeling good about how that particular Democratic politician carries him or herself in office. Fan culture politics, like any fandom, cherishes political ‘stars’ who perform their office with with style and grace. The most obvious case of this is Barrack Obama who is amazingly charming, intelligent and inspiring in his rhetoric (while his actual policies were written by Wall Street, continued the Bush-era war on terror, and allowed the largest expansion of fossil fuel extraction in American history). Democratic political fan culture still shares that meme that asks you to “Share if you miss having this family in the White House” (featuring the Obama’s), but recoils upon any suggestion that it was Obama’s policies might have laid the conditions for the horror and trauma we now confront in the current White House.

Now, another crucially important point: the professional class of fan culture politics represents a minority of the population — thus, its political influence in pure electoral terms can only be marginal (even as its voice is oversized in media and academia). A recent estimate from 2010, suggests the professional class represents 22% of the employed population — roughly 30 million workers. On the other hand, this class exists in a hermetically sealed cultural bubble of other like-minded liberal college educated professionals (scan your FB friends right now — is there anyone on there that is part of the two thirds of Americans who lack a college education?). We don’t stop and consider that 99% of the people we interact with come from this very specific and partial cultural class bubble. It is easy to conclude that the “fan culture” debates and squabbles within these elite bubbles are actually a form of politics itself.

Now — most of the country does not fit into this profile. Consider this stat — the median wage in our economy is $31,561.49 — meaning 50% of wage earners earn less than that. 40% of American households could not afford a simple $400 emergency and live paycheck to paycheck. The working class population (estimated at 63% in the table cited above) includes many which lack a Bachelors Degree (again two thirds), and are stuck in the low wage hellscape of precarious and undignified work. Working class people might not know a lot about politics, but they need politics in the non-fan culture sense. They need a political movement based on their specific material interest in free health care and education, more economic security, more free time, and more control and dignity in the workplace.

The problem is that even if the working class needs politics, most working class people have for good reason concluded that politics is not something that can help them. Most people see it as hopelessly corrupt and dysfunctional. Regardless of which party is in power, it never seems to deliver thing that actual struggling people actually need in their lives.

In a widely circulated article on why poor working class African Americans in Milwaukee did not vote in the 2016 election, one person shows no regret, “I don’t feel bad…Milwaukee is tired. Both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.”

Instead of turning to politics, many working class people turn inward. As Jennifer Silva puts it in her fascinating book on working class adulthood, “Rather than turn to politics to address the obstacles standing in the way of a secure adult life” she finds people focus on “personal coming of age stories” or “emotional self-management and willful psychic transformation.” Our neoliberal society tells us we are on our own as isolated individuals and that collective efforts at politics are inherently doomed; and many accept this and turn to Oprah-tinged self help narratives of individual responsibility and tenacity.

So, think about the above number of 40% who could not afford a simple $400 ER visit, and consider 40% did not vote in the 2016 election and 50.7% did not vote in the 2018’s midterm elections. Now, imagine we actually built a movement based on candidates who offer something to this aggrieved 40–50% of people too busy and stretched thin to follow, care or believe in politics.

Such a movement is emerging. Out of Bernie Sanders surprising 2016 primary tun — garnering 13 million votes and winning 23 states — organizations like “Justice Democrats”, “Our Revolution”, and the “Democratic Socialists of America” are running or endorsing candidates who reject corporate money and offer clear and simple policies based on what the vast majority of working class voters need — free health care, free college, a “Green New Deal” with a Federal jobs guarantee — and a pledge to take on corporate power — the Wall Street Banks who caused the 2008 financial crash, the Pharmaceutical companies who created the opioid crisis, and the fossil fuel industries that have caused catastrophic climate change. Such a working class politics based on what people actually need could potentially turn out an extra 10% of the electorate by giving masses of people normally alienated by politics something to vote for.

Yet, many professional class fan-culture political experts continue to malign a politics that actually offers the masses of people the politics they need. Adopting the mantra of “just win, baby!” the fan culture politics junkie is exactly the type of person who will say in the 2020 cycle — “We just need to find someone — anyone!-who can defeat Donald Trump” or, “These Bernie-crats are trying to divide us, when the real enemy is Donald Trump.”

The utter trauma of experiencing “politics” through the lying reality-show demagoguery of this horrible, horrible man is almost too much to take. Given this trauma, the knowledgeable political junkie will abandon any and all policy desires and political principles to settle on an “electable” candidate (even, as Corey Robin, pointed out on FB, the very knowledge of what is or is not electable is now completely up in the air — as 2016 so vividly illustrated).

Winning is all that matters — no matter what material outcomes come out of that victory. If the New York Times says the “electable” candidate is Joe Biden because of his folksy faux-working class persona — political fans will say: fine, let it be Joe Biden (even if he’s spent much of his career serving the credit card industry and even opposed school bus integration). If David Axelrod says Beto has a lot of “buzz” around him — and pundits say his charisma is “Obama-like” — then Democratic fan culture will get behind Beto (even if he took money from the fossil fuel industry and voted with Trump in disturbing ways).

There are also several other prominent narratives spun by elite political pundits and their fans for the last forty years that attempt to convince otherwise “progressive” people that a politics based on what people actually need cannot and will not ever win. First, we know in 1972, George McGovern went left and got crushed by the arch-evil Republican of the times, Richard Nixon. The lesson of this is of course: the left can never win. This is, of course, an amazingly ahistorical and static vision of politics as something that moves in any given direction (I could just as well take the 1936 election to prove that left wing ideas like social welfare and union rights are the key to mass majoritarian victories). 2019 is far and away vastly different political circumstances than 1972. In 1972, the liberal consensus that governed American politics was on the wane and a right wing “free market” politics against government and taxes was on the rise. It is clear in 2016, that the form of neoliberal politics that rose to power with Reagan in 1980 — and shifted politics rightward for a generation — is in the exact same position as “liberalism” was in 1972: incredibly fragile. The only question is which way politics will go: toward a right wing nationalism very different from the free trade neoliberalism of Reagan et al, or a left wing populism that actually tries to give an answer to the bottom 80% of Americans suffering immense insecurity in their basic conditions of life.

Second, these pundits and fan culture politics junkies, will say things like “To win, you need to appeal to the center.” See another post of mine where I try to address this claim. This type of argument will cite data like 42% of American voters are independent, but other analysis show that most of that 42% lean to one party or another, and when that is taken into account only 12% of American voters are truly “independent” in the sense of going either way. More specifically, the “center” often stands in for a person who is liberal on social issues (e.g. pro gay marriage) but conservative on economic issues (e.g. low taxes and budget austerity is a moral virtue). Actual research shows, however, that there is actually very little evidence that a mass amount of voters are clamoring for this kind of centrist policy. Mainly these views are the minority view of the super-wealthy (billionaires like former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz or Michael Bloomberg). Justice Democrat communications director Waleed Shahid said it perfectly: “Centrism refers to itself as the ‘rational middle’ but really it’s a fringe movement trying to defend the economic preferences of the 1%.”

Political scientist Spencer Piston’s research shows that huge proportions of the American public resent the rich and have sympathy for the poor — and will respond to a politics that aims to curb the power of the rich to serve the poor. In other words, this form of “politics as politics” can also win. It is my contention that a political platform based on what the majority of people actually need in their lives will not only capture a majority of the truly “independent” voters (that 12% mentioned above), but also turn out and extra 5–10% of the otherwise unengaged and apathetic poor and working masses who suffer significant barriers to vote as it is. It is clear that if the Democratic party actually succeeded on turning out this extra electorate it could finally win in a landslide (imagine where it could handily win both the popular vote and the electoral college).

But to gain this kind of majority, we need to go beyond political fan culture. The truth is while the Democratic Party has for decades either taken for granted or actively betrayed the most exploited parts of its electoral base — African Americans and unions in particular — the true “base” to take for granted is precisely this “progressive” base of professional class Democratic Party “fans.” These people are not only extremely knowledgeable about politics, they are incredibly dependable voters (they will likely wear the “I voted!” sticker more proudly, and perhaps obnoxiously, than anyone you know). We can definitely take these voters for granted while reaching out to the disenfranchised masses who actually need politics to be about addressing their needs.

It’s easy to see the roadblock to building a politics based on what the majority actually need. The Democratic Party is totally captured by its millionaire and billionaire class of donors. “It’s a party of business that has to pretend otherwise for electoral reasons.” The donor class is more likely to say we can’t “afford” the things the masses of workers need — free health care, college, and a Green New Deal. They know it is taxes on them that are needed to fund these policies ordinary people would benefit from (I highly recommend this episode of This American Life where a Berniecrat goes to a fundraiser talking about economic populism, and he is immediately reprimanded — “You should have talked about LGBT” he was told).

Here’s the problem: if we don’t build a politics beyond fan culture, things will likely continue to get worse for the majority of people. As things continue to get worse, most people will continue to look for alternatives against the establishment ‘sensible’ corporate candidates — whether that be John Kasich or Joe Biden. It is this context where a candidate who blames peoples’ struggles on ‘foreign others’ like China and immigrants starts to sound attractive. While corporate candidates can only vaguely talk of “ladders of opportunity” and “tax savings accounts”, a candidate who mixes xenophobic nationalism with a critique of free trade and off-shoring corporations starts to make some sense. A corporate Democrat might win in 2020, but it won’t start to solve the problems of worsening inequality that led to Trump in the first place. And, it will lead to even worse and more component versions of Trump in the future. To counter this, we need to make politics politics again.


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