If there’s one thing I’m grateful to 2020 for, it’s that the level of political awareness increased dramatically. On both sides of the aisle, voter registration and the number of voters in our elections have increased. It’s a political enthusiast’s biggest dream: to see people actively engaging in our Republic’s systems.
And these statistics don’t just apply to middle-aged Americans. The youth vote is increasing. Social media activism has also been popular among Gen Z, demonstrating a clear political awakening amongst America’s younger population. As a member of Gen Z myself, I’m elated by the increase of political awareness in my generation. It’s comforting to know we feel a sense of responsibility to engage in politics and, you know, save the world.
It’s not all rosy, though. As with most things, stan culture has permeated the world of Gen-Z politics, creating an interesting dynamic. Over the past month, I’ve navigated politically-oriented TikToks, Instagram comments, tweets, and the like to learn more about Gen Z’s mentality toward politicians. During this time, I’ve seen a pattern: Gen Z loves to blindly stan Progressive Democrats without recognizing they aren’t perfect people.
The root of the problem lies in stan culture itself: it’s not healthy to commit so completely to any one person or group. As stan culture, specifically Stan Twitter, has become popularized in the mainstream, so have its flaws. Stans have a hard time calling out their faves for problematic behavior. Apply this rationale to American politics, and you’ve got yourself a massive problem.
In a lot of ways, I think applying stan culture to progressive politics makes the subject more approachable. American politics is only as entertaining as it is because we make a spectacle of politicians over their policies, and stan culture amplifies this behavior. Following our favorite politicians on social media helps us better understand their personalities, bridging the distance between Capitol Hill and home. Gen Z has an in to the world of progressivism through the personas of Bernie Sanders, AOC, and The Squad. The Squad has been particularly accessible to younger generations, as it characterizes six congresspeople—Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush—for being the most Progressive and kick-ass individuals in Congress, despite their downfalls in belief and policy. Accordingly, mainstream media has framed them as the superheroes of modern Democratic politics. As a country, we can be entertained by the people playing politics for us in D.C.—and Gen Z takes this sentiment to the extreme.
A younger crowd of liberals and Democrats use stan culture as a way to navigate the murky waters of D.C. politics. Slogans like #HotGirlsforBernie and even “Settle for Biden” exist to promote the progressive promises of Sanders and Biden, without providing any education on their nuances. In the case of #HotGirlsforBernie, celebrities and their fans jumped onto the Sanders hype train during his run in the 2020 Democratic primaries. The hashtag originated to support Sanders’ advocacy for items like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal—policies that are easily identifiable as “good” by political onlookers. The trouble with #HotGirlsforBernie, however, was the blind influx of followers it brought onto the Sanders train, many of whom didn’t know much about the Vermont senator outside of the hashtag. Supporting Sanders became a trend, a meme for those craving a moment in the Twitter-scape’s spotlight. The caveat to this is that there are #HotGirlsforBernie who do view Sanders as human and capable of mistakes. That’s a good thing; trends aren’t always completely dominated by stans. The danger of trends, though, comes in the form of the supporters they amass who value fame over said trends’ message.
The same goes for the “Settle for Biden” phenomenon that sprouted during the 2020 election. The trend was a tactic to sway Bernie voters and other Dems who weren’t quite on the Biden train, reluctantly pulling them to his side. By framing Biden as the lesser of two evils, the Settle for Biden movement garnered support for a candidate who is far more moderate than many younger Democrats wanted.
To be clear, I don’t want to gatekeep politics. I don’t want to say that you have to be able to name three progressive policies to join the club. My trouble lies in the blind support I see my peers giving AOC, calling her “queen” and a “legend” just for being a Democrat despite her flaws. AOC is a prime example of a politician presenting herself as less of a policy-maker and more of a person. From her viral Among Us stream to her Instagram Lives and Vogue makeup routine video, AOC has successfully entered pop culture as a “relatable” politician. She’s a powerhouse member of Congress, no doubt. Championing everything from the Green New Deal to affordable healthcare, AOC has embodied progressivism on the left, vocally defending issues that other Democrats have been lukewarm on. But does that truly merit a fancam? Stan culture’s entrance into politics has made it easier for Gen Z to consume politics at a surface level. Politics can be viewed through a more entertaining, light-hearted lens when stan culture is involved. Fancams, infographics, and hashtags distill the flaws and nuances of politics as they are.
Politics requires critical thought. It thrives off it. The Constitution’s intention was for the people to have extensive power over and influence on the government. This stalled somewhere along the way, but Gen Z has the ability to bring it back. It should be Gen Z’s responsibility to hold politicians accountable for the change we want to see, and while that shouldn’t bar us from supporting politicians, it does set a boundary. In order to hold elected officials accountable, we must be critically aware of their promises and shortcomings. Stan culture inherently idolizes individuals, and therefore should have no place in the process of holding the government accountable. Going forward, the constituents who can analyze and call out their politicians—who can criticize them and push for the change their representatives have promised—are the model to follow. Gen Z is still young. We have time to amend our mistakes and drain the blind love for Bernie and Biden out of our system. Supporting the party of your choice is step one. Holding that party accountable is step two—stanning them is not.
By Sophia Moore
Illustration by J. Longo