select all

Dear God, Please Don’t Let 2020 Be the Instagram Election

Beto O’Rourke posted videos on Instagram during his teeth cleaning appointment this week. Photo: Screenshot courtesy of Andrew Kaczynski

Beto O’Rourke’s teeth are nice and clean today. I know this because on Thursday, O’Rourke posted a Story on Instagram, where he has over 750,000 followers, in which he interviewed his dental hygienist about her life in El Paso while she cleaned his teeth. O’Rourke is a 46-year-old Democrat from Texas. His failed Senate campaign relied heavily on the fact that he’s different from establishment candidates like his opponent Ted Cruz, and not just politically. He’s hip. He’s relatable. He’s somebody who can talk straight to the camera in an Instagram Story and have it feel on-brand. He can even Instagram Live and have it feel like he actually knows how to operate the app himself, rather than delegating the task to a social media manager.

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez streams live from her kitchen on Instagram, it’s to the same effect. Ocasio-Cortez, at 29, is the youngest woman to serve in Congress in United States history. She’s a digital native. It’s even easier to believe it’s genuine when she posts snippets of her day, from policy meetings to her coffee mugs (endorsing public libraries, naturally.) Or when she tweets a clapback video, dancing in front of her office. Or that she even knows what a clapback is and how to flawlessly execute one.

The same goes for Will Haskell, a 22-year-old state senator from Connecticut whose campaign was endorsed by Barack Obama. Haskell, throughout his campaign and since, has been a regular on Instagram Stories. Often, he talks straight to the camera about what he’s up to on that particular day, using an auto-caption app so viewers don’t need to be able to hear the video — if you’re tapping through Stories in a public place, like the subway or the office, chances are you have the sound off — to know what’s up. It’s function ends up as something like having cable news on, with closed captioning, in the background of a newsroom or a bar or your home. It’s quick and easy to get the gist of it and then get back to whatever you were doing.

But these are the exceptions to the rule. For the most part, politicians integrating social media into their lives, or at least social media as it would be used by an influencer, feels flat and lands wrong. AOC can chill in Cedar Rapids, if she wants to. HRC cannot. (The Clinton campaign posted an ill-fated Vine of Clinton “just chilling in Cedar Rapids,” which became a meme faster than you can say “Cedar Rapids.”) Senator Kirsten Gillibrand baking cobbler seems forced because it comes out of nowhere. If you’re Senator Cory Booker, and you’ve been offering to help shovel people’s snow on Twitter for nearly a decade now, it’s fine to keep it up. But for candidates trying to shoehorn in social personalities to keep apace with their peers, we’re in for a lot more Cedar Rapids moments.

Ultimately, this is a recipe for mutually assured destruction. Just because Beto O’Rourke narrating his life on Instagram Stories feels natural doesn’t mean anybody wants to watch him or other candidates keeping up with their dental hygiene. (The post was one of several highlighting stories about living in a border town, but that context got a bit lost with the close-up on O’Rourke’s teeth.) It’s not hard to picture an office somewhere in the United States right now in which a 2020 hopeful’s staff is frantically planning social strategy. Well, Beto O’Rourke did that tooth thing and people are STILL talking about it, so what if we have our guy do that, but while he’s … re-grouting his shower? The rightfully-deserved attention and praise Ocasio-Cortez has garnered for her social media presence could backfire if everyone starts thinking they can manufacture that for themselves. Which, spoiler, they most likely cannot. Obviously — obviously — political candidates should use the platforms at their disposal to campaign and do their jobs and keep people informed in easily accessible ways. But I’d prefer it if they stuck to telling us what they believe in and what they are working on. I don’t need to see their gums.