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Illustration by Oscar Bray

We Must Move Beyond Binary Thinking: The Problem With Idolizing Politicians

Politicians should be treated as vessels to advance one’s political goals and individuals should be willing to compromise where necessary. Loyalty should never be to any one person but always to a greater ideal.

Oct 11, 2020

When it comes to Donald Trump, nothing seems to stick. His first term as president has been beset by personal scandals, international crises, domestic unrest and a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of U.S. Americans and counting. Yet, his approval ratings have remained remarkably stable at around 40 percent throughout his term with the lowest variation in ratings for any U.S. president since World War Two. This has led some to describe him as the “Teflon President.”
A large part of Trump’s consistent ratings have been attributed to his fiercely loyal supporters. His core base of voters believe that Trump is a panacea to the U.S.’s many challenges. Arguably, we can view this group as a microcosm of a larger political phenomenon that exists across the political spectrum, one which contributes to a lack of willingness to compromise, a tendency to dismiss a politician’s shortcomings, which ultimately leads to greater polarization: political fandom.
Political fandoms are characterized by their investment not only in a candidate's platform, but also in the candidate as a person. While partisanship is described as a commitment to a particular party or ideology, political fandoms are more interested in lionizing their candidate than advancing an agenda.
Crucially, the internet and social media have played a large role in the prevalence of the political fandom. Through these mediums, politicians have ample opportunity to engage in pop culture and cultivate a more personality-based approach with voters. As a result, the lines between the political and personal become more blurred and it becomes easier to form an emotional attachment to them.
According to Cornel Sandvoss, Professor of Media and Journalism at Huddersfield University, fandoms constitute a “regular, emotionally involved consumption of a given popular narrative or text” and the internet provides the medium for this consumption to occur at unprecedented levels. Through memes, political fanfictions, merchandise and unfettered access to thousands of like-minded individuals, it has never been easier to start a fanclub.
However, although these groups may claim to be motivated by a greater ideal, the personal attachment to their candidate and their politics become so intrinsically intertwined that, ultimately, their political participation is largely motivated by a strong sense of loyalty to their preferred candidate.
Take the example of the former U.K. Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time Labour politician seen as an anti-establishment candidate who unexpectedly became leader of the U.K.’s leftwing Labour party with a resounding majority. Drawn to his progressive, anti-austerity agenda, many viewed him as a refreshing alternative to an unsatisfying political status quo.
Suddenly, the unassuming Corbyn was thrust into the limelight and received treatment typically reserved for rockstars. In 2017, having simply led his party through an unexpectedly successful election campaign, Corbyn took to the stage at Glastonbury Music Festival and addressed a crowd of tens of thousands as they chanted his name. Corbyn had transcended ordinary political prominence to become a celebrity of the highest order. He was met with adoring and cheering crowds everywhere, constantly memed. His personal style was analyzed by Vogue and GQ. Britain was gripped by Corbynmania.
Yet, a shallow reading of Corbyn’s meteoric rise obscures something more sinister which later contributed to the Labour Party’s worst election defeat since 1935 in 2019, arguably caused by an intra-party factionalism engendered by Momentum, a group often described as “Corbyn’s personal fan club.”
A grassroots political group within the Labour party, Momentum was founded following Corbyn’s leadership victory with the self-declared aim “to create a mass movement for real progressive change.” However, their actions often focused on protecting Corbyn from his detractors. For example, Momentum often wielded the threat of deselection — the process of withdrawing support from a candidate thus preventing them from contesting a seat — over Corbyn’s parliamentary critics. The message was clear: get behind our man or get out.
By the 2019 election, Corbyn’s popularity had plummeted from the euphoric highs of 2017 to a historically-low net approval rating of -60. Indeed, 35 percent of former Labour voters cited Corbyn and his leadership as the reason for their defection in 2019. Corbyn had become a major liability for Labour, but bolstered by his personal fanclub, he remained to captain a sinking ship.
The case of Momentum, while uncommon in the sophistication of their organization, highlights a major issue with political fandoms. They form insular groups which are more interested in protecting their candidate than advancing an agenda through broad coalitions. As Momentum had concentrated all their electoral aspirations in the persona of Corbyn, it became imperative that they protect him, even at the expense of building a viable opposition. Indeed, Labour’s electoral defeat in 2019 and Corbyn’s subsequent resignation as the Labour leader emphasized Corbyn’s centrality to Momentum's entire political existence even further, as some questioned whether Momentum would even survive without the object of their fandom.
Indeed, political fandom is not limited to Corbyn. For example, elements of it exist among #BernieorBust Bernie Sanders supporters who refuse to support Joe Biden against Donald Trump, ostensibly because Biden is too moderate. Yet, Biden clearly aligns more with their supposed objectives and has even made policy concessions to garner their support. Essentially, these Sanders supporters would rather risk a Trump reelection than advance aspects of their agenda through a Democrat who is not Sanders himself.
Political fandoms adopt a binary approach to politics that is not dissimilar to supporting a sports team. Sports are not conducive to compromise. You do not go to a match and collaborate with the other team to achieve a common goal for the simple reason that your goals are diametrically opposed. One team winning necessitates the other losing. And if your team is not doing well, you buckle down, cheer them on and expect them to fight tooth and nail until the final whistle. Once the agenda becomes subsumed within the persona of a politician, supporters are less willing to enter into coalitions because as far as they are concerned, there is no space for compromise.
Politicians should be treated as vessels to advance one’s political goals and individuals should be willing to compromise where necessary. That is not to say that competent and inspirational politicians should not be celebrated. But loyalty should always be to a greater ideal.
Omar Hussein is a Contributing Writer. Email him at
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