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Political conventions are where politics and fandom converge. What happens in a pandemic?

The virtual DNC shortchanged the energy of political fandom — when it needs it more than ever.

A protest sign of Star Wars’ Princess Leia among US flags during the Women’s March on January 19, 2019, in New York.
A protest sign of Star Wars’ Princess Leia during the Women’s March on January 19, 2019, in New York.
Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The 2020 Democratic National Convention was a game-changer for national political campaign events: Without a large, cohesive, in-person live gathering, this year’s DNC (and this week’s even less adorned Republican National Convention, for that matter) took a considerably more bare-bones approach. This year’s convention cost millions less to produce and communicated the Democratic Party’s viewpoints just as effectively as before, without relying on all the space and spectacle typical of the physical event.

A win-win, right?

Well, not exactly. Live political conventions draw attendees for many reasons, be they delegates, activists, politicians, or wonks. For many of those attendees, the appeal is only partly about what’s happening onstage — and what’s happening onstage is only partly about politics. For all that this year’s DNC offered plenty of obvious advantages to its at-home viewers, it also lacked the key ingredient many of its usual, in-person attendees say they want: the energy of a passionate community.

Perhaps the best way to think of the Democratic National Convention is not as a political meeting for delegates, representatives, and voters across the country and territories. Perhaps it’s more helpful to consider the DNC as a major fan convention — like a Comic-Con where the stakes are much higher than who gets into Hall H.

Conventions are traditionally places where passionate people come to be passionate together, in real time. That feeling of mutual excitement can be crucial for political engagement across the spectrum. The need for that in-person camaraderie is something fandom and politics have in common — and understanding where they converge can help us understand why there are divergent opinions on whether a virtual convention is as effectively inspiring as an offline one.

Conventions offer a crucial renewal of fan energy. Political organizations need that as much as any fandom does.

Toward the end of the four-day convention, some viewers argued that all DNC events should be held virtually from here on out. But this was far from a consensus-building take, and each of the delegates I spoke to emphasized aspects of the convention you can only get from an in-person gathering.

If you think the political national conventions are just about establishing the party’s values, the speaker lineup, the procedural act of nominating the presidential candidate, and presenting that slate to the world, you’re probably one of the many people who now believe that all future conventions can be successfully run virtually.

If, however, you view the convention as the vital real-life space where politically engaged people get to meet, network, and generate ideas through the kinetic energy of a big group gathering, then a virtual event is a massive disappointment.

Several of the Democratic delegates I spoke with, nearly all of them younger, told me they were hugely disappointed with this year’s virtual DNC and the growing call to make the convention virtual moving forward.

This view surprised me — after all, aren’t the younger delegates the more extremely online ones? — until I placed it in the context of fannish engagement. After all, the fundamental appeal of a convention is about bringing people together so they can connect in person. The internet hasn’t changed that; if anything, it’s made people more eager to connect face-to-face at events like these.

“It’s kind of ironic, because young people understand the virtual world better than any other age group in attendance at this convention,” Zenaida Huerta, a California delegate who campaigned for Sen. Bernie Sanders as part of this year’s Young Delegates Coalition, told me. “And yet we find the young people craving more of really missing out on [the] in-person convention format because of the lack of community currently at present.”

The different perspective these younger delegates have on the DNC compared to older delegates also reflects a different approach to politics altogether from older generations — one that’s heavily, and often directly, influenced by fandom.

Huerta is one of many political activists with a background in fandom. As a teen, she said, she’d been “deeply entrenched” in the Hunger Games fandom, and the series profoundly affected her politics along with those of many of its fans. She points out that Gen Z teens grew up with the flood of post-apocalyptic young adult literature that The Hunger Games ushered in. “In a lot of ways, the circumstances that we find that we’re in now are post-apocalyptic,” she told me. “We’re in a global pandemic [and] an incoming economic crisis, and we’re experiencing it all under the pressure of a frankly authoritarian government, and [Hunger Games heroine] Katniss Everdeen rebels against that.”

Huerta and many of her fellow Hunger Games fans have modeled their behavior after their favorite fictional political rebels. Internationally, the franchise’s three-fingered salute to symbolize resistance has become a major protest symbol off the page, and Hunger Games fans have built activism campaigns based on the books to combat actual poverty, while using imagery from the books to protest President Donald Trump and climate change. And these fans aren’t the only ones drawing on their fandoms for inspiration. Some political organizations, like the Harry Potter Alliance and the Project for Awesome, have grown entirely out of fannish movements.

Fans will also apply tricks they learned from fandom to their political activism. See, for example, the display of merciless stratagems and abundant creativity deployed by a swath of K-pop fans, who applied their energy toward politics during the recent Black Lives Matter protests by spamming racist social media hashtags and then, infamously, reportedly reserving thousands of seats for a Trump rally and then ghosting.

“There’s a bunch of connections between the Yang army and the BTS Army,” Prat Mallick, a 17-year-old Democratic delegate from Texas, told me. “I have a couple of friends who stan both.”

Mallick pointed out that K-pop fans organize in precisely the way grassroots political organizations do, with individuals and small groups recruiting more people into the fold through systemic tools like social media to broadcast their message. “You totally see the same tactic where you have mass Twitter engagement and interest. That’s really what the grassroots [political] movement is about. It’s about taking individual people and combining with them with the power of every other person in that group and creating a real, sizable effect on whatever they’re trying to do. ... When they come together, they can make some really cool stuff happen.”

Politics and fandom have been entangled for many years — whether or not politicians acknowledge it

The intersection of politics and fandom — both the politicization of fandom and the growth of intense fannish engagement around politics — has been a major theme of the 21st century. The links are everywhere, from Trump’s fandom-esque voter base to voter bases self-identifying as collective fan communities, like the “deplorables” or the Yang Gang.

Academics have spent years observing and tracking the similarities between grassroots political activism and fandom. It’s a fusion that arguably has taken shape with the rise of what media studies scholar Henry Jenkins calls “convergence culture” — the convergence of the internet, fandom, and grassroots political activism as driving cultural forces merging into one system through which ideology spreads.

In his 2006 book Convergence Culture, Jenkins wrote that obsessive consumers of media were just beginning to engage in progressive political movements, modeling their behaviors around their fictional heroes. “With the 2004 election,” Jenkins wrote, “we can see citizens starting to apply what they have learned as consumers of popular culture toward more overt forms of political activism.” He described an evolution from a personal, individualistic view of politics to a collective, community-oriented view, “bringing the realm of political discourse closer to the everyday life experiences of citizens ... a shift from the individualized conception of the informed citizen toward the collaborative concept of a monitorial citizen.”

Today, that activism is almost a foregone conclusion. Self-identified fans have become ubiquitous amid the media landscape, whether they’re advocating for Hollywood diversity, demanding more queer superheroes, or seeking out empowering female characters. People who grew up with markedly political fictional narratives informing their childhoods, like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, have carried forward the progressive beliefs they gleaned from such series into their own lives and political platforms, often using their heroes as specific protest references.

A young fan imitates beloved teen superhero Kamala Khan to protest Trump’s anti-Muslim ban in 2017.
Navdeep Singh Dhillon/Twitter

Politicians have spent the past two decades weaponizing fandom both negatively and positively. During the 2008 election, in order to counter what pundits deemed an “enthusiasm gap” between Republican candidate John McCain and Barack Obama, McCain chose to attack emotion itself, actively mocking Obama’s “fan club” and the fannish enthusiasm surrounding Obama’s campaign. But Obama’s popular appeal and his still-thriving fandom have left their imprint on presidential campaigns since, from Trump to Sanders.

In the modern era, politicians have proven eager to capitalize on the mobilizing power of fandom. Trump’s zealous fannish engagement became one of the vital forces shaping modern election campaigns. And former Vice President Joe Biden managed to create a classic Cinderella narrative for the DNC this year around a single fan, after he rode an elevator with New York Times office building security guard Jacquelyn Brittany.

But if politics as fandom is nothing new, the view that politics is an act of fannish engagement is still an unconventional one. And as calls increase for the DNC to move online, fandom is a framing that’s getting overlooked.

“These conventions have often been raucous affairs,” Jeff Cohen, a longtime DNC attendee and co-founder of the Roots Action advocacy group, said. “They’re often a lot of fun. A lot of bonds are made, and it’s just hard to do that virtually.”

Cohen, who’s been to five national conventions, would know — he also attended Woodstock. But he spoke most wistfully to me not of Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1969, but of convention scenes he’d witnessed over the years: of fleeing police officers alongside other attendees after Rage Against the Machine’s 2000 DNC concert; of protesters filling the convention floor with signs, noise, and activist chants against party leaders of the day; of Jesse Jackson and other progressive leaders hanging out and chatting with delegates during the casual downtime moments.

In other words, Cohen may have come for the politics, but what he’s clearly taken away from all his decades of activism and campaigning is the community.

That DNC needs people gathering in one space. Without them, the DNC isn’t the DNC, in precisely the ways that Comic-Con isn’t Comic-Con without the parties, the side events, and the teeming social whirl — all the stuff that happens around and outside the actual convention programming.

At a fan convention like Comic-Con, all that passion fuels the fan communities, and the corporate machines their engagement supplies. But at a political convention, the passion leads to political engagement and ideally, political change. In a time when we urgently need such political change, activists and organizers need all the boosts of fannish energy and motivation they can get.

Cohen told me there was “zero” fannish energy around Biden’s campaign. “Everyone knows that.” He and the other delegates I spoke with all unanimously told me they’d found their main founts of communal energy at this year’s convention through events hosted by side organizations like the Progressive Democrats of America, not the Democratic Party itself. Attendees who were part of the Young Delegates Coalition, for example, could join virtual breakfasts, play games of Pictionary with fellow delegates, and attend nightly bingo game viewings of the speakers.

But it’s not the same — and Huerta told me she felt the actual experience of the main programming has been even worse. “Obviously at a breakfast, you get to sit down with your delegate friends in the morning and your lineup of speakers. And I recall that so vividly from my experience in Philadelphia [at the 2016 DNC]. Now you can’t even show your face. You don’t even have the option on Zoom to show your video.”

She told me she found that “extremely demoralizing.”

“I’ve been sheltering in place since March, because I live with an at-risk family member,” she said. “And it’s really lonely. And having some kind of sense of community at this convention would have meant the world.”

“There’s a lot of burnout that can happen,” Mallick echoed. “We feel like all this performative activism on the social media.” In person, the convention would have provided “that almost kinetic excitement. You hear and feel the screaming when you see a famous actor or a famous politician come up. Online, it’s a little different.”

The delegates also stressed to me that the lack of visibility of a virtual convention meant that they had a much harder time gaining attention for platforms and crucial issues that should have been headline news.

For example, during an in-person convention, the push to win more speaking time for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — one party leader with an undeniably huge fan base — would have garnered mainstream attention, with protesters able to visibly push her to the forefront of the conversation. Instead, she wound up getting little more than 60 seconds.

Cohen told me he thought many mainstream delegates saw that as a win. “I think the corporatists in the Democratic Party are happy about the fact that they could put on something that’s just a TV show,” he said, with no activists disrupting events.

But it’s also clear that these moments offer the diversity and colorful conversations that keep a convention fresh and exciting, and its attendees refreshed and enlivened. The appeals of a virtual convention may be many. But the drawbacks may cause the DNC to feel a little less human — at a moment when the party needs to remain in touch with its humanity more than ever.

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