On June 26, 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated incumbent Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary for NY house district 14, an area that covers parts of the Bronx and Queens. Her win, by nearly 15%, was labeled a shock, a political coup, and the most important upset of the 2018 midterm cycle. Crowley was the number four Democrat in the House of Representatives and thought to be a possible successor to then-minority leader Nancy Pelosi. In contrast, Ocasio-Cortez was a twenty-nine year old former teacher, bartender, and campaign organizer for Bernie Sanders’ presidential run (in January of 2019 she also became the youngest woman to ever hold national office). She had never held elected office and her campaign was outspent nearly 18 to 1 by the Crowley campaign. Footage from primary night shows AOC, as she is often referred to, as shocked by her victory as the political establishment was.1 AOC’s triumph would turn out to be indicative of the wave of women, 102 in all, who took their seats in the 116th congress, the largest number in US history at that point. She was also one of 44 Latinos who were sworn in. However, in this moment, perhaps her most talked about quality is her ideological bent: she is a member of the democratic socialists, a pro-labor, activist organization that supports both legislative lobbying and direct action. Her ideologies, combined with her outspokenness and social media savvy, have triggered both adoration and venom, helping to keep socialism a political buzzword.2 She and three other first-time progressive congresswomen of color – Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley – have also come to be known as “the squad”, increasing AOC’s visibility in both progressive and conservative media, and sustaining competing discourses about modern socialism.3
A Gallup poll from August of 2018 found that 57% of Democrats view socialism positively (unchanged from 2016), but only 47% viewed capitalism positively, down from 56% in the same time period. But equally as important was the finding that,
Americans aged 18 to 29 are as positive about socialism (51%) as they are about capitalism (45%). This represents a 12-point decline in young adults’ positive views of capitalism in just the past two years and a marked shift since 2010, when 68% viewed it positively.4
Those who came of age in the shadow of the great recession are much more skeptical of a system of global capitalism that defined the post-war industrialized world and development policy. In this environment of anxiety about employment, health insurance, housing, inclusion, and exploitation, the ideologies of Democratic socialism are capturing the hearts and minds of many young people, and AOC is viewed alongside senators Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren as a torch bearer for these ideals.
In the contemporary US political sphere, socialism is emerging from the quagmire of Cold War thought, and its advocates are re-defining what twenty first century socialism means. This repositioning is done in relation to public policy statements that differentiate between a new vision for Democratic socialism and Soviet, Cuban, or Chinese-style statist communism, Western neo-liberalism, and protectionist capitalism. Separating socialism from its Cold War forms also includes remaking the aesthetics of democratic socialism, or (progressive) millennial populism.5 Gone are the days of heavy handed socialist realism and statist art that uniformly valorized the worker, the means of production, and the instruments of the state. What has replaced socialist realism in the contemporary US are aesthetics derived from recent popular culture – from DIY punk, mash-ups, and tribute videos to hand-made signs and pink hand-knit “pussy hats”. The new ideologies of millennial socialist populism are shrouded in an aesthetic bricolage of past progressive social movements and their creative products.
Every ideology has an aesthetic and vice versa. These aesthetics, and constellations of related aesthetics, include the visual, textual, linguistic, sonic, haptic, and at times gustatory. Aesthetics tether ideas to sensations, form indelible impressions, and affectively connect individuals to candidates, parties, cultural practices and ideologies.6 These aesthetic constellations communicate between the visceral and the abstract, they serve as concrete reminders of history, but also exist as empty signifiers that accommodate varied and contradictory hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The aesthetics of the campaign, in performances of ideology and symbolic actions, serve to attract voters, volunteers, donations, and advocacy. They also become a template for future campaigns, as successes on the campaign trail are often mimicked.
When examining recent approaches to campaigning, with particular attention paid to the rise of both conservative and progressive populism, we should analyze these movements within their contemporary context, but also bring questions to bear on the immediate future of political campaigns and to the resurgence of populism in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. If we are to take AOC as both extension of Bernie Sanders’ populist approach and as an innovator in her own right, what historical connections can be made and questions asked about future campaigns? I believe that AOC’s campaign was a combination of appealing rhetoric and attractive policies that convinced voters in NY-14 that they needed a change. Her campaign’s DIY aesthetic helped to convince voters that she listened to them, understood their histories and needs, and that she would be their advocate. DIY aesthetics connected AOC to a history of grassroots movements that prized authenticity and directness, wore suffering like a badge of honor, and were synonymous with independence, class politics, and a David vs. Goliath mentality.
The DIY aesthetic and cognitive praxis has diverse roots in punk and indie music, home building, home economics, clothing and handcrafts, and numerous working-class lifeways.7 An acronym that stands for “Do It Yourself”, DIY began as an economic reaction to shortages of resources, lack of access, or systematic denial of opportunity. Eventually, DIY activities, from sewing, home improvement and auto repair to underground music industry and zines, served as alternative public spheres, symbols of family and community, and acts of resistance and critique. By creating a campaign with DIY tactics and aesthetics, AOC’s 2018 campaign was able to portray her as an alternative to the Democratic-industrial complex and her campaign itself as a movement of, for, and by the people against entrenched power. To her constituents AOC represented “one of us”, one of “the people” of Queens and the Bronx, someone who understood their everyday joys and struggles and who reveled in what the community was and could be. This was done through symbolic actions that subverted typical political narratives and tropes. Her campaign, in its emphasis on hand-to-hand retail politics, resembled nothing as much as the early machinations of touring populist agitators and punk and indie basement show promoters (often the bands themselves and their friends). Her YouTube get out the vote ads, which will be examined in detail, exhibited the aesthetics of DIY populism at its finest – raw, spontaneous, direct, and subjective – and encouraged constituents to speak freely, authentically, and emotionally.
Her campaign employed an aesthetic that appealed to multiple constituencies and cultures represented in NY-14 by presenting a DIY attitude on the part of the candidate. This praxis created an open alternative forum for constituents to speak from their individual positions, but in relation to district and the US politics as a whole. The rest of article will examine AOC’s 2018 ads and campaign strategy in relation to aesthetic and DIY theory. I begin with Eagleton’s broad theory of the ideology of the aesthetic, and then engage populist theory from political history, and finally draw comparisons to a more recent deployment of DIY aesthetics, punk, and particularly the Riot Grrrl zine and political music scene that originated in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s.
Aesthetics and Ideology
Aesthetics are ideologies. They reflect active and dynamic relationships to ideas, discourses, imagined causalities, moralities and communities. In examining aesthetic communities, we are led into divergent and contradictory spaces where single objects are interpreted differently for similar ends and vice versa. At the aesthetic level, interpretive communities possess heterogeneous textures and multiple frames. For Veit Erlmann, reading aesthetics through Kant, aesthetic communities are mired in a fundamental polarity between unity of judgment and a plurality of subjective interpretation. Aesthetic communities dissipate as quickly as they form, they are fragile and fraught. But perhaps more important is the role that these delicate, fickle formations play. To quote Erlmann,
Aesthetics become the ethics of modern human existence in which subjects and communities model themselves on an epistemology of Erscheinung rather than Wesen, on a play of forms rather than on the actualization of some existential truth…In short, aesthetic communities are those social formations…that are not anchored in rigid structures of control, habitus, and filiation.8
I believe that Erlmann’s assessments of aesthetic communities in the Kantian tradition are accurate, that for societies in the process of rejecting previous social structures and modes of association and searching for new ones, aesthetics become ethics. But I hesitate to reproduce his split between Erscheinung [appearance] and Wesen [being]. Under conditions of late capitalism and digital culture, being is always at risk of being reduced to appearance, a play of surfaces without depth, a productive presence without history, a copy for which there is no original.9 In this, judgement is often premised on external features and sensations – devoid of historical knowledge, analytical nuance, or recourse to established methods of inquiry. Judgments rendered become premises for concrete actions, filiations, and ways of being, necessitating a maintenance of specific aesthetic regimes to create political continuity. In this process, aesthetic communities become more concrete, and their political implications more severe, than Kant might have theorized. Those who depend on the durable formation of aesthetic communities to manufacture consent cultivate unanimity of aesthetic judgements, both positive and negative. Taste becomes instrumentalized and weaponized to portray style as profound and irrefutably indicative of political stances, future actions, and specific ontologies.
For Terry Eagleton, the aesthetic plays a particular function in democracy, particularly in the wake of the development of scientific and sociological inquiry. While sophisticated metrics and expertise may be a prerequisite for speaking on public policy, science, economy, or law, aesthetic judgements are available to anyone. Eagleton places aesthetics as a “welcome respite from alienating rigors of other more specialized discourses, and offering, at the heart of this great explosion and division of knowledges, a residually common world.”10 The world of the aesthetic is therefore both common and contested. Many have access to aesthetic objects, and in a digital world more individuals share in measures of similitude and overlapping reference points. In addition, more inclusive technology and social structures allow for proliferations of speech about these objects, profound and profane. But the aesthetic also “provides an unusually powerful challenge and alternative to these dominant ideological forms…”11 While Eagleton historically places European aesthetics “at the heart of the middle class’ struggles for political hegemony”,12 he also sees it as a field of contestation that does not automatically relinquish advantage to ruling classes and dominant taste-makers. As Stuart Hall theorizes in “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” popular culture, a product of marginal groups, challenges hegemonic culture, but is also a ready pool for dominant groups to dip into and appropriate when their culture (or business) is lacking.13
It is on the contested grounds of popular culture that DIY emerges, bringing with it a host of material practices, its own cognitive praxis, and a recognizable set of aesthetics that signaled more than simply “homemade.” DIY aesthetics, from the one-of-a-kind imperfections of handmade pottery to the gritty recordings of punk and off-the-grid ethos of DIY home construction and repair, carry with them politicized notions of class, resistance, cooperation, cultural resonance, cultural renaissance, and ethical practice. The implication of doing it yourself (or as a collective and community) implies that a product or service could be purchased and performed by a professional, but instead, the subject(s) is undertaking an act of making or improving. It might also imply that this product, service, or act is not available through conventional channels, but is necessary and will be provided outside of existing networks and practices (“the market,” “the system,” or “big business”). These acts of refusal and resistance, indicating a desire for an outcome or product that is different from what is readily available, also indicate a set of ideological stances in opposition to dominant culture, hegemonic values, and their prevalent aesthetics. The aesthetics of DIY practices and DIY communities are indicators of cultural politics, that serve as cognitive shortcuts to identifying political leanings.
In the same fashion that DIY aesthetics create bonds of association between producers and consumers, political campaigns seek to create an identifiable ethos that many identify and find common cause with. In the realm of political advertising, one way that this is accomplished is through aesthetic coding. Following the Supreme Court case of Citizens United (2010), which loosened restrictions on private money in politics, political advertising flooded the airwaves.14 The change in campaigning, as well as the ensuing rhetorical backlash, caused a public already angered by the use of government funds to bail out profligate banks and investment firms, to internalize a general rhetorical critique of money in politics. Both parties, as well as political action committees (PACS and Super PACS) and high dollar political donor class, became symbols of the “private money” that dominates US politics. These powerful but faceless entities could actively sideline and silence alternative political voices like Houston Republican Ron Paul, who was a hero of rank and file Republicans for his economic protectionism, anti-war stance, and libertarian views on narcotics, private property, and income tax.
In 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders undertook a DIY campaign – beginning with his unremarkable announcement on the lawn of the DC Capitol building and extending to his disheveled hair, ill-fitting suits, and gruff, unpolished rhetorical style. His campaign, like those of fellow Vermonter Howard Dean and President Barack Obama, depended on myriad small online donations and enthusiastic volunteers. These campaigns each bore the marks of DIY thinking – the involvement of citizens rather than consultants, a robust block-walking strategy animated by volunteers, and a power-to-the-people ethos that transposed them from a campaign to a movement. This combination of practice and aesthetics (Howard Dean’s door-to-door campaigners wore matching hunting-orange wool hats; Obama and Sanders’ volunteers donned t-shirts, hats, and pins that simply read “Obama” or “Bernie”; Obama and Sanders’ campaigns both used promotional images and videos done by volunteers) played into the well-worn narrative of the rebellious upstart agitating against the wealthy and powerful. Sanders’ campaign harnessed post-recession millennial populism’s anger and frustration with late capitalism and desire for social change and a sustainable alternative. It stylized and aestheticized these sentiments and used them to convince hundreds of thousands to donate and volunteer, and tens of millions to vote. Part of the draw of Sander’s campaign (as well as Dean’s and Obama’s) was participation, the notion that small collective actions turn ripples into waves. Many of these actions, like making signs and t-shits, and social media advocacy were DIY – unscripted, subjective, spontaneous, and authentic.
AOC was part of Sanders’ grassroots campaign operation in 2016 and part of her early allure was her association with the democratic socialist rabble-rousers. But, like any DIY practitioner, she took her inspiration from Sanders and adapted it to her own purposes in NY-14. AOC’s campaign made the DIY aesthetic part of her appeal. Her campaign represented an often overlooked aspect of populist aesthetics, the appearance of being home-made, rough around the edges, emerging organically from beneath the soil and among the people, and legitimated by their blood, sweat, and tears. AOC’s DIY aesthetic was firmly anchored in an American populist tradition of popular resistance, but also drew from more recent DIY movements.
Theorizing DIY and Populism
DIY has a history that can be conceptualized in two parallel but interrelated parts: necessity and cognitive praxis. Both become ideologies, performances, and aesthetics. In the case of DIY as a necessity, the act of “doing-it-yourself” arises in juxtaposition to industrial production. Those who were marginal to the industrial middle and working classes either lacked the funds or the access to participate in modern commodity and habitation culture. They needed to sew their own clothing, build or repair their own houses, and otherwise construct a modern life, as opposed to purchasing it. For Stuart Hall, this is the definition of popular culture and the position of the popular classes in relation to hegemonic power. Popular culture is made by marginal communities who are denied access to hegemonic culture. They construct new cultural products either through bricolage, using what partial pieces are available, or out of whole cloth, sometimes literally imported from home cultures.15 Leigh Eric Schmidt chronicles one example of this in “The Fashioning of a Modern Holiday: Valentine’s Day, 1840-1870.” In his history, rural communities in Pennsylvania imitated the sophisticated Valentine’s Day cards made by Philadelphia’s printing presses with idiosyncratic grace and sophistication, an unusual incidence of a commercial product becoming a folk art.16 In this particular story, DIY practices reflect the makers’ desire for contemporary commodity culture and alienation from it.
This was the case with the frontier culture of early American populists. As Charles Postel recounts, settlers were made aware of the commodities and innovations of the East Coast and urban Midwest through the new business of mail-order catalogues. This resulted, among other things, in new sewing patterns and furniture designs that resembled these modern, sophisticated products.17 Populists also aestheticized this action of doing for oneself, as part of their self-constructed identity as “makers,” those who build and create the nation.
A historical example of the politicization of DIY practices is the election of “Sockless” Jerry Simpson to the House of Representatives from Kansas’ 7th district in 1890. Simpson acquired the nickname thanks to his opponent, railroad scion J. R. Hallowell. When Simpson pointed to Hallowell’s silk socks as an indication of his remove from the suffering of Kansas’ corn farmers, Hallowell quipped that silk socks were better than having no socks. “Sockless” Jerry became a celebrated populist figure, one of the few from the People’s Party to be seated in Washington. As historian O. Gene Clanton notes, populist parades in Kansas often featured a float of young women symbolically knitting socks for their man in Washington.18 In knitting for Jerry, populist women took an act of necessity, knitting socks rather than purchasing them, and transformed it into an act of pride, dignity, and identity, and a political statement. It was a political performance that referenced a specific figure, a party, and a political moment that pitted railroad wealth and luxury against the hand labor of salt-of-the-earth agrarians.
As a cognitive praxis, DIY is a conscious act of resistance that is birthed and functions within and against hegemonic power. In the cases of adopted DIY praxis, the use of DIY aesthetics begins as a political statement, rather than being transposed from an act of necessity to a political stance. Cases of this type of cognitive praxis run the full gamut from home building, hand crafting (now exemplified by websites like ETSY that trade in handmade products), and Soundcloud rap, to punk rock and zine culture that began in the 1970s and came to exemplify the feminist-punk Riot Grrrl movement in the late 1980s and mid-1990s. In these varied cases, many of the producers and consumers have the means to purchase industrially made products – clothing, music, magazines, food, or houses – but have specific reasons for producing and consuming outside of prescribed paths. The reasons range from taste – that the market does not make products with the desired aesthetic – to the politics of consumption, and environmental and labor concerns. There is also the allure of participation and the notion that DIY is more than acts of production and consumption; it builds meaningful community. This is often conceived of in antithesis to the notion of a “mainstream society” that strips away power, vitality, originality, and freedom from individuals and communities.19 In these cases, the aesthetics associated with DIY production become beacons and calling cards for like-minded individuals, with aesthetics serving as cognitive shortcuts for ideologies and membership badges.
These two realms of DIY aesthetics often overlap. Acts of necessity are politicized, and the aesthetics developed by DIY communities create demand, if not necessity. These two sides of the same coin exemplify the populist ethos as defined by Michael Kazin. For Kazin, populism is “a language whose speakers conceive of the ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter.”20 The aesthetics of DIY in its many forms seek to bestow a nobility upon their adherents, and in their own alternative public spheres. While not necessarily harping on undemocratic practices, DIY aesthetics often focus on un-meritocratic practices, a notion that is also close to the heart of American idealism and rhetoric.21
While those who carefully handcraft and home-produce might not exactly see themselves in Kazin’s notion of “ordinary people” or imagine themselves to be an alternative to “elite” culture, DIY practitioners, generally speaking, often have less hierarchical organization than that which is found in the social fabric of late capitalism, and share a willingness to admit and teach new adherents. Likewise, the oppositional stances of DIY movements are not always aimed at a perceived elite. For example, punk rock bands rebelled against the decadence of overblown and heavily produced arena rock, virtuosic and esoteric art rock, and the glossy disco that created a musical and financial elite. However, punk rock communities viewed fans of mainstream rock, disco, and pop, as an inferior class who lacked intellect, taste, and judgment, vacuuming up whatever sounds were fed to them through advertisement and radio. While these points seem to contradict Kazin’s definition of populism as majoritarian, there is a case to be made that the DIY aesthetic overlaps with populism in meaningful, substantive ways. Both DIY and populism serve to create ideological, practical, and aesthetic communities. These communities are always already political and politicized, and are organized in a David-versus-Goliath struggle against hegemonic culture.
The notion of being a maker is built into the identity of American populism. From agrarians to industrial labor and the Rust Belt voters who sent Trump to the White House, the rhetoric of building and creating is part of the populist ethos.22 DIY exemplifies this impulse and the belief that the act of making is about more than just the end product. It is a lifestyle and a way of being that bestows one with dignity, the right to a piece of the nation’s wealth, a place within structures of power and policy debates, and space on the pages of its history. Being a maker entitles one to a voice and a seat at the table. This notion of making, more than anything, conjoins DIY communities and populists, if not into a political coalition, then into political conversation, despite DIY communities having a minority ethos and populists believing that they are always the true majority. As can be seen in the primary campaign of AOC, DIY campaign practice and aesthetic meshed with a populist ethos in such a way that it unseated a powerful incumbent and sent shockwaves through the political establishment.
DIY Advertising and Zines
It is worth contemplating the form of AOC’s limited advertising campaign, which consisted of one long-scale ad that served as a personal introduction, “Courage to Change,” a second two-minute ad entitled “See What’s Possible,” four get-out-the-vote ads, and “Five Key Issues with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” a direct-address by the candidate herself.23 All seven of these ads were made for streaming and social media, notably YouTube and Twitter. “Courage to Change” went viral and garnered a good deal of media coverage, not the least from WNYC, which produced a piece called “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: How to Challenge an Incumbent,” which presented a sympathetic portrait, particularly when AOC says, “The only way that you defeat an incumbent is by outworking them.” That statement sets up a binary that resonates with a history of worker versus owner, labor versus capital and makers versus taker sentiments, in true populist fashion.
The aesthetic of most of AOC’s ads is unmistakably DIY, from the single camera footage, the emphasis on non-professional narrators (often constituents from NY-14 speaking directly to the camera), and the use of diegetic noise and background sound. The ads strategically avoid the Madison Avenue polish of slick scoring, picturesque multi-camera cinematography, and manufactured backgrounds in favor of noble grit from urban neighborhoods in Queens and the Bronx. Additionally, the people represented are given space to voice themselves; they speak subjectively, talk about deeply personal stories, hopes, and dreams. Each subject is presented as an individual and their small stories are linked to collective action and social policy, locally and nationally. In this way, AOC’s campaign ads employ a populist stance, but also resonate with an earlier form of insurgent text, the zine, especially zines associated with the punk feminism of Riot Grrrl and related communities. These zines also sought to give voice and representational space to communities in search of a livable alternative.
While zine culture’s DIY practices formed a matched set with the punk scene beginning in the 1970s,24 Riot Grrrl and associated communities overtly paired their DIY aesthetic praxis with political practices drawn from feminist thought and political organizing. Because AOC is characterized and labeled a modern feminist, and her approach to campaigning uses so many of the tactics and techniques that these zines were part of, it is worth putting them into conversation. While there may be little direct intellectual connection between AOC’s campaign and the feminist punk scene from the early 1990s when AOC was still a child, the ripples from Riot Grrrl, particularly in social and artistic movements, are undeniable.25 In addition, as Greil Marcus writes in Lipstick Traces, the goal of criticism, as opposed to history, is to find not only what preceded and animated an event, but also that moment’s familiars, creating a dialogue where one does not immediately exist.26 This turns contemplation into a search for better questions and deeper investigations. Even if AOC or Means of Production studios, the Democratic Socialist firm that produced “Courage to Change,” had never encountered Riot Grrrl zines, their techniques echoed the feminist, DIY ethos, aesthetics, and aims of Riot Grrrl. And Riot Grrrl’s confrontations with mainstream media and internal critique, like populism’s constant turmoil, poses legitimate questions about the futures of democratic socialism and the recent upsurge in women, POC, and LGBTQ candidates who are fighting to represent themselves in the fabric of contemporary politics.
As Lisa Darms writes in her introduction to The Riot Grrrl Collection, “riot grrrl called for the liberation of young women by taking control of the means of subcultural production.”27 In this endeavor, riot grrrl was essentially “a conglomeration of dissenting voices…dissent defined riot grrrl from the beginning, and characterized both its growth and its demise.”28 The performance of feminist punk and zine culture had a dual purpose. On one hand it rejected the vacuousness of mainstream media, particularly consumer products aimed at (controlling) adolescent girls and young women. On the other it protested male-dominated punk and zine culture which often rejected, silenced, or did violence to women who were part of the scene. Riot grrrl created an alternative literary practice where young women read and wrote their own stories, at points slashing at established narratives and at others fitting themselves into the personal stories and poetic aphorisms shared by their peers. This was conjoined to musical and para-musical practices that ranged from the formation of bands who wrote and performed politically conscious material to enacting feminist political praxis at live shows.29 Riot grrl zines and music had a symbiotic relationship, connecting communities, informing modes of rhetoric and participation, and creating alternative social relationships and ontologies.
Rebekah Buchanan’s analyses of riot grrrl and the social role of zines (and its necessary connection to punk) lay out a number of distinct but intertwined functions that perform critical cultural work through aesthetic praxis. Riot grrrl allowed for participation, and importantly, as much or as little as the subjects chose. They could spill their souls and name names, or cut and paste, leaving only outlines and contours, borrowing pictures and words to suit their expressive needs. Through participation, young women could be part of a greater [international] scene, even if the feeling was momentary. Zines and shows informed other modes of participation and in doing so recast suffering and anxiety as modes of authenticity, rendering stylized anger and pain into substance. This participation enabled alternative narratives to bubble up, re-framing ontologies of girlhood and womanhood, of sexuality and queerness, and allowing for small individual stories to be embedded into larger discourses. The raw, unedited, spontaneous, and confrontational style of punk music and zines situated readers and producers outside of the mainstream, or at least resistant to it, but in this rejection, zines and punk created a sense of community for those who felt ill at ease in their own neighborhoods, schools, institutions, and bodies.30
Buchanan makes the argument that riot grrl zines should not be disconnected from punk music, that punk as a music and a subculture was integral to zine culture and vice versa. The analyses below make the general argument that DIY aesthetics and their reception as politically meaningful to democratic socialist ideology are integral to AOC’s populist politics. From the fiery vernaculars of William Jennings Bryan, Jesse Jackson, and Bernie Sanders that connected personal authenticity to metaphysical right, to the abrasive sound and presentation of punk and garage rock, and the anti-industry production of handmade goods, aesthetics are tethered to political stances in popular culture. In the cases of riot grrrl zines and AOC’s primary campaign, DIY aesthetics signaled a contemporary articulation of populist politics. The simplicity of video production and the space opened for constituent voices were a cognitive shortcut to AOC’s democratic socialism which was, to use Clanton’s term for Kansas’ agrarian populism, a humane preference. Her campaign was, in the broadest terms, anti-incumbent, anti-greed, anti-gentrification, pro-immigrant, pro-education, pro-social welfare, and environmentally conscious. The larger question that remains to be answered by the future is: will this dissent from within be a harbinger of more sweeping changes, or will this articulation of new left populism lead to a commodification that uses insurgent DIY style without deploying its substance.31
AOC Ads and the DIY Aesthetic
AOC’s campaign garnered national traction with a sophisticated promotional video entitled “The Courage to Change,” uploaded to YouTube on May 30, 2018. Produced by the Democratic Socialist media firm Means of Production, the ad shares some of the hallmarks of conventional TV ads. It features scenes of AOC traveling through Queens and the Bronx, greeting people, speaking to them in public spaces, and winning their support. Although done on a budget, the video replicates the slick production values that viewers have come to expect: high quality editing, a professional-sounding voiceover by the candidate, a combination of long and short shots, multiple camera angles, and an unobtrusive musical score that follows the ad’s emotional arc. Much of the camera work positions the viewer as a close observer of AOC’s grassroots campaigning in the style of a narrative documentary film. The voiceover is constant and little diegetic sound slips through. This audio-visual combination is unique among AOC’s campaign ads and, according to the hosts of CBS’s segment “Red and Blue,” “The Course to Change” was meant to go viral, to spread the candidate’s name and story to the press.32
“Courage” sits firmly in the tradition of campaign ads that bring the candidate and their message into the living room and the personal screen of the viewer.33 It allows the candidate to speak directly and univocally to the viewer about her background and ideologies. In contrast to “Courage” are the four get-out-the-vote ads and a second long-scale YouTube ad entitled “See What’s Possible.” In these ads, individuals speak for themselves, relating their personal and familial stories to AOC’s and explaining how her policies reflect the needs of their families and communities. It is these ads that showcase a DIY aesthetic and populist ethos. They allow for citizens to speak to each other horizontally, as neighbors, fellow citizens, and concerned peers. Space is made for individual stories to fit into larger narratives of perseverance, suffering, anxiety, and aspiration. Speakers use their own languages and idioms (subtitles are provided), and the diegetic sounds of Queens and the Bronx come through – from the rumble of the train to the sounds of small businesses serving customers. The texts of these ads give the appearance of being written by speakers themselves, which conveys a sense of inclusion and authenticity. As was key in populist proselytizing in the 19th century and in underground zines, the performance of speaking out offers the cathartic experience of being heard and validated. These ads, in their aestheticized rawness, telegraph to the viewer that this could be you, you could stand up and speak, hand out flyers, put up posters, and become a change-maker through engagement with this campaign.34
“See What’s Possible” is a masterpiece of documentary technique. It oozes with the feel of spontaneity, alternating between scenes and sounds of everyday life and direct address. Diverse individuals, who are positioned to represent the array of people living in NY-14, speak to the camera and in voiceover about their lives, their aspirations, and their reasons for supporting AOC. They talk about their families, businesses, and concerns in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali. They mention specifics, like attending “PS 150 on 48th Street,” their arrivals in NYC, which range from 1980 to “about five years ago,” and AOC-supported policies like Medicare for all and free college. They talk about the rising cost of living and concerns about the integrity of their neighborhoods. The candidate is eventually mentioned by name, but late in the ad. She does not appear until two minutes into the two-and-a-half minute ad, and her voice is not heard until the final ten seconds.35 Like zines, this ad makes space for individual stories to fit into larger narratives that form community and direct modes of participation. It allows time for those who comprise the target community to voice their difference within a broader movement. Its polyvocality, mixed with the diegetic sounds of NY-14, welcome participation, inviting the viewer to become part of the movement, to imagine themselves within the frame of the ad and to feel connected to a larger progressive movement.
The four get-out-the-vote ads perform much of the same work, but leave the candidate’s face and voice entirely out of the ads. These ads, “Every Vote Counts,” “Make Our Values Heard,” “It Gives Me Hope for the Future,” “What She’s Fighting For” [in Bengali], feature supporters speaking directly to the camera, filmed from the shoulders up. Each of the ads is a personal testimony connecting the speaker to AOC. “Every Vote” is spoken by a young Latinx high school student, who confesses to being too young to vote, but is a passionate supporter of AOC. In the video, the young woman challenges the status quo, saying “…really everything is not okay…if you go to schools like Newtown or LIC, it’s like metal detectors, security guards. People of color are targeted early in their school environment. We need change at this point.”36 The unnamed narrator inserts a story that connects to greater national discourses of disenfranchisement and exclusion in the educational system. She admits that her school does not use these methods of policing and surveillance, but expresses empathy for those who are subjected to them. She also notes that she is politically engaged even though she cannot vote. These tactics of transparency and empathy combined with partial anonymity – no name is given but a face is, in a reversal of many zines that featured first names only – connect popular issues concerning the policing of black and brown bodies and the school-to-prison pipeline to the election. It enables a not-yet-enfranchised individual to speak, to be part of the conversation about educational and social policies that directly affect her. The form of direct address, used in all five ads, has the appearance of being spontaneous, unscripted, and authentic. The aesthetic works to persuade the viewer to believe the verity of the claims and their conclusion. This ad, like zines, is about concerns and passions that need to be shared with a sympathetic public and against practices of power that are and have been unconcerned with this community’s issues.
“Make Our Values Heard” is a direct address by similarly unidentified white woman who recounts her first incredulous encounter with AOC. The candidate asked for her signature and talked about education. “What do you know about my community? You’re from the Bronx! How do you know Queens? I’m a person who gets very passionate about my kids and their concerns, and their lack of resources, and she started talking straight to that. And her views on education are exactly what our kids need.” She continues by asking viewers not only to vote, but to get their friends and parents to vote, saying “Did you know that your voice can be heard today?” She concludes, “…vote for Alexandria. And why? Because she’s gonna make sure your opinions get heard. She’s gonna make sure your voice gets heard.”37 The speaker plays on a key concern of populist movements and riot grrrl (as well as numerous other social movements): the notion of being heard and having a voice.
“It Gives Me Hope for the Future” uses similar tactics. The speaker is an adult Asian male who addresses AOC as an inspiration. He states that she’s more than simply anti-Trump, but that her ideas craft a sustainable future, stating that she “…is someone who is going to remember us, who is going to always keep fighting for our civil, political and socioeconomic rights.” He finishes, “[T]his is an election that means so much to everyone, not only this district but nationwide.” Here he connects the local to the national, bringing the small world of NY-14 into a conversation about the future of the nation and the greater good. This final connection between the local and the national mirrors critical parts of both early populism and riot grrrl.38
Some in the riot grrrl movement believed that the political work they were doing transcended their immediate communities and was done in the service of young women in far flung places who were searching for inspiration and freedom. Their labor – in music and zine making – was done to comfort and embolden the silenced and marginal, known and unknown. “It Gives me Hope” also connects to the rhetoric of populism that locates the future of the nation and the common good in the people and their politics. The overarching argument of the ad, which connects small actions to the national good echoes early populist rhetoric which connected farm policy, monetary policy, and land rights to the good of the nation and all of its people. This rhetoric connected problems shared by rural farmers to the health and stability of the nation itself. Populists made the case for government favoring the good of the many over the wishes of the few, a sentiment that “It Gives Me Hope” and AOC’s campaign echoed.
Finally, there is “What She’s Fighting For,” an ad that is completely in Bengali with English subtitles. A grey-haired adult, presumably American-Bengali, advocates for AOC. He states that money has too much influence in politics and that he appreciates her solidarity with Puerto Ricans and other Americans who are voiceless.39 The fact that this ad was done in the language that the speaker is most comfortable with, and that he advocates for solidarity with voiceless others is a powerful message. This resonates with zines and the spaces that riot grrrl and populists sought to nurture where all who backed the cause were welcome and their sentiments were supported, even if they lacked eloquence and sophistication. It was the act of participation that counted. For people who were treated as “less than”, as many poor farmers and frontier folk were, being empowered to have a voice, no matter how rough or uneducated, was key to bringing them into the movement. Expressing feelings and narrating first-hand experiences mattered to early populists, and continue to be essential to modern millennial populism.
The notion of full participation was a lynchpin demand of early populists. As Lawrence Goodwyn narrates, it was often the case that when farmers tried to participate in local politics, they found themselves outmaneuvered by their more sophisticated rivals who understood parliamentary rules and procedures. This led to feelings of alienation from the political process and the growth of rhetoric about the need for political reform against elite domination. Experiences of alienation also bolstered the extensive lecture circuit in Texas, where trained speakers met with populists to offer them crash courses in political participation, community organizing and populist policy. In populist ideology, the true will of the people was never wrong, but the people were silenced by the powerful and wealthy. Taking back the podium was an important step in regaining power. Transposing that sentiment into the present places non-English speakers and foreign-born Americans into the spotlight, especially with the rise of xenophobic rhetoric and hate crimes.40 Bringing non-English languages into the forefront and drawing common cause and solidarity between marginal groups is a key element of progressive ideology and one that has its roots in post-People’s Party formations.41 “What She’s Fighting For” clearly presents this clear as a materialization of this ideology.
The production of these ads is simple: one camera, one angle, and one microphone. Background noise is heard and it appears that the camera crew chose quiet outdoor spaces to shoot in rather than using a quiet studio. The effect is that the direct address of the advocates, while clearly delivered and well edited, appears authentic, spontaneous, and honest. This directness and honesty was a hallmark of populist rhetoric, partially owing to populists’ self-image as noble, plain folk. It was also the aesthetic of punk, which made under-produced, stripped down, in-your-face rock. Punk thrived on directness: lyrical sledge hammers delivered without complicated melodies, three-chord songs, and basement shows with no stage or separation between fans and musicians. Like punk, populism, and zines, these ads create space for individuals to express themselves within a greater overarching message and ideology. In this group of AOC ads, it appears that these words are the intellectual property of the individuals who speak them, not the campaign. The micro-variations, different points of emphasis, and idiosyncratic modes of expression, from confessional to heroic, resonate with the literary, expressive, personal, and confrontational space of riot grrrl zines. In AOC’s campaign, the DIY aesthetic indexed key elements of progressive populist politics.
“Courage to Change” notwithstanding, the aesthetic of the AOC campaign was DIY. It was run on a budget, and the campaign emphasized the door-to-door, person-to-person nature of the campaign by publicizing shots of AOC block walking, engaging people on the street and in small venues. At a time when it is possible to produce slick ads for relatively little money, AOC’s ads eschewed higher-budget production values. Her get out the vote ads, released June 26, only days before the primary, and “See What’s Possible”, were examples of this. The ads used seemingly authentic voices of constituents, allowing room for individuals to fit their stories and concerns into larger narratives of the campaign, the 2018 election, and the nation. These narratives were biographical, ideological, personal, and political. They constructed voters as unique individuals while also bringing them together with a sense of common cause and collective action. In this way, AOC’s campaign took the millennial populist platform of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign and the Occupy Movement, and tethered it to a DIY aesthetic that uses directness, simplicity, and variation to send a political message of inclusion, resistance, and dissent. The campaign used style as substance, to paraphrase Rebekah Buchanan.42 The DIY aesthetic was deployed as an ideological shortcut that was a signal of a progressive populist movement, one that was critical of industry and their lobbying, supportive of the needs of many against the desires of the few, inclusive, progressive, and interested in social mobility, health, and sustainability. It also reached back to the liberatory punk feminism of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and to frontier populism.
Despite lofty speech about campaigns as a competition of ideas, aesthetics provide cognitive shortcuts to grasping a campaign’s ideological stances. The aesthetics of a campaign send coded signals that index policy positions, social histories, and rhetorical stances. These politicized aesthetics are not created whole cloth for each new election. They are borrowed from past campaigns, popular culture, and common signifiers. AOC’s early reputation was defined by her relationship to the Sanders’ campaign in 2016. What she learned from being a grassroots organizer, about engaging voters and approaching strangers to talk politics, she then deployed in her campaign for NY-14. This in-person, low-budget approach adopted a DIY aesthetic and ethos that echoed punk, riot grrrl, and frontier populist organizing. Her campaign projected rootedness and authenticity by making space for supporters’ voices, encouraging participation, criticizing establishment politics, and preserving traces of locality. Her ads amplified the voices, languages, and faces of constituents, symbolically encouraging participatory action. In this approach to campaigning AOC is aesthetic heir to a legacy of populist DIY praxis.
Of course any aesthetic style is easily copied; aesthetics are loose signifiers, and are easily coopted. In We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, Andi Zeisler grapples with the possibility and peril of feminism in popular culture. She laments that although messages of critique and empowerment need to be brought to a mass audience, in doing so they risk being watered down, misinterpreted, or appropriated by hegemonic patriarchal culture.43 Michael Kazin’ Populist Persuasion makes this point by tracing populist rhetoric and practice in the US through alternating progressive and conservative articulations.44 With this in mind, we should ask: Can a DIY aesthetic that indexes authenticity (a quality voters say they are looking for) be successfully coopted? It is conceivable that a firebrand person-to-person and low budget campaign can just as easily represent a socialist as it can a white supremacist or nostalgic conservative. In the future, will the DIY aesthetic still be a symbol of democratic socialism, or can it be repurposed to successfully represent its opposite?
I offer no answers to these questions, only the idea that as hundreds of ads flow across our screens we should make time to critically examine their aesthetics and their effect on our interpretation of the candidate and their policies. Are these political ads imitating ads that sell us social capital or lifestyle in the form of commodities? Or do the ads resonate with other cultural forms: films, music videos, vlogging, or sporting events? What additional mythologies are embedded in the aesthetics of the ads and what cognitive shortcuts do we make when evaluating candidates through their ads? In this moment, when feeling matters more than facts, and campaigns are dominated by high-emotion symbolic action, how are contemporary ideologies created and mobilized through the aestheticization of politics?
Thanks to Donald Trump and Fox News, AOC became a cause celeb in the 2020 campaign cycle. Money poured into her campaign and to a smaller extent, that of her Republican rival, former Queens police officer and history teacher John Cummings. Even Ocasio-Cortez’ principle rival in the democratic primary, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a self-styled fiscal conservative/social liberal, collected some $2.3 million for the primary.45 Both Ocasio-Cortez and Cummings collected over 80% of their campaign money from outside of NY-14.46
Despite the large number of campaign dollars, both candidates adopted a down-home approach to their ads. AOC’s campaign produced only two ads, one of which was also edited into a 30-second television spot. Both ads, “A Better World is Possible” and “It’s Time for Medicare for All” are more polished and sophisticated than her 2018 ads. Both feature AOC speaking, but are shot in ways that mimic typical campaign ads. They feature her walking through her district talking about the hardships of COVID, racial inequality, and economic struggle. While at face value, this aesthetic approach reads an abandonment of sorts, a move towards Madison Ave rather than Main Street, AOC’s other public videos tell a different story.
Her campaign made instructional videos that explained how to organize a COVID safe workplace, collective childcare, eviction defense, immigrants’ rights, and encouraging citizens to respond to the census. They also produced policy videos on police accountability, immigration, housing, and single-payer health insurance. This approach to spreading policy proposals, providing practical guidance, and educating the public through open forums is similar to the lecturer system used by populists from Texas to Minnesota.47 These lectures were a way of spreading collective ideas for progressive policy, but also served as a mechanism for populist stalwarts to travel to different communities and discuss their local concerns and condition. Goodwyn notes that time spent as a lecturer in Texas often coincided with a radicalization as lecturers repeatedly came face-to-face with disenfranchised communities. While not necessarily the same, AOC’s campaign practices resonate with those of early populists and reflect a spirit of grass roots action and efforts at informing and creating community-based action, even if the budgets that produced these videos are anything but grassroots.48
A more interesting picture of the impact of the DIY aesthetic came from the presidential campaign of Joe Biden. The Biden campaign knew that they needed to adapt to a digital strategy that could counter the internet presence of Donald Trump, a formidable task. Among their strategies was to produce and disseminate a series of lo-fi videos with a “behind the scenes” quality. According to a campaign consultant, “All our testing showed that higher production value was not better…The things that were realer [sic], more grainy and cheaper to produce were more credible.”49 These videos included voters speaking directly into their phones or webcams, everyday people expressing their thoughts and feelings. The campaign also partnered with lesser known digital creators to make short videos that communicated with small but relevant demographics. In the battle to counter misinformation, the campaign found that few potential Biden voters were concerned about Trump’s dramatic claims about Biden’s health or the misdeeds of his son, but had different questions they wanted answered. The campaign used digitally targeted ads that showed Biden speaking intelligently on policy issues and rebuffing views from the far left to assuage concerns of centrist democrats.50
What the Biden campaign found through extensive campaign research and trial-and-error is the undeniable appeal of a DIY aesthetic. In a digital world where every sound and image can be made to seem perfect and flawless, the appearance of imperfection, the illusion of the unmediated, the “aura” of directness is appealing. The Biden team discovered that the feeling of being spoken to rather than spoken at was one key to success. The aesthetics of this – shaky video, unassuming speakers, unscripted texts, unconventionally emotional and idiosyncratic expressions – were appealing to voters in the age of digital media. This means that the DIY aesthetic, as it was in music, can be manufactured and effectively marketed. And only the future will tell us if Biden, AOC or any of the other politicians who used the DIY aesthetic to campaign are advocates for policies that improve the lives of “the people,” or are coopting its style without retaining its substance.
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