Why you should care
Because everyone loves an underdog.
Ziya Smallens is a writer at West Wing Writers, a lifelong musician and political communications professional.
It was almost midnight when he emerged from the El Paso Stadium greenroom, radiating with the aura of a headline act revving up for an encore. As he walked onto the stage, more than 10,000 adulating fans roared with excitement. “I want to thank this amazing campaign of people. Not a dime from a single PAC. All of you showing the country how to do this,” gushed Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke. “I am so fucking proud of you guys.”
There was much to be proud of that evening because, for the past 22 months, O’Rourke had epitomized a new and more successful way for Democrats to do business. With his insurgent campaign, O’Rourke had pioneered a new genre of progressive candidate: the DIY Democrat. And 2018 was their watershed year.
Contrary to a political culture that thrives on artifice and multitiered communications strategies designed by the same set of firms on K Street, this crop of candidates is bred at the grassroots, motivated by a do-it-yourself attitude that has long-dominated the American counterculture.
They were all living life alongside their soon-to-be-constituents, enduring the same set of daily challenges, facing local crises — from gun violence to housing unaffordability — from a shared vantage point.
For decades, the DIY ethic has inspired artists and musicians to seize control of their own narratives and occupy the gaps of representation left unfilled by mainstream culture. We are now witnessing this ethic’s emergence in American political culture and with it, a new generation of leaders who embrace its core tenets: resourcefulness, accessibility and forthrightness. The DIY characterization is quite literal for someone like O’Rourke, who cut his teeth in the El Paso punk scene. In one interview last summer for Vanity Fair, he reminisced: “The closest thing that I can think of to what we are doing now was being in a station wagon with three other friends touring the country and playing music in a punk band.”
While O’Rourke fell short on Election Day, he outperformed any Democrat running statewide in Texas in the past quarter century and inspired many young Texans to turn out and vote. In fact, DIY Democrats across the country landed some of the night’s biggest upsets. In Georgia, gun safety advocate Lucy McBath managed to achieve what Jon Ossoff couldn’t in flipping a congressional seat that had been held by Republicans since 1979. A former flight attendant with no traditional political experience to speak of, McBath jumped into the arena after her son was killed in a racially charged episode of gun violence.
In Kansas, meanwhile, Ho-Chunk Nation leader and mixed martial arts fighter Sharice Davids trounced Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder. In Oklahoma, Kendra Horn — a local attorney and founder of the nonprofit Women Lead Oklahoma — flipped a district that had been in Republican hands since the days of the Ford administration. “If you want one word, [it’s] authenticity,” answered Horn, when asked what she attributed to her shocking upset.
What do these House candidates have in common? For one, none of them were state legislators or municipal officials counting down the minutes until they could climb the next rung on the political ladder. They were all living life alongside their soon-to-be-constituents, enduring the same set of daily challenges, facing local crises — from gun violence to housing unaffordability — from a shared vantage point. Their mentalities resonate most with the kids who know some of life’s most meaningful experiences are held together by plywood and duct tape — and the occasional can of beer.
Bucking the egocentric conventions of political campaigning, DIY Democrats put the spotlight on the individuals they hope to represent. Instead of appealing to some milquetoast notion of decency, they speak candidly about the injustices they hope to rectify.
DIY musical spaces empower artists to channel their antipathy toward entrenched power structures, while DIY Democrats amplify their supporters’ aversion to politics-as-usual, and in the process, position themselves as harbingers of structural reform. In Davids’ own words, her campaign was centered around making sure the “many voices and experiences” of her soon-to-be constituents are heeded to by those in power. Like any good DIY operation, these candidates prided themselves on running clean-fuel campaigns — with more reliance on grassroots fundraising than political action committees.
Accessibility too is foundational to the campaigns run by DIY Democrats, and in forging a direct line of communication with voters, no instrument is more potent than social media. O’Rourke’s daily livestreams from the trail — whether he was shredding gnar in a Whataburger parking lot or holding a town hall in Corpus Christi — helped burnish his reputation as a sort of touring act taking the state of Texas by storm.
Another successful DIY Democrat, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, wielded social media as an Excalibur of sorts. She leveraged platforms like Twitter and Instagram to broadcast her idiosyncratic political brand — which she deftly described as “Bernie + Cardi = @Ocasio2018” — to amass a grassroots army of more than 1 million followers.
Bernie + Cardi = @Ocasio2018
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 9, 2018
Even in the afterglow of victory, Ocasio-Cortez continues to share relatable vignettes, like livestreaming herself preparing a batch of Instant Pot mac ‘n’ cheese. By inviting her Instagram followers to join her for her first days on Capitol Hill, Ocasio-Cortez has transformed audience engagement into a defining feature of her political persona, much like how an artist’s chemistry with their audience in a DIY musical space — jumping into the mosh pit mid-song or sharing the mic with a fan — is an extension of the performance itself.
As the 2020 race begins in earnest, Democratic hopefuls face one of the most crowded fields in recent memory. Any Democrat hoping to emerge as an early front-runner will need to cut through a mercurial media climate to establish credibility with the base, a maneuver that cannot be achieved by reciting an excessively polished foreign policy speech from the U.S. Senate floor or by rubbing shoulders with political kingmakers in Des Moines. And as O’Rourke has rapidly ascended the list of early front-runners, Democratic contenders may want to consider hosting livestreams from the kitchen table or take policy cues from the activists causing “Good Trouble” in their communities.
At a time when debate over the Democratic Party’s future has revolved around ideological goalposts, mindset is at least as important. The same values that have animated underground artists for generations have already imbued themselves in some of this year’s most impressive insurgent political campaigns. Expect more to catch on in the future.