Meme Our America

Cate Latimer, Staff Writer

A man sits in a chair, his hair whipping in the wind. He is cradled in a large beige jacket and is wearing brown and white mittens—a fashion statement that takes the world by storm. A model? A pop icon? No. It’s Bernie Sanders.

In late January 2021, a meme displaying Bernie Sanders at President Biden’s inauguration saturated the internet, finding its way into everything from TikToks to Snapchat filters. In an online world governed by celebrities, politicians are an entirely new demographic encroaching on these platforms. However, Sanders isn’t the only political figure who has found iconic status within a generation raised by social media. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has established a following on a popular live-streaming service called Twitch, and the hashtag #joebiden has been viewed 2.8 billion times on TikTok. With the rise of social media, politics is diffusing to a wider audience than ever before. Political memes and videos are becoming commonplace on social media sites, and with them comes a reinvention of civic engagement and education.

Simply put, social media is accessible. To young voters, it is a way to gain exposure to candidates and access straightforward information surrounding political ideologies on a familiar platform. According to a New York Times article titled, “Why Don’t Young People Vote, and What Can Be Done About It?,” the primary reason that young people haven’t been voting is that “they feel embarrassed that they don’t know what’s on the ballot” For members of Gen Z, political memes and videos are ubiquitous on social media platforms. Formerly disparate topics combine on apps such as TikTok, forming a variable concoction of information and entertainment. This versatility is vital in the process of yielding higher rates of young political activity and reaching the nearly 50% of young voters who choose not to cast their ballot during voting season.

This strategy is proving effective. According to PBS, “Gen Z is more diverse, more politically engaged and less bound by political party labels than even the preceding millennial generation.” We are beginning to see this idea of unprecedented political engagement present itself in record levels of young voter turnout in the 2020 election. Teens had access to numerous voting resources and the opportunity to build relationships with the candidates through social media, which made the choice to vote simple.

The iconic image of Bernie Sanders shivering in his coat and mittens may not single handedly promote civic engagement in a blossoming generation, but it is a stepping stone in the path to a more approachable world of politics. So don’t be afraid. Pull up Instagram and share that political meme with the world. Future voters will thank you for it.