On September 20th, 2019, Elizabeth Warren took her 60,000th selfie. Quantitative hyperboles aside, this achievement marks a specific strategy in the former Massachusetts senator’s presidential campaign, one that involves face-to-face voter engagement through the photographic mode of the selfie. Warren’s campaign manager quoted the candidate when describing the tactic behind this approach to CNN: “People appreciate [selfies]…and when they take those photos, it goes mini-viral within their networks. And you know, it’s good for organizing.” And appreciate it they do—one previously-undecided, college-aged voter spoke to Time Magazine about her selfie with Warren at the University of Iowa that directly preceded her fervent drive to donate to and canvass for the presidential campaign.
While the roots of the selfie can be traced back to the 19th century, the form did not enter the cultural zeitgeist until the widespread global ubiquity of social media networks in the current century, embraced simultaneously by young, eminent celebrities and Luddite grandparents. The significance of the form is that it serves as the most readily available way to see yourself represented in media—with just a single click of a button, your likeness immediately joins a quasi-canon of the digital world, a realm of individualist affirmations. If Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” a contemporary modification of this platitude might go along the lines of “I see myself, therefore I am,” like a present-day Narcissus staring at his own reflection in the water. Such a proclamation of controlled personhood seems comprehensible in a digital landscape that becomes increasingly atomized with the ability to self-cultivate and prune online experiences (Warren is dead-on when she references individuals’ “mini-networks”). This is most outwardly notable in the world of entertainment, in which monoculture senesces and is replaced by an embarrassment of riches offered by countless streaming services. In such a system, when there is something for everyone, nothing is for everyone.
In the political realm, this contemporary penchant towards individuality has manifested itself in the dominance of “identity politics,” in which individuals are encouraged to work towards the interests of their respective, particularized identity grouping(s) at the expense of the larger body politic. The term is multifaceted in its conceptions—the foundation of modern identity politics in the mid-to-late-20th century, most notably in the Civil Rights movement and the Gay Liberation movement, involved a still-pertinent cultural debate that is defined by the divide between integration and separatism. At its core, the current iteration of identity politics bases itself around an establishment of distinct labels through which each person becomes a unique multi-hyphenate, with every specific identity highlighting an individualized experience that is often framed as being in direct conflict with another.
Along with these tags comes an amplified focus on representation, one that has morphed from the essential need for diversity in all aspects of governance to a position that the mere presence of a person from a specific identity group in a position of power is automatically equitable to material improvements for said identity group, writ large. Consequently emerges a beguiling paradox of our time, one in which we are reminded of our explicit differences from one another as they relate to our identity while simultaneously being taught that the highest form of political justice comes from representation. This sets up a vicious cycle in which the precision of representation is constantly in question due to persistent breakdowns of identity groups into hyper-specific subgroups, thus necessitating more accurate representation and repeating the sequence all over again. The selfie, then, becomes a fitting analogy for this custom, a tool to cultivate and assert one’s individuality, affirming that validation comes from the only fulfilling form of representation: The Self. When Warren uses selfies as a political tool, it is a method to speak to such individualist ideals and to present an aesthetic solidarity with each respective voter. The picture presents the candidate as “one of us,” thus blurring the lines between the two subjects in the photograph.
The issue with relying on identity politics to appeal to voters lies in the mutual distrust that stems from social balkanization. What logically follows is widespread affective polarization, in which individuals view differing groups as threats and hence burrow further into their own subjectivities—while this is most commonly used to describe hyper-partisanship, it can just as easily be applied to wariness between divergent identity groups, be they based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other classifications. American progressive historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote against this phenomenon, insisting that civil movements for the rights of marginalized groups should be contingent on integration of said group, rather than affirming differences and ultimately failing to meaningfully combat discrimination. Further, such identity-focused goals often come at the expense of the working poor, whose significant concerns are hence underserved in political discourse—by emphasizing a façade of diversity, politicians can be affirmed of their status as progressives in the public eye while simultaneously supporting neoliberal policies that negatively affect marginalized individuals of all identities. In one example of this cynical dialectic, Kamala Harris becomes an aesthetic symbol of progress for Black women despite her tenure as California Attorney General, during which she exacerbated a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately harms Black people.
In a vacuum, Elizabeth Warren’s politicization of the selfie is not an outright negative. At worst, it reveals a streak of political opportunism that is logically present in any individual that seeks to hold the highest office in the country. However, it ultimately symbolizes a troubling trend in young people towards political individualism that comes at the expense of collectivism. The solutions to the existential problems of our time (global warming, extreme wealth disparities, lack of universal healthcare, a draconian incarceration system) are those that require nothing but an ego death that precedes collective action to be fully and meaningfully addressed. Alternately, identity politics in a shallow form become a tool to individuate and divide the body politic, alienating them from the realities of class oppression and resulting in a bourgeois nationalism that maintains the status quo. Policies that systematically result in material improvements are the only way to liberate the working people of all identities, leading us to a vision of America inclusive of all races, sexual orientations, and gender identities, thus profoundly striving for genuine equality.