Political Icons in the United States

By Alexander Arnold
Published on April 11th, 2021

At Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration on January 20th, 2020, a photo of Democrat Senator Bernie Sanders sitting in a chair went viral, as internet users photoshopped him into various backgrounds. It was not the first time that Sanders had starred in a meme though: several years prior, a photo of Sanders, captioned “I am once again asking for your financial support”, too went viral on various social media platforms. As a result, Sanders has often been described as an “icon”. Though this transformation into an icon of the Democratic Party may have brought fame to Sanders and his political agenda, the formation of icons has been all too regrettable in a time of political polarization in the United States.

Typically, politicians who become icons are subscribed to less-moderate stances, compared to the rest of their own political parties. This is because their politics are most welcomed by younger generations who are enticed by the progressive policies of these politicians. These younger generations, who dominate social media, then utilize social media to increase the popularity of these politicians. Examples of these politicians include the aforementioned Sanders, a self described “democratic socialist”, often pushing for progresssive and socialist policy that is further left than the majority of the left-center moderates in the Democratic Party. Another example is Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, whose “trendiness” and youth has impressed younger voters.

But the fame of these political icons comes at a cost: increased polarization in the ruthless landscape of American politics. As these less-moderate Democrats grow in power, so does their “share” in the Democratic Party, and they increasingly shape its progressive image. When this far-left opinion is what represents the Democratic Party, other members from the political spectrum begin to view the Democratic Party in that fashion. This can be seen from how conservatives have often labeled the Democrats and its other more moderate members as being “radical”, “far-left”, and “socialists”. Regardless of whether these characterizations are true or not, bipartisanship and thus cooperation and functionality has declined drastically. This is exacerbated by the fact that America is a two-party system, so when the two mainstream parties are pushed away from each other, there are no parties in the middle.

It is not just those in opposition to the Democratic Party that are deterred from it, but its more moderate voters. When the face of the Democratic Party represents socialism, those originally in deliberation between the Democratic and Republican parties are far more likely to support Republican candidates who are in this case seen as “moderate”, in stark contrast to the seemingly “radical” Democratic party. This is in no way beneficial for the Democratic Party, which often relies on these swing voters.

It has become even problematic when these less-moderate representatives turn into a massive target for effective and self-evidently true rhetoric from political opponents of the Democratic party, further pulling voters away from more moderate Democratic candidates who are regularly successful. Americans generally favour a traditionalist mindset and support the status quo of civil rights, so progressive leftist rhetoric of these icons presented to those in the middle and those not overly concerned with politics is unconvincing, to say the least. On the other hand, this mindset can easily be fed with opposing rhetoric, an outcome the Democratic party surely wants to avoid.

In extreme cases, a rise in the far right may even be observed. As both the perceived and actual popularity of socialism represented by these political icons take off, anti-leftist sentiment too grows. At this point, equally radical groups on the right side of the political spectrum are seen as increasingly justified in their causes, gaining a lot more support. Examples of this phenomenon include an observable increase in traction for right-wing populist groups in the UK like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Brexit Party, and of course Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016, whose campaign included hints of right-wing themes.

The world isn’t growing more conservative; the Democratic party isn’t growing unpopular; the Democratic party doesn’t have undebatable ideological fallacies. Rather, the Democratic party should owe its struggles to the fashion in which progressive political icons have steadily grown in power, to eventually represent the Democratic party with their politics. This outcome is all too regrettable when it means growth in fringe politics and polarization, especially in a time where various critical issues like COVID, China, and others need to be rapidly contended, without effort wasted on petty and pointless political argument.

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