When the New Yorker published an article on the scourge of relatability in August of 2014, author Rebecca Mead quipped that relatability is “a logism so neo that it’s not even recognized by the 2008 iteration of Microsoft Word with which these words are being written”. It’s since become a buzzword of monumental proportions in the world of art, yes, but also in politics.
Relatability is a word that has been said to speak deeply to millennial ideals—they’re demanding to see themselves, and their cultural schemas, in those who represent them. They not only want representation, but likability and authenticity in the same degrees—pandering and retail politics won’t cut it any longer. So how do candidates appear genuine to youth voters? They’re trying out social media campaigns, appearances on popular parody shows like Saturday Night Live, and the usual spread of retail politics.
“…they’re demanding to see themselves, and their cultural schemas, in those who represent them.”
But is any of this successful? Hillary Clinton seems to be stuck in her former role as the collected and cool political royalty. She has faced backlash and articles defaming her as wooden, stiff, or stuck in her own celebrity. She’s offering a plan for more affordable college, at the expense of a tax increase for the wealthy, yet her most successful age range arguably is the above 65 group.
Conversely, within the democratic primaries Sanders has survived on the youth vote, winning 83% of it in New Hampshire. What’s more, there are few articles focused on his status as a 74-year-old white male trying for youth and minority votes. Is this relatability and likability at work? Do students see Sanders as authentic in ways that forgive the problems he otherwise would have had? Sander’s appeal seems to lie with his authenticity, though his plans for tuition-free public universities and colleges can’t hurt.
So why is the demographic voter difference between them so pronounced, especially with Clinton as the Democratic frontrunner?
It’s not a lack of trying. Clinton has tried to reach out to Millennials, shifting her public persona from a strong detached First lady to a cool woman in spite of her age. Her twitter bio reads: “Wife, mom, grandma, women+kids advocate, FLOTUS, Senator, SecState, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, 2016 presidential candidate. Tweets from Hillary signed –H”. She’s appeared on TV shows, posed with pop culture icons, and created memes. But she’s also incited criticism from minorities and Millennials. She’s asked students to describe the often-terrifying idea of student debt in three emojis, inciting anger. A post by the campaign on twitter, aimed at the Latinx community, “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela”, was called ‘hispandering’. The listicle spawned the hashtag #notmyabuela, focused on the fact that most grandmothers in the Latinx community faced struggles as poor immigrants. Clinton’s had similar problems with the African American community over a logo honoring Rosa Parks that some say showed the iconic civil rights leader sitting in the back of an H-shaped bus.
“…why is the demographic voter difference between [Sanders and Clinton] so pronounced, especially with Clinton as the Democratic frontrunner?”
Other frontrunners are also trying to appear more relatable than ever: Trump has harped on his origins outside of the political system—forgoing the rules of polite society, he’s even gone so far as referencing his penis size during a debate. Sanders is fighting his demographic distance from the groups whose votes he needs with his brand of impassioned authenticity rooted in familiarity. Kasich spends most of his time simply trying to distance himself from Trump. Cruz uses his evangelical base to attract limelight, but still remains in the shadow of Trump when it comes to media coverage.
So has the barrage of memes, gifs and selfies from the political elite of the country drawn in AU students? As a well-known liberal school, is Hillary the new grandma-next-door we all want to love and elect?
According to a pool of American undergraduate students: yes and no. Students across the political spectrum seem to mostly agree that there has been a general push for young votes, but when asked if Clinton was successful in this, the reactions were mixed.
Some students like Lauren Beeslee, “..think she is relatable, because she’s honest and open. She doesn’t do many specific things just to appeal to the youth vote… I think less of her as relatable and more as kind, with clear policy goals, and driven.”
“Hillary Clinton isn’t the ultimate cool-mom candidate that she might want to be.”
Other students vehemently disagreed on the way Clinton is presenting herself. Stephanie Black asserted that, “Clinton seems to be giving herself aneurysms trying to connect to younger folks. Appearing on Broad City for example, asking students to describe their crushing student debts in three emojis, and comparing herself to abuelitas. She’s out of touch and, in my opinion, further alienating herself …” Other students echoed Stephanie’s opinions; some felt that Clinton’s efforts were too obvious and pandering, or simply completely ineffective.
So for American University students, Hillary Clinton isn’t the ultimate cool-mom candidate that she might want to be. However, the same questions asked about other candidates didn’t reveal that anyone else’s strategy was all that much better.
For more student responses on Presidential Candidates, click here.