What do Beto O’Rourke and I have in common besides the hot Irish blood running through our veins? We both spent Thursday morning at the dentist. While my hygienist knows this about me, thousands (millions?) know this about O’Rourke, thanks to Instagram.
The former congressman turned failed Senate candidate from Texas, now reportedly eyeing the presidency, took to Instagram Live to broadcast his dental cleaning and speak with his supporters. You know, just Regular Guy stuff.
The sound you may have heard was the collective groan of political reporters glimpsing their futures of covering overeager and over-sharing politicians. The moment was undoubtedly a heat check for O’Rourke, who spent his Senate campaign being lauded for videos of him skateboarding in parking lots or air-drumming to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” while waiting in a Whataburger drive-thru.
Beto is Instagramming his dental cleaning pic.twitter.com/BWyncSW3OK
— andrew kaczynski (@KFILE) January 10, 2019
For the uninitiated, the popular photo-sharing app has a feature that allows users to send out a live video and interact with followers as they comment and ask questions. A certain newly elected, communication-savvy 29-year-old has made the most of it in recent months, cooking up some mac and cheese as she discussed the issues she hopes to tackle in the 116th Congress. It’s been working out pretty well for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who earned praise for bringing people into the political process who may not read the news or watch a lot of cable television.
And then the dam broke.
Congress, much like the NFL, is a copycat league. Soon, presidential exploratory-committee-haver Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts celebrated her campaign announcement by cracking open an Insta-beer while shooting the breeze with supporters.
Which brings us back to O’Rourke. Did his dental moment jump the shark, or will trying to out-banal their constituents on Instagram Live become standard operating procedure for our elected leaders?
Probably both. Politicians: they’re just like us … in that they also find the mundane aspects of their lives worthy of broadcasting to followers mainly watching because they need a distraction while they’re bored on the toilet.
Any consultant, psychologist or NFL linebacker will tell you that you have to meet people where they are. Of course, politicians taking advantage of new technology to communicate with supporters is nothing new. You can draw a straight line from FDR’s fireside radio chats to Donald Trump’s frequent tweeting, which doesn’t mean you should.
Cory Booker, another potential 2020 candidate in waiting, was ahead of the pack when he joined Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel last October on Twitch, the visual streaming site that allows people to watch other people play video games. It was a bit jarring to see Booker defend his support for his legally embattled fellow senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez, while dodging ghosts and gobbling up fruit as Mrs. Pac-Man. “The scary thing is — Oohh, look at this! — to even not vote for Bob is a vote for one of Donald Trump’s biggest donors, a delegate to his convention. To not vote for Menendez is a vote for Donald Trump,” said Booker.
Authenticity, thy name is Pac-Man.
While Booker was gamely playing along with a reporter, the latest bout of political livestreaming cuts out the media middleman. Yes, Beto turned his teeth-cleaning into a Q&A on the border, and no, we can’t unhear the sound of his saliva traveling through a dental vacuum. That’s infuriating — but mostly for journalists. (See also the indignation that erupted Friday when a reporter from Modern Healthcare asked to get on Ocasio-Cortez’s press list and received this reply: “We don’t have a press list. We use twitter.”)
Behind the snarky tweets from journalists (one said she can’t wait for Beto to get a colonoscopy) are fears about how social media is changing access to power, for better and for worse. The sight of Beto’s molars may have annoyed media gatekeepers and experienced political operatives, but it’s doubtful that these Instagram Live dispatches are going away.
Some of them will be better than others.