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17 April 2024

Your fandom isn’t funny

Britain can’t afford to let politics fans trivialise how the country is run.

By Morgan Jones

Fandom has found politics. Anyone for whom the words “Elizabeth Warren Holocaust tattoo” means anything knows this is the case. “Stanning” (obsessive fans) politicians, fancam videos, communities of self-identified politicos chattering online, making memes and reposting their faves: for a not insignificant number of people, this is how they engage with politics and, perhaps more pertinently, with politicians. Phoenix Andrews’ I Heart Politics: How People Power Took Over the World, which examines fandom’s assault on politics, seeks to interrogate this phenomenon. The results are mixed.

The book’s central problem is that it does not offer an analytically useful definition of fan or fandom beyond “fandom is neat”.

“Friends joke that I see everything as fandom, and it’s kind of true,” Andrews writes: I Heart Politics bears out this observation. Fandom is liking something and drawing a sense of collective identity from it. Fandom is patterns of “enthusiasm and defensiveness and weird behaviour”. But it’s also admiring things, or being radicalised by them. Maybe writing a history book is motivated by fandom, or putting someone’s picture on your wall. It’s a lot of things, some of them contradictory, most of which I’m sure can be done out of fandom, but also surely aren’t always motivated by it. To use examples from the book: I’m persuaded that hardcore Remainers and Leavers are engaged in a form of fandom, but it is less clear that members of Just Stop Oil are, or that Americans who protested Ronald Reagan’s presidency can usefully be described, as they are here, as constituting an “anti-fandom”.

The lack of a definition is most apparent in those sections that cover the history of fandom, including the Protestant Reformation and the case of Scottish Reformation martyr Patrick Hamilton. After the printing press helped Martin Luther “go viral”, Hamilton became a fan of his ideas, and even went on what Andrews describes as a “nerdy and fannish trip to Leuven to study with Erasmus”. Following his return to Scotland, Hamilton was burned at the stake in 1528 after publicly asserting his Protestant beliefs: “Martyring fans just for supporting a theological stance shifted public opinion,” Andrews tells us. That’s right. They martyred him, for stanning.

Questions of obsession and parasociality (a term the book seems to think is too often used pejoratively) are surely relevant when discussing how people understood and related to the Reformation. However, beyond a description of John Calvin as a “problematic fave”, we don’t get any real insight into how fandom, obsession and parasociality might have manifested in this period. The superficial treatment of the Reformation goes to the heart of another of the book’s problems: in politics, as in religion, this is a book that acknowledges no higher point, no profound or existential commitment, in people’s motivations.

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Andrews seems uninterested in how ideology, for example, can motivate political engagement. Everyone is just a fan, everywhere and always. There were sincere beliefs about the nature of people’s relationship with God, going well beyond communal fandom or personal experience, that drew Hamilton to a horrible death, just as sincere beliefs about how the world should be inform what philosophers have called vita activa. But occasional references to the “sense of purpose” that politics provides aside, the book only reasons at a level of refraction, of fans reflecting back on fans: one of the definitions of fandom the book employs essentially endorses this view, drawing on the work of the sociologist Émile Durkheim to tell us that “it’s not the dedication to an object, it’s about what fans get from being together and sharing the experience”.

“There’s a weird assumption that people who have fun in and around politics and joke around with politicians don’t care about the issues,” Andrews argues, but people quoted and interviewed in his book often seem to refute this. Formerly active members of the “Lolitics” fandom, composed of UK politics fans, discuss how they took part in a fandom while simultaneously being “disconnected from the politics itself”, with one fandom member interviewed arguing that the “mantra” of the space was to keep the fandom separate from reality. The book’s conclusion features the regretful thoughts of Calla Walsh, a former member of the “Markeyverse” (a fan-driven campaign to re-elect Massachusetts senator Ed Markey), who has since adopted a more radical politics. Walsh describes how the senator’s subsequent positions left her feeling disenchanted and alienated. Andrews argues that it was Walsh’s naivety, not the fact of having first engaged with politics via fan-mode, that led to her disappointment with Markey. I would argue stan politics of the kind Walsh and others practised is inherently naive, creating a dynamic of both emotional involvement with and valorisation of its subject that is certainly not an aide to critical inspection of politicians and their ideas.

Andrews asserts that fandom is a good thing, democratic and accessible. But without a working definition, fandom as a mode of politics becomes near-impervious to criticism. The closest thing to a useful description Andrews provides is through a detailed case study: the author describes his own commitment to being a fan of the former shadow chancellor Ed Balls as a “recurrent theme in this book”, and details a process of first ironic then increasingly sincere appreciation, making Gifs of him on Strictly Come Dancing, joking with other fans, seeking out nicher content, and “deepening my knowledge of his politics and background” – even singing with him at a barbecue.

This all sounds benign enough. It’s hard to argue with the “we’re all just having fun” defence of political fandom without seeming self-serious or a killjoy. But politics is serious: it determines the course of people’s lives. Commentators on politics, and even politicians themselves, often lose sight of this, and get swept up in the game of it. Behaving in an un-serious way about a serious thing, as politics fandom encourages people to do, only makes that gamified culture more likely, and is itself disrespectful. 

Andrews thinks people hate fandom in politics because “serious commentators enjoy policing how people choose to do politics”, and because it’s unembarrassingly cringe, the terrain of the fun and flippant. I am such a person: I think there are good and bad ways of engaging with politics, and fandom is a bad one, not because it is cringe, but because it is wilfully shallow, cheapening and warping something important. 

Engaging with politics as if participating in a fan culture is also detrimental to our national political conversation. This was a view I came to in 2020, during the last Labour leadership race, witnessing sexualised “fan” content being made about the Wigan MP Lisa Nandy. Without going too deep into the “horny for Lisa Nandy” phenomenon, the tendency to focus on physical appearance when “stanning” is unhelpful and, particularly when it comes to women MPs, yields retrograde results.

I don’t think you can dedicate yourself to being trivial in this manner without trivialising both yourself and the object of your obsession in the process. This belief has only been confirmed by Phoenix Andrews’ I Heart Politics, a bad defence of what I remain convinced is a bad way of engaging with politics from someone who is I suspect too close to their subject.

[See also: The trauma ward]

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