How Pop Culture Encourages Political Participation

How Pop Culture Encourages Political Participation

With less than 50 days to go until the US elections, political parties are in overdrive trying to convince US citizens to vote for their candidate. But despite their efforts, the United States continues to grapple with a declining rate of electoral participation. The numbers are particularly discouraging when looking at younger generations and marginalized groups. It might seem odd that the groups that are most affected by political decisions are also the ones least likely to vote, but it’s easy to explain. Feeling disenfranchised, unrepresented or ignored by current politicians does not exactly provide an encouraging incentive – even though these are exactly the reasons why you should vote; for change. What is more, newly eligible voters are new to a process that is ever-changing and difficult to navigate, particularly during a pandemic.

So how do you drive home the message that exercising the right to vote is essential to maintaining a healthy democracy? You meet people in spaces where they do feel seen, represented and are easily engaged. One space that facilitates this perfectly both offline and online, is pop culture. Famous figures have an amazing platform to inform and engage their fans in the electoral process. Sharing a message that political participation can be easy, fun and impactful may be what pushes them to register to vote.

The US has a history of harnessing the power of pop culture in politics, such as celebrity endorsements for presidential candidates. But while there used to be a rather large group of celebrities choosing to maintain an apolitical stance, this no longer seems to be the norm in 2020. Think of people like Cardi B, who has been outspoken about the importance to educate ourselves on the political process and what policies are essentially on the ballot. She has hosted multiple Instagram Lives, talking directly to politicians who are up for election, asking them what they stand for.

Across the political spectrum, people agree that the elections this year may be more important than ever before. The US is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, institutional racism and police brutality, and climate change – all issues that require urgent and immediate action. Moreover, an entire generation of young voters has grown up in a country plagued by school shootings. Whoever gets elected president has a lot of major problems to solve, but they will also have the ability to appoint Supreme Court justices – lifetime appointed positions that could sway US liberties for generations to come. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of the United States depends on the outcome of these elections.

And so, initiatives that harness the power of young people are springing up left and right this year, trying to convince them to vote. Some have been around for a while, and their results show how effective these campaigns can be. In the 90s, Rock the Vote started out as a campaign in response to the censorship of hiphop and rap artists. In 2018 alone, Rock The Vote and its partners processed almost 1 million voter registration applications – a new record.

Headcount was formed in 2003 by musicians who felt a certain sense of disconnect and unease with American politics at the time, particularly its decision to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. They felt these policies could have perhaps been prevented, if only more people had voted. Given their roots in music, they started using their concert dates as moments to ask attendees to register to vote. Over the past two decades, Headcount has successfully registered more than 700,000 people, and has grown into a full-fledged organization of its own. While it was bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish who started the movement, now it’s artists like Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande who partner with Headcount to get their fans involved.

For the 2020 elections, Headcount has teamed up with Global Citizen – a non-governmental organization that regularly relies on celebrity rewards to incentivize youth to take action. Just Vote is a campaign that aims to mobilize at least 1 million young Americans to register to vote. Celebrities across the board are offering exclusive experiences, signed items, performances and even masterclasses as rewards to eligible voters who have checked their voter registration status. There are signed vinyls by Billie Eilish or her brother FINNEAS, virtual meet & greets with DJ Khaled, Madison Beer or Kaia Gerber, a fashion masterclass with Donna Karan, and signed guitars by either Taylor Swift or Shawn Mendes – as well as so many other items.

The importance of encouraging Americans to vote has bled into other areas of pop culture as well. In 2018, Michelle Obama launched the organization When We All Vote, together with Tom Hanks, Lin-Manual Miranda, Janelle Monae, Chris Paul, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. They were able to engage 200 million Americans online about the significance of voting, and texted nearly 4 million voters the resources to register. Since then, important pop culture figures like Selena Gomez, Liza Koshy, Shonda Rhimes, and Megan Rapinoe have joined the organization and have been using their platforms to ask their fans to vote this year as well.

But maybe organizations don’t even need to rely on the pop culture icons themselves. Even though the members of BTS have never explicitly commented on US politics, their fans have become an incredibly powerful force to be reckoned with online nonetheless. Inspired by their idols, BTS ARMY was able to raise 1 million dollars for Black Lives Matter. and have been outspoken on political issues ever since. They are certainly not the only fandom who dabbles in activism. In fact, even though the media has a tendency to infantilize fandoms and focus on inner strife, many of them are politically aware and have an activist streak to them. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since music might as well be the soundtrack to history. One of Rock The Vote’s partners has decided to exclusively focus on engaging fandoms, to make use of their massive online platforms and widespread networks. iStan’s campaign called “Stream The Vote” plays into the fanaticism that stans usually demonstrate when voting for their favourite celebrity to win an award. Except this time around, the fandom that’s been able to register the most eligible voters, will get to claim victory.

With voter registration at a historic low due to COVID-19, these campaigns are absolutely necessary. Informing people on how they can register online, make use of absentee ballots or mail-in votes is essential in ensuring that everyone gets a say in America’s future. Generation Z and millennials will make up 37% of eligible voters. If they all actually go and vote, they can make the difference.

Find out more information on how you can register to vote here: