Over the last several years I’ve tried to resist comparisons between Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Bernie Sanders, mostly because these comparisons tend to posit a simplistic notion of “left-wing populism” that obscures the obvious differences in style and ideology between the two men and the movements that support them. Recently, though, coverage of Sanders and younger American socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has brought to light a real and important similarity between La France insoumise and the American left.
Both during Mélenchon’s 2017 presidential campaign and since he and his 17 comrades took their seats in the Assemblée nationale, a hallmark of La France insoumise has been its use of video. Candidate Mélenchon had kept large numbers of young supporters captivated during his race through his revues de la semaine, YouTube fireside chats in which he would speak off the cuff on whatever was on his mind each week. Upon entering parliament, François Ruffin both copied this practice and set an even more ambitious aim for the insoumis media strategy. Ruffin used his video platform to publicize images of what takes place on the assembly floor and in smaller legislative commissions—all of which are of course open to the public—but more than that, he made a show of it, wearing a soccer jersey on the dais to promote amateur sports or confronting agricultural leaders over animal rights issues. The goal was not only to provide direct personal communication between deputies and their voters, but to transform the halls of government themselves into a “people’s tribune.”
It’s hard not to see something similar going on on the American left. Ocasio-Cortez has recently taken to livestreaming on Instagram some of her first moments on Capitol Hill, including the introductory sessions for new lawmakers she has called “Congress camp.” America’s youngest congresswoman is by all accounts even more adept with the codes of social media than her French counterparts, whose YouTube addresses come off as rather formal by comparison. Sanders as well has been busy in his efforts to reach the public through a video campaign on various social-democratic issues (according to a recent profile of Sanders, his other Senate colleagues have been astonished by the amount of time he appears to have to devote to the project).
This appears to be smart politics not only because it is now obvious that any serious political movement has to master the latest social and visual media. The “populist” element of bringing constituents directly into the centers of power may be crucial for the left flank in Congress during the second half of the Trump presidency. Faced with both implacable Republican opposition and considerable Democratic skepticism towards their ideas, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez will have little opportunity to turn these ideas into law. What they will have, though, is a platform to attempt to make the case that they are the ones fighting for “the people” in an otherwise indifferent Washington environment. A little political theater of the kind pioneered by Ruffin might not be the worst use of this position in Congress.
Photo Credit: Mark Dillman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez July 2018, via Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0.