Netflix Could Be Influencing the Next Election

Everyone complains when celebrities get political, but what happens when the line between entertainment and politics blurs beyond repair?

New Netflix documentaries focus on Democrats Beto O'Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Dating back to before his presidency, President Donald Trump has consistently crowned himself a master of ratings, possessing an undeniable talent for stoking interest in the American pastime of sitting in front of the television, whether during his reality show, presidential debates or the State of the Union.

Democrats, having taken note of Trump’s tactics, are building media stars of their own. This month, HBO and Netflix announced that in the lead up to the 2020 Presidential election, two of the Democratic Party’s youngest and most politically gifted figures will get a small head start in the battle for screen time. 

Netflix has purchased the rights to “Knock Down the House,” a documentary that followed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other female House of Representatives candidates during the 2018 midterms, while HBO has acquired “Running With Beto,” a documentary that tracked former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke’s promising but failed bid to upend a Senate seat that has been Republican longer than Trump has. 

For O’Rourke, “Running with Beto,” set to air in the spring, could not come at a better time. O’Rourke is frequently cited as a potential suitor for the Democratic presidential ticket in 2020, and given that the documentary is promoted as having “intimate access to O’Rourke,” and documenting his “rise from virtual unknown to national political sensation,” the El Paso native would start with the rare advantage of being cast in a friendly, narrative light, beamed into the homes of 54 million HBO subscribers. It’s an advantage that could be pertinent during the scramble for 2020 Democratic Primary funds.

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In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, the film will be more of a victory lap for the unorthodox congresswoman. Her successful campaign to dethrone establishment figure Joe Crowley, captured in the documentary, has become a touchstone for progressive Democrats. Her aspirations for higher office likely need to be stayed for a while. She is years away from being old enough to run for president and her Senatorial colleagues in New York are both Democrats. Though if anyone is brash and popular enough to primary two veteran Senators and succeed, it would be Ocasio-Cortez.

The announcement of “Knock Down The House” came with the shocking report that Netflix had purchased it for $10 million, a record for a documentary brokered at a film festival. Certainly, much of this has to do with Ocasio-Cortez herself — one of the few characteristics she shares with Trump is her dual identities as a social media influencer and a politician. She has a reputation for creating intrigue in under 280 characters. Fortunately for her, mobilizing user engagement is largely the battlefield upon which politics is now fought. 

This is all to say that as the nature of political campaigns and the politician themselves change, so do the mediums by which they are covered. Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a first-term representative and failed Senate candidate would be the stars of two nationally distributed and highly anticipated documentaries. Now, promising political figures can leverage an intimate and partial documentary to control their own stories without retort. At the end of these films, there is no response documentary attached by the opposition party.

Still, these two documentaries are historical outliers in that both Ocasio-Cortez and O’Rourke have sparse histories as public figures and the potential for immense future political consequences. The closest corollaries to these two films, where a subject is intimately profiled at a moment of contemporaneous political relevance, are “Mitt” on Netflix and  “By The People: The Election of Barack Obama” on HBO. Even then, “Mitt” was released four years prior to the Romney campaign for Senate, and “By The People” was released after Obama was already president. Rewatching “Mitt” today, the contrast between Mitt Romney’s mild manners and the political climate we live in is striking; in “Mitt,” Romney was a father with PG-rated language, a Ned Flanders of American politicians. This is a billing that wouldn’t draw a crowd in the age of Trump.

The guiding philosophy that Democrats have seemingly aped from Trump is that ratings and eyeballs can be king. What better way to spread your message into the households of millions of Americans than by reaching the whole family in their natural state, the streaming binge? With these documentaries, Ocasio-Cortez and O’Rourke extend their reach in the arena of American celebrity, as seems to be required of today’s politicians. Former President Ronald Reagan was once elected as a movie-star-turned-politician. It appears that careers today follow the opposite progression. 

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 19 print edition. Email Dante Sacco at [email protected]

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