Before the November election, a pair of romance podcasters organized a weekly phone bank on behalf of Democrats in swing states, in which 300 volunteers made an estimated 300,000 calls to get out the vote. In the past month, still more have organized behind Georgia Democrats in the Romancing the Runoff project. This group has raised almost half a million dollars to help get out the vote for Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock on Jan. 5, with funds to be divided among three organizations, including Abrams’s Fair Fight.
How did Romancelandia transform itself from women cozied up with books that guaranteed a “happily ever after” to a community hustling for Democratic candidates across the country? Here’s what my research found.
How I did my research
To investigate this, I looked specifically into those women who got involved in the phone banks, which had been organized by the two women who host a podcast called “Fated Mates,” best-selling author Sarah MacLean and critic Jen Prokop. Over two weeks in November, I interviewed 30 members of this community about their love of romance; why they answered a popular romance podcast’s call to get politically active; and how this experience may affect their political involvement in the future. Because I talked with them directly so soon after the election, these women were able to describe their experiences while they were still fresh in their minds.
Who is involved in Romancelandia, and what makes it a community?
More than 20 years ago, Robert D. Putnam famously lamented in “Bowling Alone” that people no longer got involved in groups, which could lead to a sense of belonging — and which could then prompt action.
Since then, social media has transformed how people interact and influence one another socially and politically. One of those new social networks is Romancelandia, composed primarily of women who write romance, read romance, tweet about romance and listen to romance podcasts. While this network has no geographic center, these women have created strong social bonds through their common interests — and identify themselves as members of this community.
In the 1990s, political scientists Robert Huckfeldt and John Sprague used groundbreaking data to show that people do respond to political peer pressure. More recently, political scientist Betsy Sinclair argued that social networks influence visible political activities because a group’s members can make “asks” for votes or donations, framing them as personal favors. In short, social networks connect people in real life: Citizens feel pressure from their neighbors, other parents and their friends.
How would this work in the virtual community of Romancelandia, where there is no face-to-face interaction? My interviews found that these women did not feel pressured into phone-banking. Instead, because the “Fated Mates” phone bank was organized in a way that made getting involved easy, accessible and fun, they wanted to join in.
Building a supportive community for political activity
When the weekly romance podcast “Fated Mates” premiered in October 2018, the hosts told listeners that their “topics include feminism, patriarchy [and] modernity.” On Sept. 19, MacLean and Prokop recorded an episode discussing how they felt about the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg — and, with the election coming up, what listeners could do to honor her legacy. On Wednesday of that week, they tweeted that they would host a phone-banking party that Saturday, with scripts and guidance from the grass-roots anti-Trump group Indivisible.
Three main themes emerged as these women talked with me. First, they truly feel part of a community, even if it is purely online. Most laughed about “knowing” MacLean and Prokop for years through the podcast. While many authors use social media and podcasts to sell books, MacLean and Prokop have gone beyond that, creating a space in which they felt safe and welcome to discuss romance and politics, among other things. The phone-bankers described their attitudes toward the duo using words like “respect,” “trust” and “admire.”
Second, this sense of community translated into relaxed phone-banking sessions. While Indivisible Action provided phone numbers and training, MacLean and Prokop recruited their community members. They made a daunting task fun by organizing a massive party via Zoom for the phone-bankers, complete with special guests, bingo and swag donated by other romance authors. The two-hour sessions were very structured, something the women lauded. One woman said it couldn’t have been simpler; she just had to show up with her phone, and MacLean and Prokop took care of the rest.
Finally, the women felt connected even without physical proximity. Most mentioned how isolated they have felt during the pandemic — which was overcome by the “Fated Mates” Zoom call during the phone-banking. Seeing the group helped participants feel as if they weren’t alone in their calls. The Zoom chat was quite active during the sessions, celebrating wins and seeking support for difficult calls. Many mentioned that this camaraderie was missing from other phone- and text-banking opportunities they had attended through national campaigns.
The political network of romance
In her book, “The Social Citizen,” Sinclair writes that “social pressure can promote participation and activity among those who otherwise would not act.” In fact, neither “Fated Mates” co-hosts would characterize her organizing efforts as “pressure.” Romancelandia made social pressure positive and rewarding amid the hostile political environment of the past four years. The hosts made participation easy, suggested that people give whatever time they had, with no pressure to attend the full session, and increased interest by organizing a “party” for each banking session in which participants felt “supported” and “valued” within the community.
Rewards rather than shame can explain why folks were willing to spend a few hours each Saturday calling strangers or donating for the runoffs, all in the name of a political happily ever after.