In the 2020 presidential election, Democrats in Texas learned that former president Lyndon B Johnson was right: when seeking power, there is no substitute for going door to door. The Republicans held the state, and a post-election report by the Democratic Party conceded that its electoral strategy had relied too much on digital outreach and not enough on canvassing voters in person.
Digital outreach means many things, including emails, online adverts, Facebook, and, notably, Twitter. Donald Trump’s presidency was defined by tweets. They dictated chyrons across national news networks. Congressional reporters chased senators asking them to respond to this or that Trump tweet (Republican senators became adept at claiming not to have seen the tweet). Trump’s tweets could shake the stock market. They could threaten military conflict abroad or mobilise riotous supporters at home. This was until Twitter kicked him off the platform at the beginning of 2021 for glorifying violence and violating the company’s terms of service.
But Trump was not the only prolific tweeter in American politics. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 31-year-old progressive representative from the Bronx, has used Twitter and Instagram to hit back at her detractors and to broadcast policy positions to her 20 million-plus followers. She has even run sessions for her fellow Democrats on how to use social media effectively.
There are also those politicians who model themselves after Ocasio-Cortez, but who use Twitter to build their personal brand rather than promote any policy agenda. Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old Republican congressman from North Carolina, told colleagues that he prioritised communications, not legislation, when he built his congressional team.
Cawthorn is hardly the first member of Congress to prioritise building a profile in the media, but he appears to use Twitter at least as much to boost his image as a crusading conservative as to promote any set of specific political issues. In January, for example, Cawthorn tweeted: “First they came for our Free Speech, then they came for our Free Markets, next they’ll come for our Free Shipping on orders $50 or more with promo code: FREEDOM50.”
Similarly, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Republican congresswoman from Georgia – who last month was stripped of her committee assignments over incendiary remarks she had made on social media before her election to Congress – has used tweets to generate coverage from national media outlets and boost her public profile.
Even veteran politicians have picked up the Twitter habit. In June last year, senators Elizabeth Warren, Tina Smith and Brian Schatz created a chain of quote tweets, each writing on top of the other: “DC should be a state. Pass it on.” (“You pass it on,” I thought to myself, as I do every time I see a member of Congress tweet a cutesy “pass it on” message in support of some piece of policy. “Or, better yet, pass legislation.”) More recently, Republican senator Ted Cruz responded to the news that the toy company Hasbro was dropping the “Mr” from “Mr Potato Head” by tweeting a gif from the movie Toy Story.
Politicians embracing a new form of media to broadcast their message is as old as American politics. Ocasio-Cortez and Cruz may exchange barbs online, but from the 19th century the Federalists and Democratic Republicans attacked one another in newspapers and pamphlets.
After the radio was invented in the late 19th century, and popularised in the 20th, Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt comforted the nation throughout the Great Depression and Second World War with his famous fireside chats. The advent of television from the 1950s dramatically changed how politicians presented themselves to the electorate. This was a cruel lesson Richard Nixon, then vice-president, learned in 1960 after his presidential debate with John F Kennedy – radio listeners thought Nixon had won it, but those who watched on television felt Kennedy came out on top. Nixon went on to lose the election.
What is novel about Twitter is that it is always there. A politician may not be able to dictate TV news schedules and programming, but they can always send a tweet, potentially changing the news agenda. And unlike a newspaper or radio show, Twitter resembles an agora, a space for public debate: politicians tweet, and the people can tweet back. Trump was the tweeter-in-chief, but any politician can campaign from their armchair, marketing themselves, engaging supporters, fighting detractors, spreading rumours. Those politicians who embrace social media zealously could lose sight of the real work of governance, or they could gain a new position of public prominence with which to make change. Or both.
The rewards are potentially great – politicians can, through social media, hurry themselves to stardom and reach out to, and get feedback from, potential voters without having to rely on major media companies. But so too are the risks. Twitter creates echo chambers; the most polarising ideologues such as Taylor Greene – who has previously expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory about a “deep state” child sex trafficking cult – can amplify their dogmas and paranoid fantasies.
Politicians not only risk surrendering themselves completely to what the writer Richard Seymour calls “the twittering machine”, but are also in danger of losing sight of what their voters really want and who they really are; mistaking the virtual world for the real one. Texas Democrats found that out to their cost in 2020. Lyndon Johnson already knew it, even without Twitter, more than half a century before.
[see also: The Big Tech Backlash: Special Series]
This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus