Could the Twitter Primary Cost Democrats the Oval Office?

(Kacper Pempel/Reuters)
Twitter, which has developed into a hysterical platform prone to mobbing and shaming, amplifies and intensifies pre-existing primary pressures.

In my lifetime, I’ve never seen more presidential candidates advocate breaking more American constitutional, economic, and policy norms than I’ve seen from the Democratic field so far in 2019. When you assemble their proposals, it’s breathtaking.

End the Electoral College? Elizabeth Warren is for it, and Beto O’Rourke says there’s “a lot of wisdom” in her proposal.

Pack the Supreme Court?  Warren, Beto, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand are open to the idea.

End the legislative filibuster? Harris and Warren are thinking about it.

Remake the American economy with the Green New Deal? Virtually every significant Democratic presidential candidate is an enthusiastic yes.

Sweep away the private health-insurance policies of 150 million Americans? This is the emerging Democratic consensus.

This is only a partial list of Democratic power moves to the left, including calls to fundamentally transform longstanding constitutional structures and institutions. What is going on? Are these all conviction moves by progressive politicians telling the American people what they really believe? Are these politicians merely reflecting and amplifying the deeply held views of the Democratic rank-and-file?

Certainly the Democratic mainstream has become more liberal, and its left-most cohorts are white, female, college-educated, and young. In other words, I just described many of the key demographics of American Twitter — the platform that exercises a wildly disproportionate influence on politicians, journalists, and political activists. The dominant feedback loop in the early primary isn’t just from the motivated base (which would be entirely normal), but a motivated base amplified by a specific social-media platform.

Yes, radical Democratic pronouncements will earn them a wave of negative media attention on Fox News and in conservative media, but not a single Democratic candidate is trying to win that demographic. Indeed, a wave of Fox News hate is good for the brand. But if a Democratic candidate breaks in even small ways from the emerging online orthodoxy, watch them trend on Twitter. Watch them get viciously dragged in real time in front of every single leading progressive politician, activist, and journalist in the United States. It takes a brave person to withstand the attack, especially when there is precious little short-term advantage in confronting the online Left.

This immediate, public, toxic, and often vicious or scornful feedback amplifies existing primary-season pressures to move leftward — just as the same kind of immediate toxic reaction can cow conservatives who oppose Trump. These attacks aren’t just read by campaign staffers. They also provide fodder for journalists, and they can quickly create narratives that dog candidates for days or weeks.

I’m not arguing that primary-season purity tests are anything new. Republicans have been through those wars, and now the GOP purity test is centered around loyalty to Trump. But these days Twitter — which has developed into a hysterical platform prone to mobbing and shaming — amplifies and intensifies preexisting primary pressures. Now, a strategy to prevent poor optics on Twitter will push Democratic candidates further and further to the left, as they express “openness” to ideas they’d never otherwise entertain, all to avoid the backlash.

As I’ve argued before, Twitter is so influential in part because that’s where the people who care the most spend their time. The people who care the most about anything — from politics to sports to pop culture — set the tone. And in American politics, the people who care the most tend not to be moderate, either in temperament or ideology.

By the time progressive Twitter has done its work on the Democratic field, the American people may no longer have the ability to choose true American norms in 2020. They may well encounter a choice between an extremist personality with a relatively center-right or populist agenda and a more normal personality who seeks to enact extremist policies. If suburban voters long for not radical change but rather a more reasonable politics, where will they turn?

But Democrats — indeed, both parties — need to remember that while Twitter has disproportionate influence on activists and elites, there’s little evidence that its outrages and controversies penetrate the wider world. An incident from this past week speaks volumes. If you’d only watched Twitter, you’d think that Beto’s presidential announcement was a bust. The Bernie Brigades — which punch well above their weight online — gang-tackled Beto on social media. He wasn’t taking on Ted Cruz, he was taking on the heroes of the progressive movement, and the honeymoon was most definitely over.

Twitter pronounced its verdict: His announcement was a bust. His campaign was days old, but he was already struggling. And then we learned Beto had out-raised every other Democratic candidate — including Bernie — in the first 24 hours of his campaign.

That doesn’t mean Beto is a favorite. Nor does it mean that he’s immune to Twitter’s progressive temptations. Just yesterday he backed abortion-on-demand even into the third trimester. He has backed the Green New Deal. He’s even advocated tearing down parts of the existing border wall. But it does mean that sensible politicians and sensible members of their staffs would do well to remember that the praise they earn online may well spell their doom at the ballot box. Twitter politics is extremist politics, and fighting one norm-breaker by creating another is an excellent way for the Democrats to fail again.


The Latest