Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

The Twitter Trap

(Tim Robberts/Getty Images)

Stop me if you’ve heard this story: A die-hard progressive living in a liberal enclave (usually when this story is told, it’s about the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael on the Upper West Side of Manhattan) simply cannot understand how it happened that a Republican won the presidential election.

“How could he win?” goes the story. “Nobody I know voted for him!”

And then those of us on the right chuckle meanly about the liberal-progressive-urban-media enclave. We tut-tut the elitist disdain they all have for someplace called “real America.” We comfort ourselves with the sputtering ratings of left-leaning CNN, the black hole of viewership that is MSNBC, the soaring profits of Fox News. We tell ourselves that all it really takes for conservatives to win back the country is to communicate effectively or utilize better messaging or leverage social-media platforms or some other faddish nonsense. All we need, we tell ourselves, is to connect with the millions of people who already agree with us.

Which now, of course, we can do easily. Conservative activists and pundits — and even those who, for some personality-distorting reason, merely aspire to be in those categories — can tweet or post on Facebook or podcast directly to their audiences. As each little insight into the day’s events (what media types call a “hot take”) trails through the sky like a comet, it collects “likes” and “retweets” and “shares” and “follows,” and the result is that there are lots of people out there with an astonishing number of online followers — hundreds of thousands of people listening to the not-very-much-new that they have to say.

All of those crisscrossing and overlapping networks mean that conservatives no longer have to hope that there’s someone in the newsroom — probably someone terrified and cowed — willing to represent a wisp of a trace of a shadow of a slightly conservative viewpoint. We don’t have to hope for equal time. We’ve created it ourselves, not just in the one-size-fits-all Fox News network — on which every warm wind is a Stormwatch! and every overseas gunshot is ISIS Is Coming to Murder Your Children! — but in the Twitter followings of National Review writers that intersect with unknown clever bloggers and witty conservatives across the country. Twitter and Facebook positively hum and ripple with exchanges between and among conservative celebrities and the people we in show business call “civilians.”

And this, we’re told, is progress.

I’m not so sure.

For years, the secret weapon of the conservative movement has been that we’ve known, deep down, that most Americans don’t agree with us. Oh, yes, they love the flag-waving stuff and the punchy bromides, but when it comes to cutting government programs or slicing entitlements or running a flintier and stingier welfare state, Americans tend to opt for the softer, more progressive option. Conservatives have accepted this, somewhere in their dark hearts, for the past 50 years and have become, essentially, bilingual. We’ve developed the ability to talk to liberals and progressives in their own idiom. We didn’t have millions of followers somewhere to retweet our tweets and “like” our tax plans. We had to do the hard work of getting in a van — probably somewhere cold and wet and hard to reach from LaGuardia or Reagan National — and going out to meet Americans who — let’s face it — like them a little bit of federally supplied sugar. And I mean “sugar” in both the metaphorical sense — ethanol subsidies and Medicare Part D and refundable tax credits — and the literal sense, the sweet white stuff that gets a lot of federal attention.

We had to talk a certain way, master a complicated code, to get heard and reported by the suspicious progressives who ran (and still run, though no one is paying attention) the nation’s newsrooms.

Now we don’t. And we think we’re winning. And that’s a problem.

“We can’t lose!” a conservative activist told me when I told him that I thought we were going to lose the next election. “I mean, I’ve got, like, fifty thousand Twitter followers!”

He didn’t mean that his puny 50k was going to turn the tide in Ohio and sweep the Republican nominee to victory. He was describing the network effect of a lot of individuals with a lot of followers multiplied many times over. What if, he was saying, we can get our message out in short and clever little “bites” of text and get it spread across the country before the newsroom Stalins even know what happened? What if in response to each daily outrage and distortion the Left tosses out, we can type a pithy “Gotcha!” tweet and get it out there?

He was describing, when you get right down to it, cat videos. And also: Donald Trump. (The two are closely related.)

But cat videos are fun to click on. (So is Trump.) They’re short bursts of entertainment, and they don’t really do anything. (Neither does Trump.) What our side forgets is that persuading people is hard and difficult and often requires a dollop of forgetfulness in the details (“We absolutely can grow our way out of this debt! No tax shenanigans necessary!”) and a splash of compromise (“Of course everyone in America should have health insurance!”) on the way to real action. And real action is different from tweeting a lot or slamming some progressive right in his @replies, and here’s a handy way to tell the difference: You cannot change the country or renew its free-market zeal or reform its crony-industrial sector or smash the public-school monopoly while you’re sitting on the toilet, tweeting. And recent surveys confirm that it’s right there, in that least social of all spaces, that many Americans do the majority of their online socializing.

Conservatives — back when we were losers and outcasts and uptight scolds — knew that the road to liberty and a better America was a slow, hard trudge, often backward, and the road to serfdom was a fun little glide down the waterslide of entitlement spending and women’s-studies classes. But lately, we’ve become a little bit more like the out-of-touch progressive in that hilarious story. In a bubble of “likes” and “follows,” we’re convinced that we’re winning, that we’re loved, that America is right behind us.

Just like . . . well, you get the picture.

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