National Post Barbara Kay: Dems need to go beyond Twitter if they don’t want four more years of ‘crazy’

National Post - Tuesday October 29th, 2019

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks in Chicago, Ill., on Oct. 28, 2019.

Bill Maher was at the top of his game the other night, delivering a trenchant riff premised on advice to candidates for the Democratic nomination. “This should be easy,” he said. “Just be less crazy than Donald Trump.”

To waves of laughter, Maher mocked the prominence of marginal issues in candidate platforms, such as giving prisoners the right to vote (Bernie Sanders) and — not to be outdone — the offer of free sex-change operations to the minuscule number of transgenders in the prison system (Elizabeth Warren). He also warned manic maximalist Beto O’Rourke that a vow to withdraw tax-exempt status from churches resistant to recognizing gay marriage isn’t a winning strategy in attracting the black vote.

Maher begged the Dems not to take the bait of the far-left elements in the party. “Most of America, all they want is to vote for someone who’s not weird. Play to them and stop worrying that you’re gonna lose social justice warriors to Donald Trump.” That’s good advice. To judge from their rhetoric, the candidates seem to be under the impression that Twitter is a kind of never-ending poll of what’s important to Americans, and it is their duty to support the views of its most impassioned tweeters.

Most of America, all they want is to vote for someone who’s not weird

Comedian Bill Maher

I feel slight pity for the Dem oldies. Biden’s, Warren’s and Sanders’ strength lies in old-style politics, speechifying to actual audiences, glad-handing real people. They know their presence on social media is de rigueur, but they have no great love for it. To the younger generation of politicians, though, social media are as the briar patch was to Br’er Rabbit in the old Uncle Remus tales.

Freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, often weak in on-air interviews, is strong on Twitter, where she boasts three million followers. Her absurd Green New Deal would bankrupt the nation but, solely on the basis of her social-media profile, she is perceived as powerful. Veteran Dems treat her with cautious deference on the assumption that signs of disrespect to AOC will unleash her Twitter army to damaging effect.

They should give their heads a shake and ponder the findings of a new Pew Research Center study that considers the relationship between national politics and the (mere) 22 per cent of the American public that uses Twitter.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduces Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders at a rally in Queens, New York on Oct. 19, 2019. Ocasio-Cortez has three million followers on Twitter. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

The study analyzed the tweets of a random sample of 2,427 U.S. adults with public Twitter accounts over the year surrounding the 2018 midterm elections. They found that content specifically related to the elections constituted only 13 per cent of all tweets analyzed. As demonstrated in previous research, a small percentage of users produced most of the content related to national politics. In fact, 97 per cent of tweets mentioning national politics came from only 10 per cent of users.

Who are the 10 per cent? First, they are mainly left-wing. Trump mudslingers generated 72 per cent of political tweets from June 2018 to June 2019. U.S. adults who strongly approve of Trump — 29 per cent of the general population — are, at 15 per cent, under-represented on Twitter. This translates into more pressure to pander to extremism on Dem politicians than on Republican.

Greater engagement on Twitter is linked to political activism. Pew reports that those who tweet about politics are more likely to attend rallies and contact elected officials. Political tweeters are also more likely to hold a frosty opinion of the opposing party. The study therefore bears out what anyone who spends a fair amount of time on Twitter knows empirically.

Who is not engaging in political discourse on Twitter? The vast majority of American voters

Age profiles refine the picture. The most “prolific political tweeters” — 73 per cent of political tweets, 29 per cent of tweets overall — were over age 50. A full 33 per cent of political tweets issued from tweeters over age 65. The study also found that the predominantly Democratic Twitter population was more likely to believe that news encountered on social media was accurate and trustworthy. (Republicans tend to be more skeptical of news accuracy both on social media and off.)

American economics professor Tyler Cowen has observed that the trend toward the empowerment of young and aggressive, but often irresponsible Democratic party influencers — celebrity political leadership rather than policy leadership — “will grow stronger, and the parties will become weaker.” He concludes that “the issues that are easier to express on social media will become the more important ones. … (F)iery rhetoric and identity politics will rule the day. And if you think this is the political world we’re already living in, rest assured: it’s just barely gotten started.”

Who is not engaging in political discourse on Twitter? The vast majority of American voters. Their views are de facto less extreme than the Twitter hustlers, exactly the audience Maher is pleading with the Dem candidates to appeal to. They better heed his warnings, or it could easily be four more years of “crazy.”

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