Twitter is our collective id, particularly for our elected leaders, who can’t seem to resist regularly making fools of themselves on the platform. But a recent analysis in the New York Times of the differences between Democrats who are active on social media and those who are not should serve as a reminder to both political parties that the power of Twitter activists to influence political agendas doesn’t always benefit the party in question.
As the Times report noted, “Today’s Democratic Party is increasingly perceived as dominated by its “woke” left wing. But the views of Democrats on social media often bear little resemblance to those of the wider Democratic electorate.” In fact, social media Democrats outnumber moderates 2 to 1, and, the Times says, “This latter group has the numbers to decide the Democratic presidential nomination in favor of a relatively moderate establishment favorite, as it has often done in the past.”
And yet, it is the outspoken activist contingent that have embraced policy ideas–the Green New Deal, reparations for slavery, Medicare-for-All, free college, abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, democratic socialism, and more—that are well to the left of the political mainstream. (That same contingent wasn’t happy that the Times failed to mention that the partnering organization that helped gather the data for its study, More in Common, is dedicated to promoting centrism.)
But the report is correct to highlight the dangers of mistaking Twitter for the real world, particularly when it comes to media narratives. Twitter is like catnip to journalists, who are some of its heaviest users. Too many journalists assume what’s raging on Twitter at the moment is also what bothers the average American, which makes it all too easy to craft misleading stories that, in fact, represent only small contingents of motivated keyboard warriors.
This is a bipartisan problem, but in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, its impact is being felt more acutely by Democrats. Some observers have noted the risk that, now that they’ve gained the majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats will repeat with their progressive wing the mistakes the Republicans made with their Tea Party activists and let the radicals rule.
As well, the lesson of the midterms might not be the one Democrats needed to learn if they hope to oust Trump in 2020. As Thomas Edsall argued recently in the New York Times, radical policy agendas are effective platforms in primary battles, but “bold progressive stands may be risky in general elections.” Stanford political scientist Andrew Hall “found that when a more extreme candidate beats a moderate in the primary the party’s general-election vote share decreases on average by approximately 9—13 percentage points, and the probability that the party wins the seat decreases by 35—54 percentage points.”
But voters seem to love the extremists anyway. As University of Pennsylvania political scientist Yphtach Lelkes told Edsall, “Partisans are reacting most favorably toward ideological extremists.”
The Democratic leadership in Congress appears less enthusiastic, although so far they have been sparing in publicly criticizing their own. Nancy Pelosi has attempted to rein in her more progressive colleagues behind the scenes, though even she can’t resist occasionally throwing shade at some of their more radical policy proposals.
The Democratic party’s race to the left is both a warning and an opportunity for conservatives concerned about the fate of the Republican party–particularly its future in a post-Trump era.
It’s a warning not to kowtow to the loudest voices on Twitter on their own side of the aisle. But it’s also an opportunity for the GOP to win back some of the moderate voters (particularly suburban women) they lost in 2018 if they focus on the right message. The Times analysis found, for example, that while less than half of Democrats who are active on social media believed political correctness is a problem in the U.S., 70 percent of other Democrats did. As well, “recent polls show that a majority of Democrats would rather see the party become more moderate than move leftward, even as progressives clamor for a Green New Deal or Medicare for all.”
Political polarization has been a growing problem for years, and finding a way for either party to talk to moderate voters would require a serious shift in tone and rhetoric. As Adam J. White argued persuasively in The Bulwark, it would take “heroic efforts by statesmen and citizens to persuade their fellow partisans to restrain themselves, forgive their political opponents for perceived (or actual) wrongdoing, and then to call on the entire country, as one, to move forward. It would require more self-restraint, less ‘lock them up, and virtually no owning of the libs, the cons, or anyone else.”
The silver lining for Republicans?: “In recent decades,” the Times notes, “most of the candidates who have found their core strength among the party’s ideologically consistent, left-liberal activist base have lost.” In other words, Democratic contenders, particularly those running for president, often discover too late that running to the left ends in defeat.