The latest political controversy involves US Representative Ilhan Omar tweeting and insinuating that US political support for Israel is driven by Jewish money and lobbying. Leaving aside her views for now, the general trend is striking: Social media are allowing individual politicians to further their own careers at the expense of their party’s reputation. The result is that US politics is quickly changing into a parade of celebrities.
Put yourself in Omar’s shoes. You are a freshman representative in a group of 435. Most of your cohort would never receive national recognition, and as a Muslim woman, perhaps your hold on the seat is not entirely secure. You would probably never run for US president, or even the US Senate, so your future is not tied very closely to that of the US Democratic Party.
At some point, you realize that if you tweet about Israel, you would get attention. You probably believe in what you are saying and you think your opinions would contribute to the dialogue, but the tweets would also make you a national celebrity.
That might help your future ability to get a book contract, hit the lecture circuit, or join a lobbying or non-profit firm. Even if most Americans find your views objectionable, there would be a place for you in a country this large, wealthy and diverse.
I have found that when people perceive their self-interest and sense of morality to be in harmony, they are very likely to act in accordance with them — and so it came to pass.
Omar started tweeting about Israel, later tweeted a problematic remark about “Benjamins”; people were offended and accused her of anti-Semitism; and she has since apologized.
However, do not be too distracted by the apology: She definitely got people talking about one of her preferred issues, she raised her profile significantly and she has not withdrawn her main point.
Of course, it is the Democratic Party that ends up looking bad. For one thing, most Americans are pro-Israel. Even if the tweets had been less controversial, the mere act of talking about Israel exposes more fissures in the Democratic coalition than in the US Republican Party.
Consider US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, arguably a genius on social media. She is attracting more attention than all the Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential campaign — and now has more than 3 million Twitter followers.
She has been setting the Democratic agenda on both tax and environmental policy, and spurring a general sense among primary voters that the party ought to be moving further to the political left.
However, is this all good for the Democratic Party? The positive spin would be that she is revitalizing debate in the party and giving it greater appeal among the young. The negative spin is that she is pushing the primary candidates too far to the left, and making them look tired and stale compared with her energy and innovativeness.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s response to the Green New Deal idea was striking: “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive. The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”
No matter what the final result might be, the upstarts have been empowered relative to the establishment.
The true innovator in all of this, of course, is US President Donald Trump. He used Twitter to help himself get elected, at the expense of the traditional view of what the Republican Party should be.
This trend is certain to continue and intensify. Most politicians do not have excellent social media skills, but many would try to get noticed and have an effect (or at least hire staff members who would).
As more politicians increase their game on social media, more of these attempts would hit home. Ocasio-Cortez would have competition. The influence and reach of political celebrities would grow stronger, and the parties would become weaker yet.
This might be a more important trend than what is sometimes called political polarization, but what does this new, more intense celebrity culture mean for actual outcomes?
The more power and influence that individual communicators wield over public opinion, the more difficult it would be for a sitting president to get things done. (The best option, see above, would be to make your case and engage your adversaries on social media.) The more difficult it would be for an aspirant party to put forward a coherent, predictable and actionable political program.
Finally, the issues that are easier to express on social media would become the more important ones. Technocratic dreams would fade, and fiery rhetoric and identity politics would rule the day. If you think this is the political world that we are already living in, rest assured: It has just barely gotten started.
Tyler Cowen is an economics professor at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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