Sun, Feb 17, 2019 - Page 7 News List

The Twitter takeover of politics is just getting started

Social media elevate the interests of politicians over parties, which means that things will only get messier

By Tyler Cowen  /  Bloomberg Opinion

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definitely got people talking about one of her preferred issues, she raised her profile significantly and she has not withdrawn her main point.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.

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