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MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Twitter isn’t real life (if you’re a Democrat)

May 15, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist with The New York Times since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.

On Twitter during late 2015 and early 2016, Donald Trump’s front-runner status was evident, even if it hadn’t yet fully sunk in with the tribunes of conventional wisdom. Trump’s following far outstripped his rivals. His tweets drove news cycles, and channeled the resentments of a furious base. In October 2015, The New York Times described Twitter as a “powerful bulwark” of support during a shaky moment in Trump’s campaign, noting that he was retweeted twice as often as Hillary Clinton and 13 times more than Jeb Bush. The platform helped make him president.

Yet when it comes to Democratic politics, Twitter is proving a lot less influential.

It’s not just that Twitter traffic doesn’t appear to reflect the priorities of the Democratic electorate. Spending too much time on the platform can be actively misleading about the state of the party, as you can see in the polling surge of Joe Biden, a man despised by the online left. Biden has fewer Twitter followers than first-term Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and less than half as many as Sen. Bernie Sanders.

He’s utterly at odds with the style of progressive politics that dominates the internet, failing to properly apologize for touching women in ways that made them uncomfortable, offering half measures on climate change, and praising “my Republican friends in the House and Senate.” But among Democratic voters, he is leading the field by double digits.

In some ways the digital disconnect is surprising. The Democratic Party has more young voters than Republicans do, and young people are more likely to be on Twitter. The party is supposed to be the more tech savvy one — it was progressive Democrats who coined the word “netroots.”

But Democrats are also far more heterogeneous than Republicans in terms of both identity and ideology. Members of the two parties exist in very different informational ecosystems, in which social media plays very different roles. This makes it tricky to apply lessons from Trump’s victory — which suggested that moderation was dead and institutional relationships overrated — to the Democratic race.

Trump arose in a party that had undergone decades of intense radicalization. According to data from the General Social Survey, 70% of Republicans today identify as “conservative,” compared with only 59% in 2000. They’ve grown more conservative in tandem with the growth of a conservative media system that functions for some as an all-encompassing alternative reality.

Surveys show that as many as 40% of Trump voters get their political information from Fox News. That network, in turn, regularly mines the dark corners of the internet for source material. “Fox is sort of taking these ideas and selling them to an older audience,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog group.

During Barack Obama’s administration, Trump was a frequent presence on Fox, where he spread conspiracy theories about the president’s birth certificate that had circulated on conservative blogs and far-right websites. A meme encouraging people to hang posters saying, “It’s OK to Be White” went from a 4chan message board to Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.

MSNBC (where I’m a contributor) doesn’t play a remotely similar role in mainstreaming fringe ideas. Polls tell us that Democratic voters don’t rely on it as their main news source the way Republican voters do with Fox, and it doesn’t take its cues from online left-wing subcultures. In fact, it often seems that Fox News pays more attention to progressive Twitter than MSNBC does, because the right-wing network loves to jeer at anything that looks like lefty overreach.

Further, the Democratic Party hasn’t moved left in the same way that the Republican Party has moved right. In a Gallup poll last year, 54% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said they want the party to be more moderate, compared with only 41% who’d like to see it become more liberal. Left-wing Twitter isn’t a microcosm of the Democratic Party. It’s just a small, noisy fraction of it.

Last month, I wrote that Biden’s history “puts him out of step with the mores of an increasingly progressive Democratic Party.” I still think it’s a bad idea for the party to nominate a man who, among other things, voted to authorize the Iraq War and oversaw the televised humiliation of Anita Hill. But while it’s still very early, his poll numbers suggest that those of us who’d written Biden off could be the ones who are out of step with a lot of Democrats.

The future of the Democratic Party is still with left-wing social media dynamos like Ocasio-Cortez. As Niall Ferguson and Eyck Freymann recently wrote in The Atlantic, she’s “often described as a radical, but the data show that her views are close to the median for her generation.” Right now, though, her generation is mostly in charge only online.

In his own horrific way, Trump seemed to expand the possibilities of American politics, making it seem as if the old rules of electability no longer applied. Many of us assumed that the expansion would go in both directions, since Trump’s rise represented such a catastrophic failure of the political center. But there are a lot of Democrats who don’t want a revolution, or even a protracted political fight. They just want things to be the way they were before Trump came along, when ordinary people didn’t have to think about Twitter at all.