For Democrats, Twitter Is Not Real Life. But It Could Be.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Democrats on Twitter are weirder than they appear. The small slice of blue America that’s visible on social media is much more ideological, progressive, white, college-educated — and, above all, interested in politics — than the Democratic coalition writ large.

Online, Ralph Northam’s youthful experimentation with blackface (and/or, Klan cosplay) self-evidently requires his resignation; the Democratic base is sick and tired of neoliberal triangulation; appealing to African-American voters means making the case for reparations; and “Mayor Pete” (and his love of Ulysses) are well-known throughout the nation. But an alternative political reality prevails in the churches, barbershops, union halls, and Panera Breads where extremely offline Democrats roam. A silent (or at least, non-posting) majority of Virginia Democrats wants Northam to stay in office. For the moment, the typical Democratic primary voter supports Joe Biden, the Third Way Democrat par excellence (unless Uncle Joe doesn’t run, in which case, they’ll take the democratic socialist). The typical black Democrat, meanwhile, prefers race-neutral wealth redistribution to reparations — and if you ask a group of normie Dems what they think of “Pete Boot-edge-edge,” they’ll be liable to think you’re having a stroke.

This week, the New York Times put a spotlight on these realities in a much-tweeted feature titled, “The Democratic Electorate on Twitter Is Not the Actual Democratic Electorate.” The piece, which draws on survey data from the (militantly moderate) More in Common project, serves as a corrective to punditry that mistakes the consensus views of Democrats on social media with those of the party’s base. And there’s much to be gained from dispensing with that false equivalence. The fact that Democratic voters are less “woke,” ideologically motivated, and attentive to the news cycle than they appear to be on social media has real implications in the upcoming primary fight. To name just one: Progressives who assume that Joe Biden’s many trips to the wrong side of history will inevitably condemn him to history’s dustbin are likely indulging in the pundit’s fallacy.

This said, if misinterpreted, the Times’ analysis could end up promoting its own fallacies. It is important to understand that progressives on Twitter are not representative of rank-and-file Democrats. But it’s equally important to remember that the major parties’ governing agendas aren’t set by their rank-and-file voters in popular referenda. Rather, each party’s priorities are shaped primarily by its political elites — which is to say, by its most influential elected officials, activists, donors, policy intellectuals, and interest-group leaders. Such partisan elites have never been representative of their “normie” allies. For this reason, if we want to assess the relevance of extremely online progressives in “real life” political outcomes, it isn’t enough to ask whether they’re representative of the Democratic electorate; we also need to know whether they speak for their party’s reigning elite.

Elite preferences matter (more than ordinary voters’ preferences do).

It might be easier to appreciate all these points if we turn our gaze to the right. The Republican Party’s reigning elites are roughly as demographically and ideologically distinct from the broader GOP electorate as the online left is from the broader Democratic one. The attendees of Koch Network summits, members of Chambers of Commerce, segment producers of Fox News shows, and leaders of evangelical megachurches are more highly educated, ideological, and ideologically conservative than the Trumpian proletariat. And yet, this fact does not render the former’s views irrelevant to political outcomes in “the real world.” In fact, the preferences of conservative elites are much more relevant to such outcomes than those of ordinary Republicans.

This is true in two distinct senses. First, such elites are much more effective at imposing their will on the GOP because they have the time, money, and attention necessary to punish party officials who betray their preferences and reward those who do their bidding. Ordinary voters, by contrast, can’t afford to fund lobbying operations or make big-dollar donations as individuals — and do not (generally) have enough interest in politics to form organizations capable of funding such operations collectively. Thus, the median Republican has relatively little leverage over her party’s officeholders: In opinion polls, a majority of GOP voters actually oppose cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations, support increasing federal spending on health care, and say that the Supreme Court should uphold Roe v. Wade. The Republican Party nevertheless treats cutting taxes on the rich, reducing health-care spending, and appointing anti-Roe judges to the judiciary as governing priorities — because this is what conservative elites prefer.

Secondly, the views of conservative elites are more significant than those of the typical GOP voter because, on many issues, the typical GOP voter will simply take dictation from her party’s elites. As the poll results cited above would suggest, rank-and-file Republican voters are a bit more likely to identify as “moderate” — and to express support for a heterodox mix of liberal and conservative policy positions — than their most politically engaged co-partisans. But in most cases, this moderation does not reflect a strong ideological commitment to center-right policies, so much as a lack of ideological commitment, in general. As political scientists Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe (among others) have demonstrated, most voters view politics through the lens of identity, not ideology. Voters are born into families, religions, ethnic groups, regions, and economic classes — and most derive their partisan preferences from these social-group attachments. Relatively few care enough about politics to subscribe to any coherent philosophy of government. Thus, when asked to categorize themselves ideologically, many voters who have little use for such categories will identify as “moderate,” by default. Meanwhile, even self-identified conservatives tend to be partisans first, and ideologues second. Or as Kinder and Kalmoe write, “ideological identification seems more a reflection of political decisions than a cause.” In other words: The average conservative Republican doesn’t identify with the Republican Party because she is a conservative — she identifies with conservatism because she is a Republican.

This “ideological innocence” gives GOP elites leeway to define (and redefine) the “conservative” position on a wide variety of issues for ordinary Republican voters. In the mid-aughts, opinion polls showed that Republican voters were becoming increasingly concerned about climate change, and open to government action to address it. Then, as Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol has documented, Fox News and other organs of the conservative media began ramping up their coverage of “the climate hoax” — and that polling trend abruptly reversed. By 2009, more than 60 percent of GOP voters were telling Gallup that global warming was exaggerated. This “follow the leader” phenomenon has been especially conspicuous in the Trump era, when the Republican Party’s most influential public-facing elite have forced the “conservative” faithful to radically redefine its orthodoxy on U.S. policy toward Putin’s Russia, the relevance of personal morality to an individual’s fitness for high office, and free trade.

The party might not decide, but partisan elites (almost) always do.

To be sure, Trump’s success at revising these elements of GOP orthodoxy — like his success at winning the GOP nomination — shows that the ability of established elites to dictate terms to partisan voters is far from unlimited. And yet, it would be a mistake to read Trump’s ascension as a testament to the supremacy of ordinary voters in the Republican coalition. GOP elites aren’t a monolith. And immigration has long divided the party’s corporate funders from a segment of its ideological donors, activists, and media personalities. In this context of intra-elite conflict, the preferences of rank-and-file Republicans proved decisive. The old guard could neither make GOP primary voters care about Trump’s heresies on trade or universal health care, nor make them forgive Jeb Bush for his heretical softness on immigration. The party did not “decide.”

But the base didn’t decide by itself, either. Subsequent events have confirmed the central importance of the GOP’s nativist counter-elite to the 2016 revolt. As we’ve seen, immigration isn’t the only issue where elite conservative opinion is in tension with the intuitions of ordinary Republican voters. But since the GOP has no “welfare chauvinist” counter-elite, the party has made no effort to translate Trump’s populist (and popular) positions on health care, infrastructure, or drug prices into policy. And even with the support of nativist elites, GOP voters have been unable to force their party to implement their preferences on immigration: Despite the president’s best efforts, a unified Republican government declined to pass restrictions on legal immigration, or funding for a border wall during his first two years in office. In the end, on almost all issues of substantive import, Jeb Bush’s donors did decide.

Both sides do it.

All of these dynamics apply to the Democratic Party’s internal politics. A significant minority of Democratic voters harbor decidedly “non-woke” views on a variety of social issues. But these days, such voters’ preferences are almost entirely ignored in intra-party debates. This is because Team Blue’s social liberals aren’t merely more numerous, but also, better organized. NARAL has the resources to impose a cost on Democrats who work to curtail reproductive freedom; low-information Democratic voters who parrot right-wing talking points in conversations with pollsters do not. Meanwhile, on many issues, what the Democratic base will see as the “liberal” or “moderate” position is effectively dictated by elite signaling. When Barack Obama came out in favor of gay marriage, support for that civil right among black voters jumped from 41 to 59 percent. Finally, on those occasions when grassroots revolts stymie Democratic elites, it is generally because a counter-elite has effectively mobilized in opposition — as when labor unions and consumer groups defeated Obama’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

All of which is to say: Extremely-online Democrats don’t need to be representative of the broader Democratic electorate for their views to be of paramount importance. They just need to be representative of their party’s most powerful elites.

And in many cases, these categories overlap: Some of the most prominent Democrats on Twitter are members of Congress, Hill staffers, former White House officials, and leaders of party-aligned interest groups. That said, such partisan elites share space on social media with left-wing commentators, media personalities, unaligned activists, and political super-hobbyists whose prominence reflects their polemical gifts, not any ties to pillars of Democratic power. Such voices can wield some independent influence by winning the hearts and minds (and likes and retweets) of party elites, along with those of the small segment of hyper-engaged voters who follow politics on social media. But this is a very limited form of power; the progressive super-tweeter’s bark far exceeds her bite. So, unless left-wing ideologues and intellectuals are largely in step with the party’s genuine power players, their overrepresentation in social-media discourse will produce a skewed picture of elite Democratic opinion.

And unfortunately, online progressives are not perfectly representative of Democratic elites. Most significantly, corporate interest groups exert considerable influence on Democratic policy-making, but are almost entirely absent from the party’s online conversation. Major Wall Street banks do not advance their aims through memes or Twitter essays, but rather, through lobbying operations and campaign donations to business-friendly Democrats like New Jersey congressman Josh Gottheimer.

It is better to be powerful than popular, if you cannot be both.

Progressives on Twitter are more liberal than the median Democratic voter. But that is not the primary constraint on the online left’s political relevance. After all, the biggest ideological gaps between progressive ideologues and rank-and-file Democrats lie on (so-called) social issues — and the ideologues have nevertheless made steady progress in turning their preferences on issues of reproductive freedom, LGBT rights, and immigration into party orthodoxy. Meanwhile, as indicated above, most of the Democratic Party’s self-professed moderates are non-ideological (as opposed to being ideologically committed to Third Wayism), and are willing to follow the lead of their party’s elites on a wide range of issues. In other words, the typical moderate Democratic voter does not share progressive Twitter’s ideological commitments — but she isn’t firmly opposed to them either.

When 17 Senate Democrats voted to loosen regulations on the financial industry last year — in defiance of the overwhelming consensus among Democratic tweeters — they did not do so at the behest of ordinary voters. Low-information, moderate Democrats (i.e., the kind who are underrepresented on Twitter) did not march on Washington chanting, “What do we want? To raise the asset threshold that qualifies banks for heightened risk management standards from $50 billion to $250 billion! When do we want it? Now!” Rather, this demand came from the executives of regional banks.

Similarly, just this week, congressional Democrats rallied behind a bill that would prohibit the IRS from providing all Americans with free tax-filing software, much to progressive Twitter’s chagrin. Of course, Nancy Pelosi’s caucus did not accept this provision because ordinary Democratic voters want our nation’s tax-filing process to be needlessly complex and costly. House Democrats did so because (among other reasons) the tax-preparation industry has invested heavily in many of their campaigns.

In sum, Democrats on Twitter are not representative of their party’s broader electorate, which is both less ideological and politically engaged, and therefore much more likely to forgive (or fail to notice) the ideological heresies of trusted partisan elites like Joe Biden. But this is not the most significant constraint on the political relevance of the progressive Twitterati; the power of Democratic Party-aligned corporate elites is. On the right, extremely online conservatives hold many views that contradict those of ordinary, politically disengaged Republican voters. But since upholding conservative ideological purity — and showing deference to corporate power — are compatible on most policy issues, the preferences of the right’s top tweeters are largely in sync with the governing priorities of their party. The left’s most prolific posters aren’t so lucky. And so, for Democrats, Twitter is “not real life.”

But someday, it could become awfully lifelike — if progressives ever find a way to evict the money-lenders from their party’s temple.

For Democrats, Twitter Is Not Real Life. But It Could Be.