Commentary: Would the Government Have Shut Down Without Twitter?

Soeren Stache/AP File Photo

The echo chamber at the heart of Washington's problems.

"We've started and we're working with the White House on a hashtag," Senator Chuck Schumer told reporters on day three of the government shutdown, unveiling a new messaging strategy Democrats were plotting with the White House. OK, a hashtag might not end the shutdown. But Schumer's comment was a reminder of how central the social networking site has been during the last week to our painfully dysfunctional political system. Congress still hasn't found a way to do its constitutionally mandated job--but last week staffers were fighting in plain view with other staffers, once anonymous congressmen were clowning themselves in the public sphere, and a major breaking news event turned everyone on the hill into a Twitter reporter.

Twitter played no small role in the echo-chamber dynamic that led a small group of like-minded individuals in the House GOP into believing a fairy tale: that they could force the president to dismantle his signature legislative accomplishment simply by being tough enough. Robert Costa, a National Review editor who understands the dynamics within the House GOP as well or better than any journalist in Washington right now, told Washington Post's Ezra Klein this week that "so many of these members now live in the conservative world of talk radio and tea party conventions and Fox News invitations. And so the conservative strategy of the moment, no matter how unrealistic it might be, catches fire. The members begin to believe they can achieve things in divided government that most objective observers would believe is impossible."

He's right to trace it back to talk radio and cable news. In his 2005 Atlantic piece on the rise of talk radio, David Foster Wallace pointed to the real power of Rush Limbaugh's positioning as a righteous warrior against mainstream liberal media bias. He wrote:

This turned out to be a brilliantly effective rhetorical move, since the MMLB concept functioned simultaneously as a standard around which Rush's audience could rally, as an articulation of the need for right-wing (i.e., unbiased) media, and as a mechanism by which any criticism or refutation of conservative ideas could be dismissed (either as biased or as the product of indoctrination by biased media). Boiled way down, the MMLB thesis is able both to exploit and to perpetuate many conservatives' dissatisfaction with extant media sources — and it's this dissatisfaction that cements political talk radio's large and loyal audience.

What he couldn't have realized is that, less than eight years later, the army of dittoheads would become mini-Rushes themselves. Thanks to Twitter, they're no longer passively nodding along in their car--they're also creating and distributing content themselves, and linking up with like-minded individuals who do the same, creating a perfect storm of like-minded people reinforcing their own political views. Some of them are members of Congress. The last time the government shuttered, the most a supporter of the House GOP's efforts could do was call a congressional office or write an email. Now, supporters can retweet, favorite and send a real time messages to congressmen that tap immediately into the pleasure centers of their brains.

Twitter probably never should have become the animating conversational platform of official Washington. It's not that you can't say anything intelligent on Twitter, but the format is paradoxically expansive and very, very limited. Nuances are lost. What's easier: snark, talking points, ad hominem attacks.

That Twitter has elevated the voices of many who would not otherwise be at the table is undeniably a good thing. But when you look specifically at what's wrong with Washington at the moment--that one party has shifted dramatically away from the established center, and is now fighting itself with no strategy for how to get what it wants--it is hard not to see the Twitter effect at play. Inside the Capitol, the charge to repeal the Affordable Care Act no matter the cost is being led by insurgent lawmakers like Ted Cruz, who built a considerable buzz among conservative activists online and off and marshalled it to a winning campaign against an establishment candidate. Outside of it, those same groups, like the Senate Conservatives Fund, are pressuring fellow Republicans to comply at threat of negative advertising to their real constituents, or worse, a primary challenge. Some of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate are also some of the most junior, elevated inside the Capitol by their perceived influence among groups outside of it.