In the bitter partisan battles of Washington, one of the most vicious attacks was launched by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez against Sen. Ted Cruz in late January. This criticism had nothing to do with politics or policy. Instead, it was that Cruz, by repeatedly tweeting at the second term congresswoman, was “clout chasing.”
We now live in a golden age of politicians as posters — they are extremely online, posting on platforms like Twitter constantly. The ubiquity of social media and the total collapse of the legislative process means many federal elected officials are just like us. They live-tweet events, crack jokes seeking online approval and even resort to being full-scale reply guys.
While the model poster as politician is Donald Trump, whose Twitter account drove countless news cycles and likely contributed to at least one impeachment. For the former president, posting was always secondary. For the cable news obsessed Trump, tweets were a way to focus the discussion back on him, not an end in and of itself. The number of retweets mattered less than if Joe Scarborough and Jeff Zucker saw what he wrote. Instead, there is now an entire generation of politicians for whom tweeting is not a means to an end but the end in and of itself. The posting is the point.
The apotheosis of this has been Marjorie Taylor Greene, the freshman congresswoman from Georgia. Throughout American history, countless members of Congress have dabbled in bigotry and conspiracy theories. But she may be the first to do so for the engagement.
While Greene’s most notorious posts were composed before she took office (a talking point much touted by her defenders when she was stripped of her congressional committee assignments), her habit of carpet-bombing the Internet with inflammatory takes has not lapsed since her election. The only noticeable change is the added plea that people text IMPEACH to 55444 so that they can be solicited for funds by her campaign. But it’s still rooted in the desire for attention, for engagement and for retweets.
Yet, compulsive posting isn’t just reserved to the fringes of Congress. It’s found in every corner of the building. It’s not just the most ideological members of each party — for all his clout chasing, Ted Cruz is matched almost tweet for tweet by Texas’s senior senator, John Cornyn — a paragon of the establishment GOP who is almost as online as his counterpart.
Among Democrats, the double act between Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy could be the basis of a buddy comedy, while California’s Democratic House delegation features avidly online members like Rep. Ted Lieu and Rep. Eric Swalwell. But these are just a handful of the examples of the members of both chambers who get into fights while courting controversy daily on Twitter. Some, like Rep. Ilhan Omar, have even drawn serious primary challenges due to chasing online attention just a little too much.
But politicians are not just online solely because they have been brain poisoned like the rest of us — it’s also the one true way to capture attention and wield influence. As the gears of legislation have ground to a stop over the past decade, the political incentives for backroom wheeling and dealing have diminished. After all, only a handful of major bills get passed every year; other than that, it’s simply the potpourri of post office namings and nominations.
Legislative effectiveness is now measured in viral moments, not amendments passed. The political cost of dunking has been much reduced from an era of bipartisan dealmaking and smoke-filled rooms.
Further, posting feeds an entire news cycle of its own. Partisan websites will write up details of a viral tweet about how “Ted Cruz owned AOC” or “AOC owned Ted Cruz,” depending on their slant. It can even be fodder for cable news segments, particularly on a slow news day, all of which leads the cycle to repeat again as politicians rack up the likes and the followers.
Politicians will always engage in self-aggrandizement. It’s part of their job. But the Internet has changed the calculus. They’re not just chasing votes or accumulating power. Instead, there’s an element where some are seeking validation the same way that many other Americans do, through the little red heart button on Twitter.
It doesn’t matter who’s clicking the button or whether they’re a constituent, a voter or even a resident of the United States. The numbers just drive more attention, and the attention drives more numbers. Posting may not win elections and certainly doesn’t help pass legislation but, then again, how many retweets did Henry Clay ever get?