Tweetable Politicians / by Simmon Li

Watching Johnathan Alter's time on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, and he said something interesting that kind of caught my mind.

He has been kind of sound byte challenged. There's not a lot to chisel and marble, much less tweet about the kinds of things he says and I think they're trying to fix that a little bit. They need some slogans going into the next campaign.

Specifically regarding the State of the Union and official follow-up address (I didn't watch Bachmann's), I think the kind of "sound byte" thinking leads to more sensational politics. It's a matter of substance. Obama's speech, while steering clear of legislative particulars, laid down broad policy goals and gave a sense of the direction in which Obama would attempt to lead the nation. So while there was no plan of action, there was a grand idea offered, it was Obama's sweeping vision (conveniently structured to happen in a yet-to-be materialized second term) of what he would leave behind as his legacy. Not tweetable? Yea, it's a big vision with many aspects. Now to be fair to Alter, I get that campaign slogans are important, but what I take issue with is the fact that Alter seems to characterize this "twitterization" as something desirable. I think it's telling when you take a look at the GOP's official response offered by Paul Ryan. Sound bytes and "tweetable" moments don't necessarily make for good politics, though it does make good television and print. Ryan's response certainly seemed to me to have been a treasure trove of sound bytes:

  • "[...] we face a crushing burden of debt."
  • "[...] speaking candidly, as one citizen to another: We still have time... but not much time. If we continue down our current path, we know what our future will be."
  • "[Europe's] day of reckoning has arrived. Ours is around the corner. That is why we must act now."

In any case, I don't think his speech offered anywhere near the policy goals and vision for America that Obama offered. The overwhelming tone I got from Ryan's response was "No to Obama." There was no alternative put on the table in the speech for his alternative to the health care reform bill, even though he had offered one in the past (as far as I am aware, it's some sort of voucher system). Why not mention that in the speech? People are going nuts analyzing what Obama didn't say, but I find it funny that the GOP response is not getting the same treatment. From where I stand, the GOP's official response seemed to lack any substantive point other than "No to Obama!" Like I said, I make no claim to the actual sound byte-ability or tweetablity of Ryan's response, but it certainly seems to lack a lot more substance than Obama's speech did. There are a lot of great sound bytes in that speech, but really nothing substantial even in the way of policy goals. I understand Obama didn't deliver specifics about legislation, but he did offer America what he thought it should be. The GOP? "No to Obama." While the sentiment may be justified if one feels Obama has done great disservice to America, it has to go beyond saying no. The next step in actually leading means you have to offer alternatives and offer suggestions or solutions to the problems that America faces. The two planks of "limited government" and "cutting spending" (which, technically is part of the limiting government plank), I feel, is a cop out of the responsible thing to do. If you want to limit government in health care, then propose a way of doing it. What direction would you go in? What, if any, policy alternatives would you try? The assertion that "government needs to step out and hand it over to the private sector" only goes so far before you ask how it will all work. This brings me to my main problem with the Republican response: There is no vision. There are no policy goals. Well... there is. The one goal and vision for America offered by the GOP: "Get rid of Obama's laws." What's the next step? You won a majority in the house, so show that you have good ideas. Lead by example. What a novel idea.

In any case, getting back to the topic at hand: is tweetable politics a good thing? I don't think so. I have said this to many people, and I believe it: Good politics is boring politics. Like I said at the start of this post, sensational politics removes the substance from the debate. You lose the nuance when you sensationalize something. Things become slogans, tweets, or sound bytes. You lose context, you lose meaning. At the end of the day, tweetable politics is something I would prefer to stay away from. I don't think it's a good thing for anyone.