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Could Joe Biden blow our minds? Twitter politics is warping our view of reality

Credit: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Credit: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

May 10, 2019   4 mins

Donald Trump is the oldest person so far to become President of the United States of America. He was 70 when he took office, just beating the previous record set by Ronald Reagan. If Joe Biden is elected in 2020, then he would be 78 at the start of his term. He may be yet another straight white male occupant of the Oval Office, but he’d be all set to become the first Octogenarian President – an Octo-POTUS, if you will.

Hang on, though, that’s never going to happen, is it? The Democrats are now a party of young and diverse radicals. They’re not going to want a superannuated centrist insider like Biden, are they? A man who first ran for President before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was even born? Someone too old to even count as a baby boomer?

Such an outcome would completely go against the prevailing narrative. Yet, as I mentioned the other week, the first set of polls show Biden ahead of the other candidates. And by “ahead of”, I mean leaving them in a cloud of dust. Since Biden formally launched his bid, he’s been between 20 and 30 points ahead of his nearest challenger, Bernie Sanders (who, by the way, is even older).

It’s almost as if there’s a difference between what you see on social media and reality. Writing in the New York Times, Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy strip away a few illusions:

“Today’s Democratic Party is increasingly perceived as dominated by its ‘woke’ left wing. But the views of Democrats on social media often bear little resemblance to those of the wider Democratic electorate.

“The outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered, roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse and less educated group of Democrats who typically don’t post political content online, according to data from the Hidden Tribes Project.”

The woke Democrats may make most of the noise on social media (influencing their sympathisers in the mainstream media), but they don’t have most of the votes:

“In reality, the Democratic electorate is both ideologically and demographically diverse. Over all, around half of Democratic-leaning voters consider themselves ‘moderate’ or ‘conservative,’ not liberal. Around 40 percent are not white.”

Of course, having the support of a cadre of highly-motivated, well-resourced activists is not an insignificant advantage. As the Democratic field thins out and the enthusiasts coalesce around the most viable of the anti-Biden candidates, the race is bound to tighten. And yet, away from the college campuses and the superstar cities, the silent voters will still have their say in the caucuses and primaries of every state:

“Less engaged and less ideological voters tend to be cynical about politics. One might think cynicism would translate to support for outsider candidates, and it probably could against an establishment favorite with enough flaws. Instead, it has more often meant skepticism of ambitious and idealistic liberals and progressives who offer big promises with no record.”

The key question is whether they’ll be heard before they make their decision. And the answer to that is most likely no – not if the political class is too busy paying attention to Twitter.

In a piece for The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk implores us to look up from our timelines:

“It is not the mental health of Twitter addicts that most concerns me, though; it is the well-being of the nation they collectively rule. To decision makers who spend most of their days ensconced in an elite bubble, Twitter can seem like a way out, a clear window into pure public opinion. In reality, it’s an extreme distortion.”

The example he gives is the media circus surrounding the the publication of the Mueller report – which was supposed to have been a make-or-break event for the Trump presidency:

“Instead, the most anticipated news event of the year has barely left a trace in public opinion. According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the government shutdown, which affected the lives of millions of Americans, had a clear and immediate impact on Trump’s popularity; the Mueller report did not.”

You’d never have guessed that from Twitter – or at least that part of Twitter that cares about US politics. Mounk cites research showing that only one-in-four Americans are active on Twitter and only one-in-five of those “report posting about politics ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of the time”.

As well as being a small subset of the electorate (i.e. 5%), it’s also a skewed one:

“Among the overall Democratic electorate, less than 50 percent consider themselves liberal, as opposed to moderate or conservative. Among Democrats on Twitter, more than 70 percent do.”

Of course, how we use Twitter is ultimately up to us – and some ways are much better than others. And while it may be the social media network of choice for the political and media elites, it’s hardly the only means by which people construct a warped view of public opinion. From campus politics to high profile marches to flawed opinion polls to biased broadcasting, there’s a whole funhouse of distorting mirrors to choose from.

When one’s choice turns out to be a poor reflection of reality, it’s often easier to believe that it was others who were fooled, not you. For instance, when Donald Trump pulled off the shock victory that so few experts predicted, allegations of Russian interference served a psychological need out of all proportion to the significance of the story. Of course, Trump is such a strange and unlikely figure that even the craziest theories might, at first sight, seem plausible to those who want to believe them.

But what happens if boring Joe Biden wins his party’s nomination? That would require no further explanation than that a lot of people prefer dull dependability. The radical activists might have to accept that not everyone thinks the way they do.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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