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The Twittering Class

Can social media transform politics—and reboot Texas Republicans?
by Published on

For better and worse, we’ve all gotten used to being flooded with messages from elected officials, campaigns and candidates: Postcards urging you to vote a certain way. E-mail prodding you to send money, now! Phone calls from robots or celebrities, telling you where and when to head to the polls. Or, if you follow the governor of Texas on Twitter, urgent dispatches from the front lines of today’s ideological battles like the following:

Slugfest!!! DBU 11 Aggies 10 Rubber match tomorrow…get out and go to a ballpark! Live Life!!! 9:49 PM May 1st

What have Rick Perry’s nearly 8,500 Twitter followers learned? In just 140 characters, they know their governor spent an early May evening at a college baseball game between Dallas Baptist University and Texas A&M. They’ve been treated to: (1) a description of the contest; (2) the final score; (3) the information that the final game of the tied series will be played the next day; (4) a directive; and (5) a platitude. More important to most, though, they’ve gotten a somewhat unfiltered window into the thought stream of the longest-serving governor in state history.

“I am a real tweethead,” Perry tweeted (of course) to Austin American-Statesman reporter Corrie MacLaggan back in March, after she asked his office whether the governor did his own Twitter updates. “[W]rite my own tweets,” he continued, “sometimes from my blackberry, a lot from my laptop.”

He’s hardly alone. Perry’s avid tweeting—he’s averaged about 21 tweets per week since he became enamored of the latest hot social media tool and first implored us to promote a “culture of life” in his debut tweet on Jan. 2—puts him in company with growing ranks of local, state and national politicians. Some politicians—or, in some cases, some politicians’ staffers—use Twitter much like e-mail, as a vehicle for sending out short (very short) press releases. Others, like Perry, take it a step further and use it to air what they are thinking, seeing or feeling at a given moment.

I now know, for instance, that Perry likes to share pictures of his dog, and that he celebrates small victories by going out for dinner. I’ve picked up similar insights into other “tweetheads” in Texas politics. I’ve learned that when state Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, gets bored during late-night Lege sessions, he starts posting Billy Joel music videos he’s found on YouTube. I’ve learned that his Democratic colleague Rep. Joe Deshotel of Beaumont especially enjoys discussing the food he’s eating, assessing the food he’s just eaten, and planning what food he will eat later. Planning other things, too: Once, Deshotel tweeted that he was at Supercuts trying to decide between clippers and scissors.

Which adds up to what, exactly? The content is often every bit as banal as the tweets from your BFF. But for many “tweetheads,” that’s the point. It doesn’t get more real than inane minutae. Before I began following politicians on Twitter, I believed that many, if not most, belonged to the austere and Spartan class of serious political professionals—the kind of people who micromanage their lives in such a granular way that where they eat dinner is a political decision that must be war-gamed. Now, I feel like I know some of these politicians, in their sloppy realities, better than I do some of my blood relatives.

The political usefulness of all this is debatable and, at this point in the early history of social media, anything but certain. But the larger trend it represents is clear—and in many ways healthy. “Politics used to be peer-based,” says J.D. Angle, a Fort Worth-based political consultant. “Radio and TV made politics top-down and centralized. Social and new media are gradually returning it to a peer-based state.”

Where most statements by politicians have historically been carefully regulated for risk-mitigation, the personal Twitter update is the high-tech equivalent of seeing an elected official at a bar and hearing him or her say whatever comes to mind. It carries all the risk of the open-mic gaffe with none of the standard damage control possible in the aftermath: What a politician puts on the Internet largely stands alone, and it lives forever.

Which is another reason to love it: Tweeting politicians like Perry are surely driving communications directors and campaign strategists to drink. Especially since politicians’ tweets aren’t always about baseball, Billy Joel and haircuts; they’re usually about politics, one way or another. They often drip with authenticity—and, sometimes, with unintentionally revealing ironies. Take this juxtaposition of double-exclamation-pointed Perry tweets from April:

Devastation in Montgomery Co is extreme in places. Feds needs to speed up those emergency decs so these folks get some relief!! 3:42 PM Apr 17th

Followed by:

Live on Hannity today 3:30 PM. Tenth Amendment being debated n state house. Send ur rep a message to support HCR 50. Let Texans run Texas!! 9:12 AM Apr 21st

The feds had better help us, in other words—except that they also better leave us the hell alone. Normally, such doublespeak would be parsed more carefully, hardly noticeable to most folks, appearing four days apart in old-media news stories. On a Twitter feed, one line of logic bumps right up against the next for every follower to see, making a whole ‘nother aspect of Perry’s political personality impossible to ignore. 

Twitter and other social-media tools certainly illuminate the humanity—not to mention the political non sequiturs—of pols like Perry, who make enthusiastic use of the newest technology. But is this kind of social networking politically effective? Does it give Twitter and Facebook followers anything more important than a sometimes-revealing glimpse into their favorite politicians’ consciousnesses?

So far, most tweeting pols use the medium like Perry: primarily as a one-way form of communication. Despite a load of people attempting to engage the governor with questions, statements or sweeping judgments, his @ replies—direct conversations via Twitter—totaled fewer than 20 out of more than 250 updates written from January to early May of this year.

During Perry’s states’ rights/Tenth Amendment push this spring, his tweets often sounded very much like his speeches in condensed form:

Just back from Tom Green Co Reagan Day Dinner. Tenth Amendment supporters out in force in West Texas!! Keep the heat on Washington!! 8:58 PM April 29th

But the main political function served by tweets like Perry’s is a bit more subtle than firing up the troops. Social media “tools serve one fundamental purpose,” says Matt Glazer, a Democratic campaign consultant and editor-in-chief of the Burnt Orange Report blog, “and that is evangelizing people that already support you. … It can turn casual supporters into informed supporters, and an informed supporter is evangelized: They go to events, they get more involved.”

That’s especially true for politicians who mix it up with their online followers. Republican Railroad Commissioner Michael L. Williams, who hopes to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate next year, has about 2,800 Twitter followers. One reason they follow him was exemplified in late April, when Williams tweeted on the state Senate’s passage of a bill changing the Railroad Commission’s name to the Texas Energy Commission. One of his followers, screen-named snowed_in, replied:

@Michael Williams Doesn’t changing the name involve quite a bit of expense? Obviously, the new name fits better, but still. 4:40 PM Apr 30th in reply to MichaelWilliams

That same evening, not five hours later, Williams answered:

@snowed_in The Legislative Budget Board estimates the cost to be about $109K. 9:31 PM Apr 30th in reply to snowed_in

This exchange blows my mind, probably because I’m one of those people who write letters to my elected representatives. Like most of my fellow citizen-wonks, the most extensive reply I can typically hope for is a form letter letting me know that <INSERT ISSUE> is very important to my representative, and that they voted for or against it because of <INSERT JUSTIFICATION>. This is not a criticism; elected officials get tons of letters like mine and they can’t help being selective about which constituents they personally answer.

When they do personally answer a letter or question or query, though, they get down to business. Just purely on a cost-benefit level, think what Williams’ direct reply meant. How much time and effort would it have taken snowed_in to find out how much it was going to cost to change the Railroad Commission’s name? More, typically, than would be practical for the average concerned constituent. Williams reduced the cost of finding out that information to almost zero. In doing so, he might very well have turned a constituent into a supporter—or a supporter into a volunteer for his Senate campaign.

Williams approaches his status updates very differently from Perry. “The world has changed,” the commissioner says. “We used to be able to get away with shouting at voters, having a one-way conversation via press release. Now voters want to have a conversation with you, and we have to go where they are. We have to use every communication tool that’s available. It isn’t enough for us to stand on the courthouse steps and scream, because voters won’t listen.”

With social media still young, of course, the number of voters using it remains relatively modest. Williams might be a leader among Texas GOP social media users—he also deploys Facebook, among other tools—but the people who follow him online are a subset of a subset of a subset: They’re politically engaged, likely to be conservative, use Twitter, use Twitter’s conversation function, and they know who Michael L. Williams is—either by virtue of living in Texas or because they’re interested in national Republican up-and-comers. Unless his Senate campaign catches fire, that won’t describe a whole lot of folks.

Social media, Glazer notes, “operates somewhere in between communicating to a specific universe and mass communication. It is always micro-targeted and never mass-targeted.” Citing the most famous and effective political practitioner of social media, Glazer notes that President Barack Obama had “somewhere like 16 million” people on his e-mail list during the 2008 campaign. Of that 16 million, about one-fourth—4 million—followed Obama on Facebook groups. About 800,000 followed his campaign’s tweets, “so he was only talking to 2 percent of his e-mail list on Twitter. Even if such an effort is incredibly successful, you’re really only ever talking to a tiny percentage of the people that will eventually vote for you.

“The flipside,” Glazer continues, “is that if you can take 1 percent of your e-mail readers and turn them into field organizers, that’s a game-changer. If you can turn 1 percent of your Facebook supporters into donors, that’s a lot of money.” Enough, for sure, to give a tech-savvy candidate an edge in a close race. Particularly for local candidates, Glazer says, “This technology is incredibly well-suited to helping people get re-elected when they were initially elected by a razor-thin margin.”

Williams’ 2010 Senate campaign is counting on making that formula work statewide. “If the candidate knows who they are and can make a compelling case for why voters should elect them,” says Corbin Casteel, Williams’ campaign manager, “social media should be an integral part of that campaign’s plan. If they don’t, it would be a waste of time. You can’t just sign up for Twitter and become savvy in the use of social media. You have to have a message. You have to know where you stand and who you are to engage in the discussion.”

Campaigns and candidates are increasingly aware of the pitfalls inherent in instant, informal communication. For all those who might use social media to triumph, Obama-style, more than one politician will surely tweet his or her way to defeat before long. It’s conventional wisdom that YouTube lost Virginia Republican George Allen his Senate seat in 2006. Genially conservative in a Reaganesque way, Allen had legitimate presidential ambitions before he was filmed—and YouTubed—calling the lone person of color at a rural campaign stop “Macaca,” which the world soon learned was a racial slur.

The truth, of course, is that Sen. Allen, not YouTube, was responsible for his downfall. Politicians who are similarly dumb on Twitter or Facebook, or the next new social-media tool, will be similarly punished. At the same time, we are in a new age and there’s nothing for the savvy candidate to do about it but to learn—and watch as those who refuse to learn get relegated to the footnotes of political history.

If Michael L. Williams is the advocate-king of GOP social media in Texas, Republican Congressman John Culberson is the prime minister. He has more than 11,000 Twitter followers, and hundreds more supporters and friends on Facebook. Culberson doesn’t just tweet about living the good conservative life, as Rick Perry often does, or use the medium for direct constituent communication, as Williams often does—though there’s plenty of both. He lets both his personal and political views hang out with exhilarating abandon.

Culberson tweets about what he’s going to do with his tax refund (pay down his credit-card debt, just like financial guru Dave Ramsey says to); about his struggles with learning new technology (he tried to get TweetDeck, an application for Twitter power-users, up and running before deciding to uninstall the program because of concerns about viruses); and about his thoughts on new media. (Culberson sees it as a “truth detector,” and is convinced that with each tweet, he’s burying old media.)

This kind of open, full-access approach is standard fare for younger non-politicians who’ve fully embraced social media as an inexorable fact of life, but it’s not the norm among elected officials. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat, might be the closest analogue to Culberson: She’s attracted an avid Twitter following not only with candid thoughts on bills, but also with her descriptions of the rush that occurs when the Senate floor candy drawer gets refilled and her updates on whether she finished her laundry as planned the night before.

The point, Culberson says, is not just to uncork his personality and ideology with rare candor. “Social media has allowed me to communicate more effectively with my constituents,” he says. “It has also made the legislative process more transparent.” Transparency, Culberson insists, is the main reason he tweets. “I do not view social media as a campaign tool,” he says. The very first thing any of his staffers told me, in fact, when I called with questions on social media, was just that: “He doesn’t use it to raise money, and he doesn’t plan to.”

That’s all well and good, but making government more transparent through social media ultimately seems like a stretch. Sure, Culberson’s own transparency as a legislator and human being has been enhanced, as has McCaskill’s and, to a lesser extent, Perry’s. It’s commendable that Culberson makes a concerted effort, in post after post, to let his followers know what he’s up to, what bills he is sponsoring or writing (and why and how), and what led him to vote one way or another.

Greater transparency is possible for individual politicians, if they’re disciplined and/or obsessive enough to co
stantly throw open the shutters to the social-media world. But there will never be many members of Congress who feel compelled to do so. And even if there were, the transparency of government itself is a whole different beast. Consider the nightmare of trying to funnel the activities of a federal or state agency into one centralized social-media application: If it were even possible, transparency might indeed be enhanced, but simply describing what an agency does—let alone why it does it—would produce an informational firehose. Who would have time to tweet it all? And who, pray tell, would ever want to read it all?

State Rep. Mark Strama, a youngish and tech-savvy Democrat from Austin, surely made a salient point this spring, when he said, “If we’re expressing policy in 140 characters or less, that’s the ultimate degradation of politics.” Until it evolves into something we can’t yet imagine, social media will be more politically relevant as campaign tools than as a window into the inner workings of government or political thought.

“I agree with Mark Strama,” says Glazer, “in that if you are trying to boil politics down into 140 characters, you are doing your constituents a disservice. However, any time you are using social media”—in two-way mode—”you are increasing the ability of people to engage with you and discuss ideas and concerns and solutions with you.”

Which brings us back to the big question: Are social media genuinely useful in a politically practical—or politically idealistic—way? The answer, so far, is ultimately unsatisfying: It depends. Some politicians will talk about haircuts and half-court shots and not really open any doors to their constituents, other than revealing parts of their personalities and proclivities they think will be attractive or entertaining. Others will take the idea to heart and explain everything they do and why, and there’s certainly something to be gleaned from that. The political potential of social media, for at least one more electoral cycle, remains mostly a matter of conjecture—an evolving experiment being conducted by enthusiasts like Williams and tech-ready consultants like Glazer and Casteel.

One thing you might have noticed: In Texas, at least, it is Republican elected officials who have embraced social media in a particularly hardcore and uncharacteristic way. Social media are supposed to be the province of young people, and young people are overwhelmingly Democratic these days. What are Republicans doing taking the lead? Perry, in a recent tweet, offered a strong hint as to why:

Received Brad O’Leary’s book “Shut Up America! The end of free speech” This will open your eyes…thank God for Twitter/Facebook/talk radio! 9:37 PM May 6th

Indeed, governor, and what a revelation: What an insight into the lens through which Perry sees things. Will social media be the First Amendment’s new battleground? Do conservatives really view social media as, if you’ll pardon the expression, the natural evolution of talk radio?

Whoever eventually wins the battle for technological supremacy in politics, the heightened activity and interest among conservative politicians and activists (see: tea parties) makes one thing clear: Progressives are not likely to maintain total dominance over social media forever, as the Obama phenomenon seemed to promise. It is entirely possible that social media could develop into the talk radio of the 21st century. Whether you want to thank God for that is up to you.

Josh Berthume is a freelance writer living in Denton. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Fort Worth Weekly, Boston’s Weekly Dig and Quorum Report. You can follow him at twitter.com/jberthume.