Friday, May 17, 2013

Twitter War: The Future-Shock Of Politics

In 1970 Alvin Toffler wrote the book Future Shock which postulated that the extreme increase in the rate of societal change--driven by technology--would leave us stressed and disoriented. Four decades later it looks sorta quaint (or at least ahead of its time) and looking back, whatever changes technology wrought, most of the immediately visible changes seem to be in the realm of the cell phone.

But what if there's a Future Shock component to politics that we're missing--that we're mistaking for something else?

I've Seen The Future Brother, It Is Murder
We don't have flying cars (give it a decade), fusion power (hey, 4 years), robotic house-servants (2040--you'll live to see it if you take your fish oil),  or rocket pants (disappointing)--but we do have something else: Twitter.

The House recently posed the 37th vote to repeal ObamaCare (for a few reasons--one of which is to allow House freshmen to tell their constituents they tried--but another is, perhaps, to have some subtle psychological impact on the acceptance of the law) and, of course, it didn't go anywhere. But this time around Darrel Issa (a leading Republican critic of the administration) encouraged a particular hashtag meme, #ObamaCareInThreeWords, which encouraged participants (detractors) to describe the ACA in three pithy words (my bet was on Total Terrible Tyranny!).

There were many entries. By turns insightful (Still largely unread), dismal (doctors are quitting), scary (TSA with stethoscopes), hopeful (pre-existing conditions covered), pedantic (Affordable Care Act), and funny (Do Not Resuscitate). The use of Twitter as a battle-space is nothing new--but (at least somewhat) noteworthy was the White House's entry into the fray:
I Read This In The Judge Dredd Voice
The response was quick!

The (conservative) site Twitchy blasts the headline:
‘It’s. The. Law.’: White House sneering tweet rubs Obamacare in faces
US News weights in:

White House Sasses GOP On Obamacare: 'It’s The Law’

Salon opines:
White House trolls Republicans over Obamacare hashtag
And so on.

So 'Effing What?
Or, as Hillary might say, what difference does it make? Here's what I think: although the smart money is on the idea that whatever the circumstances in congress are right now, we've seen them before (or worse) there are elements of the current dynamic that are actually and legitimately new. In this case? On-line instant-media peer-to-peer trolling and counter-trolling.

Here are two recent articles (not about the twitter war) that take on Obama and the scandals. The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan writes:
The president, as usual, acts as if all of this is totally unconnected to him. He's shocked, it's unacceptable, he'll get to the bottom of it. He read about it in the papers, just like you.
But he is not unconnected, he is not a bystander. This is his administration. Those are his executive agencies. He runs the IRS and the Justice Department.
A president sets a mood, a tone. He establishes an atmosphere. If he is arrogant, arrogance spreads. If he is to too partisan, too disrespecting of political adversaries, that spreads too.
Over in Commentary we see a similar theme in the article:
Obama is the Ultimate Ad Hominem PresidentPresident Obama is once again engaging in what psychiatrists refer to as projection, in which people lay their worst attributes on others.
In this instance, the most hyper-partisan president in modern times is ascribing that trait to Congressional Republicans. 
There's, of course, enough irony to eclipse Alanis Morissette here--it's not as though the GOP should be throwing any stones in the hyper-partisan direction--but the relevant issue isn't that people are accusing the president of being partisan or arrogant or whatever--that's old hat.

What's new here is the battle-space where this is happening. Oh, sure, the WSJ and Commentary are both ultimately paper-products--artifacts of an age that has already passed and is still hanging around like the last few dinosaurs, shedding their feathers, on the way to the tar-pits. But despite the medium of those two above messages being so last century the fact is that narrative echoes what we're not just hearing about--but actually seeing in real-time--in a very 21st century context: Twitter.

This may very well be the first historical epoch where a presidential administration can publicly troll its adversaries (and, of course, be trolled) in real-time, peer-to-peer and without making observers feel it is degrading itself. I'm pretty sure Obama himself didn't write the tweet and may not even have had to approve it--but does anyone think for a moment that if it came across his desk he'd shoot it down?

No. He doesn't have to be an arrogant, projecting instigator to do that either: the battle was already engaged and all he has to do is be young enough and (moderately) hip enough to know that he's got the valuable capability to join the fray.

That blackberry on his hip? That's the modern-day six-shooter he rode into office with (and, you know, yeah: today that looks awfully antique ... a blackberry ... he might as well have a beeper clipped to his belt--amirite?). He's might be the last blackberry president but I'll lay odds he won't be the last tweeting one.

Today, if you are one of the people who really, really hates Obama, he's not just walled up in an enclave thousands of miles away ... when you "go out into the world" (fire up your twitter feed) he electronically steps into your home and smacks you right on the nose.

Is it any wonder people are starting to get more polarized?

Is This Obama's Fault?
On the off chance I'm not clear enough above, I'm not blaming Obama for divisive partisanship ... I'm pointing at Twitter ... social media ... machine-gun rate blog-postings, and 24-7 partisan network news as the enabling factor--not individual personalities. I suspect that, transported to modern day, most presidents (and, far more likely even, most House Representatives) would engage in partisan tweeting and tweaking.

In a sense they'd be foolish not to: if someone somewhere is going to do it, you probably don't score any points for sitting it out (ask John Kerry about the Swift Boat guys). But if partisan politics and a willingness to stir the pot are nothing new, the methods by which we can do this and the speed at which this can happen are. It used to be impolite to discuss politics around the dinner table--maybe it still is ... but have you looked at Facebook recently?

If there's a standard of decorum there I don't want to see what's out of bounds! To think that this doesn't have an effect is naive. Having partisan political messages--even fairly juvenile or humorous ones--shoved in our faces on a constant basis (and make no mistake: if you've ever woken up at 3 AM and seen some Facebook posting alert on your phone, you know it's constant) certainly does have an impact. It probably hardens us--calcifies our positions--obscures key facts behind point-scoring and rhetoric--and moves us, inexorably, towards an us-vs-them dynamic.

Welcome to the future.

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