Author Helen Lewis has a piece in the Atlantic today which serves as a reminder that Twitter is not the real world. In fact, because the site’s users skew younger and farther to the left than most voters, it’s actually a progressive bubble. Lewis, who writes from London is focused on the debates between Labour and the Tories, but what she sees happening in the UK is happening in the US as well:
This phenomenon has been more thoroughly studied in the U.S., where The New York Times has reported that “the views of Democrats on social media often bear little resemblance to those of the wider Democratic electorate.” Active political tweeters in America were whiter, more left wing, more likely to be college educated, and less likely to say that “political correctness was a problem” than primary voters as a whole…
The genuine fury from the left at people three inches closer to the political center reflects a turbocharged tribalism. Freud called this “the narcissism of small differences”; the legal scholar Cass Sunstein calls it “group polarization,” where “deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point.” In his 2019 book Conformity, Sunstein noted that “confident people are both more influential … and more prone to polarization.” One consequence of group polarization, he found, was that those who held a minority position, or had useful information that ran counter to the prevailing trend, stayed silent or were ignored. Their groups therefore made worse decisions.
The Twitter Primary drives its members to extremes, while chilling the speech of outsiders. An excess of certainty leads activists to bad decisions and misapprehensions. Spend enough time on Twitter and you could believe that Corbyn “won the argument” in December, despite losing the general election. The postmortem on Labour’s defeat risks being hampered by a pervasive sense on social media that the party didn’t really lose, not really: Well, everyone I know voted for Corbyn. Activists may intellectually concede the reality of the Conservatives’ 80-seat majority, but it doesn’t feel like the Tories won. And that means there is less reason for them to support a change in tactics.
I wonder if we’ll see the same dynamic with Bernie Sanders. He’s immensely popular online and has a real chance to win the Democratic nomination but will he have a real shot in the general election? I think this may be another case where the Twitter bubble isn’t showing us a representative sample of American voters or what they think of Democratic Socialism.
So who are the people who make up the progressive bubble on Twitter? In an earlier Atlantic piece on political correctness, Yascha Mounk pointed out that progressive activists tend to be rich, educated, and white:
Among devoted conservatives, 97 percent believe that political correctness is a problem. Among traditional liberals, 61 percent do. Progressive activists are the only group that strongly backs political correctness: Only 30 percent see it as a problem.
So what does this group look like? Compared with the rest of the (nationally representative) polling sample, progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. They are nearly twice as likely as the average to make more than $100,000 a year. They are nearly three times as likely to have a postgraduate degree. And while 12 percent of the overall sample in the study is African American, only 3 percent of progressive activists are. With the exception of the small tribe of devoted conservatives, progressive activists are the most racially homogeneous group in the country.
And because the users of Twitter tend to be younger, better educated, and wealthier, the impression you get online is that these folks are the norm or at least represent a controlling interest in the Democratic Party. But it’s not true. Social Justice Warriors have a loud voice on social media but represent a small fraction of the country.
What the SJWs do have going for them is a lot of influence with journalists who hold broadly similar views. As Lewis puts it, “Ultra-liberal attitudes to race and gender are indeed not held by the masses, including racial minorities. But, crucially, they are held by the peers of the journalists writing those pieces, with whom these journalists hang out on Twitter.”
And that’s how you wind up with half a dozen stories attacking the latest Dave Chappelle comedy special for his criticisms of cancel culture while the overwhelming majority of viewers just think he’s hilarious. It’s how you get glowing reviews for Lady Ghostbusters while most viewers think it’s just a bad movie. That kind of disproportionate influence on the media may seem like a blessing for the left but it could be a curse if they wind up selecting a far left candidate who isn’t acceptable to the bulk of the population. That’s what happened to Jeremy Corbyn and it could happen to Bernie Sanders too.