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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

In Praise of the Chatty Class

Matt Bai is the latest journalist to join the Twitter backlash.
In a short piece for this week’s Sunday New York Times Magazine, he declares:

If Twitter doesn’t turn out to be just the latest political fad (like, say, psychographic polling, or Ron Paul), then it just may be the worst thing to happen to politics and its attending media since a couple of geniuses at CNN dreamed up “Crossfire” back in the 1980s.

Bai argues that the politicians on Twitter hark back to an earlier era when “American politics was obsessed with the universality of our experience, typified by the enduring cliché of the president with whom you could quaff a beer.”
That’s a surprising and fundamentally wrong-headed view by a writer who has spent a lot of time trying to understand the influence that the Internet is having on politics.
As with so many other things, the content produced by those on Twitter varies. But the best users of the service — like Sen. Claire McCaskill — produce content that is equal parts fascinating and addictive.
Bai dismisses these efforts as attempts at faux-populism. But in reality, they are anything but. They’re intimate and compelling and wholly authentic.
And on the Internet, of course, authenticity counts for everything.
When, Sen. McCaskill tweets about conversations with her children, the feelings she describes are genuine. When she tweets about policy, the positions she takes are clear. And when she talks smack about sports, it is both hilarious and appealing.
The common thread that connects all of Sen. McCaskill’s Twittering is that it reveals a sometimes-intimate and almost-always-appealing side of her personality. It’s a portrait of who she is that we simply do not get for most of her colleagues.
Couple this with the fact that Twitter is not a one-way-street for communication. Sen. McCaskill reads the @ replies that her followers write. She often replies to them in turn. The best Senate offices encourage their principals to draft the occasional reply to a constituent’s mail, but most of the public will never get to see that kind of communication. When we write to a Senate office, we get a form letter (months after the fact).
Twitter makes those replies part of the public conversation. All of us see the importance that Sen. McCaskill places on keeping in touch with her voters back. And the replies are instant — we know the positions she takes the second she posts them.
With all due respect to Bai, Washington would be a better place if more pols (and journalists) grasped the lessons of Twitter.

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