Does Social Media Make Leadership Impossible?

There is a quote attributed to French revolutionary Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, which says, “There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.” The irony may be cited to describe the state of political leadership in the U.S. these days; and after my own party botched the budget/Speaker crisis so badly, I wonder whether anyone can govern in the glass House created by the illusion of transparency we call social media.

Speaking as a Democrat, I believe Hakeem Jeffries and the leadership disserved both the country and the party by failing to block the ouster of Kevin McCarthy. Had the Democrats voted to keep McCarthy, they could have put the people’s business before politics; blown up Matt Gaetz’s Clown Car; burnished their own Members’ bona fides as adults in the room; and perhaps even provided some breathing room for moderate Republicans. Instead, Congress is not legislating, the clock on the Continuing Resolution is ticking toward a more intractable budget crisis and shutdown, and Steve Scalise could become Speaker.* And that was before the staggering events in Israel.

How a Democrat can call any of these outcomes good for country or party is a mystery, as is the implication that the leadership could not have sold the more sober decision to the party base. Maybe McCarthy wouldn’t negotiate on anything; maybe the decision was to keep day-trading on the political “value” of GOP dysfunction; or maybe the Democrats are every bit as afraid of their constituents as the traditional Republicans. Because maybe leadership is impossible these days, especially in the House, now that social media effectively turns all elected officials into populists.

It is a systemic flaw that a Member of the House in particular can never stop campaigning—a problem that has often been discussed in the context of campaign finance reform. Indeed, the requirement to placate key donors and raise large sums while trying to legislate hobbles both sides of the aisle. But aggravating these conditions, social media has dramatically shortened the two-year term while fostering a climate that is more reactionary, performative, and ugly.

The memes mocking McCarthy’s ouster were predictable, like the one showing him next to McCauly Culkin from Home Alone and saying that “only one Kevin managed to defend his house.” I get the desire to lampoon the guy, but this rote and chronic form of gloating suppresses the instinct to step back and consider the larger picture. Because how satisfying will that joke be if Scalise gets the gavel? Or looking forward, how satisfying will the Scalise memes be as government devolves to an even messier food fight?

A republic does not function well with constituents crawling up a representative’s ass 24 hours a day, yet Americans across the political spectrum embraced the half-baked promise of direct-democracy enabled by social platforms. And it’s no surprise the results are catastrophic. These platforms thrive on spectacle, outrage, sound bites, and memes. They make celebrities out of Clowns while muting the less dramatic, but essential, process of debate and compromise.

Today’s representative who sincerely hopes to accomplish anything other than disruption in Washington operates in a climate that rewards boorishness and where her own constituents will drag her in real-time for even thinking about reaching across the aisle. If that was a calculation in the Democrats’ decision to let McCarthy be removed, then no matter how different Jeffries and McCarthy may be on policy, it doesn’t matter because both men failed to lead, and no policy work is getting done.

McCarthy deserved to be roasted for his self-flagellating attempts to mollify the Trumpians, but his ejection only proves that it is better to lose for showing leadership and integrity than to win a fleeting victory through appeasement. If that’s true, then the principle must apply to Democrats as well, and sometimes leadership demands making the least bad choice. Plus, bitch-slapping Matt Gaetz would have made for pretty good optics (and memes) for the Dems to enjoy on Facebook, so the decision to hand the Clown Car a win seems all the more cynical.

Every leader worth a damn makes a least-worst decision at one time or another. But not until the last 20 or so years have leaders been required to make tough choices while the electorate reacts instantaneously through the medium of a hundred-million digital soap boxes. So, if social media has fostered a climate in which making the least-worst decision is always political suicide, then what we get is representation in name only followed by unrelenting chaos.

*At the time of writing. Now, it appears Scalise is out, but the point is the same. The Dems voted to prolong the chaos. I even received a fund-raising email on it just today.

Photo by: chajamp

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

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