But a new generation of soundbite wordsmiths has filled the Twitter void: mainstream politicians, old and young, left and right.
Political Twitter has in recent months been inundated with trolling of the highest order.
In a tweet Jan. 23, as the longest government shutdown in U.S. history lumbered into its second month, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) addressed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, “Hey Nancy,” and criticized Democrats for their cancellation of a House session that Friday.
“Sounds like leadership, huh???” he tweeted. “We should ALL stay in DC until everyone is back to work!”
On Jan. 17, Huizenga tweeted that House Democrats “just ignored House rules and railroaded a vote on the floor!” He opened the tweet, “OUTRAGEOUS!!!”
Lots of caps, exclamations and question marks for a policymaker. This is beneath Huizenga, who is perfectly capable of digging down to the details on policy, even before a mass audience. He regularly works with Democrats on a host of complex policy endeavors.
President Trump has, since long before his candidacy, used Twitter to hurl free-wheeling bombast at his opponents (sometimes accompanied by hysterical typos.)
Some Republicans and Democrats are taking a page out of President Trump’s book (and I don’t mean “The Art of the Deal” — if such an art existed, it would have been helpful in getting 800,000 federal workers a paycheck.)
Is this the reality of political discourse, or are more substantive discussions going on behind closed doors? Are our leaders talking to each other, or simply shouting into the vacuum space of the Twittersphere, tagging their opponents in an act of passive aggression?
Two parties can play at that game.
Speaker Pelosi and President Trump have grappled over Trump’s desire for a $5.7 billion border wall — the crux of the federal shutdown — by responding to each others’ tweets. Pelosi has repeatedly used the hashtag #TrumpShutdown and called for Trump to “reopen the government!”
Pelosi and others have leaned into Trump, but have taken their advice from newly elected Democrats, several of whom are young and diverse and far-more social media-savvy than their elder-statesman counterparts.
Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has literally danced her way through her new home in Washington, D.C., broadcasting her exploits to a sensational Twitter following.
Ocasio-Cortez, a millennial, has helped lead sessions for Democrats on effective ways to engage constituents on Twitter and the importance of digital storytelling. These sessions have encouraged Democrats to “call it like it is” and ooze authenticity on social media.
Those are great skills to have, but they don’t always translate.
In response to a Trump tweet calling out “Chuck and Nancy,” Sen. Chuck Schumer tweeted, “Stop throwing a temper tantrum and re-open the government. You’re hurting American workers and their families, @realDonaldTrump.” Schumer regularly characterizes Trump’s behavior as a “temper tantrum.”
This can’t be the whole story. There has to be a more sophisticated side to this debacle, right?
When Pelosi and Schumer met with the president in person, the press was invited inside the Oval Office. Mean-mugs were cast around at numerous media cameras, little was said and nothing was resolved.
During a meeting with the two Democratic leaders early this month to discuss shutdown negotiations, Trump simply walked out of the room.
“Bye-bye,” Trump said as he made his exit.
People tend to behave better toward one another face-to-face than they do behind a screen and a keyboard, right? Politicians of both parties are shredding this popular wisdom.
Nothing gets accomplished through tweets, nor through brief in-person meetings. Resolving complex issues takes time, nuance and compromise. Our leaders have left little confidence that their Twitter feuds are anything short of their best efforts to fix a broken government.
At its best, Twitter is a way to disseminate concise information to the widest-possible audience. At its worst, the platform is an echo chamber, a rhetorical dunking competition and a chatroom for the most powerful leaders in the modern world to embarrass themselves, far worse than they ever could on national television.
The ancient Greeks probably called for the same, but it must be said. Politicians: be better.
About the writer: Alexander Sinn is a reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. The above column is his opinion, and not necessarily the opinion of the Tribune.