These two facts are, as you might guess, related. And what they reflect is how the incentive structure has changed for elected officials in Washington.
In the time before social media — and even cable news — the goal of every single member of the House or Senate was simple: Build relationships with your colleagues, demonstrate your knowledge of the intricacies of policy, pass bills and, most of all, accrue seniority. The acme of serving in Congress in those days was (through political savvy and years of service) to chair one of the big committees: Appropriations, Ways and Means, Judiciary or, for the foreign-policy focused, Foreign Relations.
The arrival of 24-hour cable news began to change that dynamic. And the surge of social media over the last decade has now fundamentally altered it.
What those two new(ish) platforms have provided is a way to power and influence — inside and outside of Washington — that has nothing to do with how long you’ve served in Congress or what committees you’re on.
“The 10 members of the million-follower club in the 114th Congress contained no first-term lawmakers. But the members of the 116th Congress who had more than 1 million followers included five first-term lawmakers, as well as nine lawmakers who passed the million-follower mark over the course of the most recent Congress.”
Five members of Congress who were in their first terms — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), Dan Crenshaw (R-Florida) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) as well as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — all have more than 1 million followers. (Romney, obviously, benefits from his previous high profile as the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.)
Members of Congress see social media then as a way to cut past the traditional path to power. Why spend years making nice with older members and serving as the 14th ranking member of the minority party on the House Appropriations Committee when you could be a weekly guest on Sean Hannity’s primetime show on Fox News and gets thousands of retweets for anything you put on Twitter?
What the focus on Twitter and Facebook incentivizes is a willingness to take the most extreme stances. It gives priority to the loudest voices in the room, which are not always the smartest voices in the room. And it disincentivizes those not willing to throw rhetorical bombs in the constant hunt for retweets and likes.
Of course, what the social media shortcut, uh, shortchanges, is the actual work that members of Congress are elected to do. Like legislate. And pass bills. And find ways to deliver for their constituents.
You can absolutely argue — and be right! — that the old way of doings things in Congress tended to reward longevity over effectiveness. And tilted heavily to keeping older white men in positions of power while offering few avenues of opportunity for women and people of color.
But what has replaced that old system is also deeply flawed. Congress was envisioned as a deliberative body — where members of both parties engaged in lively debate and, while not always agreeing, found ways to work together. None of that can be done with a tweet — no matter how fire it is.