Cranking out newspaper columns is a tricky business: you've got to have an original voice, you have to come up with several whole ideas each week, and you need a nigh-oracular sense of the future. But sometimes the Sight fails, and columnists come up with a prediction that doesn't quite compute. Each week Washingtonian.com will search the nation's opinion pages for the best or worst pundit prediction of the week.
Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are on their way to Washington for a rally on the National Mall this Saturday, so it's not unusual that Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson's thoughts turned this week to the Tea Party and to Twitter. Specifically, he's considering the emergence of the conservative political movement, with mixed results, writing: "In the normal course of events, political movements begin as intellectual arguments, often conducted for years in serious books and journals. To study the Tea Party movement, future scholars will sift through the collected tweets of Sarah Palin."
Gerson's both right and wrong on the history, in part because it's not yet clear whether the Tea Parties will coalesce into an independent political party, or if it'll stay a grassroots movement. If Gerson's thinking of it as a grassroots movement, there's some basis for his model. Libertarianism, strains of which are incorporated into Tea Party ideology, began as an intellectual movement, both in Europe and the United States, and from both the left and the right. But the idea that the Tea Party movement is divorced from professionalized intellectual institutions like think-tanks and universities is at minimum oversimplifying things. As Jane Mayer's profile of the Koch brothers in this week's New Yorker explains, the Tea Party movement may harness extant anger and political conviction, but that harness was at least partially conceived of, designed, and executed by intellectual institutions supported by the wealthy industrialists. And if the Tea Party does turn out to be a faction independent of the Republican Party, it'll have emerged in many of the same ways America's dominant political parties came together.
But on to the prediction, which I'm not entirely sure Gerson knows he's making, but is definitely there. His argument? That Twitter, and twittering by powerful political figures like Sarah Palin, is fragmenting the discussion necessary for successful emergence of a powerful movement.
In an era when communication is faster, and delivered in smaller chunks, it's certainly harder for a small group of people to control and streamline an organization or a movement. But it does mean that more people can participate, simply because they've got access to the debate, and they may be better-organized, because more of them can receive marching orders from the people they anoint as their leaders. It also means more people can become leaders because on Twitter, no one knows you're a dog (or anything else), and if your ideas are good, it doesn't remotely matter. All of that is a recipe for participation, if not for coherence or decisiveness.
But then, Twitter and other social media tools are still relatively new, as is the Tea Party movement. Analysts are only just beginning to understand the internet's impact on how we absorb and process information, and this year's elections are just the first shot we have at understanding the Tea Party's influence, coherence, and organizational abilities. It's going to be a long time before historians have enough evidence to judge whether Americans can assimilate information from Twitter and get to the same end results they'd reach after debates in political journals, and a while before it's clear whether the Tea Parties are a lasting phenomenon in American politics. So it's not clear whether Gerson's right or wrong, and it won't be clear for a while. But even if his predictive power is cut off by the mists of time, Gerson's at least posing some significant questions.