Israel-Gaza raises fears of a digital divide among Democrats
“I don’t think I’m going to make too many videos about this,” said Alex Peter. It was October 8, hours after Hamas militants launched terror attacks on Israel. Peter, a TikToker with hundreds of thousands of followers, talked for three minutes about how “a superpower that has full faith and funding from the U.S. government” oppressed “people living in destitution.”
He headed to a solidarity rally in Times Square — then watched, with dismay, as media coverage focused on an attendee who displayed a swastika and another who praised the attacks, prompting prominent progressive politicians to disavow the event amid a national debate over antisemitism on the left. Peter posted more videos, on a platform that quickly became dominated by pro-Palestinian accounts and conversations, to the distress of pro-Israel politicians and activists.
“What’s happening now is so horrific that even the most indoctrinated people have a little bit more doubt about it,” Peter told Semafor. He’d blocked hundreds of comments he considered offensive, but kept a receptive audience of more than 870,000 followers.
Peter’s turn to Israel commentary was coming just as the political establishment outside of it was beginning to panic about the state of Gen Z — and especially the discourse on newer social media they tend to favor. Spokesmen for the Israel Defense Forces get ridiculed in these spaces; images of attacks that have killed thousands of Gazans spread instantly, with no filter.
“There are more perspectives now, in a more communicable format,” said Hasan Piker, a leftist Twitch streamer with 2.6 million followers. “But the other factor is that Israel is more brutal this time around, and has only increased its violence.”
Platforms like TikTok, whose Chinese ties often scare off mainstream politicians in addition to the more typical generational tech divides, could seem especially mysterious and frightening to outsiders in this context. Peter’s TikTok account — relatively popular, but hardly dominant — has nearly twice as many followers as the official Democratic Party account.
A viral thread by tech substacker Jeff Morris, Jr. blamed TikTok’s algorithms for pumping a self-reinforcing wave of anti-Israel messaging to teens with little prior interest in the conflict. The chair of the House China Committee, Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher, called TikTok — already a major target in Congress — ”digital fentanyl” and suggested, without evidence, the Chinese Communist Party was deliberately gaming its algorithm in recent weeks to divide Americans on the issue.
To Democrats, Israel’s poor image on social media is accelerating what they’ve seen from young voters and even White House, Congressional, and party staffers — anger at the president for his support of the Israeli counter-attack and refusal to endorse a ceasefire.
But it’s also fed into fears of a broader political disconnect with Gen Z that goes beyond Israel, especially as President Biden struggles to connect with voters under 30, who polls suggest are still deeply unimpressed with his record. To some, the fierce reaction to his Israel policy in newer social media spaces was a Rosetta Stone to understanding both problems for the party, and a sign that Democrats had foolishly ceded a crucial information battleground to activists hostile to their interests who could depress turnout next year and encourage third-party defections.
“There’s not even a pretense of trying to be accurate, people can just focus entirely entirely on creating wherever the audience wants to hear,” Will Stancil, a progressive commentator who has urged Democrats to take the platform more seriously, told Semafor. “And it’s been outsourced to thousands of people who are mostly anonymous.”
Prominent new media creators see it differently. The generation’s drift towards more left-leaning activism, especially around Israel issues, long predates the newer social media platforms. To them, blaming apps where they’re the most likely to congregate is blaming the messenger.
Three weeks ago, when I talked to IfNotNow and other groups demanding a ceasefire, they knew that their opponents inside the Democratic Party saw the war as a chance to discredit them. The refrain I heard, again and again: Wait for the images from Gaza.
That theory has played out, especially on social media; Democrats who had pushed off the “ceasefire” question are now getting it constantly, and sometimes answering it sympathetically. When Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin told CNN that it was time for a ceasefire, his muddled answer — a focus on the release of hostages, which the Biden administration says it supports a temporary “humanitarian pause” to achieve — was celebrated by activists.
“Thank you for listening to tens of thousands of Jews calling for peace,” IfNotNow said, in a statement.
The angst about younger people seeing sympathetic coverage of Palestine, and especially instances of inflammatory or misleading rhetoric defending or rationalizing Hamas, in an unfamiliar media environment has some parallels to other episodes. Republicans in the Trump era have been increasingly confused by a shifting media landscape often driven by influencers and Rumble videos as much as Fox News, and afraid of angering a base they often struggle to understand (there’s even been a smaller, parallel Israel fight taking place on the right in those spaces). It can be difficult sometimes to tell what’s a long-term social trend and what’s a short-term media fad, and Democrats in particular have a habit of looking for structural explanations for politics that may or may not fit the moment.
ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT
While Democrats fret over the politics of the Israel-Gaza war, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi told reporters this week she doesn’t expect voters upset over it will abandon Democrats, especially with Donald Trump as the GOP nominee. “Have we forgotten about the Muslim ban?” she asked at an event Monday. “One of the first things that what’s-his-name did when he became president was to put a Muslim ban on Muslims coming into the country.”
In Jewish Insider, Matthew Kassel talks to the pro-Israel groups already spending money, and scouting for candidates, to oust left-wing Israel critics from the House. Four members of the “squad” may “defend their seats from new challengers who are drawing sharp contrasts on Middle East policy.”
In the Washington Post, Drew Harwell and Taylor Lorenz cover the furious political reaction to Israel criticism on social media; TikTok, says Marco Rubio, is working to “downplay Hamas terrorism.”
And previously at Semafor, J.D. Capelouto explained how TikTok became so pro-Palestinian. One unusual factor: India, whose political landscape includes a major pro-Israel movement, is not on the app.
Ron DeSantis for President, “Fight. Win. Lead.” While his super PAC attacks Nikki Haley and Donald Trump, the DeSantis campaign, with less cash to spend, is running this entirely positive ad in Iowa. It positions him as a Biden challenger, not a Trump rival, “leading” on three areas: flying Americans home from Israel, rebuilding Florida after hurricanes, and sending “troops to the Southern border.”
Tate for Governor, “Let’s Go Brandon.” In Kentucky and Mississippi, where President Biden is toxically unpopular, both GOP gubernatorial nominees are running last-minute ads starring Donald Trump. Gov. Reeves is only mentioned at the end, with images from the 2019 get-out-the-vote rally Trump did for him; the ex-president would rather talk about Biden. “Joe Biden’s people are funding Brandon Presley’s campaign,” he says of the Democratic nominee. “They own him. He’ll do whatever they want him to do.”
Black Voters Matter Action PAC,“Skinfolk Ain’t Kinfolk.” Kentucky Attorney Gen. Daniel Cameron defended the actions of police officers who shot Breonna Taylor in her home three years ago. The state Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Gov. Andy Beshear in 2019, has endorsed Cameron; two of Cameron’s ads focused on how he stood up to protesters demanding charges for the officers. Beshear’s campaign hasn’t touched the issue, but this PAC is running radio ads in Louisville that denounce “Uncle Daniel Cameron” as a race traitor. Republicans, not Democrats, have drawn attention to the ad.
One year out from the presidential election, voters have grim views of their options — even of the candidates positioning themselves as alternatives to a Biden-Trump rematch. (Biden was viewed more favorably than Trump in 2020, and that stopped in 2021.) DeSantis, who’s run to Trump’s right on vaccines and abortion, is now viewed more negatively than him by Democrats and independents. Voters don’t know much about Haley, but she’s twice as popular with Democrats as Trump, and five times as popular as DeSantis — 11% view her favorably, compared to 2% for the Florida governor. Kennedy, who’s disappeared from the news cycle since going independent, is the only candidate viewed positively by independent voters — and 41% of Republicans, which helps clarify why the Biden campaign isn’t worried about him right now.
White House. Dean Phillips held his first of 119 New Hampshire town halls on Wednesday, renting out a theater and running a livestream. It was taken offline after a messy exchange with a young Democrat asking him to support a ceasefire in Gaza.
“I took note that you didn’t mention — how do you feel about the Israeli babies?” Phillips, who is Jewish, asked Atong Chan. “And moms and dads and grandmas and hostages in Gaza who were brutally murdered? I just want to hear, before I answer your question, if that empathy is across humanity or only for Palestinians right now?” When the event was over, Phillips criticized the Daily Beast for focusing on that part of the evening and not “the 99 percent of other people in the room who were thoughtful, respectful.”
Ron DeSantis’ campaign, which refused to cooperate with a Politico story investigating whether he wore cowboy boots to make him look taller, went after the Trump campaign for exploiting it.
“This is no time for foot fetishes,” DeSantis told Newsmax, in a friendly interview that described the Politico story as a “gotcha.” Ahead of next week’s debate in Miami, which Trump won’t attend, the DeSantis campaign started selling packs of two branded golf balls with the message “he has a pair” — the implication being that Trump doesn’t, and is scared to face him.
Nikki Haley campaigned in New Hampshire, spending her second day on the trail with Gov. Chris Sununu, who told the Washington Post’s Dylan Wells that Haley had “no doubt” surpassed DeSantis for second place there. (Polling has said so for weeks; Sununu had said, before DeSantis entered the race, that he could win the state.) When Haley half-jokingly asked Sununu when he’d endorse her, he answered that he was “getting closer every day.”
House. Two Republicans who rejected Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan’s speaker bid, and tussled with House conservatives, announced their retirements this week — Colorado Rep. Ken Buck and Texas Rep. Kay Granger.
Granger, who turned 80 this year, was on the retirement watch-list; in 2022, she easily defeated two primary challengers who ran to her right in a Fort Worth-area seat drawn to elect a Republican. Buck, who entered national politics during the 2010 Tea Party wave, broke with the party in multiple directions — he voted to oust Kevin McCarthy, but also pressured Republican candidates for speaker to accept that Biden won the 2020 election.
Washington reads titles, and it reads indexes, but it doesn’t always finish the book. That was the experience of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, who published “The Emerging Democratic Majority” shortly before the 2002 midterms. As Republicans held the House and flipped the Senate, their concept got mocked; six years later, their insight that growing urban/suburban “ideopolises” were powering a new electoral coalition was obviously true.
On Tuesday, Judis and Teixeira will publish a quasi-sequel to their book: “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?” It builds on their analysis of how Democrats lost ground with a crucial part of their coalition — white working-class voters, without whom the “ideopolises” were just blue islands surrounded by red seas.
Americana: What mistakes have Democrats made since then that imperiled the “emerging Democratic majority?”
Ruy Teixeira: We did have an argument in the book about the influence of demographic change — how the dynamic metropolitan areas of the country were changing, the role of professionals. What people really latched onto was the rise of the non-white population, and the decline of the white population. But in our analysis, we very specifically pointed out that while Democrats may not carry the white working class in the future, it’s essential for them to maintain a strong minority share of it. If that goes south on them, the political arithmetic just doesn’t work.
That part was kind of shunted aside. In 2008, the way people tended to interpret that election was a new Democratic majority from the rising American electorate. They forgot about the fact that Obama did relatively well among white working-class voters, including in the Midwest. Democrats get wiped out in 2010, but Obama bounces back in 2012, partially because he manages to grab back a lot of those white working-class voters in the upper Midwest. That’s not the story that’s told after 2012. It’s the bowdlerized version of our thesis, that it’s all about demographics.
Americana: What opportunities did Obama have, but not take, to change this trajectory?
John Judis: Let’s say one thing that he did do right, which was the auto bailout. In 2012, that really wins him the election; he gets Michigan and he gets Ohio on that basis. But his strategists got this weird idea that independents are worried about deficits. They supported the sequester, they really didn’t fight the Republicans on that stuff, and as a result, the Great Recession dragged on.
Democrats in the 1990s bought into a soft version of neoliberal economics. Obama, despite what he promised in his campaign, really was a continuation of that approach, not a break from it.
Americana: Right, and you tell a recurring story of Democrats getting elected — starting with Carter — and ditching what worked because of K Street lobbying. Why does that keep happening?
John Judis: Let’s go back to 1984. In that election, Mondale really thinks that if he gets the AFL-CIO endorsement, he’ll have workers; if he has a female running mate, he’ll have women; if he has the civil rights groups, he’ll get minority voters. And it doesn’t work out. The AFL-CIO keeps hemorrhaging members in the 1980s, because of Reagan, so it’s really weak. By the early 90s there’s a kind of alliance in Washington between Wall Street and the CEOs, and a lot of the groups that come out of the 60s — feminists, civil rights, environmental groups.
That prevails in the politics that Obama follows. Hillary Clinton runs on that in 2016 and loses. Biden starts to get away from that, and that’s been his strength.
Americana: Right, and a lot of what you talked about, Biden is doing – leveling the playing field for workers, infrastructure, labor, not pursuing new trade deals. But I don’t see a lot of credit for it. In polling, people believe Donald Trump thinks more about their needs than Biden. Why hasn’t that changed?
John Judis: Inflation is poisonous. Absolutely poisonous. And I think that that’s eroded a lot of Biden’s support. The policies themselves are too technical. A lot of them are good — the CHIPS Act is great. But companies are fighting it. They want to be able to basically internationalize their products and rely on Chinese manufacturing. They don’t want to bring manufacturing home.
Ruy Teixeira: If you look at the underlying economic data on wages and income, basically, not much good has happened under Biden. If you compare the pre-pandemic Trump years with the Biden administration, people think the Trump economy was better, because for a lot of them, it was. This is not to say that Trump was a great economic policy guy, and Biden isn’t, but these are the realities. You’ll hear people say: “What’s wrong with these people? Why aren’t they grateful for all the wonderful things that the Biden administration has done? They’re probably just misinformed or listening too much to Fox News!” I think that’s pretty tone deaf.
Americana: You retell the story of Ralph Northam here, and how what you call the “shadow party” of interest groups called for him to resign over his yearbook photo, along with the entire Democratic field. Then polling comes out that shows most Black voters are fine with Northam. What was the lesson?
Ruy Teixeira: That really exemplifies that the groups that purport to speak for these vast sectors of the population, like Back voters, or Hispanic voters, or women, frequently do not. Those voters are much more moderate, much less concerned with a lot of the issues that animate these groups. The market is speaking — minority, working-class voters are leaving. That’s bringing home to the Democrats that bringing the groups that claim to represent these people, and sort of mushing them together into a coalition, is actually not effective.
Americana: In 2002, you wrote that some Republican attitudes about gay people were alienating: “Americans see conservative attempts to punish and stigmatize gays as bigotry and intolerance.” I hear that argument made to contradict your chapter on “gender identity” in this book, that maybe this isn’t popular now, but let’s check back in 10 years. Is that wrong?
John Judis: I come out of the 60s and early 70s. Gay liberation, to some extent, was anti-family at that point. But when Andrew Sullivan comes along with his gay marriage idea, that really transforms everything, and it becomes a viable movement. With trans stuff, we’re against discrimination, but there’s an extent to which this thing is going just completely overboard, the way that movements do. Biological men being in women’s sports, demanding the whole transformation of language, insisting that a trans woman is really a woman, it’s radical in the bad sense, in the way that a lot of movements were. I don’t think in 10 or 15 years that a lot of what is seen now as the extremes to that movement will become acceptable.
Ruy Teixeira: The whole idea makes fundamental claims about science that are extremely debatable and wrong. Basically, there are two biological sexes. It is, in fact, salient what biological sex you are. Nobody has the right to puberty blockers. That’s not a civil rights issue. That’s a policy question about what is good for children with gender dysphoria. No, I don’t think that in 10 or 15 years, everybody’s going to be on board and say, yeah, trans women are women, or say let’s pass out puberty blockers like candy.
Americana: Since you started writing the new book, have Democrats done anything to move in the right direction? On economic policy, we talked about that. I don’t think I’ve heard a Democrat say “defund the police” in three years.
John Judis: In 2020, I don’t think there were 10 politicians running for federal office who said “defund the police.”
Ruy Teixeira: The point we’re making is that there’s this shadow party that becomes identified with what Democrats stand for. In the State of the Union, Joe Biden said: Fund the police, fund the police. That was the inoculation against the charges that Republicans were making.
The problem is that policies that are being pursued by Democratic leaders in a lot of parts of the country, are, in fact, implicated in rising crime and disorder. Bail reform — very important issue, but it’s not redounded to the benefit of the Democrats. They’re associated with disorder in the streets, the harm reduction strategy, people shooting up in the middle of places that are run by Democrats. We’re talking about the need for a Sister Souljah moment for the Democrats on some of these issues. Joe Biden has been extremely loath to do this. Democrats are so afraid of the blowback they’ll get on social media, and from the progressive left in the party.
The biggest donor set in America is still undecided on the Republican presidential field, leaving millions up for grabs in what is expected to be the most expensive election ever.
Nancy Pelosi defended Biden’s response to the Israel-Gaza war and said she was confident that it won’t be a problem as the president seeks a second term.
Major Chinese social media platforms announced they will begin requiring influencers with more than 500,000 followers to display their real names, breaking one of the last pillars of online anonymity in China.
Microsoft has added a major new capability to one of its smaller large language models, a big step that shows less expensive AI tech can have some of the same features as OpenAI’s massive GPT-4.