I was watching Stephen Colbert interview Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) last week on his Better Know a District series and was struck by how utterly disconnected McDermott was from nearly every cultural reference Colbert threw at him. He was a fish out of water. I suppose that is to be expected from a 76 year old congressman.
But Congress is filled with older folks. The average age of the House is 57 and the average age of the Senate is 63 (and both are climbing). And while age doesn't automatically disconnect you from pop culture, it certainly increases the likelihood.
I am concerned about the cultural disconnect in Congress because I think it is a key component of the public's dim view of the body. Congress's approval rating has hovered in the single digits for a couple years and trust in government, a perennial problem in the U.S., is as bad as it has ever been.
One of the ways that Congress and other elected officials can create more public trust in government is by using social media to connect with citizens. The more they engage with constituents in meaningful dialogue about the issues, the more people will see government as responsive to the people.
But our officials can go beyond dry issue discussions and engage the public in more pop cultural topics. And many do.
Recently, Rep. Justin Amash called for his followers to create a Gandalf meme saying "You shall not pass!" in reference to the Syria Resolution in Congress. And he was answered. But my question is, "Is Amash really a fan of the Lord of the Rings or was this an idea from one of his 20-something staffers?
Later, Jeb Bush was soliciting for and giving fantasy football advice, even looping Chuck Todd into the discussion. Apparently, the former governor of Florida had passed on the three quarterbacks from his own state (Tannehill, Henne and Freeman) for a quarterback in the state where his brother once governed (Romo). Was that a good political move for Jeb? Will it broaden his support base? Will it upset his core supporters in the Sunshine State? We will see.
I think that Members of Congress using pop culture to create a deeper connection with constituents is great... but ONLY if they are keeping it real. There is nothing as awkward as hearing an old politician trying to be hip, when they aren't. It just makes them look foolish and has the opposite effect of creating more trust in government.
For me, an example from the 1992 campaign makes this point well. On the Sunday before the presidential election, George H.W. Bush finally consented to an interview with MTV News. Martha Quinn joined the president on the back of his train to talk politics. In this interview, Bush called Quinn's audience "MTV aficionados." WOW... talk about being a fish out of water. Then he mentioned how Bono was calling the White House daily from the stage of U2 shows. Bush smugly pivoted to say to the voters that, "You too deserve a government that listens to you."
Indeed, we do. But can our politicians at least be cool when they try to be cool?
Also, check out my interview with Atlanta Councilman Kwanza Hall to see how a young, hip elected official keeps his interactions with the people of Atlanta real.
Social Advocacy & Politics is a weekly, exclusive column for Social Media Today by Alan Rosenblatt that explores the intersection of politics and social media. Look for the next installment next Tuesday morning.