In 1787 at the dawn of our nation, the Founding Fathers were embroiled in a raging debate over the role citizens and special interest groups should play in our political system. The Founding Fathers viewed influence from interest groups as a threat to government decision making, but they differed in their responses to this perceived problem. Proponents of republicanism, one of the dominant conceptions of politics at that time, adopted an optimistic approach. They anticipated that government leaders and citizens, guided by their education and civic virtue, would not allow factional tyranny to flourish. This republican optimism continues to markedly influence ongoing debates about the ability of rent-seeking actors to influence or “capture” government policymakers today.
This Article examines how the revolution in social media communications reshapes the centuries-old debate about capture. I argue that social media communications hold the potential to create two fundamental, but previously overlooked, benefits for our government system. Social media sites can create breeding grounds for so-called republican moments—periods in which an agitated public overcomes the power of special interest groups—to arise. This is true even though research suggests that social media communications tend to be shallow and unreliable.
The social media age also holds the potential to upgrade the relationships between citizens, government actors, and special interest groups during periods of politics-as-usual, the periods between republican moments. The threat of a viral uprising can motivate government actors and special interest groups to listen more closely to public concerns. It can further entice them to spend more resources on educating the public about issues of national, regional, and local concern. Such dialogue and education promotes the development of the republicans’ utopian citizenry—citizens instilled with education and civic virtue. These two phenomena have profound implications for a variety of issues in public policy and government affairs.