Over the last couple of weeks, I have done a deep dive on Twitter, or at least, certain segments of it. This is in part because I have been more closely following news of the upcoming US Democratic Party primary elections, and because I am, apparently, both someone with time to kill and a glutton for punishment. And punishing it is, as the social media platform lends itself to a series of hot takes that quickly go cold, recursive jokes that fold in on themselves until it’s not clear what’s even a joke anymore, long threads and series of replies that are difficult to follow and quickly disappear from view as new content rolls in, and forms of engagement with total or near-total strangers that are ripe for misunderstanding and unnecessary, irresolvable conflict. There are also many funny and insightful people there too, and a lot of news articles from a huge range of sources aggregated in one easy-to-scroll-through list, right on my phone. Yet in an attempt to gain some understanding of how things are trending in the US political landscape, I have found Twitter hard to parse as a source of information and discussion. Maybe because I am decidedly middle-aged now, and the willingness and time I can devote to an app on my phone is limited. Useful and interesting posts and links are interspersed with cat pictures, commentary on cultural products in which I have no interest, and reply chains that take you down some seriously strange rabbit holes. Invariably this is where I have ended up the last two weeks, deep in a thread of replies on a comment or news story about Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. This is one part of Twitter, but it’s clear that this is a universe containing untold galaxies, many of them devoid of intelligent life. Indeed, people concerned with privacy, big data, and the political and social impacts of social media have critiqued the algorithmic structure through which Twitter sorts your view of posts from the accounts you follow. The biggest fears are that this creates or exacerbates increasingly fractured and insular social bubbles, and that social media giants such as Twitter have a responsibility they are currently shirking — specifically to weed out misinformation and fake accounts, and more generally to elevate, improve, and broaden public and political discourse.
To which I say, yeah, good luck with that. Still, the increasing amount of time I’ve spent on Twitter has led me to three points regarding the current status of the Democratic primary and the political moment that we might read from that. Let’s call them ‘takes,’ though they all lead into each other and to the same conclusion, which is this: there is, right now, a possibility that come November 2020, the US will elect its first self-declared socialist President in Bernie Sanders. I’m not saying it will happen, or even that he will end up with the Democratic nomination by this summer, though he has taken a strong lead in polls in several early primary states, most notably Iowa and New Hampshire. More on this below, but let me be clear first — the idea that anyone who could openly declare themselves a socialist and maintain a political career and congressional seat, let alone have a realistic shot at the presidency would have been laughable just five five years ago, and literally unthinkable when I first hit voting age in 1995. Full disclosure, I am pulling hard for Bernie, not only because I put money on him in a pool with some friends, but also because I truly think his is a transformative candidacy. A Sanders win in the primary and the general election promises to actually do what Trump’s has only pretended to, which is directly threaten the political establishment ossified in the current national iterations of the Democratic and Republican Parties and realign the political landscape in the US for the greater public good. If Sanders’ appeal to his growing base of support could be summed up, it might be this – the best time for radical demands is all the time. The three points I offer below are the reasons why I think this is the case, but also why mainstream news media, the centrist and neoliberal core of the national Democratic Party leadership, and a large segment of self-described progressives and liberals on the internet misunderstand, mischaracterize, and malign Sanders and his campaign. You can find a million examples of this in the electronic pages of almost any high-subscription newspaper or news magazine, but for one telling recent example, this January 25 hit piece from The Economist includes all the main tells of an establishment terrified of something they cannot and will not understand.
Take 1: Livestream my Tweetstorm
This brings me to my first take, which is specific to the insular world of blue-check official Twitter accounts battling online to see who can make the grossest overstatement and thereby swing the primary election away from Bernie Sanders and “save” the Democratic Party, and nay, the Republic itself, from the terror of a candidate promising to work for health care, debt relief, and support for working families. (Did I mention this is a bit of a polemic?) In short, there are a lot of people on social media who think they are fundamentally shaping the election outcome with every tweet they post, often parroting and sharpening centrist and right-wing talking points in the process. These are legion on Twitter and they go like this: Sanders is too old; he had a heart attack and is irresponsible for not dropping out of the race; he is a lunatic who has encouraged a ‘cult of personality’ and is therefore exactly like Donald Trump; he isn’t even a Democrat; he has never accomplished anything as a legislator; he has an army of misogynistic and racist followers who harass women and POC online; he is himself a misogynist and racist; he can never possibly keep his campaign promises because he is too extreme and can’t work with anyone; he is a secret Russian asset designed to steal America’s democracy; he wouldn’t stop his car and help you if you were injured on the side of the road; and he can’t beat Trump in a general election anyway.
Now, there are legitimate criticisms to be made about Sanders’ position on some issues, such as gun control. But the critiques levelled at him that are making the rounds on social media and (when they pay enough attention) the mainstream media, are either nakedly partisan reads masquerading as sober analysis or are flat-out wrong. I’m not a Bernie surrogate or celebrity endorser or campaign worker, so I won’t go through these piece by piece. My own understanding of this is that a good deal of the opposition to Sanders from blue-check Twitter’s professional pundits, journalists, and Democratic Party officials, spokespeople, and surrogates emerges from a twofold problem within those circles. First, they tend to see the political landscape, especially at the level of federal elections, as a contest between avatars, a game between branded entities with which they interact either exclusively online or in the rarefied air of elite spaces to which the normal voter has no access and limited insight. Slumming it with the local yokels at the Iowa State Fair is for optics, but the real moving, shaking, and king-making happens behind the scenes in a room full of Rahm Emanuels and DNC staffers. Second, because of this, they appear to have an extremely limited understanding of movements and engaging actual people where they are socially and geographically. Politics is reduced to electioneering while attempts at building solidarity and empathy are misread as one old man’s vanity project to build a personality cult. It’s shamefully ignorant and short-sighted, but not a surprise. It is perfectly in line with the Democratic Party’s trajectory since the Nixon years, responding to the GOP’s Southern Strategy by writing off huge swaths of the electorate, tolerating and embracing neoliberal policies such as free trade and union-busting, and pandering to the fears of suburban white voters while paying mostly lip service to the demands of racialized and queer minorities for full social, political, and economic inclusion. This also means when Sanders says “Not Me. US.” and articulates widely-held but (to date) weakly pursued left policy proposals, and generates millions of small donations from a diverse range of people who have felt apathetic toward and alienated from politics for a generation, they simply can’t or won’t see it.
Take 2: 1/1024th, or, Don’t play the game
This brings me to the second take, and here I’ll pick on Elizabeth Warren as a prime example. I like (well, liked) Warren ok as a candidate, but I’m one voter and I am pragmatic in my approach to voting in any case. Now, immediately following the end of the January 15 Democratic debate, Warren did not shake Sanders’ hand, accused him of calling her a liar on a hot mic, and then allowed the notion that he was a misogynist who declared privately that a woman could not be President to circulate before walking it partway back just a couple days later. This was a bold move, and it backfired for her, as many things have since she peaked in October and November in most polls. It indicated clearly and savagely that Warren “plays the game” I was just talking about, and that she is not so good at it to boot. For many critics, this has always been crystal clear, and the most glaring example is the debacle of Warren’s claims to Native American ancestry, complete with a DNA test that revealed she is between 1/64th and 1/1024th Native; this would mean a Native ancestor anywhere from six to ten generations removed from the Senator herself. To put that in perspective, a little over two years ago I did a bit of my own genealogical research in advance of my son’s birth, building from what I could find online and from bits of archival and census research I had done previously. With increasing distance and time, the quality and reliability of records tends to erode quickly, and anything that I couldn’t confirm with a birth or death certificate or some kind of military pension record or longhand census form comes with an asterisk, as it could be incorrect, the product of family lore, someone else’s misreading, or incomplete and illegible records.
Because my family history is fairly strongly rooted in a limited set of places, though, some lines on the family tree were relatively reliable, and I can with some confidence see the family links going back five to seven generations, which takes me back on many branches to the late 18th century. That is a long time ago, so 1/1024th of any family tree is not a lot to write home about on its own. I noted also when doing this bit of research a burning desire by amateur genealogists to claim native ancestry, especially through suspected marriages and trysts between white settlers in southern Appalachia and Tidewater Virginia, and Cherokee, Shawnee, and Powhatan people (always white men with native women), which I consider fanciful thinking and for which there is little to no real recorded evidence in the genealogical research I did and read from others. But it pops up all the time. It’s both an attempt, through the taking of native women into white men’s beds and families, to latch white settlement onto a longer history on lands that were colonized and from which native people were pushed, killed, or otherwise erased, and (I think, maybe) a way of countering a sense of displacement over time as settlers moved and the frontier they created became familiar, less distant from authority, and rooted. But some of this is also driven, I suspect, by more recent generations’ desire for a link to some misty past romanticism and exotic origin. Multiple times I saw claims of direct descent from Pocahantas, or from “a Shawnee princess”, or from “full-blooded” Cherokee “chiefs.” Never with hard evidence, and rarely with consideration that there were a dozen people of the same or similar name in a given area with others passing through a porous frontier zone, and half of them illiterate with multiple different spellings of their names in local records. Everyone wants to be a prince or princess, no one just wants to be the dirt farmer who picked up sticks and left when their kids were hungry, or the church or the magistrate were too close for comfort, or the government gave or sold them free or cheap land.
Why does this matter? I’ve said many times to friends and in discussing contemporary US electoral politics in my classes that Elizabeth Warren could cure cancer, and yet for many people she’s always going to be “Pocahantas”, the object of Donald Trump’s derisive jokes about her pretensions to Native ancestry to score political points and cater to liberal ideals of diversity. Trump challenged her repeatedly to take a DNA test to “prove” her Native ancestry, and she took the bait in late 2018, with an apology to the Cherokee Nation following not long after for giving the impression that tribal citizenship and cultural belonging are determined by a blood or DNA test rather than social connection and tribe’s own governing rules and cultural norms. She does have a Native ancestor, and Trump was clearly race-baiting her, but instead of focusing that energy and political capital on real problems facing real people (and she does do a lot of that) Warren instead squandered it on a game of optics and parrying with her opposition over something that is all downside for her with no potential benefits to her campaign or to those voters whose support she needs. But this is a normal part of the Democratic playbook now, election campaigning as a game of appealing to a segmented voter base with focus-grouped messages and optical illusions about diversity while maintaining as much as possible a political, economic, and social status quo that doesn’t give a shit if you live or die. It trades the politics of solidarity and empathy, mass appeal and the public good, for a politics of aesthetic presentation, moralistic posturing and grandstanding, and building or maintaining the conditions for ‘nicer’ forms of exploitation. This phenomenon exists in a different form on the right, where the aesthetic concerns are quite a bit different, tending increasingly to xenophobic and nationalistic forms. Still a game, but a different set of players and roles. Bernie Sanders does not appear to play this game. He left the New York Times editorial board scratching their heads when he declared recently that “I don’t tolerate bullshit terribly well” and that they shouldn’t expect a birthday greeting from the White House when he’s there in exchange for favorable coverage. This is one of the major parts of his appeal to his large and growing pool of potential voters and supporters – he simply doesn’t play the same political game that has become rote in the establishment of the Democratic Party.
Take 3: So woke it hurts
This brings me to the final take, in which the dust-up over comedian, actor, and podcaster Joe Rogan’s endorsement of Sanders demonstrates the dead end of liberal identity politics when it comes to building big tent coalitions that can win national elections and push real progressive change. Reaction to Rogan’s endorsement, and the Sanders campaign’s public touting of this endorsement, was immediate and predictably hypocritical, moralistic, and self-defeating. I don’t listen to Rogan’s podcast, but millions of other people do, and they are an eclectic group, as you might imagine more than 15 million people to be. But very quickly, official Twitter painted Rogan as racist, misogynistic, and transphobic, and blasted Sanders for accepting and elevating his endorsement. He may very well be all those things, but there is no necessarily transitive property in a celebrity endorsement – just because Rogan endorsed Sanders, this does not mean that Sanders endorses everything Rogan has ever said or done. When Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, the Democratic Party tossed around for explanation, and has desperately sought to win back the “white working class” voters who abandoned them over the last generation and followed the siren song of Trump’s immigrant bashing and false economic promises (caveat: Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote in 2016, but that is, unfortunately, not how the presidency is decided, soooo … adjust your strategy and think about what might actually build a voting base strong enough to avoid a repeat of that Electoral College disaster). Yet there is no uniform “white working class” and the hand-wringing over Rogan’s endorsement shows the party doesn’t really care about that anyway. Not because his audience is limited to white and working class voters (it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination), or because they actually stay up nights worrying that some celebrity is transphobic or misogynistic, but because the appeal of something like Medicare For All or erasure of student debt encourages a widening of the Democratic tent and a solidarity among all those under it.
This runs counter to the tendency toward fragmentation of the voting base and emphasis on social wedge issues. There has been progress on some of these issues, such as marriage equality, but the centrist bloc at the party’s core has made little or no progress on building and mobilizing a mass movement for concrete, material change for the public good. Yes, yes, the Affordable Care Act and so on. That’s largely a failure. Student and medical debt remain life-crushing burdens for millions, but why win an election and fight for something big when you can wokescold some boomers on Twitter and then forget every single thing anyone ever said about “intersectionality” in favor of purity tests on social questions that are then used to undermine the one candidate who is actively gaining momentum and polls well against Trump across a broad range of demographics and states? And really, what could be more intersectional than access to education and health care? Demands that Sanders downplay or reject the endorsement of someone like Joe Rogan are, in this sense, political idiocy, played for retweets and virtue signalling online. But because these groups and individuals want to play the election as a branding game and cannot see movement politics when it’s right in front of them, they have very little effect on how the wider electorate thinks. And it plainly shows the limits of liberal thinking and strategy and the hypocritical moralizing of centrists and woke liberals, unable and unwilling to find common ground with people who might hold incoherent, inchoate, or problematic views on a lot of issues. As more concentrated attacks on Sanders ramp up with the Iowa caucuses just a few days away, it isn’t too much of a stretch to wonder if the DNC and woke liberals on the internet would not prefer four more years of Trump to Sanders winning anything, even if it means alienating a generation of young voters and erasing the broad and diverse base of support that Sanders has built among working people and across a wide range of social dividing lines.