There is a certain type of Twitter personality. He is a man. (Full disclosure, I am a man.) He has a blue checkmark, Twitter’s institutional marker that the accountholder is a person of some sort of nebulous socio-professional standing, usually in politics and media. (Full disclosure, I have a blue checkmark.) He probably works for NBC News, or writes for The Atlantic. He is conversant in what The Polls are saying, doing, moving, projecting. He uses the phrase “Trump Country” unironically to refer to huge swathes of America in which nearly half of the voters preferred someone else. He reads both the Times and the Post and has, therefore, a passing familiarity with those distant parts of the country, inaccessible by I-95, in which — at least according to the reporting — good hard-working folk do not spend all day posting snake emojis at Sen. Elizabeth Warren supporters and bellowing that the Democratic party is working even harder than the Republicans to undermine the socialist dream. “Twitter,” he will tell you, “is NOT real life.”
Ironically, these types are the most sensitive to online hurts, to pile-ons and flame wars and that-ain’t-it-chiefs, the most prone to melodramatically pack up their toys and leave when the taunts get too schoolyard, though they invariably come slinking back, like a dry drunk to the bar two weeks into his New Year’s resolution. Contrariwise, the irony-poisoned Extremely Online sorts who are the most frequent targets of this dismissal are all too aware that they are mostly howling into the void, although they are often sophisticated enough to understand that Twitter, among all the online spaces, is foremost a political media ecosystem inhabited by precisely the kinds of writers, cable personalities, campaign hacks, and beltway goons who do “move the conversation,” influence coverage, manage candidates, and manage — at least at the margins — some portion of the political media writ large.
But over the last couple of weeks, owing in large part to a ginned-up Warren-Sanders recrimination cycle, even this gang — the so-called dirtbag left; the smart-ass shit-posters and ardently serious socialist organizers alike — proved capable of getting very mad online indeed, in part because they are not nearly so irony-poisoned as this popular portrayal of them would have you believe. Quite the opposite: the ardent lefties of online are, despite all their in-jokes and deliberate vulgarity, almost desperately earnest. And would you blame them? The world is pretty fucked up right now; the left is far from power; and its paths to get to power are narrow and rare.
The genesis of the contretemps is almost comically cynical. Perhaps because Warren was declining in the polls, or at least no longer advancing, and her chances in Iowa were looking increasingly poor, or perhaps because some in her campaign genuinely dislike Sen. Bernie Sanders and wish to see him fail regardless of the success or failure of their own candidate, someone in her campaign — er, someone presumably in her campaign — went to the press last week with a story to shock the liberal conscience in these fractious, parlous times. Bernie Sanders, saintly Bernie Sanders, the irascible but uncompromising socialist grouch now leading, or nearly leading, the Democratic pack, had told Elizabeth Warren to her face that a woman could never be president. Or perhaps it was that a woman could not be president now. Or perhaps that a nation sufficiently sexist to elect Donald Trump was not yet capable of electing a woman.
The ardent lefties of online are, despite all their in-jokes and deliberate vulgarity, almost desperately earnest.
But Sanders flatly denied it, and Warren coyly confirmed it without ever saying what precisely was said, and the mainstream news media leaned into the story, which became a controversy, a tiff, a spat. They ambushed Sanders at the debate and then fanned the controversy further the next day with hot-mic audio of a tense post-debate exchange between the two candidates that the network quite mysteriously discovered the following day.
Sanders’s supporters had theretofore fallen into two broad camps. There were those who — like the Senator himself — were inclined to view Warren magnanimously, as a convenient and useful ally and a legitimate second choice, even if she was and remains less radical and more procedural, more liberal, in her political ideology and her tactical “plans.” But there was also another strident camp, that long before this ginned-up sexism brouhaha warned that Warren had the heart of a capitalist (hadn’t she said as much herself?) and the typical liberal lack of a spine on the polestar issues of socialized medicine and an end to American imperialism abroad.
The Warren campaign’s decision, then, to make this claim now, in the 11th hour of an Iowa campaign that she, perhaps more than any other candidate, absolutely must win to have any foreseeable path to the party’s nomination, struck everyone in the Sanders-or-bust camp and not a few of his more conciliatory supporters as well as the sleaziest sort of sell-out and betrayal. Their anger was swift, vicious, and brutal. It was also almost entirely online.
Twitter is real life, in the same sense that a newspaper, an argument over a beer, a baseball game, or a parking lot is real life — that is to say, a small slice of it, a bit, a snatch of conversation, a reflection glanced in a restroom mirror. It is not, however, some kind of universal Althing, some gathering of the notables in a snowy field to decide the fate of the country. If it occasionally affects the way the people who make the news make the news, then it does so exceedingly rarely. It is a boon for writers like me, who have found in it a useful tool for promoting our work and publishing the fleeting bon mots that our girlfriends and boyfriends and husbands and wives are too sensible to find funny. It is the world’s biggest, stupidest, never-ending dinner party, whose Godot-like host will never arrive. Twitter is real, but it doesn’t matter.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Warren-Sanders sexism squabble (forgive me, I am running out of dismissive synonyms) was the biggest, meanest, maddest conversation online for several days. But I found that it did not, would not, could not penetrate my brain. I am a Sanders supporter and a Warren skeptic — though I tend to be in the more conciliatory faction in that regard — but I could not rouse myself to care in the slightest. It was all fireworks and no bombs, not a controversy but a media maquette of a controversy, an image of a thing and not a thing itself. No one whose mind was already made up was going to change it now, and no one whose mind was as yet lost in the cornfields awaiting the whisper of angels to tell them which way to vote was going to be moved by this or interpret it as anything other than “politics as usual” — if, that is, any of them were even paying attention.
Twitter is not some kind of universal Althing, some gathering of the notables in a snowy field to decide the fate of the country.
On Sunday, The New York Times announced its own primary endorsement. Sort of. After an interminable, will-she-or-won’t-she, Bachelorette build-up in which each candidate was hauled into the video confessional to answer the by turns rotely serious and cloyingly personal questions of a cartoonishly smug panel of self-regarding editorial-board bigshots, the Times punted, as in retrospect we should have known they would. They endorsed Warren, while intimating that she kind of sucks, and they also endorsed Klobuchar, for no particular reason other than to express a condescending pro-lady attitude. Any lady, really, except Tulsi Gabbard, who escaped their notice. Meanwhile, they scoffed that Sanders was mean and could not brook compromise.
This only caused further wailing and gnashing online, although frequently cloaked in resigned declaration that newspaper endorsements — this one in particular — do not matter. In deciding to endorse two women, one of whom has been circling the drain for months now, failing to generate the slightest enthusiasm or popular support, the Times appeared to be staking out a position purely to prove that it believed a woman — again, never mind which — could win, or at least, should win.
There is a kind of catharsis in getting mad online, in shouting down the legacy voices in the media and the various party apparatchiks who also can’t manage to log off. But it is a hollow form of release, and it will drive you mad. I am the gray-templed end of the Millennial generational cohort, and I have been online since I started pretending to be a girl so I could experiment with talking sexy to boys as a not-yet-sure-he-was-gay kid in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in the terrible ’90s. I have been through every stupid iteration of the popularly available internet. I have posted on forums, and Lord help me, I was a blogger.
The internet has always been the coward’s antidote to the esprit d’escalier, the place where you say all the things you were too scared or too slow-witted to say in person. That’s great! But that is also the reason it is essential to cultivate an actual ironic distance from its roiling, oceanic, ever-changing arguments: a healthy detachment — not indifference, but maybe a kind of disinterest. Ask yourself: How would I explain this conversation to my mother, who does not use Twitter? Permit yourself, from time to time, not only not to know what everyone is talking about, but not even to try to find out.