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Why does Ron Klain tweet?
Biden’s successful presidential campaign ignored Twitter, but his top White House aide is addicted to the platform. Why?
Amidst this week’s debates on the implications of Elon Musk buying Twitter, the best commentary we saw was on how elites’ addiction to the app goes all the way to the top of the White House:
Most notable for us is the sharp departure from Biden’s campaign — the success of which a top aide credited to the campaign team’s decision to disregard Twitter:
As Joel Wertheimer noted, Joe Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, is a famously active and vocal participant in the Twitterverse.
Why has a mindset that helped ensure candidate Biden connected authentically to the country been abandoned by the top lieutenant at the White House? Does Klain’s intense attunement to the elite emanations of the Twitterverse spell a problem for Democrats?
The data is clear just how different Twitter perspectives are from those of mainstream Americans (who increasingly appear alienated by the combative, far-left brand of the party that is on perpetual display on Twitter).
So we’ll say it: get off Twitter, Ron!
More on the problems with Twitter below, but first a few things our team was reading and discussing this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Julia Azari with a theory about why the “popularism” debate is so popular (it's about who really controls the Democratic Party):
“A tense, moving-target discourse about ‘popularism’ has centered on the observations of Democratic data analyst David Shor…
But much of this discourse takes internal Democratic dynamics as a given, and, in the wake of the complex 2020 nomination process and subsequent early months of the Biden presidency, they deserve a closer look. My argument is this: part of the reason that this debate has taken off and captured the interest of so many is that it gets at the ambiguity surrounding who has power in the Democratic party. I’m not trying to guess at Shor’s motivations or those of the people who’ve made him the center of this debate, but I think party politics are at least part of the reason that the debate has been so resonant and lasted so long.”
2. Tim Miller in The Bulwark on how recent events in San Francisco signal the revenge of the Obama Democrats:
“But even after the 2020 election, many Democrats still seemed to think Biden’s primary win was a one-off. Maybe, they figured, it was a fluke that reflected Democratic voters’ desire to find the most electable candidate to defeat the Bad Orange Man, not the voters’ actual preference for the old guard. The recent elections in San Francisco demonstrate that it might not have been the fluke they imagined.”
3. Blake Hounshell in the New York Times on the challenge of intensifying Democratic fatalism heading into the midterms:
“A sense of fatalism is setting in among many, with discussions centering increasingly on how to limit the party’s expected losses rather than how to gain new seats. In Arizona, for example, some Democrats are losing confidence that they will be able to flip the State House, a major target for national party strategists this year…
Not everyone is so pessimistic. But for those charged with solving the Democrats’ midterms conundrum, the question, increasingly, is: How many seats can they save? Control of the Senate is deadlocked at 50-50, and Democrats are clinging to a five-seat majority in the House. Few Democratic strategists expect to keep the House, but many remain hopeful about the Senate, where there’s far more room for candidates to burnish their own independent brands.”
Who is Twitter?
The media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously observed that “the medium is the message”. In other words, the design and functionality of a given communications technology directly molds the kinds of messages which are propagated through that technology. As the writer Will Leitch articulated last week, in the case of Twitter, we get:
“A service that is designed, specifically, to eliminate nuance and context from the conversation by limiting not only how many words you can use to describe a situation, but who is allowed to react to you.”
But who actually uses Twitter?
According to the most recent survey (from February of this year), just 23% of American adults have a Twitter account. Less than half (46%) of that 23% report using the platform on a daily basis. This means that fewer than 11% of Americans are daily participants in the Twitterverse.
According to an extensive 2019 survey conducted by Pew Research, “Twitter users are younger, more likely to identify as Democrats, more highly educated and have higher incomes than U.S. adults overall.” They’re also more likely to identify as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents than the general population of U.S. adults.
Oh, and Pew also estimates that 80% of the content posted on Twitter comes from the most engaged 10% of users on the platform.
As G. Elliott Morris pointed out last week, this makes it hard to treat Twitter as anything remotely resembling “the public square.” Instead, it’s more akin to the fulcrum of elite cultural capital. (Hence all the Twitter chatter across the media and on Twitter last week.)
Exposure for the White and Educated
Contrary to what many on the far-left assume, Twitter is not an egalitarian forum. In fact, it is quite the opposite. As Jonathan Chait wrote in a recent newsletter for New York Magazine:
“The New York Times studied this dynamic and found that Twitter magnifies the voices of disproportionately white college-educated liberals. It marginalizes the views of Black and non-college-educated voters.
This all became glaringly evident during the 2020 presidential primaries, when almost nobody on Twitter supported Joe Biden — until it turned out the Democratic Party electorate looked very different. That same dynamic has repeated itself in numerous elections that have exposed the vast gulf between the white college-educated simulacrum of the Democratic electorate on Twitter and the brick-and-mortar version.”
This dynamic mirrors the makeup of the far-left itself, which is whiter, richer, and more educated than the rest of the country.
Twitter Empowers the Fringes
How have the most prolific Tweeters made use of the platform?
In a much-discussed piece in The Atlantic a couple weeks ago, Jonathan Haidt offered a useful lens for making sense of how social media (especially Twitter) functions in the social context and how it has been disproportionately used.
In his words:
“A mean tweet doesn’t kill anyone; it is an attempt to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance, or tribal loyalties. It’s more a dart than a bullet, causing pain but no fatalities. Even so, from 2009 to 2012, Facebook and Twitter passed out roughly 1 billion dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since.”
Who picked up the dart guns?
“The ‘Hidden Tribes’ study, by the pro-democracy group More in Common, surveyed 8,000 Americans in 2017 and 2018 and identified seven groups that shared beliefs and behaviors. The one furthest to the right, known as the “devoted conservatives,” comprised 6 percent of the U.S. population. The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists,” comprised 8 percent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 percent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 percent.
These two extreme groups are similar in surprising ways. They are the whitest and richest of the seven groups, which suggests that America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of the broader society. What’s more, they are the two groups that show the greatest homogeneity in their moral and political attitudes.”
On the right, platforms like Twitter and Facebook helped consolidate the power of the authoritarian, conspiratorial extremists whose upside down dogmas have flooded the GOP and now threaten to dismantle our democracy.
Something different happened on the left:
“When the newly viralized social-media platforms gave everyone a dart gun, it was younger progressive activists who did the most shooting, and they aimed a disproportionate number of their darts at these older liberal leaders. Confused and fearful, the leaders rarely challenged the activists or their nonliberal narrative in which life at every institution is an eternal battle among identity groups over a zero-sum pie, and the people on top got there by oppressing the people on the bottom. This new narrative is rigidly egalitarian––focused on equality of outcomes, not of rights or opportunities. It is unconcerned with individual rights.”
And so each extreme feels empowered to pursue a narrow, homogenous agenda at the expense of alternative (and mainstream) perspectives. And the rest of the country loses out.
We’ve described “unpopularism” as being the opposite of the “popularism” approach: instead of pursuing winnable issues and stances with the broadest popular support, unpopularists tout slogans and agendas with fierce but narrow appeal among select segments of the electorate. If you are part of the elite 8% Americans who fall into the “progressive activist” bucket, there is strong appeal in “broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance, or tribal loyalties” to demonstrating superiority through adherence to stances that turn off the majority.
What Twitter’s impact ultimately boils down to is amplified unpoularism.
On the far-right, that unpopularism emerges in the form of reactionary authoritarianism, racism, and xenophobia. Donald Trump symbolizes this explosive style of politics — and the extent of his unpopularity was why he was denied a second term in office.
On the far-left, that unpopularism manifests as an amalgamation of fringe slogans (such as “Defund the Police” and “Abolish ICE”), stances (holding, for example, that capitalism is evil or that America is an inherently bad country), and moral righteousness that push away too many voters who would otherwise find themselves in the Democrats’ tent.
Democrats don’t win when they think along with (and speak to) homogeneous echo chambers of their most zealous and ideological supporters. They win when they mobilize big tent coalitions capable of uniting otherwise disparate constituencies.
Yet Twitter is a laboratory where unpopular, fringe views are spread as fact in insular, elite bubbles.
The platform is important because elites are addicted to it, and it shapes their worldview. But it’s certainly not a barometer of where the country itself stands.
Biden won by emanating a mindset that could appeal to the country as a whole, not just the online left. Biden’s team claimed after their victory that this was possible by completely rejecting this addiction. They did now allow the Twitterverse to mold their sense of reality. Biden’s White House team would be wise to remember that.
So we’ll say it once more: please get off Twitter, Ron!