Twitter and the Tanden Line of Incivility
A Biden nominee is in trouble over Twitter. No, we’re not talking about Neera Tanden, who once hoped to head up the Office of Management and Budget; she withdrew her name from consideration on March 2, after her past tweets made her toxic.
This time it’s Colin Kahl, Biden’s pick to be undersecretary of defense for policy, the number-three job at the Pentagon. A March 10 headline in Politico told the tale: “Pentagon chief to urge Manchin to support nominee amid Twitter troubles.”
If we unpack that a little bit, the “Pentagon chief” is Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, urging Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to vote to confirm Kahl to the high post, Kahl’s noxious tweets notwithstanding. Since the Senate is divided 50:50, Republicans and Democrats, the Biden administration can’t afford to lose a single Democrat.
Kahl is a veteran of the Obama administration—where he focused on the controversial Iran nuclear deal—and so he can’t plead naiveté about Twitter, as well as other social media. And yet tweet he did; Kahl once jabbed that Republicans were “the party of ethnic cleansing.” Nice.
The GOP used to pride itself as a party that put values front and center in US foreign policy.
Now—as they debase themselves at the alter of Trump—they are the party of ethnic cleansing. https://t.co/FNssbkxPQd
— Colin Kahl (@ColinKahl) October 24, 2019
Not surprisingly, people noticed. Back on March 4, another headline in Politico laid it out: “Republicans rip Pentagon policy pick over past tweets, Middle East policies.” As the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “Another Biden nominee with a record of intemperate tweets is at risk of sinking in the Senate, and the press is comparing him to Neera Tanden.”
As Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said on Fox News earlier this month, “I’ve seen some [of Kahl’s] tweets and they are concerning.” And yet, Manchin added, offering a ray of light to Kahl, “His tweeting is nowhere near what Neera Tanden’s was.”
So we can see: Neera Tanden has become a baseline for confirmability; we can dub it the Tanden Line of Incivility (TLI). That is, all ambitious Beltway types must stay above the TLI. And so maybe it’s worth spending a little time plumbing the psyche of Tanden, the first person to plunge below the TLI.
Tanden, a longtime Democratic operative, was nominated by Biden to be director of the Office of Management and Budget on November 30. And yet immediately, that same day, close observers speculated that her nomination might be doomed, because the senators she insulted wouldn’t vote for her.
Despite her difficulties, Tanden is tight with Team Biden, and so they kept pushing her, even as opposition hardened. For instance, when Sen. John N. Kennedy (R-LA) asked Tanden about her mean tweets—she called the mild-mannered Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) “the worst,” labeled the partisan but courtly Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as “Voldemort,” and also dumped on Sen. Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont—Tanden said she was sorry. And yet when Kennedy asked her if she meant them at the time, she wouldn’t answer. We get the picture.
Thus the New York Times headlined its story on February 25, “Neera Tanden: First Cabinet-Level Casualty of the Twitter Age?” As the article explained, Tanden “has a years-long trail of problematic tweets, many aimed at certain key senators who control the increasingly precarious fate of her nomination.” (We might surmise that Tanden’s angry tweets bespeak an overall angry personality; the New York Times reported in 2019 that she once punched Sanders’ future campaign manager—although Tanden says it was just a shove.)
We might step back and observe that this is the same Senate that has confirmed many other Biden nominees, some by margins as wide as 93:2.
Late in the process, the Bidenites tried to “work the refs”—that is, to persuade the media that Tanden is the victim of sexism, or racism—and yet that tactic, too, fell flat, blasted by the left, as well as by the right.
So now Tanden has been humiliated in that most merciless of public arenas, Washington, D.C. After years of happy rage-tweeting, she said she was sorry, albeit in an unpersuasive manner; and yet she still didn’t get the top government position she craved. So she deleted, even canceled, herself—all for naught.
For years, Tanden was happy with leaving all those nasty tweets on the record; she was obviously proud of her zinger-work, which had gained her 381,000 followers.
Interesting, Tanden’s tweet-storms have been a juicy D.C. story for years; back during the 2016 presidential campaign, an interviewer took note of her hyperactive digital support for Hillary Clinton, often venturing into personal insults aimed at opponents: “You’ve been an unusually combative presence on Twitter for the Hillary side.” To which Tanden answered. “I probably tweet too much. . . . I will plead guilty to wanting to defend her and defend her strenuously on Twitter. But I’m willing to concede I should tweet less.”
Yet even so, she did not tweet less. She kept it up, such that in 2019, at the end of a long tweet-bout, the other individual, obviously exasperated and bemused at the same time, tweeted, “neera, you’re responding to a graduate student on twitter at 1:40 am. spare me the bullshit. you are affected.”
neera, you’re responding to a graduate student on twitter at 1:40 am. spare me the bullshit. you are affected.
— hannah gais (@hannahgais) March 1, 2019
Yes, Tanden is affected, that’s putting it softly. As a close ally of Tanden, John Podesta, conceded to the Washington Post, “I kind of think there were moments where she would have been better off asleep, rather than getting up in the middle of the night, responding to people attacking her.”
Someone who loses sleep to tweet might make for an interesting case study, focusing on perhaps the interplay of one’s mental state and digital technology: Are the two factors reinforcing each other, causing a vicious cycle and thereby pushing some people into a psychological-digital maelstrom?
In fact, author Joanna Weiss has already produced a non-clinical, long-distance analysis of Tanden’s case. Weiss explains that Twitter has its own way of tempting you into provocative tweets—and then turning on you. Indeed, scientists know that a tweet induces the brain to secrete a tiny bit dopamine, a pleasurable neurochemical. And since it’s so easy to tweet, it’s well, easy to become obsessed with, or even addicted to, this kind of pleasure.
And anger helps, too. As one researcher puts it, if grievance is a form of addiction, then one’s brain on grievance looks a lot like one’s brain on drugs. So it’s a loop: the angrier you get, the more chemically altered your brain gets, and that, in turn, gives you more anger–which can be a perversely good feeling.
In fact, the realization that there’s a chemical basis for human emotions puts one of Tanden’s notorious tweets—her 2017 jibe that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AL) was “high on her on supply”—in an ironic perspective. Tanden’s dig about “high” should properly apply to Tanden herself.
Author Weiss quotes one expert as saying that the internet functions like “the world’s largest slot machine.” Indeed, one is reminded of a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, aptly entitled, “The Fever,” in which a once-normal man becomes addicted to a Las Vegas slot machine, which he calls “a monster with a will all its own.” The monster eventually causes the man’s death.
So now we can see Twitter as a 21st-century slot machine, and Tanden as an all-too-willing victim of what might be called Twitter Fever.
Furthermore, one needn’t sympathize with her to see, nonetheless, that there’s a larger phenomenon here; we humans are going to have to think more about how we can safely interact with digital technology, just as we have to think about our interactions with gambling, alcohol, drugs, and other temptations.
Still, as we ponder the phenomenon of people flaming away on Twitter, we might recall a scene in the 1982 sci-fi movie Blade Runner, in which the doomed Byronic hero, Roy Batty, is told, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.” So the moral for our time: Enjoy the dopamine-incandescence of Twitter, and of all social media, if you wish, but know that you’ll burn so hot that you won’t last long.
Of course, long before Twitter, men and women have sought fame, thirsting for what one historian has called “the frenzy of renown.” So now today, social media is simply the latest tool for gaining that renown.
With that in mind, we might think of the famous verdict on ambition rendered by the philosopher William James, who, back in 1906, decried the “moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success.”
The Terrible Temptation
Neera Tanden was a certain kind of success at Twitter. Yet that “success” made her into a politically flabby (this Democrat couldn’t win confirmation in a Democratic-controlled Senate) rumble-addict, ill-suited to public service. Now she won’t be in public service, or at least not in any job that requires the advice and consent of the Senate. Even if she does wind up working in the Biden administration somewhere, she’s a fallen star, a crashed idol.
Tanden was always much more ambitious–even vicious–than judicious. Yet now, after her quest for a certain kind success, Tanden has had her fateful rendezvous with the bitch-goddess.
Given the bewitching power of Twitter, and of all social media, she will hardly be the last. As we have seen, it’s now Colin Kahl’s turn to confront the bitch-goddess; the headline atop Defense News on March 17 (“Colin Kahl faces long climb to the Pentagon”) wasn’t so encouraging about his prospects.
Then, on March 23, Kahl got another jolt when Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) declared that she would not vote to confirm any more Biden nominees until her demands for more diversity were met–and apparently, Kahl doesn’t qualify as diverse. Duckworth soon backtracked on her threat, and yet Kahl’s nomination was still twisting in the wind, buffeted by new gusts of opposition.
Then, on March 25, Kahl survived a 13:13 vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee; among the “ayes” was Manchin, once thought to be a possible holdout. Still, normally a tie vote in committee means that a nomination does not go forward, but the majority Democrats, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), have the option of applying abnormal means to get him confirmed by the full Senate. And since it seems that the Dems are fully committed to Kahl, he will most likely squeak through. Still, Kahl must now be looking back at these tweets as a luxury that he shouldn’t have allowed himself.
And look! Here’s another Biden administration wannabe getting hung up by old tweets! Vanita Gupta, Biden’s nominee to be associate attorney general; last August, she tweeted of the Republican National Convention, “Don’t know if I can take three more nights of racism, xenophobia, and outrageous lies.”
Don't know if I can take three more nights of racism, xenophobia, and outrageous lies.
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) August 25, 2020
Does that sound like the right temperament for a top law enforcement job? Yet on March 12, the Washington Post rushed to Gupta’s defense with a piece headlined, “Vanita Gupta’s tweets aren’t even mean. The GOP is still attacking her for them.” And the headline added, “Republicans are going after Biden’s nominees just for telling the truth.” Got that? Telling the truth!
And here’s Kristen Clarke, Biden’s pick to be assistant attorney general for civil rights; she tweeted that Sen. Manchin was “hollow” and that Sen. Murkowski was “shameful.” Both tweets have since been deleted.
It’s hard to say that Kahl, or Gupta, or Clarke have crossed the dreaded Tanden Line of Incivility–and yet even if they are all three confirmed, it’s obvious that their tweets will put them in a hole from which they will have to dig their way out.
Obviously, it’s just too easy, and too tempting, to tweet–indeed, it’s too easy to see tweeting as succeeding. And so more confrontations with the bitch-goddess will come. Oh, and by the way: We should mention that the Biden administration has so far submitted 68 names to the Senate for confirmation, and of these, just 29 had been confirmed as of March 26.
So now the Biden administration must fill some 1,2000 more posts that are subject to Senate confirmation. So who else among the future batches of hopefuls has had a bout of Twitter Fever? Should be interesting to find out.