Politics & Media
Aug 05, 2019, 05:55AM

Twitter is the Burn Book in Politics

Prejudice has its own Mean Girls relationship.

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Over the past few weeks, as the feud between Nancy Pelosi and four freshmen congresswomen spilled into the public realm, I was reminded of Mean Girls, the 2004 film about rivalries among teenage girls. But when Donald Trump inserted himself, there was no doubt who’d prove to be the biggest mean girl of all. The film tells the story of Cady (pronounced Katie), a student who had been home-schooled by her biologist parents in Africa. This fish-out-of-water narrative gives us an outsider's view as Cady enters an affluent American high school. At first, she befriends art geeks Janis and Damian, but when popular princess-type Regina takes an interest, Cady is thrust into a rivalry she likens to wild animals battling for dominance. Janis sees Regina's budding friendship with Cady as an opportunity for revenge over a middle school grudge.

Among Democrats, there’s a grudge match playing out between liberals and progressives. In the past 50 years, whenever Democrats have suffered big losses, their response has usually been to shift a little more to the right. In the 1980s, party leaders like Gary Hart aimed to end the New Deal, embrace new technology, and win the white-collar vote. This was made manifest by Bill Clinton's administration, which was planning to privatize Social Security if the Monica Lewinsky scandal hadn't broken the week before Clinton was set to make the announcement. This is the version of the Party that Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi have spent their careers in, and that a newer generation of more progressive Democrats are rebelling against.

Initially the Squad, made up of four freshman Democratic congresswomen (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib), has a little too much in common with the Plastics, the popular clique led by Regina. The initial plan of revenge begins with Cady going undercover with the Plastics, and then reporting their activities back to Janis. Spending enough time with them leads to Cady becoming intoxicated by the attention: "Being with the Plastics was like being famous... people looked at you all the time and everybody just knew stuff about you."

The members of the Squad have similarly become social media darlings. In particular, Ocasio-Cortez has been adept at using Twitter and Instagram to share her own fish-out-of-water narrative of being a very young, underdog candidate elected to Congress. There was some genuine civic interest, as she walked her followers through the process of Congressional orientation. Similarly, Omar's story of being a child refugee growing up to be elected to Congress made for a compelling story in the face of a presidency enacting draconian immigration policy. They proved capable of clapping back at conservative critics, but like Cady, they became intoxicated by the attention. And like the Plastics, the Squad quickly became enamored with their own undeserved influence, leading up to the fight with Pelosi over immigration policy.

The impression I've developed of the Squad is that they when they arrived in Congress, they wanted to be welcomed as heroes before they'd accomplished anything. The 2018 midterms ushered a new class that's much closer to the actual demographics of the country, but identity isn't everything. More specifically, when Ocasio-Cortez told The New Yorker that she turned down an appointment to a climate change committee, it seemed like a strange decision for someone championing the Green New Deal. She turned it down because the committee failed her purity test—it didn't have subpoena power, and, according to her, members wouldn’t agree to refuse fossil fuel money. Ocasio-Cortez then quips that she's been assigned to two of the busiest committees, plus four subcommittees, "So my hands are full. And sometimes I wonder if they're trying to keep me busy." According to the transcript, she's laughing as she says this, but it sounds arrogant. In contrast, Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, the only Latina elected to Congress in 2016, has said that she found Pelosi helpful in navigating committee assignments.

When Cady is introduced to the secret world of the Plastics, she learns of the Burn Book, a scrapbook of gossip and complaints about peers and teachers. It acts as a way to collect dirt on people, but also a stress release valve. After an unpleasant lecture from her math teacher, Gretchen, one of the lesser Plastics, encourages Cady to "let it out" in the Burn Book. When Regina figures out that Cady had been scheming behind her back, she takes her revenge by dumping photocopies of the Burn Book's contents all over the school, leading to chaos and rioting.

Twitter is the Burn Book in real world politics. Trump uses the medium as a release valve and to engage in idle gossip that he treats like facts. But mostly, as an insatiable narcissist, he uses Twitter to get an attention fix. When he made his racist argument against the Squad—that they should go back to where they came from—he seemed just as motivated to get his name back in the headlines as he was by racial animus.

Similarly, Omar garnered more attention for tweets that were perceived as anti-Semitic than for any policy initiatives. Pelosi chastised her for engaging in anti-Semitic tropes, and led the House to vote to condemn anti-Semitism, even though Omar wasn't specifically named. In addition, Tlaib's remarks on the Holocaust are bizarre, even in their full context. Both have been vocal in their support of BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, which the House has formally renounced. As accusations of anti-Semitism against the Squad persist, their most consistent response has been a variation of "how dare you!" while offering half-baked apologies at those taking offense. The end result is an unfortunate ambiguity, where I can’t conclude that Omar and Tlaib are not anti-Semitic. A big part of the problem is that the discussion around Israel has become so toxic that it requires a depth of knowledge to not come off sounding like an anti-Semite or Islamophobe. So far, no one in the Squad has shown that they are up to that task. Then again, neither has Trump.

Prejudice has its own Mean Girls relationship. One of the overlooked aspects of Regina's villainy is her homophobia. At one point, she confides to Cady that she was once friends with Janis. In Regina's telling, when she gets her first middle school boyfriend, Janis becomes so jealous that Regina concludes Janis must be a lesbian. Based on this, Regina begins to ostracize Janis, until the latter becomes an outcast with an ax to grind.

As Janis' grudge motivates her to instigate some of Cady's behaviors, there has been some suggestion that Ocasio-Cortez's former chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, is a similarly instigating presence. Working in San Francisco's tech sector, he was stunned by the "dystopian" class divide, and after observing Bernie Sanders’ 2016 run for president, made the decision to engage in politics. Founder of the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, Chakrabarti would have a role in recruiting or endorsing the Squad's 2018 congressional campaigns. He's described his long-term goals as "getting corporate money out of politics, tackling climate change, transforming the economy, providing healthcare for all, standing for racial justice and stemming mass incarceration."

Playing a role in the writing of the Green New Deal bill, he made the mistake of revealing too much to The Washington Post: "The interesting thing about the Green New Deal is it wasn't originally a climate thing at all... Do you think of it as a climate thing? Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing?"

With this quote, Chakrabarti made the enterprise appear duplicitous. For their part, conservatives who deny climate change saw this as confirmation that the Green New Deal is one big power grab and nothing more. Like Trump, he's also used Twitter as a tool for weaponizing petty vendettas, calling supporters of emergency border funding "new Southern Democrats." He also singled out Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids, the first LGBT Native American woman elected to Congress, saying, "I don't think people have to be personally racist to enable a racist system." The House Democrats responded on Twitter: "Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color? Her name is Congresswoman Davids, not Sharice. She is a phenomenal new member who flipped a red seat blue. Keep Her Name Out Of Your Mouth." All of this came just after Pelosi gave her "do not tweet" speech in a closed-door meeting.

In Mean Girls, there's a small exchange between the principal and the math teacher that I've always liked. After the release of the Burn Book and its subsequent rioting, the educators have corralled all the girls to the gym to make sense of the situation. Incredulous, the principal asks, "There has to be something you can say to these young ladies? Something to help them with their self-esteem?" The math teacher replies, "It's not a self-esteem problem, I think they're all pretty pleased with themselves." What I've always appreciated about that response is how it strips away the reflexive victimhood that women often hide behind when called out on their bad behavior.

The infighting among Democrats came to a head after the Squad voted against a bipartisan immigration funding bill that had passed in the Senate. Omar and Ocasio-Cortez wanted to add humanitarian restrictions to the bill (stronger than the ones already in place), while Pelosi and moderate Democrats decided to press forward with a vote. The Huffington Post described it as "the official Democratic Party response to the Trump administration abusing immigrant children is to give more money to the agencies the Trump administration relies on to abuse immigrant children." The Squad were four of 18 Democrats who voted against it, and it probably would’ve been seen as a bipartisan victory if it weren’t for the attention they brought to it. It exposes an ugly side to pragmatic politics, in that if Omar and Ocasio-Cortez had gotten their way, the bill would’ve had to go back for Senate approval. As it is, progressives have made a strange habit out of complaining about Pelosi as though Mitch McConnell doesn't exist. Pelosi expressed her frustration to The New York Times: "All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world, but they didn't have any following. They're four people and that's how many votes they got."

Pressley would call Pelosi's remarks "demoralizing," Ocasio-Cortez went a step further: "But the persistent singling out… it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful… the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color." It rang hollow to a lot of liberals, not to mention confirming to conservatives that progressives are flippant with their accusations of racism. To me, it was on par with Gretchen telling the principal, "I don't think my father, the inventor of toaster strudel, would be too pleased to hear about this." Pelosi's record doesn't support their charges; they were eventually walked back. Trump's Twitter tantrums have united Democrats, especially as "send her back" is becoming the new "lock her up." Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez had another meeting to finally put the friction behind them. The Speaker said: "The congresswoman is a very gracious member... I've always felt... just like you're in a family and in a family you have your differences, but you're still family."

Towards the end of Mean Girls, after Cady's role in the Burn Book is revealed and she’s become a social pariah, she has an epiphany. In the sudden death round of a Mathlete tournament, her thoughts jump to criticizing her opponent's appearance—messy hair and makeup, ill-fitting clothes. But Cady realizes that "calling somebody else fat won't make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn't make you any smarter. And ruining Regina George's life definitely didn't make me any happier. All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you."

Benjamin Franklin liked to share a story from his youth. After working for several months in a Philadelphia print shop, he returned to his hometown of Boston, filled to the brim with bravado over his good fortune. While bragging to a former rival, he walked face-first into a low ceiling beam. Franklin would describe the lesson as learning to avoid "misfortunes brought upon people by carrying their heads too high." Like Cady, he learned at a young age when to check his ego and get on with his work. It's a shame too many of our politicians still haven't learned. Ocasio-Cortez's signature bill, the Green New Deal, remains buried in committee. Both Pelosi and Trump ran on lowering prescription drug prices. In a perfect world, two adult civil servants should be able to put their differences aside and make a deal that benefits everyone. 


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