The Matt Bruenig Situation

This is a super geeky topic of discussion but I can write about what I want in this blog so here we go.

There have been a number of articles written about the Matt Bruenig situation over the last few days, and if one wishes to try and get the full back story it has been written about in POLITICO and by Matthew Yglesias over at Vox amongst a bunch of other places. Slate released a rather harsh piece on him. I’ll try and give the CliffNotes version below, but if you do want more specifics those should get you on your way.

Bruenig’s a leftwing policy blogger. One of the best ones I’ve come across. He blogged over at the progressive think-tank Demos and he has his own website to blog freely. Articulate argumentation backed with statistical evidence and passion-driven in his politics. He’s one of the 80 or so accounts I follow on Twitter. A number of the other accounts I follow are connected with him in some way in the progressive community.

As one may expect in the Twitterverse, politics can get pretty heated and Twitter is the perfect medium to stoke the flames. Bruenig engages in the tactic of tweeting at journalists who he deems to be hurting the left’s cause and it is often neoliberal, mainstream liberal thinkers that bear the brunt of his criticism. As the train of thought probably goes, with the right it’s really not worth trying to talk sense, but liberals should know better.

So Bruenig may proceed to tweet in a snarky manner, and if the journalist engages the accusations can get personal. Looking at the mentions, a legion of Twitter accounts sympathetic to Bruenig will usually swarm in on the mainstream journalist that Bruenig has called out for their hypocrisy, past policy positions, botched predictions, etc. The most recent instance that led to the fireworks in the left community involved The Nation’s Joan Walsh and the President of Center for American Progress’s Neera Tanden—widely speculated to assume the role of Chief of Staff in a Clinton Administration.

Again, numerous outlets have covered the specifics of these exchanges. They have always occurred with some regularity on progressive Twitter. Tense relationships have existed since Jacobinghazi and before even that. If you want to go down these rabbit holes, feel free.

The larger debate at hand here is how the left should proceed in policy debate with liberals that they feel are detrimental to actual progressive politics. Bruenig made it personal on Twitter, and the journalists he engaged with would be subjected to varying degrees of online harassment by his followers. This time, it cost Bruenig his blogging job at Demos as the outlet released a statement revealing that his conduct on Twitter did not align with the public policy organization’s.

Some will say Bruenig took his online tactics too far. He subjected a number of journalists to many unflattering tweets, personal attacks, and in some cases these would go as far as death threats accompanied by insinuations that these Twitter users knew where these journalists lived. This isn’t something that journalists should have to endure—regardless of what their alleged past positions may have been on welfare reform or how expensive of an apartment they reside in.

Others will say that this is typical status quo censorship on the grounds of ‘maintaining civility’. The idea is that those in power use the call for civility to stymie those that speak truth to power and to make those who could become sympathetic to the rebel reluctant to join a cause that is portrayed as vulgar or boorish. In other words, mainstream liberals gripe about Bruenig’s uncivil means of attack to distract everyone from the fact that his critiques of their hypocrisy are often times valid. Furthermore, Bruenig’s sympathizers and leftists in general will likely point to the fact that being particularly civil doesn’t actually yield positive results for the left. Adopting leftist causes entails dissidence insofar as if leftists refrain from dissenting then nothing will change.

This has been an interesting case to watch. Again, Bruenig and those of a similar political persuasion make up a significant portion of the few accounts I follow on Twitter. I have enjoyed his wife’s, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, contributions over the last few years in The New Republic and now at The Washington Post. The two of them account for 5% of the accounts I follow. They seem to be in it for the right reasons and their contributions are nuanced.

There is clearly a divide on the American left between its leftists and its liberals (the latter of which including neoliberals). Of course the difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have highlighted this divide, its brought all the good and not so good aspects of tribalism to the forefront, but this divide has existed well before this primary season. And with the rise of Twitter and everything else it won’t be going away.

What leftists will ultimately have to grapple with, as they always have frankly, is what is the best way to bring about progress. Is it to make these policy disagreements personal? By personalizing it they are able to show that this shit matters, in this particular case impoverishment and welfare policy do impact lives, and if you’re on the wrong side of it, even if you adopt the liberal label, you still should have to answer for it in front of the entire town (Twitter). Because if one doesn’t make it personal, the elite ignore you, and they’ll leave you hanging in the event that you ask to debate actual policy with them. Like Bernie, the leftist will simply be accused of being an idealist, and we all know how the wheel of patronization spins from there.

So where’s the line dividing the personal from the policy? And when is the leftist right to cross from policy into the personal in order to actually be heard? And then, once that line is crossed, where’s the next line within the personal? These aren’t simple questions and they don’t yield simple answers. Bruenig asked these questions, and the left is divided on the appropriate answers to them.

All of it harkens back to the age old question of how to make’s one voice heard from a position of subjugation. It’s a fascinating one indeed, and it’s not going away.

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