An Introduction to the Weird and Wild World of Leftist Twitter

In the age of Trump, Twitter has become an important medium for political discussion, especially for the far left. Rife with inside jokes and devoid of punctuation, leftist Twitter is often convincing, occasionally problematic, and almost always surreal. Prominent leftist accounts include @pixelatedboat (whose avatar is, you guessed it, a pixelated picture of a boat), @KrangTNelson (A double-reference to “Coach” actor Craig T. Nelson and Krang, the villain in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and @historyinflicks (his name is currently listed as “maple cocaine,” though it changes, and his bio reads “Former Editor-in-Chief at @nytimes,” though in reality he is a podcast host). Behind each of these quirky facades is a writer or thinker, and the digital world they inhabit is filled with complicated and often convincing political arguments about liberalism and the left. There is real insight to be gleaned from this freakish collection of semi-anonymous voices. Yet leftist Twitter is also filled with asinine, reactionary vitriol. Rudeness prevails over civility and it doesn’t take long to find sexism and racism bubbling under the surface. Excitement for far-left politics has been growing ever since Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. The Democratic Socialists of America now has 30,000 members. Twitter provides a snapshot of the movement’s strengths and weaknesses.

Leftist Twitter levels compelling critiques of everything from capitalism as an ideology to specific members and practices of the Democratic Party establishment. Here, popular Twitter user @nefertizzy (a hip-hop-inspired play on the ancient Egyptian Queen, Nefertiti) reframes the debate about hunger around the failures of capitalism:

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Offering a perspective the mainstream media rarely covers, the tweet is able to express radical political thinking clearly and persuasively. Of course, the tweet also illustrates the shortcomings of the medium. Since it lacks a citations, there’s no guarantee its facts and figures are correct (though in this case they are). Additionally, tweets, short as they are, often cannot convey the whole picture of the complex ideas they articulate. Still, the tweet provides excellent food for thought to an unusually broad audience.

In another example, @KrangTNelson provides a pithy critique of capitalism by juxtaposing the headlines “Walmart’s Confederate Flag stand signals new corporate activism” and “Walmart removes Cosmopolitan from checkouts as conservative lobbyists celebrate.”

It’s hypocritical to be proud of “corporate activism” while simultaneously bowing to conservative lobbyists, and @KrangTNelson exposes this and thus makes an important point about the nature of large corporations. They really do just want your money.

Leftists also criticize the Democratic Party establishment. Here, @leyawn comments on the perceived disconnect between Hillary Clinton and the working class:  

The sardonic tweet provides insight into why many felt Bernie Sanders would have better connected with a broad coalition, while Clinton’s campaign felt geared towards wealthy political insiders.

In this thread, podcast host @RickyRawls (not his real name) makes observations about Obama and deconstructs his reputation as America’s coolest dad:

@RickyRawls goes on to predict, with alarming accuracy, many of the entries on this list. Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper all feature on Obama’s list. @RickyRawls specifically guessed that Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses Grant would be on the list, and it is. “He needs to diversify it with something white and alt-ish, so I’m guessing whoever is the new Coldplay or Arcade Fire is on there,” @RickyRawls tweeted, and indeed, the list features white alternative bands such as “The National” and “Portugal. The Man.”

It’s impossible to tell if @RickyRawls clicked on the list before he made his guesses. Regardless, the thread illustrates how Obama is not separate from the political machine. Obama was far more culturally literate than the average president and deserves immense credit for his ability to connect with voters based on that relatability, but these tweets are a reminder that, even for Obama, that vote-winning charm is to some degree manufactured and crowdsourced. Whether or not you believe that this type of authenticity matters, it’s rare to see Obama framed in this manner in conventional media, and it’s a topic worth thinking about in an era in which politics and celebrity are becoming more and more entangled. These tweets provide a snapshot of the best of the modern progressive movement.

Twitter is valuable for leftism because it’s a useful platform for debate but also because Twitter makes leftism much easier to find. Vast sums of progressive writing is available on the internet for people who go looking, but Twitter does the looking for you. Retweets and quote tweets fill Twitter timelines with content from people the user doesn’t necessarily follow, reducing the barrier for encountering new ideas. I read Politico for years and it never lead me to Jacobin Magazine. I made a Twitter and followed Chris Hayes and soon found myself surrounded by dedicated leftists.

Many of the most prominent leftist Twitter accounts are filled not only with politics but also with absurdist, apolitical humor. Consider these tweets from @pixelatedboat:

Attracting people with humor is an effective way of exposing them to ideas they wouldn’t otherwise encounter. The bizarro-world aesthetic of the leftist Twitter-verse is part of the appeal. Come for the jokes, stay for the radical progressivism. Donald Trump is president — consuming political discourse in the form of sentence fragments from a progressive pixelated boat feels strangely appropriate. Leftism is a growing movement, and Twitter has been and will continue to be an indispensable tool for the movement. Twitter can convey the movement’s subversive, irreverent spirit as well as its most important ideas. It extends leftism to wide new audiences.

Yet for all its virtues, leftist Twitter also showcases problems the leftist movement must still iron out. Leftism must find a way to blend political correctness with effective discourse, and that grappling is on plain view in the leftist Twitterverse.

Some of leftist Twitter’s most prominent figures are the hosts of the podcast Chapo Trap House, a vulgar, sarcastic, and wildly successful podcast that mocks and derides conservatives and centrist liberals alike. “We might come to think about Chapo as the voice of a new left, the millennial left, coming into being,” wrote Andrew Hartman for the Washington Post. Centrist liberals are terrified of Chapo. The Guardian, entirely unfairly, called them “leftwing Breitbart.

Chapo Trap House (named for the Mexican drug lord and slang term for drug house) is hosted by four men and a woman. A common accusation leveled against Chapo and the rest of the self-defined “dirtbag left” is sexism. Since the presidential election there has been an ongoing debate within the left about “brocialism” — the centrist, Clinton-supporter line says that modern Democratic Socialism is practiced mostly by white men who espouse a love of leftist principles while actually being motivated by sexism against Clinton.

This argument infuriates white male leftists, but the behavior of Chapo and their fans is emblematic of larger problems the movement has faced. “I’m a socialist, but I’ve definitely been the victim of sexist Chapo fans getting mad at me on Twitter, and it makes your life fucking hell,” a female leftist writer told Vox. “My unfortunate tactic is don’t say anything negative about Chapo people…because it’s not worth the shit you get.”

Here is Felix Biederman, one of the hosts of Chapo, calling Rachel Maddow a school child while making an incoherent joke about the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax break for low-income families:

Sexism isn’t the only issue raising eyebrows amongst observers of the dirtbag left. Here is Biederman throwing around derogatory language towards people with mental disabilities while discussing America’s concept of patriotism:

If these are the voices of the millennial left, then the movement has a long way to go before it becomes truly inclusive for a broad audience. In the generally uncensored climate of Twitter, Chapo have been afforded space to be unapologetic about their vulgarity. Amber A’Lee Frost, another host of the podcast, fears that political correctness will leave the left “handicapped by [its] own civility.” If removing slurs from your vocabulary impedes your political movement, then your movement needs to do some serious self-reflection.

Frost’s point has some merit: Focusing too much on semantics can cloud meaning and effectiveness. Model Chrissy Teigen commented on the phenomenon in a concise and funny tweet:

Over-emphasis on properness can be frustrating. However, Chapo and their followers have swung too far in the other direction. Their brand of no-holds-barred discourse has faced resistance, often with the characteristically absurdist humor of leftist twitter by and large:

Chapo aren’t the sole representatives of the leftist movement, online or off. Leftism as a whole isn’t hostile to marginalized groups — it’s a movement explicitly dedicated to equality, among other things. Chapo and the brocialists are incongruous to leftism. They are also prominent and influential. The left must find a way to capture the excitement that Chapo and others have created while purging the movement of the toxicity that Chapo revels in. It is possible to become overly concerned with semantics, but the answer is not crudity for crudity’s sake — especially not when sexism is a real problem in certain corners of the movement. Leftism, though growing, is still struggling to define itself, and that struggle is visible on Twitter.

Leftism has more energy than it has had in decades. Leftist Twitter shows what the modern leftist movement can be — irreverent, smart, subversive, subtle, a valuable counterweight to centrist party politics. But Twitter has a way of revealing people’s bad sides as well, and certain corners of leftist Twitter remain divided on crucial issues, at times veering into the plainly problematic. Leftist twitter shows a movement that has momentum, but it also shows the movement’s internal struggles and cleavages. The movement is gaining steam, and Twitter is a powerful tool, but there is still work to do.