Neera Tanden, the first American forced to withdraw from a cabinet-level nomination because of bad tweeting, has a winning scrappiness. The child of immigrants from India, Tanden experienced the vast social chasm of American life after her parents’ divorce when she was 5. She ended up splitting her childhood between her struggling mother, who on occasion relied on food stamps, and her well-to-do father, who lived in the suburbs.
From her mother, Tanden inherited a fighting spirit. She also possesses an ability, surely honed in her father’s house, to nimbly navigate the world of the affluent. That has served her well in her capacity as president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, where a large chunk of her job consists of drumming up money from corporations, business tycoons, and foreign autocrats.
Tanden’s mother, Maya, admitted to The New York Times that her daughter “can be very aggressive.” But it’s perhaps more accurate to say Tanden can be both aggressive and ingratiating, depending on the situation. She can be two-fisted when going after her political foes—especially on Twitter. As an unreconstructed Clintonian neoliberal, Tanden’s foes include Bernie Sanders–style social democrats as well as Trumpist Republicans. But there’s ample evidence that when she needs to turn on the charm to shake loose some donor money or win over a political ally, she can.
Tanden’s undoing as Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget came from the simple fact that the two sides of her persona are mismatched. The punchy tweeter is hard to reconcile with the tactful insider. It’s a striking fact that the decisive turn against her came not from the Democratic left (Sanders, who grilled Tanden about both her tweets and the corporate donations during her confirmation hearings, seemed willing to support her) but from the moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republicans like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins, who are known for welcoming Biden’s rhetoric of national unity.
These pillars of the status quo used Biden’s unity language against his own nominee. A spokesperson for Romney said that the Utah senator “believes it’s hard to return to comity and respect with a nominee who has issued a thousand mean tweets.”
As a ritual scapegoat offered up to expatiate the sins of partisanship, Tanden was in a real sense a victim of her own politics. Over the past four years, while abrasively critical of Trumpist Republicans, she also evoked the language of comity and civility. She’s very much been the voice—and face—of the ancien régime “resistance” that dreamed of returning the country to a state of bipartisan cooperation between never-Trump Republicans and moderate Democrats. The Center for American Progress often touts its ability to work with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute.
Tanden is a compulsive, incessant, unstoppable tweeter. Over the past decade, she’s posted more than 88,000 times on Twitter, which even at the old limit of 140 characters is enough to fill several Tolstoyan tomes. A Times profile recounted an evening in March 2019 when “Ms. Tanden feuded on Twitter with liberals over whether [Hillary] Clinton condemned far-right hate-mongers strongly enough more than two years ago. The online bickering raged for an hour…when the woman originally targeted by Ms. Tanden’s tweets delivered a wake-up call: ‘neera, you’re responding to a graduate student on Twitter at 1:40 am.’”
Even as it alienates establishment stalwarts like Manchin, Romney, and Collins, Tanden’s ferocious tweeting earned her the respect of some of her political foes on the left, whose grudging admiration for a talented enemy recalls that of Ulysses S. Grant for Robert E. Lee. Before she officially withdrew her nomination, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara tweeted, “A small part of every true veteran of the posting wars wanted to see Neera make it.”
Like many online left-leaning journalists, I’ve had my share of Twitter tussles with Tanden. While I vehemently disagree with her on much, I don’t think any of her posts were disqualifying—certainly not when compared with the truly vile tweets by Donald Trump, which Republican lawmakers so assiduously ignored throughout his administration. Tweeting, as Tanden did, that “vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz” is both funny and accurate. It shouldn’t cost anyone a job.
More problematic is the small brigade of online minions and digital attack dogs that Tanden has cultivated and encouraged, sharp-fanged creatures I like to call the Tanden Trolls. They often do overstep the bounds of decency. One Tanden Troll, described by her as “my friend,” called Sanders a “fucking fake Jew.” And after Tanden’s nomination was withdrawn, another troubled individual posted tweets insulting and threatening the children of New York Times writer Elizabeth Bruenig and her husband Matt, a think tank head, both of whom have tangled with Tanden in the past. While Tanden isn’t responsible for those threats, it’s undeniable that the drama she generates excites and unsettles lost souls.
Tanden’s Twitter habit is more than a hobby or a form of political branding gone awry. It’s a true addiction. Several in her circle have tried to stage an intervention. A Tanden friend told me that when he urged her to give up tweeting, she responded that this would only hand her foes a victory.
In his excellent polemic The Twittering Machine, the British journalist Richard Seymour lays out exactly how social media can take over a person’s life. “The Twittering Machine invites users to constitute new, inventive identities for themselves, but it does so on a competitive, entrepreneurial basis,” he writes. “It can be empowering for those who have been traditionally marginalized and oppressed, but it also makes the production and maintenance of these identities imperative, exhausting and time-consuming.”
Twitter allows us to play a role on a stage watched by millions, to become a hero in the drama of global debate. But there’s no worse fate for an actor than to confuse a performance for reality—and to let the role they play consume their real life.