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Note | This post has been revised and updated. See below for details.
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On Twitter last night, lefty blogger Matt Bruenig got into a thing with Joan Walsh of The Nation, accusing her of intentionally misrepresenting the demographics of Bernie Sanders’ voter support. In the course of that attack (on the substance of which I mostly agree with Bruenig), he referred to her as both “geriatric” and ageist, and to her expressed views as “disgusting” and “pathetic.”
While Bruenig was working himself into that lather, Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress @-ed Walsh in sympathy, at which point Bruenig turned his sights on her. Calling her “Scumbag Neera,” he said that Tanden had “worked to starve my mother of cash assistance,” that she “uses welfare when she needs it then takes away from others when they need it,” and that she “tried to starve me and my mother because she wanted to be in Democratic politics.” When challenged on this, he said he was referring to Tanden’s welfare reform advocacy in the 1990s.
Tanden said on Twitter last night that she’d never done welfare policy work, to which Bruenig replied that he was talking about her public statements in support of it. That’s a real stretch, since he’d previously claimed she’d “worked to starve [his] mother,” and that she’d “take[n welfare] away from others” — those are allegations that she had been involved in welfare reform directly, not just cheering from the sidelines.
And this secondary claim—that Tanden had spoken publicly in favor of Clinton-era welfare reform—appears to be without basis. The one bit of evidence Bruenig has offered for it is a quote from a podcast in which Tanden told Ezra Klein that “welfare reform is really about ensuring every child has opportunity.” But here’s the context for that quote—Tanden had just finished (at 7:26) telling Klein how important public assistance had been to her and her mother when she was growing up, and that led to this exchange:
Klein: Do you think the welfare system as it exists now in its post-reform era would have played the same role for your family?
Tanden: Well, you know, my mother was on welfare three years. My own view of welfare is that welfare reform is really about ensuring that every child has opportunity. It’s not really about the parents. So I worry about a system that puts kids in worse positions because of the decisions that their parents make. I mean, there are a lot of people who have parents who are not fully functional, and we have a system that decides to in some ways disadvantage kids because of the decisions their parents make, and I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
It strikes me as absolutely clear that Tanden is here using the term “welfare reform” to refer to the principles that should guide welfare policy, not in reference to welfare as it exists, and that the rest of her remarks are an explicit criticism of the ways in which welfare policy has changed since she was a child. Welfare, she says, should be a mechanism for helping kids, not punishing parents for bad choices, and to “disadvantage kids because of the decisions their parents make … doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
One can criticise elements of Tanden’s argument here. But to suggest that these comments represent support for “starv[ing]” mothers on welfare, for “tak[ing] away” public support from women in need? That’s just false. It’s imputing a meaning to her words that’s the direct opposite of what they say. (If Bruenig has other evidence to support his claims, he should present it. I’ve gone looking on his timeline and on Google and this is all I’ve found.)
This isn’t the first time that Matt Bruenig has been criticized for his attacks on prominent people, and when such criticism has come in the past he’s often framed it — and rejected it — as a mealy-mouthed, hypocritical call for “civility.” But civility is not what’s at stake here. We can debate when snark turns into abuse and when vitriol becomes harassment (and whether Bruenig tends to aim his flamethrower disproportionately at women). But we don’t have to reach any of those questions here, because Bruenig has presented no evidence to support his claims.
To call someone “geriatric” in the same breath in which you accuse them of ageism is obtuse and unhelpful. But to bring accusations against someone on the basis of a statement that explicitly repudiates the position you accuse them of holding?
That’s just wrong. And it’s fundamentally incompatible with either serious political debate or good-faith movement building.
Update | Demos has announced that Bruenig will no longer be blogging for them, saying that “Matt has been at the center of controversies surrounding online harassment of people with whom he disagrees” — controversies that Demos was largely unaware of until today. It appears that they asked him to tone down his rhetoric on Twitter, he declined, and they’ve let him go.
August Update | Evidence has recently emerged that seems to give some support to the contention that Tanden was involved in welfare reform work in some capacity subsequent to the law’s passage in 1996. She was cc’ed on some materials on the subject in 1998, and welfare reform architect Bruce Reed was recently recorded saying that “she was obviously involved in the implementation.” (The question he was recorded responding to is ambiguous, but Zaid Jilani, who asked it, says he was asking about welfare reform specifically. Tanden subsequently posted what she said was an email from Reed saying that she didn’t start at the White House until after the welfare reform law was passed and that “she didn’t work on it when she got there,” however, and it doesn’t look like Reed has chosen to clarify things further. Make of all that what you will.)
None of this goes to the question of the interpretation of the Ezra Klein interview, of course, and it’s not more than suggestive on the question of what Tanden actually did at the White House. But ambiguous evidence is more evidence than no evidence, which is what was available when I wrote this post.
In my original post, I wrote that “all the evidence indicates that Bruenig’s attacks on Tanden are, again, simply false.” I still hold that view regarding Bruenig’s gloss on the Klein interview. However, it’s reasonable to read the available evidence as suggesting that she may have been involved in some way—though we have no information as to how—in welfare reform work, so I’ve rephrased that passage and I retract that claim.
September Update | It’s now my understanding that Bruenig regards the fact that Tanden held a senior domestic policy position in the Clinton White House as evidence, in and of itself, that Tanden was involved in welfare reform work, and thus is guilty of trying “to starve [him] and [his] mother.” Though I don’t find this position particularly persuasive, I’m willing to accept that Bruenig holds it sincerely.
In the original version of this post I accused Bruenig of lying. I shouldn’t have. I think he made claims that are false, and others that he was unable to adequately support, but I don’t know that he made those claims knowing them to be false. And just as Bruenig shouldn’t have made claims about Tanden without robust evidence, I shouldn’t have made claims about him without such evidence.
Remember that poll from last week that found that young adults weren’t big fans of capitalism? Well, I just stumbled across the full report, and it has some interesting stuff to say about the upcoming presidential election.
The big story out of the poll is that Clinton is currently beating Trump among likely voters aged 18–29 by a margin of 61% to 25%. Romney got 37% of the youth vote in 2012, and McCain got 32% in 2008. Even accounting for undecideds, these numbers would put Trump under 30%.
Perhaps even more interesting, though, is the poll’s partisan voter data. There’s a lot of worry right now about what Sanders voters will do in November, and though that worry is mostly expressed in terms of young “Bernie Bro” types, there hasn’t been a huge amount of polling on the issue that breaks down the electorate by age.
So how’s Clinton doing with young Democrats? Pretty well. The poll has her beating Trump 83–5 with that group, which is almost on par with exit polls from 2012 and 2008.
Trump, on the other hand, beats Clinton by only 57–13 with young Republicans, who went for Romney 91–7 and McCain 84–15. That 30% undecided Republican figure is particularly ugly — Clinton’s undecideds among young Democrats are only 12%.
And on top of that, she’s winning young independents by better than two to one.
Looking at race, we find Clinton doing about as well as Obama with young black voters, and a bit better than Obama with young whites, though a lot of white voters remain undecided. Where the difference between the two candidates really shows up in the racial/ethnic breakdown is with young Latinos, who supported Obama 74–23 in 2012. In this poll, Clinton is up 71–9, which translates to Trump losing half of Romney’s young Latino vote even after you account for undecideds.
Oh, and Trump is losing young women to Clinton 57-15. McCain got 29% of young women, and Romney got 32%.
Short version? Young Sanders supporters aren’t a problem for Hillary right now, but young Republicans are a disaster for Trump. Young whites like Clinton fine, and young Latinos are flocking to her.
Young voters went for Obama in historic numbers in 2008, and a bit less decisively in 2012. Right now, Clinton’s polling with the youth vote looks more like Obama 2008 than Obama 2012, and if anything it’s a little better than the 2008 results. Given Clinton’s performance in the primaries, I think it’s safe to say that these numbers are less a reflection on her than on her opponent.
When it comes to the youth vote, Trump is the anti-Obama.
Yesterday I reported on the slipshod, unprofessional “social media reports” that consultancy group IDMLOCO provided to UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi this spring while she was trying to get out from under an avalanche of bad publicity. Those memos, leaked by the Sacramento Bee this week, show IDMLOCO to be … well, you can click the link and see what they show. Because today I came to say nice things.
This spring, a group of UC Davis students opposed to Katehi spent a month sitting in at the lobby outside her office on campus. In an email obtained by the Bee, IDMLOCO urged Katehi to let them protest.
“At this time,” the email read, “removal will only fuel the current negative conversation and drive focus back to the Occupy protester removal in 2011.” The writer went on to say that “though the sit-in has caused a spike in media volume, it will die down if the university does not cause incident.”
IDMLOCO’s assessment of the staying power of the sit-in story may have been a bit simplistic—while mass media coverage tends to drop off after a while, such occupations often build in local attention over time—the essence of their advice was correct. For an administration trying desperately to shed its image as a coterie of thugs, sending the cops to roust yet another peaceful protest could only end badly.
In 2016, most college presidents understand this fact intuitively. Although some are still inclined to send in the cops to put down campus demonstrations, the reflexive, casual use mass arrests and police violence is far less common in the United States today than it was six or eight years ago. There are a lot of reasons for this, and they’re worth exploring in detail, but in the history of the twenty-first century American student movement one moment stands out as a pivot point where state violence is concerned, and it’s this one:
Most college presidents have learned the lessons of Linda Katehi’s first, worst mistake. That Katehi still needs to pay people to tell her not to make it again is all the evidence we need that she’s unfit to serve as chancellor of the University of California, Davis.
The first scandal in the fact that UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi paid consulting firms like IDMLOCO more than $175,000 to improve her online reputation is, of course, that such spending is an absurd waste of public money. The second scandal is that scrubbing the internet of negative stories isn’t something you can do. The third is that even if you could do it (and again, you can’t), you shouldn’t—at least when you’re a public official. The fourth is that once this kind of thing gets out, as it inevitably will, it’s bound to make everything incalculably worse. The fifth is that Katehi lied to the public and to UC President Janet Napolitano about the previous four.
And now we have a sixth.
The Sacramento Bee has released three of the memos that consulting firm IDMLOCO prepared for Katehi in the wake of the public disclosure of her financial ties to for-profit college company DeVry, and they’re … well, they’re really bad.
Not bad in the sense of evil, though they are that. Not bad in the sense of reflecting poorly on Katehi and on UC Davis, though they’re that too. Mostly they’re bad in the sense of being transparently shoddy. Junk. Snake oil. Grift.
The first of the three memos, written not long after the story of Chancellor Katehi’s financial ties to for-profit college company DeVry broke, says the DeVry story made a big splash on social media after it appeared in the press, that it subsided a bit the following day, and that as of the time the memo was written it hadn’t completely evaporated yet. There are charts and everything, in case the reader might be inclined toward skepticism. The word “notably” appears several times, though never in reference to anything notable.
A follow-up IDMLOCO memo from two days later is similarly banal, boasting meaningless hour-by-hour “analysis” of Twitter traffic, a color-coded map without a legend, and various lists of half-digested data. (Note: See update at end of post for more on the map.)
What leaps out most in this second memo, though, is how incompetently written it is. A caustic tweet mocking one of Katehi’s supporters is presented as an example of people “coming to her defense.” Statistics are misreported and misinterpreted. And then there’s this:
Number four on that list of “Influencers” is me, and if you look closely you can see that everything in the entry except for my follower count is wrong. My name is misspelled, my academic title is inaccurate, the self-description from my Twitter profile (which should read “historian and advocate of American student activism”) is rendered incoherent and ungrammatical. Best of all, my Twitter username—the most salient fact about me in this context—is given as that of an egg with nine followers who has tweeted exactly once.
As it turns out, all three memos are riddled with obvious mistakes. Spambots are cited as high-relevance Twitter accounts, anonymous cranks are given equal time with respected journalists, tweets and blogposts are treated as interchangeable. And there’s never even a half-serious attempt to contextualize any of the data—to draw conclusions from it, to compare trends against benchmarks, to analyze content on anything but the most rote level.
It’s all garbage, is what I’m saying. It’s malarkey. It’s the kind of “social media guru” crap that anyone who has even the most basic competency in dealing with social networks knows to shun and mock.
But somehow IDMLOCO received a hefty paycheck to spew this sewage, and somehow nobody in UC Davis administration noticed they were throwing their money away—news reports reveal that IDMLOCO has received at least three separate contracts for social media consulting from Davis in the last 22 months.
So let’s all take a moment to give IDMLOCO something to write about in their next internal memo. Share this post on social media, or write your own, so that the next time some college is on the verge of getting taken they’ll at least have a chance to find out the truth.
Update | A helpful friend on Twitter reveals that the reason the map in the second memo doesn’t have a legend is that it was sloppily cut and pasted from the website Nuvi.
Second Update | Barely two hours after this post went live, it now appears on the top page of Google, Bing, and Ask results for the search term “IDMLOCO.”
I am available for all your social media consulting needs at reasonable rates.
Linda Katehi, chancellor of the University of California at Davis, has been under fire for years. The notorious fall 2011 incident in which campus police pepper-sprayed a group of peaceful, seated student protesters brought Katehi under national scrutiny. In the more recent past, a series of scandals has swirled around her, and UC Davis students have engaged in a series of direct actions intended to force her resignation or firing.
This week the wall began to crumble.
On Monday Katehi met with UC system president Janet Napolitano. Nobody knows for certain what was said in that meeting, but yesterday Katehi felt it necessary to announce that she intended to remain as chancellor. The president’s office, asked for comment on whether Katehi had been pushed to resign, declined to comment. Until last night.
Yesterday evening Napolitano announced that Katehi has been placed on paid administrative leave for ninety days while the university investigates a number of allegations against her. In response, Katehi’s personal attorney declared that the investigation “smacks of scapegoating and a rush to judgment driven purely by political optics, not the best interests of the university or the UC system as a whole.”
The language in the attorney’s statement struck me as surprisingly aggressive at first—surely if you’re fighting to keep your job, you don’t want to unnecessarily antagonize the people who will decide whether you keep it. But then I read Napolitano’s letter to Katehi announcing the suspension.
Frankly, it’s brutal.
The letter lays out four separate areas of concern, and in each, Napolitano makes it clear that she believes the evidence against Katehi has already damned her. Regarding concerns about the employment and salary of Katehi’s son and daughter in law, the letter lays out a web of decisions that strongly point in the direction of flagrant malfeasance before concluding with this: “you have verbally assured me that all matters relating to the employment of your husband, son and daughter-in-law have been consistent with policies and procedures, but documents and other information appear contrary to that assurance.”
The letter’s discussion of UC Davis’s use of paid consultants to shore up Katehi’s reputation in the wake of the pepper-spray incident uses similar language:
“Despite public statements to members of the media, as well as to me, that you were not aware of or involved with these particular contracts, documents prepared in response to a Public Records Act request indicate multiple interactions with one of the vendors and efforts to set up meetings with the other. Misrepresentations made in the course and scope of employment raise concerns about whether such statements are consistent with the University’s Standards of Ethical Conduct.”
In short: “I don’t believe you.”
The letter goes on to say that Katehi will also be investigated for possible misuse of student fee money, including in the compensation of her family members, but the real knife to the ribs comes at the end.
The current wave of criticism of Katehi came with the disclosure that she had taken a highly compensated position on the board of directors of DeVry, a for-profit college chain, while chancellor. With that in mind, take a look at Napolitano’s closing:
“I am deeply disappointed to have to take this action. As I said when I defended you after you accepted the DeVry Board position, another violation of University policy, you have done some great work for UC Davis. Given the accumulation of matters that require investigation, however, it is both necessary and appropriate to address these matters in a fair, independent, and transparent manner.”
I’m going to go ahead and say it: Katehi won’t be back.