And that is just the reaction to the presumptive heir to the Corbyn project. The Twitter Primary is harsher on candidates from other sections of the party. During the last leadership election, Corbyn was praised by the left for his principled opposition to the Iraq War more than a decade earlier. Jess Phillips, who is now among the candidates to succeed him, was so opposed to the conflict that she left the party. Nonetheless, because she has not supported Corbyn’s leadership since 2015, she is regularly described by self-identified left-wingers as a “Tory.”
The genuine fury from the left at people three inches closer to the political center reflects a turbocharged tribalism. Freud called this “the narcissism of small differences”; the legal scholar Cass Sunstein calls it “group polarization,” where “deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point.” In his 2019 book Conformity, Sunstein noted that “confident people are both more influential … and more prone to polarization.” One consequence of group polarization, he found, was that those who held a minority position, or had useful information that ran counter to the prevailing trend, stayed silent or were ignored. Their groups therefore made worse decisions.
The Twitter Primary drives its members to extremes, while chilling the speech of outsiders. An excess of certainty leads activists to bad decisions and misapprehensions. Spend enough time on Twitter and you could believe that Corbyn “won the argument” in December, despite losing the general election. The postmortem on Labour’s defeat risks being hampered by a pervasive sense on social media that the party didn’t really lose, not really: Well, everyone I know voted for Corbyn. Activists may intellectually concede the reality of the Conservatives’ 80-seat majority, but it doesn’t feel like the Tories won. And that means there is less reason for them to support a change in tactics.
The small-p politics of culture journalism is also affected by tweeters’ lack of awareness of being exceptions rather than representatives of mainstream opinion. The journalist Jesse Singal recently published a post arguing that “super-wokeness is mostly an elite phenomenon.” Singal noted that Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix show was widely condemned in ways that suggested everyone was offended by it, although, as he wrote, “the best data we have suggest that the vast majority of Americans view political correctness as a problem … The opinions most commonly represented in mainstream progressive outlets are not held by the masses, including by the groups seemingly with the most at stake.” He’s right: Ultra-liberal attitudes to race and gender are indeed not held by the masses, including racial minorities. But, crucially, they are held by the peers of the journalists writing those pieces, with whom these journalists hang out on Twitter. Once again, the cloistered world of Twitter is creating a false sense of consensus.