Bloggers and Parties
Can the netroots reshape American democracy?
September 14, 2006
Sep 14, 2006
23 Min read time
Can the netroots reshape American democracy?
The “netroots”—an Internet grass roots that has set out to change the Democratic Party—are often maligned. These progressive bloggers and their readers, who emerged as an influential group during Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, are increasingly depicted as a sinister movement under the dictatorial control of Markos “Kos” Moulitsas Zúniga, the founder of the prominent political blog Daily Kos. The New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that Kos “fires up his Web site . . . and commands his followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs, to unleash their venom on those who stand in the way.” The New Republic senior editor Lee Siegel (now suspended) warns portentously of the dangers of “blogofascism,” a movement bearing worrying similarities to the Fascist forces that transformed post–World War I Europe into a “madhouse of deracinated ambition.” When the netroots aren’t Nazis, they’re proto-Stalinists: Jonathan Chait sees them as heirs of the “McGovernite New Left,” possessed of the same “paranoid, Manichean worldview” and “humorless rage” as extreme-left radicalism.
These claims are hysterical to the point of near-incoherence. They’re also wrong. The netroots are becoming a power in the Democratic Party, but they aren’t under the control of any one person or clique. And while many netroots bloggers describe themselves as progressive, they are generally not leftists in the conventional sense. Certainly they aren’t committed to any program of fundamental political and economic reform. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells and Bill McKibben have both documented, the netroots aren’t complaining that the Democratic Party isn’t radical enough; they’re complaining that it’s losing elections. Netroots bloggers don’t share a common ideology. If they are united by anything, it is their harsh criticism of the Republican Party, their shared anger at the Democratic Party’s failures, and their rough analysis of how it could do better.
Although the netroots don’t necessarily subscribe to left-wing views, they do have the potential to reshape the terrain of American democracy. For the last 20 years, intellectuals have been bemoaning the American public’s lack of engagement with political life. They have advocated different forms of direct engagement and public deliberation as means to revitalize democracy.
Netroots bloggers and blog readers don’t look much like the idealized citizens that some democratic theorists have been hoping for. They’re unruly; while they certainly engage in vigorous argument, it bears little resemblance to disinterested Habermasian debate, in which the only operative force is the force of the better argument. They are attentive to power as well as reason, and their response to perceived enemies, Republican or Democratic, is far from genteel—someone pilloried by a prominent netroots blog can expect to get hundreds of vitriolic e-mails or comments from the blog’s readers. David Brooks’s complaints likely stem from his own experience being called out by left-wing bloggers and the vituperative messages that have filled his in-box as a result. There are real problems of groupthink among netroots blogs (as there are among blogs more generally, and indeed among opinion journalists, political reporters, political scientists, and virtually every well-connected social group).
But if there is a fault it lies less with the bloggers than with our notions of what a politically engaged public will look like in real life. Theorists of the public sphere who hark back to the idealized coffeehouses of the Enlightenment tend to forget or pass over the spleen, vulgarity, and vigor of 18th-century political debate. Political engagement goes hand in hand with viewpoints that are strongly held and trenchantly expressed.
The current back-and-forth over the netroots obscures what they actually mean for the Democratic Party and for American politics more generally. If they are not simply a philosophy seminar, they are also not simply an interest group or a social movement in the usual senses of those terms. Their goals have more to do with electoral strategies than substantive issues. Nor are they a traditional form of mass populism—as currently constituted, they are a not especially representative minority of the American public (there is an over-representation of white, well-educated, middle-class men, as there is among political bloggers more generally).
What they are is an example of how the Internet can foster new ways of conducting argument and building social cooperation among diverse groups and individuals. In other words, they are the harbinger of structural changes in the relationship between technology and politics. Contrary to the predictions of social scientists like Robert Putnam, the Internet is making people more likely to be politically and socially engaged, not less. As Yochai Benkler has argued, information technology has made it radically easier and cheaper to engage in certain kinds of cooperation.
This has important implications for political parties in general and for the Democratic Party in particular. In the past, much of the political agenda has been set by elites—senior party officials, elected representatives, and a congeries of policy wonks and public intellectuals stationed in think tanks, universities, issue groups, and political journals. While activists have played an important role in politics, especially in the Republican Party, they have usually taken their cues from well-connected leaders such as Grover Norquist and (before recent scandals) Ralph Reed. This is changing. Elites are losing some of their agenda-setting power as a much wider set of actors begins to influence the terms of public argument. A sea change is taking place in American politics. Debates that used to be the preserve of a small, self-perpetuating group of pundits, pollsters, and policymakers are now being opened up to a much wider group.
The netroots are also important in their own right, even if their role in winning or losing elections is sometimes exaggerated. The availability of Internet-based communications and community-building technologies has allowed people from quite different ideological backgrounds to come together, to identify points of common interest, and to build a community of action.
• • •
How do blogs work, and why might they open up political argument to new voices? Perhaps the best starting point is Yochai Benkler’s brilliant recent book, The Wealth of Networks, which describes how new technologies are making it easier for individuals to communicate, cooperate, and produce cultural and political goods on a decentralized basis. Benkler shows how the Internet fosters decentralized modes of cultural production, which enable individuals to take control of the means of communication for themselves and create content that is immediately available to millions. Nor do they do this in isolation. Tools such as e-mail, discussion boards, and social-networking software allow them to engage in argument with each other, to cooperate on massive collective projects (such as the production of open-source software), and, in Benkler’s phrase, to create a “networked public sphere.”
Benkler suggests that blogs are one of the most important components of this public sphere. Blogs are fundamentally decentralized. In contrast to traditional media, there are few chokepoints that allow for central control. No editor makes choices over who is or is not allowed to write blogs in the blogosphere as a whole, although some control is possible within certain blogging communities. While some high-traffic hub blogs play a very important role as clearinghouses for attention and information, their power is one of influence, framing, and persuasion rather than hierarchical command. They can help to direct attention to some blogs and away from others, but they can’t control what people write. Any individual can start blogging simply by signing up for a free service such as Blogger.com or (if she wants a greater degree of control and customization) by using software such as Movable Type or Wordpress on purchased server space. All that’s required to participate are interesting things to say, a degree of articulacy, and Internet access.
Blogs are not only more open than traditional media; they are a better basis for argument. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media involve one-way communication from the originator of the content to the readers or audience. To be sure, there are letters to the editor, but blogs are more fundamentally dialogic. Bloggers are engaged in continual debate with each other. Many blogs also have comments sections, allowing non-bloggers to join the conversation. The result is a much more freewheeling, egalitarian form of communication than traditional media, one in which the distinction between author and reader is sometimes blurred to the point of near-irrelevance. In the words of the pseudonymous blogger Digby:
What started out as a high tech bar-room conversation has actually become a force for change due to the simple fact of millions of people participating. I think the readership numbers are the most salient fact about the blogosphere. It’s true that many, many more people still get their news from television and newspapers but the intensity of engagement online is quite telling. And it’s not the one sided indoctrination style of the usual modern social or religious or political movement. These readers are all talking among themselves and to those who are the putative leaders with great energy and interest. The feedback loop is unprecedented.
This is key to understanding how blogs are changing political debate. Not only do they provide an easy and costless way for individuals to publish their views, but they allow them to engage in distributed arguments about those views, sometimes refining and revising them in the process. Debates in the blogosphere aren’t disinterested academic discourse, or anything like it. Serious arguments are mixed together with ad hominem attacks, insults, and irrelevancies. But political blogs are not meant to be a substitute for either journalism or academic debate. They are something new: a widely dispersed set of interlinked arguments about politics that responds with extraordinary rapidity to new events.
Exactly because the blogosphere involves clashes between strongly divergent opinions, it is beginning to affect other spheres of political debate. The blogosphere serves as a crucible in which politically useful and interesting interpretations of important issues are forged and tested. Bloggers’ ability to take up a new political issue, toss different interpretations back and forth among themselves, point out flaws, and arrive at final viewpoints makes them a highly valuable resource for political professionals and commentators in search of novel and salient ways of framing issues. It’s unsurprising that survey evidence suggests that a disproportionate number of journalists and politicians are regular blog readers.
Indeed, blogs not only influence traditional channels of political commentary; they are beginning to displace them. Major newspapers, political journals, and think tanks are no longer the only important venues for the expression of political arguments. Non-traditional elites have a realistic chance of making their viewpoints heard; while many politicians and opinion-makers have begun to blog, they have to rub shoulders with commentators whose claim to influence isn’t their social position but their ability to express vigorous opinions in clear, everyday language.
Critics claim that the result is a vulgarization of political debate. In a certain sense, they’re exactly right. Blogs help open up argument to the profanum vulgus, the unhallowed crowd that Horace and his peers in imperial Rome disliked so much. Indeed, much of the nastiness of anti-blog rhetoric is the result of snobbery and fear. (It is telling that Siegel, in his broadside against blogofascism, suggests that the “knockabout origins” of Kos and others is a strike against them.) Blogs open up debate to a very large group of people who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to make their voices heard. It’s not at all surprising that those occupying privileged positions in the current hierarchy of opinion feel threatened by them.
Over time, some parts of the blogosphere have become more than an arena for debate. They have become the seedbed for dense, interconnected communities, foresaking broad-ranging argument between diverse opinions for concerted political action. These communities don’t just include bloggers but their readers, too. Blogs on the left side of the political spectrum are especially likely to have comments sections where readers can respond to the blogger’s arguments or the arguments of other commenters. These comments sections make it easy for readers to identify with each other, debate each other, and participate in building a community.
The netroots is perhaps the most important such community. It is hard to estimate its size, but it’s quite large (Daily Kos, which is the most prominent netroots blog community, has just over 100,000 members who can write posts or make comments and perhaps 500,000 daily readers). What is certain is that this community provides an opportunity for individuals to identify many, many others who share their views and goals, and to engage in concerted action with them. In the words of Jane Hamsher, who runs firedoglake.com, a popular netroots blog:
The community aspect of my blog is the most exciting part. People who thought they were the only ones in their neighborhood or in their office or in their community who felt the way they did, [are] suddenly coming together with other people who feel the same way, and feeling hope again that they can have an effect in the political process. They’re not just being told what they have to live with.
As Hamsher suggests, this sense of community is politically empowering: the realization that there are others out there who share your beliefs makes you more likely to engage in collective action. However, just as in physical communities, this goes hand in hand with forms of social control that can drive out differing opinions. Some parts of the netroots community, such as Daily Kos, have a complex system of decentralized internal mechanisms to prevent “trolls” (individuals who make deliberately tendentious comments to incite outraged reactions) from making debate impossible. These mechanisms can sometimes drive out considered dissent when individuals (not necessarily the central organizers of the community) use them to silence commenters or posters who deviate too far from the standard line. Thus, there’s a real risk that communities of bloggers and commenters can degenerate into echo chambers. That said, some uniformity of purpose is necessary for concerted political action. As one prominent Daily Kos contributor notes, the “danger of the echo chamber” is real, “but a bigger danger is becoming simply a corner bar where everything is debated, nothing is decided, and the argument is considered the goal.”
What unites the netroots is that they identify with a coherent political project to remake the Democratic Party as a more vigorously partisan entity. And they are injecting a passion into the party that has been sadly lacking in recent decades. For too long, the Democrats have been less a political party than a process of painstaking triangulation between the competing demands of different interests. The netroots are pushing the Democrats to become a party again, less beholden to interest groups and more willing to actively, vigorously oppose the Republicans.
Netroots bloggers are obsessively concerned with figuring out how the Democratic Party can compete better, and win. Nor do they just talk. More than other blogs on both the left and the right, they demonstrate how blogs can not only support and sustain wide-ranging conversations but can be harnessed for political ends.
The primacy of this goal partly stems from the netroots’ experience with the Howard Dean campaign and its aftermath. Netroots bloggers weren’t attracted to Dean because of his liberal policy stances (contrary to general perceptions, Dean was not especially liberal). Instead, he was attractive because he claimed to represent the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” In the words of Kos and Jerome Armstrong in their book Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, he tapped into “frustration over the lack of opposition to Bush by complacent Democrats.”
This frustration was widespread, and not just among netroots activists. The decision of prominent Democratic politicians to support the Iraq war despite private misgivings was infuriating in its own right, but it was also symptomatic of a more fundamental problem. Senior Democrats seemed terrified of forcefully criticizing the Bush administration. They were willing to acquiesce to a purported bipartisanship in which Republicans pocketed Democrats’ cooperation and continued to attack them as unpatriotic and soft on terrorism. In the 2002 elections, they had allowed themselves to be railroaded. It is hardly surprising that Dean attracted a following among the netroots, and among disaffected Democrats more generally. He filled a void that badly needed to be filled.
This anger didn’t disappear when Dean’s campaign fell apart in Iowa. Netroots activists felt that powerful figures within the Democratic Party establishment, including figures within the Democratic Leadership Council, had undermined Dean because he threatened their power base. Although netroots and liberal bloggers supported John Kerry’s campaign for the presidency, they had considerable misgivings about how his campaign was managed. When Bush won a second term in office, the netroots set out, in Armstrong and Kos’s terms, “to clean house of the losers who gave us the 2004 debacle.”
Their experiences have deepened the netroots’ conviction that there’s something rotten in the Democratic Party. Quasi-corrupt relationships hamper the ability of Democrats to win elections; candidates for office are expected to hire certain well-connected consultants if they want to receive party funding. Party leaders try to eke out narrow wins, focusing their attention only on the most competitive races instead of campaigning aggressively across the country. Elected officials prefer stroking the egos of major donors to grass-roots organizing. Senators mug to pundits’ and newspaper editors’ penchant for bipartisanship by denouncing fellow Democrats as extremists, giving cover to Republicans, and dragging the political center ever further toward the right. These problems cripple the party’s ability to compete successfully, guaranteeing continued Republican hegemony. In response, netroots bloggers want to reform the party’s organizational structures and punish elected officials who weaken the party in pursuit of their personal agendas. They pushed Howard Dean’s candidacy as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in order to change the party’s electoral priorities. The netroots are now encouraging activists to get involved in the party at the local and state level and take it over, just as Goldwaterite conservatives took over the Republican Party a generation ago.
This agenda for reform has many points in common with the left of the Democratic Party. Many in the center-left would like to see a strong Democratic Party that was more willing to stand up to Republicans and better able to deter its members from defecting on core issues such as Social Security and labor rights. However, there are some important differences. If many leftists are interested in structural reforms of American politics, the shared goal of the netroots is more straightforward, less policy-oriented, and less ambitious—a strong party that can win elections.
Moreover, the netroots are, as they recognize themselves, only one element in a broader coalition of actors. Their resources are limited, and they have to pick their fights carefully. They don’t have the power to sway elections on their own, nor do they pretend to. Their ability to organize voters on the ground is eclipsed by labor unions and by more traditional activist groups.
Where the netroots have been extraordinarily successful is in making a succession of local contests into a coherent platform from which they can reshape the Democratic Party’s electoral and political priorities. They have brought national attention and higher levels of funding to congressional races that national party officials weren’t interested in. The Democratic candidates have lost most of these races, but their campaigns have sometimes identified Republican weaknesses and helped build up party infrastructure in parts of the country that the Democrats had effectively abandoned for a generation. More to the point, they have forced the Democratic Party to begin thinking again as a national party with a national strategy.
They have also specifically and deliberately challenged the prevailing wisdom that bipartisanship is both good in itself and the only plausible path to power for the Democrats. This helps explain their role in Ned Lamont’s primary challenge to Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). To be sure, the netroots were not the major source of Lamont’s support in Connecticut; indeed, most Lamont voters were probably not aware of their existence. A Lamont campaign ad depicted the candidate having his house invaded by T-shirt-wearing activists, led by Kos. The ad has been taken by some commenters as evidence of the role of the netroots in Lamont’s campaign. But here is how Kos describes the making of the ad:
I went and filmed a commercial; they had about 30 Lamont supporters. These were the most loyal, hardcore supporters; people who gave up their whole Saturday to film a commercial. Of the thirty there, only two even knew what a blog was. . . . They didn’t come here because the bloggers told them. . . . To me this was exciting. Because it showed that this isn’t about bloggers . . . At the end of the day, bloggers have . . . inherent limitations. The movement is much broader than bloggers will ever make it. Blogging is great, but we have to embrace healthy, revitalized labor unions for example.
But even if blogs weren’t a major force on the ground in Connecticut, they had a crucial impact in defining the consequences of the Democratic primary for national politics. Netroots blogs persistently and relentlessly framed the primary as a challenge to the shibboleths of bipartisanship and centrist politics. When netroots opponents such as Martin Peretz in The New Republic and Morton Kondracke in Roll Call responded to this perceived challenge, they inadvertently took up and amplified this framing. Kondracke indeed threatened that “the soul of the Democratic Party—and possibly the future of civility in American politics—is on the line” because of “an emergent new left that’s using savage, Internet-based attacks to push moderation out of politics.” The race in Connecticut might easily have been interpreted as nothing more than a challenge to a Senator who was out of touch with his constituents (as it was, at least in part). Instead, it was treated by national commentators as a referendum on bipartisanship, with dueling editorials in the Washington Post (which wanted Lieberman to win, saying that he represented a tradition of sound bipartisan moderation) and The New York Times (which wanted Lieberman to lose, since he represented a corrupt form of bipartisan deference that had enabled the evils of the Bush administration).
Framed by the netroots, Lieberman’s loss has weakened advocates of bipartisanship and centrism—both other Democratic elected officials, and critics internal (the Democratic Leadership Council) and external (pundits such as David Broder) who have used the shibboleth of moderation as a stick to beat back policy proposals that seem dangerously radical to them. It also makes it far more difficult for Republicans to win bipartisan cover for purportedly moderate initiatives such as their renewed threat to gut Social Security in favor of private accounts.
However, the netroots’ challenge to bipartisanship and the currently prevailing political wisdom doesn’t go nearly far enough. They have a very good idea of what is wrong with the Democratic Party, but they’re only starting to analyze the underlying political forces that have created these problems. As long as their ambitions are turned to reforming the electoral apparatus of the party and preventing individual politicians from defecting and supporting the Republicans on core issues, their impact will be real but limited. In order to really change the role of the Democratic Party in American politics, they need to focus not only on winning elections, but on reshaping the ideological battleground that they play out on.
Netroots activists often compare themselves to the Goldwater supporters who took over the Republican Party in the 1960s and 1970s. But a close reading of Rick Perlstein’s book Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (which enjoys near-canonical status among netroots bloggers), suggests that the differences between Goldwaterites and the netroots are as important as the similarities. Goldwater’s followers succeeded not only because of their organizational skills but because of their commitment to a set of long-term ideological goals. Over two decades, they relentlessly sought to undermine the ideological foundations of the existing American political consensus, rebuilding it over time so that it came to favor conservative and Republican political positions rather than liberal or Democratic ones. The result is a skewed political system in which Republicans enjoy a persistent political advantage. The issue space that American politics plays out on has been reconstructed so that its center of gravity quietly but insistently pulls politicians to the right. So it isn’t any accident that bipartisanship in the modern era mostly consists of hewing to the Republican agenda.
As Perlstein argued in these pages two years ago, it isn’t impossible to remould this conventional wisdom, although it is difficult and risky. And the netroots can surely play an important role. Their comparative advantage is exactly in framing political issues and controversies so that they resonate widely. Prominent netroots bloggers recognize in principle the importance of the battle over ideas. Kos and Armstrong devote a substantial portion of Crashing the Gate, to discussing the need for a Democratic apparatus of think tanks and foundations that parallels the conservative intellectual machine. Kos writes regularly about how the Democrats need “big ideas” if they are to win. However, because the netroots conceive of themselves as a non-ideological movement, they aren’t delivering on their potential to help provide and refine these big ideas themselves and thus reshape the ideological underpinnings of the political consensus. If the netroots truly want to tilt the playing ground of American politics back again so that it favors the Democrats, they will need to embrace a more vigorous and coherent ideological program.
• • •
Creating a coherent ideological agenda will be far harder for the netroots than opposing Republicans or turncoat Democrats like Joe Lieberman. But it offers enormous political possibilities. The “new” union movement of the SEIU and the Change to Win coalition provides one example of how it might be done. As prominent netroots bloggers recognize, the SEIU has a lot in common with the netroots—it aims to replace a top-heavy structure with a more dynamic and aggressive approach to union organizing. But it is also providing organizational firepower and intellectual input for John Edwards’s campaign to change the economic message of the Democratic Party, and to make it more attractive to voters whose economic interests have been trampled by Republicans and their enablers. The ever-growing inequalities in American society provide a tailwind for economic populism; Jacob Hacker documents in a forthcoming book how Republican policies over the last few decades have transferred economic risk from businesses and governments to ordinary individuals and families. This affects not only workers but an increasingly insecure middle class. As Edwards and the SEIU recognize, the resulting groundswell of economic anxiety can, if given proper political voice, become a major force for reversing Republican gains and bringing about long-term political change.
There is a lot to be said for this agenda, but it isn’t the only one available. Nor should the netroots simply be foot soldiers in the ideological war, delivering somebody else’s ideas. Blogs have political potential not because they can organize and deliver votes in large numbers but because they have a comparative advantage in debating broad political messages and ideas and, where necessary, transforming them. If the netroots are to deliver on their potential to change the Democratic Party and reverse Republican hegemony, they need this kind of agenda. Creating and delivering these arguments successfully is crucial if progressive bloggers are going to succeed in really changing American politics for the better. Long-term political success doesn’t come from adapting your party to a political marketplace in which the other side has set the rules of competition. It comes from a concerted effort over time to remake those rules yourself. The netroots can play an important part in remaking these rules. They should go to it.
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September 14, 2006
23 Min read time