Most political activists can point to one catalyzing event, an episode in each of their lives (or, more often, in the life of their country) that shook them from their complacency and roused them to change the world. You can find many such stories if you troll through the netroots, the online community of liberal bloggers that has quickly become a formidable constituency in Democratic politics. But the episode that seems to come up most often is the Florida recount. For instance, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Jerome Armstrong's book, Crashing the Gate, the closest thing to a manifesto of the netroots movement, begins like this:
Five years ago, the Republicans took over the government through nondemocratic means. Establishment Democrats, for the most part, stood back and watched as a partisan judicial body halted the counting of presidential votes. While conservative activists led the charge on behalf of their party, there was nothing happening on our side. That was the spark. Fed-up progressive activists began organizing online. Fueled by the new technologies—the web, blogging tools, internet search engines—this new generation of activists challenged the moribund Democratic Party establishment.
The 2000 recount is an apt birthing ground for the netroots. It perfectly fits their view of U.S. politics as an atavistic clash of partisan willpower. And their analysis of that episode, while somewhat crude, has a certain truth. The liberal intelligentsia,and much of the Democratic establishment, tried to hold itself above the fray. During the recount, liberal pundits were concerned above all with maintaining civility and consensus, and they flayed Democrats for any hint of partisanship or anger. (In a New Yorker editorial, Joe Klein scolded that Al Gore "reinforced his partisan reputation by challenging the results in Florida" and cautionedthat "vehemence of any sort—ideological, political, analytical—seems ill-advised.") Elite liberal opinion-makers insisted that their side play fair. Gore, they declared, must allow for the possibility that his opponent could win a fair recount, must renounce street demonstrations, must be intellectually consistent—permitting, say, military ballots that did not fulfill the letter of the law to be counted. Members of the Gore recount team like William Daley and Warren Christopher, seeking to uphold their reputations as statesmen, nervously complied.
The contrast with the Republican side could not have been more stark. The only complaint conservative pundits had with the GeorgeW. Bush operation was that it was too soft. (George Will wrote that there was a "ferocity gap"—but, in a classic case of projection, he insisted that Democrats were more ferocious.) Bush never conceded the possibility that he could lose. Nor did he feel any obligation to maintain intellectual consistency. His campaign demanded the letter of the law be carried out in those instances when it suited his side, and it flouted the letter of the law in those (military ballots, illegally submitted absentee ballots in Seminole County) when it did not. It whipped up a mob to halt a recount in Miami-Dade County that at the time appeared potentially decisive. Conservatives celebrated these developments without ahint of dissent. While Democrats in Washington constantly undermined the Gore campaign by telling reporters that Gore should concede, Washington Republicans maintained ranks. Through their greater resolve and partisan discipline, the Republicans triumphed.
All the lessons the netroots have gleaned about U.S. politics were on display in this noxious denouement, and those lessons have been reinforced time and again throughout the Bush presidency. The Democratic leadership and the liberal intelligentsia seemed pathetic and exhausted, wedded to musty ideals of bipartisanship and decorousness. Meanwhile, what the netroots saw in theRepublican Party, they largely admired. They saw a genuine mass movement built up over several decades. They saw a powerful message machine. And they saw a political elite bound together with ironclad party discipline.
This, they decided, is what the Democratic Party needed. And, when they saw that the party leadership was incapable of creating it, they decided to do it themselves. "We are at the beginning of a comprehensive reformation of the Democratic Party," write Moulitsas and Armstrong. What they have accomplished in just a few years is astonishing. Already, the netroots are the most significant mass movement in U.S. politics since the rise of the Christian right more than two decades ago. And, by all appearances, they are farfrom finished with their task: recreating the Democratic Party inthe image of the conservative machine they have set out to destroy.
The most significant fact of American political life over the last three decades is that there is a conservative movement and there has not been a liberal movement. Liberalism, to be sure, has all the component parts that conservatism has: think tanks, lobbying groups, grassroots activists, and public intellectuals. But those individual components, unlike their counterparts on the conservative side, do not see one another as formal allies and don't consciously act in concert. If you asked a Heritage Foundation fellow or an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal how his work fits into the movement, he would immediately understand that you meant the conservative movement. If you asked the same question of a Brookings Institute fellow or a New York Times editorial writer, he would have no idea what you were talking about.
The netroots have begun to change all that. Its members are intensely aware of their connection to each other and their place in relation to the Democratic Party. The word "movement" itself—once rare among mainstream liberals—is a regular feature of their discourse. They call themselves "the people-powered movement," or "the progressive movement," or, often, simply "the movement."
Like any movement, the netroots is a pastiche of people and groups, with subfactions and varying levels of attachment. For that reason,there's almost no characterization that is true of every member. And yet, as movements go, the netroots are relatively coherent and centralized. If you were to trace the history of the netroots, Jerome Armstrong—sometimes called "The Blogfather"— is the place to begin.
In 2001, Armstrong began publishing a blog called MyDD, or "My DueDiligence," which made prognostications about political events and stocks, sometimes based on astrology. (As one astrological newsletter wrote, "Astrologer Jerome Armstrong notes that Ixion and Quaoar are following close in Pluto's wake in early Sagittarius, and connects the rise of the political version of religious fundamentalism with the astronomical exploration of the Kuiper Belt in 1992.") By 2002, MyDD allowed readers to post their own commentaries, and it began to take off as a locus of activism for Howard Dean supporters.
One frequent guest commenter on MyDD was Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, then a software programmer living in Berkeley, California. Moulitsas quickly developed a following and started his own liberal blog, called Daily Kos. In the years since then, Daily Kos has exploded in size, long since eclipsing MyDD (which has forgotten its financial/astrological origins and now stands for "My DirectDemocracy"). Daily Kos now attracts more than half a million visits per day.
The next most influential netroots blog is probably Eschaton,written by Philadelphia economist Duncan Black under the pseudonym "Atrios." There are countless other blogs in the netroots orbit, including Crooks and Liars, Americablog, FireDogLake, and on and on.
Some of these sites have unique stylistic features (Crooks and Liars has lots of video clips, FireDogLake has on-the-scene reporting from such events as the Lieberman-Lamont race or the Scooter Libby trial) or a particular slant (Americablog tends to focus on gay rights issues). But, despite differences in ideology and style, these blogs share a basic orientation: liberal, partisan, and strongly critical of Bush and the Iraq war. Between them, and many smaller blogs, they have attracted what amounts to a mass following.
Outsiders often use the terms "netroots" and "liberal bloggers" interchangeably, but they aren't exactly the same thing. The netroots are a subset of the liberal blogs, constituting those blogs that are directly involved in political activism, often urging their readers to volunteer for, or donate money to, Democratic candidates. Other liberal bloggers, sometimes called the"wonkosphere," advocate liberal ideas but do not directly involve themselves in politics. Most of the popular sites in the wonkosphereare maintained by academics or (generally) young liberal journalists, such as former American Prospect staffer Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo or Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum. The quality of these blogs varies immensely, with the bestones offering a level of reporting and analysis far better than typical mainstream media fare. While journalistic liberal bloggers are not directly part of the netroots, the two groups generally regard one another as allies and criticize one another tepidly if at all.
Two deep, organic bonds hold together the netroots. The first is generational. Netroots activists tend to be in their thirties, like Moulitsas and Black, or younger. Even those who are older, such as Armstrong (who is in his early forties), often developed a strong interest in politics only recently. Nearly all of them, then, share the common experience of having their political consciousness awakened and shaped by the Bush years.
Their newness makes them outsiders to the game. They are, by their way of thinking, self-made men and women who pulled themselves up from obscurity by dint of pure merit. They see the Washington establishment, by contrast, as a kind of clique, filled with mediocrities who attended the best schools or know the right people. The netroots shorthand for this phenomenon is "Washington cocktail parties"—where, it is believed, the elite share their wrong-headed ideas, inoculated from accountability. "They still have their columns and TV gigs," Moulitsas wrote on his blog last December, describing the Beltway elite. "They still get treated with reverence by the D.C. cocktail party circuit."
In point of fact, the most successful bloggers have been pulled into the warm embrace of the political establishment. Moulitsas consults regularly with influential Democrats in Washington. Presidential candidates hire popular bloggers or court them with private dinners. Last year, numerous top Democrats trekked to Las Vegas toattend YearlyKos, the liberal blog convention, where they sucked up to the attendees as relentlessly as if they were software executives. The climax of the proceedings was a party for bloggers thrown by then-presidential hopeful Mark Warner, costing more than $50,000 and featuring chocolate fountains. None of these things, however, have softened the netroots' sense of grievance and exclusion.
The second bond is a shared political narrative. This is not exactly the same thing as a shared ideology. The ideology of the netroots is, indeed, somewhat amorphous, as liberal bloggers themselves often point out. A major source of the ideological confusion is Moulitsas himself, who is almost comically lacking in philosophical depth. In one oft discussed blog post, he described himself as a "libertarian Democrat" and proceeded immediately to outline a philosophy that was pure traditional liberalism. ("A Libertarian Dem believes that people should have the freedom to make a living without being unduly exploited by employers. ... A Libertarian Dem gets that no one is truly free if they fear for their health, so social net programs are important to allow individuals to continue to live happily into their old age.")
Some liberal bloggers have tried to turn this ideological confusion into a strong point: Far from being ideologically hidebound, as their critics often contend, they are ruthlessly strategic political calculators. Moulitsas eagerly touts this line. "They want to make me into the latest Jesse Jackson, but I'm not ideological at all," he told The Washington Monthly. "I'm just all about winning."
It is true that the netroots embraces political calculation. But the strategies put forward by these activists almost invariably involve shifting the Democratic Party at least a bit to the left. Some of them are explicit about this. "Hiding from progressives and the left will lead to Democratic losses in 2006," wrote MyDD's Matt Stoller last year. "Running as a progressive will lead to victory." One survey of netroots members found that two-thirds wanted the Democratic Party to move to the left.
So the netroots are clearly liberal, and more liberal than the Democratic Party as a whole. Ideology, however, is not the movement's defining trait. What unites them is a desire to replicate the successes of the conservative movement dating back to the 1960s.
When you turn to the '60s to find an antecedent for the netroots, the natural comparison would seem to be the New Left. The parallels are certainly there: Both movements were led by young people and political outsiders, driven by distrust of establishment liberalism and stoked by an unpopular war. But the netroots do not see themselves in the New Left mold. Rather, they see themselves in what was called, in its insurgent days, the New Right, and before that was known as the Goldwater movement.
The intellectual genesis of the netroots analysis lies in a book called Before the Storm by left-liberal historian (and TNR contributor) Rick Perlstein. He argues that the conventional narrative of the '60s pays far too much attention to left-wing activism. After all, he observes, the '60s ended with the left smashed by a rising conservative tide that has continued to this day. The real story is that of the grassroots countermobilization on the right, which took its most public form in the Barry Goldwater campaign. This movement built counterparts to the dominant liberal institutions, slowly took control of the Republican Party from the moderates who had been running it, and jerked the national agenda sharply to the right. Perlstein's book, wrote blogger and George Washington University political scientist Henry Farrell in a Boston Review essay, "enjoys near-canonical status among netroots bloggers."
Like the New Right (and unlike the New Left), the netroots is committed to working within the two-party structure. They have relatively little use for street demonstrations and none at all for Naderite third parties. They fervently support Democrats and, with increasing frequency, work for them directly.
Indeed, if there is a single thing that the netroots most admires about the right, it is its philosophical and political unity. There are, to be sure, numerous strands of thought on the right, each of which emphasizes different elements of the conservative canon. But there is far more holding together the conservatives than there is breaking them apart. This has been true dating back to the founding of National Review, with its emphasis on fusionism—the conservative creed uniting economic libertarians and social traditionalists. Religious conservative groups lobby for tax cuts, and economic conservatives support anti-abortion judges. One of the key figures uniting the conservative movement is Grover Norquist, a GOP activist/lobbyist who holds weekly meetings in which conservative activists and intellectuals hammer out a common agenda.
The netroots look upon this great right-wing apparatus with unconcealed envy. Traditionally, to the extent that movements exist on the left, they have been dispersed among single-issue organizations—environmentalists, labor unions, pro-choice activists—that mobilize only when their own pet issues are on the agenda. This piecemeal structure leaves each component group fighting solo battles against a large and cohesive coalition. Also, since there are political issues that do not directly affect the single-issue groups, it leaves swaths of liberal territory unguarded.
The netroots are scornful of single-issue liberal groups—or, really, any liberals at all who are not wholly dedicated to the cause of Democratic victory. As Stoller has written on MyDD, "To the extent that I have a political hero, it's probably Grover Norquist, not Ralph Nader." The netroots' dream is of a liberal army of grassroots activists, pundits, policy wonks, and politicians all marching more or less in lockstep.
This dream inevitably brings the netroots into conflict with many liberal political commentators, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and other outposts of the center left. The traditional interpretation of this feud is as a pure ideological spat between the left and right wings of the Democratic Party—and it's true that there's a strong ideological component to the spat. But the deeper divide is ethos, not ideology. The movement sensibility of the right, which the netroots are so determined to replicate, is largely foreign to the liberal and Democratic elite.
One of the defining features of the conservative movement is an intense social pressure upon its adherents not to break ranks. One episode from the 1990s demonstrates a fair sense of the prevailing ethos on the right. David Brock, until then a member of the conservative movement in good standing, set out to write a book about Hillary Clinton. Rather than producing the undiluted hit job he and his readers expected, Brock found himself painting a not entirely unsympathetic portrait of the first lady. The reaction among his colleagues was swift and brutal. The organs of the right—The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, National Review, The Washington Times—denounced him for his heresy. A conservative friend of Brock's, the late Barbara Olson, disinvited him from a dinner party she and husband Ted Olson were throwing for fellow righties.
For conservatives, it was simply the expected outcome—a traitor getting his due. "People get bumped off invite lists every day," shrugged then-Weekly Standard writer Tucker Carlson. Such a blase reaction might not say very much if Carlson were known for his movement reliability. But, in fact, just the opposite was true: Carlson himself was (and is) one of the most independent conservative pundits. Indeed, earlier that year, he himself had written an unflattering article about Norquist (perhaps motivated, in part, by a long- standing feud between Norquist and Carlson's father). When the Standard, in a display of movement loyalty, refused to publish it, Carlson sold it to The New Republic. Norquist subsequently confronted Carlson at a restaurant and called his article "not helpful to the movement." Other conservatives laid into him. "No one who believes what we believe should be attacking Grover," chastised Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute.
None of this is to suggest that lively debate cannot be found on the right. To the contrary: Conservatives have always argued fiercely amongst themselves. The difference is that conservatives are expected to toe the line in disputes between their side and the left. A conservative can criticize President Bush for being insufficiently conservative or suggest that running against Social Security is tactically unwise. What he cannot do is denounce the idea of impeaching a Democratic president for covering up a sexual affair in 1998 or question Katherine Harris's capacity to administer Florida election law fairly in 2000.
Most liberals find the movement ethos of the right incomprehensible. "This kind of treatment has no parallel among liberals," wrote Slate's Jacob Weisberg in 1997. Among intellectuals and commentators on Weisberg's side, the prevailing norm is largely the opposite: to go out of one's way to demonstrate nonpartisan bonafides. Around the same time that Brock was getting shellacked for failing to toe the party line, Sidney Blumenthal was all but drummed out of liberal journalism for toeing it too closely, thanks to his chumminess with the Clintons. The worst thing that can happen to a conservative is to be seen as disloyal. The worst thing that can happen to a liberal is to be seen as "in the tank."
This ethos of political detachment among liberal intellectuals finds its natural counterpart in the strategies of the DLC. The DLC's basic idea is to embrace the political center—a model that is incompatible with movement politics. Movements require unanimity against external critics. The DLC model not only permits divisions among Democrats; in a sense, it relies upon them. The premise of the DLC's strategy is that the left wing of the party is unacceptable to the majority of voters. The answer is to explicitly disavow that left wing—to create a Third Way between the left and right poles.
Initially, at least, this seemed a successful strategy. Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 in part because he defined himself as "a different kind of Democrat"—one who favored capital punishment, welfare reform, and so on. But, over time, the DLC strategy led to a kind of ideological retrogression. Having reestablished the left pole of the national debate further to the center, the only way for Democrats to maintain their centrist image was to move further right still. By the late '90s, the DLC had abandoned its preference for universal health insurance for small piecemeal reforms and flirted with partial privatization of Social Security.
This veneration of centrism created an atmosphere in which Democratic unity was impossible. Democrats who unequivocally opposed the Bush administration's agenda were not, by definition, "centrists." And so, during the early Bush years, Democrats eager to preserve their standing as moderates often found themselves acquiescing to a conservative agenda that, not long before, would have been considered far outside the mainstream.
The netroots understand that this is not a fair fight. As Black (aka Atrios) has argued, you cannot sustain "a Democratic party in which all the leading Democrats are forever running against their own party. Triangulation can work for one man, but when every leading Democrat is constantly falling all over himself (yes, this is exaggeration) to get away from Those Damn Dirty Democrats, you have a party which is without foundation and where capitulation is confused with bipartisanship."
For the netroots, partisan fidelity is the sine qua non. As Moulitsas told Newsweek in 2005, "The issue is: Are you proud to be a Democrat? Are you partisan?" What they cannot forgive is Democrats or liberals who distance themselves from their party or who give ammunition to the enemy. The netroots will forgive Democrats in conservative districts for moving as far to the right as necessary to win elections. But they do everything within their power to eliminate from liberal states or districts moderates like Joe Lieberman or Jane Harman, whose stances are born of conviction rather than necessity. This is precisely the same principle espoused by Norquist and other GOP activists. They will defend Republicans who need to demonstrate their independence from the national party in order to maintain their electoral viability. (As Norquist once remarked about Lincoln Chafee, "A Republican from Rhode Island is a gift from the gods.") But deviation by a Republican from a conservative state—say, Arizonan John McCain—is unforgivable.
Another point of commonality between the netroots and the conservative movement is the belief that moderation is a kind of social malady brought about by residence within the Beltway. Conservatives believe that Republicans generally begin their national careers in a state of innocence but are perpetually susceptible to the blandishments of the liberal elite. The right has developed its own idioms—e.g., "strange new respect"—to describe the ways that they believe establishment bastions like The New York Times flatter and cajole conservatives into abandoning their principles.
The lure of this seduction is held to be so strong that it can only be prevented through regular doses of ideological inoculation. Part of the function of the conservative counter-establishment was to create separate social networks for the right that would counteract the effects of Georgetown cocktail parties. The old Washington social set rewarded Republicans for bipartisanship and punished them for hewing to their original beliefs. The new counter-establishment would do the opposite. Norquist has boasted about spurning traditional Washington social life for his alternative, movement-only dinner parties. "We didn't come to get invitations to their dinner parties or their receptions," he told The Washington Post a decade ago. "We don't need permission, seek approval, or hang out with the people who built the welfare state."
The netroots harbor a similar anti-Washington populism and, like the conservative movement, have set about creating alternative institutions and social networks. Some of them—such as MediaMatters, which monitors conservative bias in the news, or the New Politics Institute, which promotes innovative approaches to organizing—are based in Washington. (Neither is a creation of the netroots, but both are closely allied and hire bloggers as fellows.) Others are virtual. The most important of these is an e-mail list called Townhouse. It includes "many bloggers and other representatives of the netroots as well as a large number of partisan journalists and grassroots groups," Moulitsas has written, and its purpose is to "have a unified message in the face of a unified conservative noise machine."
The party-line sensibility that pervades the netroots is not some artificial, Stalinist imposition. The close ties that exist among the netroots and its allies grow out of the technology they use so naturally. As insular as elite Washington may be, the netroots' world is arguably more so. The leading liberal bloggers all know one another and generally regard one another as friends, or at least allies. The countless smaller liberal bloggers may not inhabit the same social circles, but the nature of the form encourages them to share the same political sensibility. After all, if you are a new liberal blogger, your only way to escape total anonymity is if larger, established blogs point readers to your site. E-mail feedback and reader comments tend to be uniformly partisan as well, reinforcing the path of least resistance.
Even Matthew Yglesias, who writes one of the most independent-minded liberal blogs, confessed in March that he had soft-pedaled his opposition to gun control. "I don't write about this issue much because, hey, I don't want to be a wanker," he wrote. "Wanker" is the netroots equivalent of the conservative term "squish"—an expression of derision reserved usually, but not exclusively, for ideological defectors. It describes behavior that, for liberal journalists and policy wonks who came into politics a generation earlier, was a badge of honor.
In replicating the form and structure of the conservative movement, inevitably the netroots have replicated its intellectual style as well. The netroots, like the conservative movement, believe that they represent a natural political majority, one that can only be stymied by the timidity of their party's political establishment. A Choice Not an Echo, Phyllis Schlafly's 1964 pro-Goldwater tract, insisted "there is no way Republicans can lose so long as we have apresidential candidate who campaigns on the issues." The logic of the netroots is eerily similar. "If we do our part to support the new generation of Democrats, the opposition doesn't stand achance," writes Moulitsas. "Because all the money, all the name ID, all the connections don't stand a chance against a real people-powered movement."
Just as the Goldwaterites reserved their strongest contempt for the moderates who controlled the GOP, the netroots are at their most single-minded in their opposition to the moderates who they believe control the Democratic Party. The netroots often identify this enemy in amorphous, populist terms—"the Beltway," "the D.C. establishment," etc. When it comes to identifying its adversaries more specifically, the two institutions named most often are the DLC and TNR. Netroots activists speak of these two institutions in stark terms. "This is the modern DLC—an aider and abettor of Right-wing smear attacks against Democrats," wrote Moulitsas, who proceeded to threaten to "make the DLC radioactive." In a posting about TNR, titled "TNR's defection to the Right is now complete," Moulitsas wrote that this magazine "betrayed, once again, that it seeks to destroy the new people-powered movement for the sake of its Lieberman-worshipping neocon owners." Both the DLC and TNR are perpetually described as "dying" or "irrelevant," yet simultaneously possessed of sinister and ubiquitous control over the national discourse.
In reality, of course, the DLC is a political enterprise and TNR a journalistic one; each has on its staff individuals who do not always agree with each other; and neither institution exerts total control over every individual on its payroll. While both the DLC and TNR supported the Iraq war, both stridently opposed almost every other element of the Bush agenda. The overwhelming majority of DLC missives and TNR articles are perfectly congenial to mainstream liberalism and perfectly hostile to the Republican Party of George W. Bush. But these sorts of subtleties generally escape the Manichean analysis that pervades the netroots.
What makes such internal enemies so dangerous is that they engage in self-criticism. It is not that the netroots forbid internal debate. Far from it: They indulge in all sorts of disagreements, tactical and substantive, just as conservatives do. What they consider treasonous is any criticism of any part of the Democratic Party or its activist base from the right. You can attack the Democratic leadership in Congress for failing to force a troop withdrawal from Iraq, but you cannot attack it for opposing a troop surge.
For instance, Moulitsas wrote that Tom Vilsack, in his former capacity as chairman of the DLC, "not only signed off on editorial decrees by the DLC opposing [John] Murtha's and other withdrawal plans, but also gave safe haven for these war mongering 'Democrats' to divide the party." It is permissible to divide the party from the left, by opposing a moderate Democratic position. But if you divide the party from the right, you are an enemy of the movement.
Like any political community, the netroots have developed distinctive linguistic tics that hold special meaning to adherents, and these reveal something about the way the movement thinks. Among the most revealing is the netroots' incessant use of the words "meme" or "frame" to describe ideas. It is a formulation that assumes that establishing the truth about an idea matters less than phrasing the idea in the most politically effective way and repeating it as much as possible. As Ed Kilgore (a moderate liberal blogger with a complicated relationship to the netroots) has put it, this wording "reflects the strange belief that politics is all about 'noise' and 'narratives'; whoever makes the most noise or gets the most Google hits is going to win, regardless of objective reality."
This somewhat cynical outlook is not a habit the netroots have merely fallen into; it's a deliberate strategy. Political punditry, in their view, is not a form of intellectual discourse but of political battle. In an interview last year with ABC News, Moulitsas explained the ethos with remarkable clarity:
I learned to talk the way I do in the U.S. Army. And we don't mince words. In politics, I don't see it any different. I see it as a battlefield. We didn't create this political environment; the Republicans did. The Rush Limbaugh[s] and Ann Coulter[s] created the world we live in, and, for too long, Democrats tried to keep the high ground: "Oh well, we're not going to go down in the muck with them."
And the bottom line is that they've been winning and we've been losing, and it isn't because a couple of people use a potty word. It's because they were aggressive, they promoted their side very effectively, they riled up the troops, they motivated their supporters, they made sure their base was well-nourished.
When you're in a battle, you use any weapon available. One of the netroots' distinctive contributions to American political discourse is the extremely promiscuous use of the insult "chickenhawk." To be sure, people outside the military who favor a war ought to be conscious of the fact that they will not personally bear the risks of battle. In the hands of the netroots, however, it has become an all-purpose refutation. In response to one Thomas Friedman column, Black wrote, "'You' are not 'surging' so go back to your billionaire's pad and shut the fuck up. You've helped cause enough misery, none of which actually involved you." The insult can even be used to discredit critics on subjects unrelated to warfare. When National Review reporter Byron York wrote an unflattering account of YearlyKos last year, Moulitsas sneered, "Byron is just another chickenshit who didn't serve his nation in uniform."
As a matter of logic, these insults are preposterous. Taken at face value, they suggest that it's illegitimate to support a war if you're not fighting in it. But nearly all liberal bloggers claim to support at least some wars—say, the fight in Afghanistan—and very few of them have ever served in the Armed Forces. (Moulitsas is a notable exception, having served in the Army.) So, by their own standards, most liberal bloggers are chickenhawks, too. In the netroots, though, the measure of an idea is its rhetorical effectiveness, not its truth.
The notion that political punditry ought to, or even can, be constrained by intellectual honesty is deeply alien to the netroots. They have absorbed essentially the same critique of the intelligentsia that the right has been making for decades. In the conservative imagination, journalists, academics, and technocrats are liberal ideologues masquerading as dispassionate professionals. Those who claim to be detached from the political struggle are unaware of their biases, or hiding them.
Norquist once said something to me that gave perfect expression to this view. During the 2000 campaign, the two of us were making small talk before we were set to debate, and he offered that the event would be clarifying for his team as well as for my team. I replied that, while I certainly have strong opinions, I wasn't working for any "team." Norquist smiled at me in a slightly condescending way and said, "Sometimes, we're on a team and we don't realize it. "
This is more or less the same view of the netroots. They attack liberals who, in their fervor to be seen as fair-minded, bend over backward so far that they do violence to truth. And they are quite right to do so. But the netroots critique is not that the liberal intelligentsia has stretched the conception of fairness too far; it is that the conception of fairness itself is folly. Any sense of detachment from the partisan fray is impossible. Earlier this year, Black made the point quite lucidly:
Lots of people imagine themselves to be, somehow, above the fray. The most obvious group which does this is journalists and their brethren. They fail to see themselves as actors on the political stage, instead of detached observers. ... I've also seen it in academics, who for all their supposed liberalness, to a great degree really see themselves outside of this grand messy business called politics. It's dirty, somehow.
You see it in technocrats, who too often devise their magical pony plans without considering the need to understand the broader context. From what people say, you see it in a lot of liberal donors/institutions, who somehow like to see what they do as operating outside of politics.
This ethos helps explain the enormous distrust between the netroots and the traditional liberal intelligentsia. (Or, as Black put it, the "incredible gap between those who see the debate as a kind of game and those who, you know, actually give a shit about stuff.") Part of it is the slight whiff of anti- intellectualism in some quarters of the netroots. (Moulitsas, echoing Black's thoughts, suggested that "'intellectuals' who'd rather read books and measure purity are next-to-useless. I prefer people of action, not of [sic] elitist academics.") The prevailing sentiment here, however, is not a distrust of pointy heads. Rather, it's a belief that political discourse ought to be judged solely by its real-world effects. The netroots consider the notion of pursuing truth for its own sake nonsensical. Their interest in ideas, and facts, is purely instrumental.
Because they convey facts and opinions about the news to their readers, bloggers associated with the netroots are often mistaken for journalists. That is, as reporter Garance Franke-Ruta (who covers the blogs) has put it, a "category error." This was thrown into stark relief earlier this year, when John Edwards hired Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, two bloggers who were prominent in the netroots. The pair quickly came under enough fire for past controversial blog posts—Marcotte, for example, had speculated, "What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit?"—that the Edwards campaign decided to cut them loose. Before it announced the decision, however, Marcotte and McEwan's allies lobbied heavily on their behalf. The liberal online magazine Salon reported the firings, but the Edwards camp hunkered down and refused to release a public statement while it decided on a course of action, then denied the firings to Salon the following day. Liberal bloggers in close contact with the campaign remained resolutely cryptic about what they knew. "The bloggers closed ranks around the Edwards campaign, some even claiming that Salon had gotten the story wrong," Salon's Joan Walshlater reported. To Walsh and other journalists, the relevant metric is true versus untrue. To an activist, the relevant metric is politically helpful versus politically unhelpful.
There is a term for this sort of political discourse: propaganda.The word has a bad odor, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. Propaganda is often true, and it can be deployed on behalf of a worthy cause (say, the fight against Nazism in World War II). Still, propaganda should not be confused with intellectual inquiry. Propagandists do not follow their logic wherever it may lead them; they are not interested in originality. Propaganda is an attempt to marshal arguments in order to create a specific real-world result—to win a political war.
The netroots have already changed U.S. politics in sundry ways. They have pressured the Democratic Party to adopt more innovative tactics rather than rely on the cookie-cutter advice of high-priced consultants. And they have pressed the party to adopt a more adversarial tone. Earlier this year, for instance, liberal bloggers successfully lobbied Democratic candidates to boycott a debate forum sponsored by Fox News, on the grounds that their participation would legitimize Fox's dubious claim to be a balanced news organization.
They have raised significant sums of cash for politicians, organized volunteers, and brought together like-minded activists. This has, inturn, created an alternative power center for recruiting candidates for office. Before the netroots, potential candidates who wanted the national party to take them seriously needed to raise large sums from familiar donors. Now they can raise money on the Internet and approach the national party from a position of strength. "They have totally changed the equation for what makes it possible for somebody to be a viable candidate," notes Mark Schmitt of the NewAmerica Foundation.
But the most important role played by the netroots is to purvey liberal and pro-Democratic propaganda to offset that coming from the right. As Moulitsas has noted, "We're better as a message machine."
It has taken an abnormally long time for this message machine to come into existence. In the decades after World War II, the news media evolved a strong professional standard of nonpartisanship. Network news broadcasts faced little financial pressure, and newspapers—fattened up by advertising monopolies—followed the dictates of their professional values rather than the demands of the market. They maintained costly bureaus in Washington and abroad, and their ideology was mostly high-minded establishment centrism.
The first outlets to break away from this news oligarchy all sprang up on the right—talk radio, Fox News, the Drudge Report. Such partisan outlets did a brilliant job of injecting pro-Republican stories and ideas into the mainstream public discourse, using classic propaganda techniques, endlessly repeating ideas, phrases, and images that helped their side with little regard for truth or intellectual consistency. During the '90s and the outset of the Bush years, this was the landscape: a large mainstream media, with a social liberal bias mostly buried beneath studious nonpartisanship, and a wildly partisan conservative media. All the pressure on the mainstream media came from the right. Even liberal opinion journalists, in this unbalanced world, felt obliged to demonstrate their nonpartisanship.
Liberals made several attempts to recreate the conservative message machine—Jim Hightower, Mario Cuomo, and countless others attempted and failed to create talk-radio programs. Most people concluded from these failures that liberals simply didn't want partisan vitriol of the sort offered up by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. They wanted high-minded discussions of the sort found on National Public Radio. Nonconservatives, wrote The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg in 2003, "wouldn't think it was fun to listen to expressions of raw contempt for conservatives."
This analysis, shared by nearly all observers just a few years ago, turns out to be completely wrong. Maybe an audience for raw partisan liberal attacks existed all along but was ill-served by piecemeal forays into talk radio. Or maybe the audience was born suddenly by the shock of the Bush years. In any case, it is obvious that a sizeable liberal audience was not being served the red meat it craved. "People were hungry for strong, unapologetic liberals,and those were completely absent from the media landscape," Moulitsas writes. "I mean, who did progressive [sic] have supposedly representing their side? Joe Frickin' Klein. Is it any wonder blogs grew in response?"
The creation of a liberal message machine has not only filled a vacuum in the political discourse. It has also had an impact on the mainstream media itself. One revealing window into how this has worked, as it happens, is Joe Frickin' Klein himself.
In early January, Time unveiled a new blog, Swampland, featuring several of its political writers, including Klein, a columnist for the magazine. While this was almost certainly not its intended effect, Swampland turned out to be a fascinating experiment about the effects of bringing mainstream journalists into close contact with the Internet left.
Klein's initial forays were classic Klein: His second post was ablast at "ill informed dilettantes" of the left who prove that "[l]iberals won't ever be trusted on national security until they start doing their homework." Predictably, the netroots lashed into him. Just as predictably, his immediate reaction was to lash back, in a follow-up blog post attacking "illiberal leftists and reactionary progressives" and suggesting that his critics did not want the administration's strategy in Baghdad to succeed.
The next couple of weeks, however, saw none of the sorts of criticism of liberals that marked Klein's first post and much of his career. When, a few weeks later, he ventured back onto controversial terrain, he did so in an apologetic tone, almost as if he were cringing in anticipation of the blows that were sure to follow. "I know it's become common practice to slag David Broder in the blogosphere," he wrote. "But let me say this in David's defense.. . ."
Klein still regularly took issue with his liberal critics, but the frequency of his dissents declined markedly, and the esteem with which he treated his tormentors rose commensurately. He continued to endure constant criticism and would often post three or four updates to his blog items, each replying to a wave of attacks. Moreover, Klein began with increasing frequency to concede the truth of the criticisms against him—e.g., "I was (correctly) hammered last year when I said on Stephanopoulos that 'all options—including nukes—should be on the table' in our dealings with Iran." And his liberal opinions seemed to grow more frequent and less hedged. ("I'm dedicating the rest of my life to making sure that we never go to war so foolishly again—if at all.")
Liberal bloggers regarded the newly tamed Klein with unconcealed satisfaction. In a post on how the netroots was successfully lobbying the mainstream media, Yglesias wrote, "I might also note that Swampland is suddenly full of posts I find much more agreeable than the ones they were doing early on." His fellow blogger Ezra Klein (no relation), of the Prospect, offered a persuasive explanation of his namesake's more liberal-friendly tone:
It's worth remembering that, for years, the only thing these quasi-liberal columnists heard was how biased, out of-touch, and incomprehensibly progressive they were. So they began tailoring, consciously or not, their work to defend against those criticisms.
Klein, like many journalists, had spent his career in a world where there was only one real movement in U.S. politics. He had become accustomed to sustained ideological mau-mauing, but he had expected it only from one side, and, over the years, this imbalance had taken its toll. Now, suddenly, there are two such movements, balanced on either side of the moderate mainstream.
Whether or not liberals ought to consider this a good thing depends on how wide their frame of reference is. At the narrow level, the netroots take part in a great deal of demagoguery, name-calling, and dishonesty. Seen through a wider lens, however, they bring into closer balance the ideological vectors of propaganda in our public life.
Take the case of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain soldier who camped out at Crawford, Texas, in August 2005, demanding to meet with President Bush. The press corps did not treat her as a serious story, and understandably so—there were many parents of fallen soldiers with strong views on Iraq, so why should hers hold such weight? But the netroots took hold of the Sheehan story, harping on it for days, and forced it onto the national agenda. This is the sort of thing conservatives have been doing for years. The Swift Boat Veterans For Truth deserved no special credibility, either, but, in 2004, the right-wing media apparatus elevated them onto the national stage. Was the veneration of Sheehan intellectually shabby? Without a doubt. Was it, considered as a whole, a bad thing? That is not so clear.
The Democratic Party, as Moulitsas has written, is indeed undergoing a comprehensive reformation, as is liberalism in general. At the end of this reformation, what will the left look like? It will look a lot more like the Republican machine that prevailed in Florida. It will be nastier and more ruthless, and less concerned with intellectual or procedural niceties. It will be more of a disciplined movement and less of a collection of idiosyncratic personalities.
Conservatives have crowed for years that they have "won the war of ideas." More often than not, such boasts include a citation of Richard Weaver's famous dictum, "Ideas have consequences." A war of ideas, though, is not an intellectual process; it is a political process. As my colleague Leon Wieseltier has written, "[I]f you are chiefly interested in the consequences, then you are not chiefly interested in the ideas." The netroots, like most of the conservative movement, is interested in the consequences, not the ideas. The battle is being joined at last.