Defending the netroots: Bloggers counter Jonathan Chait

Eric Alterman
Matthew Yglesias

Eric Alterman

It feels a little perverse to read so detailed and extensive a piece about lefty blogs; Jonathan Chait's nearly 8,000 words strikes me as being roughly 20 times as long as the average blog post. Thing is, it's still not long enough. Chait's range, linguistic felicitousness, and self-confidence are quite impressive. I found myself nodding in agreement through most of the piece at points I hadn't realized before as Chait's argument crystallized my thinking in ways that only the best opinion journalism can do.

In many ways, in fact, the piece is what TNR does best, and it's a good argument for a magazine that (mercifully) arrives only twice a month now--leaving only The New Yorker in the guilt-inducing category of "too much damn (long but worthwhile) stuff to read every week"--but forces one to discipline one's thinking about something significant, even if one differs about the nature of that significance. On the other hand--and this is also endemic to the best and worst of almost all opinion pieces but particularly at TNR--Chait's piece is actually empirically empty. Either we trust Chait or we don't. I didn't notice a single point of evidence in the analysis that could not be argued away. (Does Joe Klein really think he responds in such Pavlovian fashion to the dog-biscuits handed out by his new owners? I actually agree with Chait on Klein--witness the fact that he almost wanted to have a fist-fight with me because I refuse to like him as much as he says Bruce Springsteen, Omar Minaya, and Atrios do.) My point is: It's unprovable. Even Michael Kinsley is wrong sometimes (witness his over-the-cliff contrarianism of late about Alberto Gonzales), and, while Chait is obviously readable, intelligent, and eloquent, he makes a few points that do not stand up to scrutiny and--perhaps owing to space limitations--misses a few others.

First the latter. If you read Chris Bowers's thoughtful article at Democratic Strategist, you'll see a whole set of accomplishments of the netroots movement that Chait doesn't even address. I counted four, under the headings:

    • Closing the fundraising gap.
    • Campaigning on Iraq.
    • Stretching Republicans' resources thin.
    • New infrastructure, new ideas.

I'd argue that, had he even feinted in the general direction of these phenomena, it would have had the effect of tipping the balance further to the netroots team. Anyway, read Bowers's piece.

The main argument I want to have with Chait concerns what he deems to be the netroots' purposeful intellectual insularity with regard to the idealized platonic cosmopolitanism of establishment journalists and policy wonks. If history is any guide, it just ain't so. One can pick almost any moment in American history and, in examining the public debate over a given issue compared with what historians later learned, see that most of what we think we know about complex issues--particularly when it comes to foreign policy--turns out to be wrong. Much--perhaps most--journalism (and public debate, too) turns out to be based on false premises. Because journalists pretend, particularly to themselves, to have no ideology save "objectivity," anyone who challenges the agreed-upon version of events is immediately branded an "ideologue"--on the left or the right. (How many times have you heard some self-satisfied jerk say, "Well, I'm being attacked by the left and the right, so I must be doing something right"?) In fact, it's frequently the moral and intellectual freedom that ideology invites that allows these outsiders to see the inconvenient truths that elude the mainstream narrative. Chait's narrative of how the netroots saw the Florida recount strikes me as a great deal more accurate than anything anyone would have read anywhere in the MSM at the time--again, given what we now know to be true. The Iraq case is even stronger. One could make a sound empirical argument--based on virtually every major event in the Bush presidency--that the MSM narrative was a convenient invention of self-interested parties while the analysis that permeated the netroots has been largely borne out (so far) by history. Had, say, Atrios been in charge of things, rather than the figure in the White House--whom Tim Russert mused at the time was sent by God for just this purpose--hundreds of thousands of people would still be alive, Americans would not be more hated than at any time in our history, we would not be creating terrorists faster than bathroom germs, and most TNR editors would have a great deal less for which to apologize to their readers.

So why did all these smart folks believe so much nonsensical crap coming out of the mouths of the proven liars in the Bush administration? This leads to another fundamental disagreement I have with Chait. Put simply: MSM journalism is Lippmann; the netroots are Dewey. Chait is rather dismissive of Grover Norquist's desire to keep his people out of Kay Graham's house for cocktails, but I think history--and my own personal experiences living nearly ten years in Washington and the past twelve years outside of it--bear him out. Izzy Stone used to say that one reason he didn't like to interview top officials was that--and I paraphrase--it made you understand why it was such a good idea not to print things. It's just bad manners to call the people you lunch with, party with, green-room with liars, incompetents, charlatans, and, in some cases, crooks. But many of them are. So one has to choose in Washington, between a sense of being part of mainstream culture--with all its attractions: whether material, social, or merely psychological--or telling the truth. Because most people don't like to think of themselves as convenient liars, and because everywhere one turns, the false narrative is reinforced, the solution that usually offers itself is to start believing the lie and condemning, if only subconsciously, everybody else who, for whatever reason, refuses to play along.

This process is natural and need not be placed in quite such stark terms. Almost everyone compromises a little bit with inconvenient truths--and, hell, who really wants to be friends with someone who doesn't? But, as the netroots have demonstrated time and again--and as Chait demonstrates on the one hand, but sometimes appears to forget on the other--in the face of a 40 year political onslaught by a well-funded, well-disciplined, and ultimately insatiable right-wing assault on reason, the Washington establishment in general and the Democratic elite in particular have often caved in. As the great enlightenment philosopher John Stuart Mill asked: "Without publicity, how could [democratic citizens] either check or encourage what they were not permitted to see?" Thanks in large measure to the netroots "movement" Chait describes, Americans can see a great deal more clearly today than yesterday, and, as far as I can tell, we're a hell of a better country for it.

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Matthew Yglesias

I have about a million things to say about Jonathan Chait's alternatively brilliant and infuriating essay on the netroots. Nothing, however, infuriates quite like being misrepresented, so I'll start with myself:

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 much about this issue because, hey, I don't want to be a wanker," he wrote.

Chait, though engaged in a reasonable reading of the text I produced, is misinterpreting my intention. The passage in question came in the course of a post in which I was not soft-pedaling my opposition to gun control at all, but rather praising a Supreme Court ruling that called into question the constitutionality of the District of Columbia's prohibition on handgun ownership and regretting the fact that the ruling did not, after all, mean that I would soon be allowed to acquire a handgun. Rather than "confessing" to a pattern of soft-pedaling my views on the issue, I was--in my mind at least -- bragging that, unlike many other professional journalists, I don't go out of my way to harp on points of disagreement with the liberal orthodoxy purely in order to bolster my credentials as an independent-minded blogger.

Interestingly, that same week I got a job offer from The Atlantic Monthly to be a blogger on their website, and my reputation for independent thinking--a monetarily valuable reputation Chait kindly bolsters--was cited as one of my praiseworthy qualities. I wonder sometimes whether this means my current blogging habits are adequate to the imperatives of my career, or if it means I should try harder to emphasize my opposition to gun control or my libertarian notions about small business licensing and then see the job offers really pour in.

The mistake in interpretation is understandable given what I wrote, but it's also telling. It misunderstands the objective incentive structure in the United States (where the forces pushing liberal writers to exaggerate our heterodoxies are far more powerful than those pushing us to stifle them) and reflects an oddly conspiratorial view of the netroots that runs through the article. Chait explains that the netroots "have set about creating alternative institutions and social networks" some of which are "virtual" and "the most important of these is an e-mail list called Townhouse." Townhouse, though something TNR writers seem interested in thanks to a controversy involving a somewhat sloppy blog item Jason Zengerle wrote about it months ago, is, in the real world, utterly banal. This is hardly an institution--it is, simply put, an e-mail list with many, many, many members and a tediously heavy volume of traffic. Chait chooses to accept Markos Moulitsas's vastly overblown characterization of its purpose as to "have a unified message in the face of a unified conservative message machine" at face value even though, as Chait well knows, Moulitsas is prone to grandiosity and overblown rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Chait's characterization of the netroots' beef with The New Republic and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) seems deliberately obtuse. "What makes such internal enemies so dangerous," writes Chait, "is that they engage in self-criticism." In particular, Chait--in a bit of unsubstantiated overstatement--thinks that the netroots considers "any criticism of any part of the Democratic Party or its activist base from the right" to be "treasonous." Rather, the primary issue is that netroots activists and TNR have major, persistent, principled disagreements about foreign policy. Secondarily, a certain proportion of TNR's published material evinces a kind of sneering dislike for liberal politicians and activists, even as TNR writers happily market themselves as liberal (but independent-minded!) pundits when such a label suits them. (Until its recent sale to CanWest, it was owned by men who seem to hate most liberals and liberalism as an ideology, which were strange attributes for a liberal publication.)

Which brings things back to me. Chait recognizes the existence of a "wonkosphere" of more journalism-oriented bloggers who coexist happily with the activist netroots without being identical too them. Or, as Chait puts it in his conspiracy-minded phrasing, "the two groups generally regard one another as allies and criticize one another tepidly if at all." A less conspiratorial way of putting it would be that we in the wonkosphere don't criticize netroots activists all that frequently or vehemently because we tend not to disagree with them on the merits all that frequently about matters of fundamental importance. And, after all, why should it be otherwise? I'm a liberal journalist, liberal activists are liberal activists, and the reason the adjective "liberal" fits in both cases is that we subscribe to similar worldviews. When we disagree, we disagree--but it's not extremely frequent, tends to be on matters of subsidiary importance, and is conducted respectfully.

Nothing nefarious is happening here. Chait might have done well to consider that there is what you might call a "wonkosphere expanded universe" of progressive pundits who aren't primarily identified with the Internet and who aren't viewed as hostile by the netroots. Paul Krugman and Harold Meyerson (on the op-ed pages) come to mind, as do TNR's more liberal current and former staffers like Jonathan Cohn and Spencer Ackerman, the less wildly left-wing Nation writers, et cetera. Chait's notion seems to be that the netroots despises intellectual honesty and celebrates only shallow propaganda; but the fact is that the liberal netroots' favorite pundits are the ones who express liberal views: Who should liberals prefer? An institution like The New Republic, whose main institutional and emotional commitment is to right-wing Israeli nationalism (a commitment, I might add, frequently expressed through the sort of demagoguery, name-calling, and dishonesty Chait professes to find distasteful), infuriates the netroots even though individual TNR writers and articles garner praise. Similarly, it would be odd for liberal activists to like the DLC given that the DLC's central mission is to curb the influence of liberal activists over Democratic Party politicians. Other pundits the netroots love to hate include Joe Klein, whose work Chait also disapproves of; Thomas Friedman, a buffoon; and Maureen Dowd, who I'd hardly propose putting forward as the great apostle of seriousness about ideas.

All that said, Chait provides an admirable reconstruction of the intellectual origins of the netroots movement, its love/hate relationship with the conservative movement, and the logic of its objections to the "centrist" political strategies that seemed so appealing in the 1990s--by far the best account by a true outsider that I'm aware of. He has attached to this, however, an over-complicated account of the netroots' relationship to the left-of-center pundit establishment, since the main story, in my view, is simply that liberal activists want to see liberalism represented on the country's op-ed pages and chat shows by liberal pundits who like liberals and treat them respectfully. The interesting question on this front isn't why this is what liberals want to see, but how it ever came to be the case that it was (and, indeed, continues to be) seen as de rigeur for the left side of the political spectrum to be represented in the MSM primarily by people who don't see the world this way.

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By Eric Alterman