Netroots The Left’s New Machine
Jonathan Chait has a longish cover piece in TNR entitled, “The Left’s New Machine: How the netroots became the most important mass movement in U.S. politics.” What particularly struck me was this:
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.”
That had been no liberal “movement” until the last few years is something that had not really occurred to me. Presumably, it’s partly a function of the fact that left-of-center politics predominated in most of the important institutions until recently. While the presidency was usually Republican, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for decades and usually had the Senate as well. The influential newspapers and television networks and elite universities were substantially left-of-center.
The Left, therefore, didn’t need a “movement” for the same reason they didn’t need a Rush Limbaugh or a Fox News: They dominated elite discussion and got their voice out without difficulty.
That all began to change in the 1990s. Ironically, it happened during the tenure of — and partially in response to — a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Talk radio became a beacon for disaffected conservatives, providing an alternative to the mainstream press. Toward the end of the decade, Fox News arose with “Fair and Balanced” coverage that skewed right, especially when compared to their competitors. While the left still dominated academe and the most influential newspapers, they couldn’t command an audience anymore.
Chait traces the rise of the Netroots to the furor over the 2000 election recount process. Interestingly, though, the blogosphere took off after the 9/11 attacks and was initially dominated by right-of-center voices. (National security hawks although, generally, not social conservatives.) Sometime during the run-up to the 2004 election, though, that had changed. As MyDD’s Chris Bowers and others have documented, several sites on the left had become communitarian hubs of activism. Chait profiles several of them but myDD, DailyKos, and Eschaton were and likely still are the most important.
Whether because of differing personalities or the fact that the Republicans controlled the presidency and both Houses of Congress or, likely, some combination, a right-Netroots has yet to emerge. RedState was an attempt to created a DailyKos-style community on the Right but it doesn’t have anywhere near the influence. Recently, it was absorbed into the
Salem Media Eagle Publishing/TownHall corporate empire, lessening its impact as an independent hub. With minor exceptions such as Porkbusters, there simply isn’t much activism among the major right-of-center blogs.
I’ve had offers to join various PACs and on-line campaigns and have declined. Frankly, I have no desire for OTB to become part of some “movement” where every post needs to be crafted in accordance with some Master Agenda. I’ve never aspired to be more than a commentator here, giving (usually) quick takes on things that capture my interest and having a discussion with my audience. As I’ve brought co-authors aboard, I’ve kept them within the same broad ideological framework but, mostly, the same analytical tradition.
I’m all for high minded academic research, though I’m not sure what that has to do with largely fluffy political opinion magazines, but I do object to those who imagine that they think their grand thoughts without concern for outcomes. It’s grotesque absurdity that pundits and opinion journalists spend their time writing about things even though they don’t care about the outcomes. What an odd way to spend one’s time. It’s just a conceit by those who like to imagine themselves to be above the fray, that their subjective (if well-researched) opinions are imbued with the Truth.
In my own case, at least, I care very much for the outcomes. To the extent that I’m a public intellectual, I hope my writing changes some minds. At the same time–while I don’t pretend to be “objective” or lack partisan leanings–I call ’em like I see ’em, even if doing so infinitesimally weakens the Greater Cause. Indeed, from what I’ve read of Black’s writings, he’s in that boat as well, showing no reluctance to direct some profanity-laced invective at Democrats who annoy him.
Kevin Drum draws my attention to this passage from Chait:
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?”
Drum correctly notes that no liberal blogs get the level of readership that would sustain a national radio show, so Hertzberg and company were probably right. Then again, the top liberal blogs have a bigger audience than the top conservative blogs, and conservatives have managed to support several radio commentators. Still, Air America didn’t catch on, despite the considerable talents of Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo. I’d snark that FCC regulations prohibiting profanity was the cause, but myDD, especially, is generally very high-brow, verging on academic.
Drum thinks time may be the factor: “It took movement conservatives a couple of decades to build up their audience, and maybe it’ll take liberals that long too. Or maybe not. Olbermann is doing pretty well these days, isn’t he?” Indeed he is. Then again, it’s taken him a couple of decades to build up his audience. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, though, shot to stardom much more quickly–and without Olbermann’s vitriol. So, clearly, there are models.
Ross Douthat makes an interesting point:
I think Chait’s analysis of the “movement” quality of the netroots is spot-on, but he glides over what seems like a significant distinction between “movement” conservatism and netroots liberalism – namely, the extent to which the latter is tied less to any specific set of issues than to a hatred of the present Administration and all its works. I’m not saying that such passion isn’t a good catalyst for organizational and electoral success, but I’m less sure that it’s the kind of thing that sustains a movement in the long term, the way the conservative movement was sustained by a series of major policy goals – from reversing Roe v. Wade to shrinking the size of government to defeating Communism – over the course of its decades-long rise. The gang at National Review weren’t involved in political journalism just because they hated JFK and the liberal establishment; the ideas drove the politics, not the other way around.
Now, this is somewhat unfair, as the anger over the Iraq War is, I believe, quite genuine. Still, Douthat is right that much of the netroots is fueled by anti-Bush-Cheney rage. Will that survive into 2009, especially if a Democrat is elected president? Quite possibly not. Then again, liberals have been predicting that Rush Limbaugh would go away 1) after Clinton got elected and he couldn’t toady up to the administration anymore, 2) after Clinton was out of office and he couldn’t rant about his favorite punching bag anymore, 3) once Bush got elected and he couldn’t rail at an incumbent, and so forth. It may well be that the netroots, like the civil rights movement and women’s movement, will manage to sustain itself long after the initial motivating grievances were gone.