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:

TNR The Left's New Machine Cover Photo 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.

Duncan “Atrios” Black, who (via Memeorandum) first drew my attention to the Chait piece, isn’t a fan of punditry for its own sake:

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. The comment from Black is rather interesting, although hardly surprising: despite his credentials he clearly thinks that political discourse is about “the fray”.

    For me, blogging daily for four years has made me far less interested in the fight and more interested in understanding and thinking about the way the world and politics works.

    I certainly have gotten to the point where I find point-scoring and the like to be tiresome. Indeed, it seems to me that the more that one is into point-scoring, the more likely one has forgotten what actual policy goals one was supposedly fighting for in the first place.

    It is simply easier to criticize the other “side” all the time–I just don’t see the virtue in that, despite Black’s claims.

    Then again, we are talking about someone who seems to think that labeling people a “wanker” is analysis and/or humor.

  2. Mark says:

    Douthat is right that much of the netroots is fueled by anti-Bush-Cheney rage.

    This framing always bothers me. I read it as implying a mindless anger against Bush/Cheney on a personal level. Am I reading too much into your phrasing? If so, I apologize.

    The Left objects to the Bush/Cheney policies.

    Anytime the Left says something disparaging about Bush/Cheney personally, they are playing into the Right’s hands by allowing the Right to dismiss the Left’s arguments with their cute phrases like “BDS”.

  3. James Joyner says:

    The Left objects to the Bush/Cheney policies.

    No doubt. But it’s clearly much more personal than that–even moreso than the Right’s animus toward Bill Clinton. Indeed, even before the flap over the 2000 recount, there was a personal dislike of Bush and Cheney.

  4. Mark says:

    Then again, we are talking about someone who seems to think that labeling people a “wanker” is analysis and/or humor.

    I don’t think it’s quite this simple. Here’s my take:

    Black has done a lot of analysis over the years. Those of us that read him regularly think we understand the point he is making when he labels someone a ‘wanker’. He doesn’t even have to be explicit about the analysis since it is so obvious. If he did analyze every situation he posts about, he would end up repeating himself since he has analyzed many similar situations in the past.

    The choice of the word ‘wanker’ is unimportant, any sarcastic or slightly derogatory word would do as well.

    I’m not sure what the closest analogy on the right would be? Maybe Instapundit and his “heh” and “indeeds” or whatever he says these days?

  5. carpeicthus says:

    Re: blogs vs. talk radio, could it simply be that more liberals know how to read?

    I kid because I care.

  6. carpeicthus says:

    But it’s clearly much more personal than that–even moreso than the Right’s animus toward Bill Clinton.

    I disagree strongly. I read FreeRepulic throughout the Clinton years — it was far more personal than policy-based. The entire notion that Clinton was a liberal Democrat was personal, not policy.

  7. Mark,

    It isn’t so much that I don’t understand what he means, it is that I have found, for years, that his style of bloggging sophomoric. I was actually extremely surprised when I learned that he had a Ph.D. in economics. It read to me like a bright college kid who still thought that ranting was a form of argumentation.

    It isn’t that I can’t take a little ranting, and I read some blogs that are hardly paragons of rhetorical virtue. Still, I don’t find Black’s style to be especially impressive or useful and think that, on balance, it appeals to our baser instincts (like many blogs do, both left and right) rather than actually being enlightening.

    Of course, on balance it is the blogs that engage in confrontation politics that get the most traffic, so clearly I am not in the majority in my views.

    For what it is worth, I stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh (and partisan talk radio in general) years ago because I got sick of everything being about scoring political points and ranting/emotion masquerading as analysis and thinking.

  8. legion says:

    The Left objects to the Bush/Cheney policies.

    I’d say it a bit more strongly than that, though. The left sees these policies as actively endangering the existence of this nation that – believe it or not! – liberals love too. The hard-right religious base’s efforts to unify church & state, the replacement of scientific evidence & experiment with dogma & evangelical teachings, the placement of party politics above any other concern, including basic national security, the entire concept of a ‘permanent majority party’, the list goes on and on.

    The derision and insult level is further enhanced by the right’s reflection of Bush’s own personality & management philosophy – he & the GOP actively define themselves, not just as Americans, but as capital-A AMERICA. It’s in all the rhetoric – if you don’t support with Bush, you don’t support America, if you work against the Republicans, you’re working against America, if you’re not out beating the drums for the nearest GOP candidate, you must be supporting the terrorists, etc.

  9. The left sees these policies as actively endangering the existence of this nation that – believe it or not! – liberals love too.

    I’d take it a little farther in that the Left has a different vision for America. On foreign policy for example they want American force only to be used with permission from other nations through organizations like the U.N. Requiring France’s permission to do anything is absurd if you’re the leader of the free world.

  10. carpeicthus says:

    Not quite true — only when waging war on a whim. With actual provocation there’s a different story. Most liberal bloggers supported the war in Afghanistan despite deep reservations about the leadership — reservations that quickly proved correct when they screwed it up in pretty severe ways. And that was against a nation that was harboring the people who attacked us. If a nation provided a direct attack, France’s support would be nice, but very few people would lose any sleep over it.

  11. jpe says:

    While the left still dominated academe and the most influential newspapers, they couldn’t command an audience anymore.

    If the author can’t tell the difference between the Times and The Nation, I’d question his intelligence.

    The more reasonable interpretation is that the distinction between The Nation and the Times is elided to score political points (‘no one will buy what the left is selling!’ being the implication of the passage above). And that’s not surprising; this is a good conservative blog, but conservative nonethless.

  12. jpe says:

    Y’know, my reading is above is less than charitable. Consider it stricken.

  13. Barry says:

    I have to second the critiques of Douthat’s comment. The raw, screaming hatred of President Clinton was not just a Freeper phenomenon- it was talk radio and numerous magazines. The allegedly liberal elite media people never found a rumor that they weren’t willing to print, even from paid Republican operatives. They kicked President Clinton even as he left the White House, then suddenly decided that they had been mistaken, and that they should be soft and cuddly towards the President (Bush).

    As Bush has scr*wed the country, the media spent years quite happily going along with the GOP theme of ‘opposition = treason’. The allegedly liberal media did not lead opposition to the war, or to Bush – it followed the American people.

  14. Barry says:

    A follow-up: something I noticed about Chait’s article is that, aside from being light on empirics (as Easterbrook pointed out), it doesn’t speak about truth, or facts. The whole point of journalistic process, ‘faireness’, ‘objectivity’ is to encourage fact-finding and the dissemination of truth. Without that, the process is worthless. But Chait doesn’t seem to think that that is worth mentioning. Possibly partly because he works for TNR, whose record on the war is not something that he’d like to bring up. But also because the elites of the MSM haven’t been all that concerned about truth, for the past couple of decades. They find ‘he said, she said’ stories to be more their style.