The Kos-ification of the Democrats

Benjamin Wallace-Wells has a feature on Markos Moulitsas Zuniga called, “Kos Call–For America’s number one liberal blogger politics is like sports: It’s all about winning.” The piece paints the picture of an angry jerk for whom the end justifies any means.

I hate Washington,†says Markos Moulitsas Zuniga. Many people, of course, say that they hate Washington. Jay Leno says so. So do Rush Limbaugh and Monica Lewinsky. But Moulitsas, who is the world’s biggest political blogger, says it differently, with a freshly arrived-at and deeply felt zeal, as if he himself has discovered the place and its pathologies anew. When Moulitsas says Washington, he’s not talking about Bush’s Washington with its pitched partisan camps and pay-to-play ethos. He’s talking about Democratic Washington: the liberal Ivy League mandarins, consultants, and wonks, many of them refugees from the Clinton administration, insiders whom he believes have run the Democratic Party and the progressive movement into the ground, by valuing compromise over confrontation. To him, it’s not that these people have the wrong values or priorities. It’s that they are failures. Moulitsas’s career to this point has been a bet that enough other people share this very precise, nearly sub-articulate animus.


Some influential Democrats believe this new mindset has been largely responsible for many of the party’s recent successes in Washington—fighting off the White House’s Social-Security privatization plan, closing down the Senate to force an investigation into pre-war intelligence, and defeating an attempt by the White House to suspend labor laws in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. “These Democratic insiders believe that Moulitsas and his website, who helped egg the party on in this toughened moment, might be transformative, and they want to place a gaudy bet on him.

They also believe, even more strongly, that Moulitsas is transformative, that he contains the trigger for a new political epoch. The DCCC’s executive director, John Lapp, says that Moulitsas’s model is “a signal event in political history, like the Kennedy-Nixon debates, in how it gets people involved.†And Simon Rosenberg, the president of the centrist New Democratic Network (NDN), says that “frankly I don’t think there’s anyone who’s had the potential to revolutionize the Democratic Party that Markos does.†This great faith has put Moulitsas—an extremely smart, irascible, self-contradictory, often petty, always difficult, non-practicing attorney and web programmer with no real political experience—in the position of trying to understand, on the fly, what real power is and how it might be exercised, thrust him into a flailing, wild-eyed and bold solitary venture, trying to turn a website into a movement.

Kos notes that there are several errors in the piece but,

This isn’t a hit piece. If anything, the errors make me sound more impressive than I actually am. But the mistakes in those first four paragraphs build me up as someone ingrained in the party structure when things couldn’t be further from the truth.

He makes no apologies for focusing on tactics rather than policy:

The author writes that winners in politics then have to govern. It’s true.

But I’m not sure where the notion that Daily Kos had to singularly encapsulate the entire VLWC came from. Everyone has a role. I see Daily Kos as part of our noise machine, with tangents into organizing, fundraising, and even think tank wonkery (like the energy policy work organized by Jerome). But at the end of the day, this site won’t replace the need for a network of think tanks to challenge CATO, Heritage, and the like. In fact, our book makes this very clear — there is no single solution to the problems facing the party. The blogs (like this one) are a piece of the puzzle, but it’s a big-ass puzzle with lots of parts.

So the fact that Daily Kos isn’t particularly focused on policy isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. We can’t single-handedly rescue the progressive movement. We are but a small part of a much broader whole.

Duncan “Atrios” Black wholeheartedly agrees,

I’ve said this before, but there’s just little point in detail-oriented grand policy proposals when Bush and Republicans are in office. Just about everything their side offers up involves tax cuts, corporate pork, or cuts to programs that help keep granny from freezing to death in winter. The rest are complete disasters for obvious reason, like the Medicare drug plan, and there’s really not much to discuss.

If our team actually had some power we could be debating the merits of various universal health care proposals, or considering just how large a minimum wage increase might be appropriate, or various other wonky things. It would be good fun. But we live in an unserious age where the people running the government have no interest in policy and the people not running government have no ability to get anything passed without having anything good about it destroyed by the Republicans.

Garance Franke-Ruta argues that good policy would help at the tactical level, though:

Standing up, standing firm, and standing tough are all essential for Democrats to win again — but the single most important deficit cited by voters in survey after survey, and focus group after focus group, is a lack of clarity about what Democrats stand for. A pragmatic, tactical movement can move the ball on the first set questions and carve out space for liberal politics that is at once less dogmatic and more steadfast, but it’s not necessarily cut out for the task of redefining liberalism for the 21st century. That, I suspect, will continue to be the work of the smaller, wonkier publications that arrive in the mail (like this one and The Monthly), and of think tanks.

Kevin Drum is wistful:

All political movements have both tacticians and theoreticians, so there’s nothing odd that Kos is all about tactics and prefers to leave the ideology to others. But there’s more to it than that. To a large extent, I think Kos is symbolic of nearly the entire political blogosphere, which tends to be far more a partisan wrecking crew than a genuine force for either progressive or conservative thought.

I’m honestly not sure what I think of that. Maybe it’s just the nature of the medium, and we should be happy to leave the serious thinking to the think tanks. At the same time, I have a feeling that it’s also a reflection of something that’s been obscured by the ever shriller noise machines on both sides: the death of ideology. Partisanship may be at an all-time high in Washington DC, but when you cut through the chatter, ideology may be at an all-time low.

Responding to Black, he notes,

There’s something to [the unseriousness of the current environment], and as a blogger who enjoys talking about policy I find this atmosphere pretty discouraging. Still, liberals will be back in power someday, and it would be nice if the blogosphere could help keep the wonkish embers glowing in anticipation of that happy day.

Not surprisingly, given that my interest is in public policy, I agree.

Kos has been incredibly successful (although, as Mark Coffey points out, not as much as the distorted site stats listed in the article might suggest)his flame thrower/activist role and there’s a need for tacticians. While it’s true that there’s no point in winning elections if you don’t have a governing agenda, an agenda doesn’t do much good unless you win elections.

The win at all cost mentality, which is more a function of the permanent campaign and the ever-increasing role of the federal government than anything Kos has done, is corrosive. There was a sense, as recently as the 1980s, that once the election was over, it was time to govern. Presidents who won elections were entitled to a honeymoon period and preparations for the next election were on the back burner. In recent years, though, the losing party immediately sought to undermine the legitimacy of the winner and brought out all the tools at their disposal to obstruct.

This tendency is very much bipartisan. We saw signs of it with the Bork hearings but also with the Gingrich ascendency and the criminalization of politics that brought down much of the Democratic leadership of Congress in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The country would no doubt be better off if the debate returned to policy rather than politics. Sadly, there is no sign that’s about to happen.

Update: Max Sawicky, in a piece cleverly titled, “Wonk this Way,” adds,

You may be able to shout, but if what you have to say is crap, the volume isn’t much of an asset.


The Bushists may lie like the dickens, but at bottom in many cases their messages are founded on certain commonsensical notions. And not infrequently, Democratic politicians talk absolute rubbish. The Repubs’ messages are highly debatable, and from my standpoint invariably wrong, to be sure, but they are not hollow.


If you don’t think the Democratic Party doesn’t have the same potential for lyin, cheatin, and stealin, you are gravely misinformed. The only constraint on the abuse of power — besides an opposition lurking in the wings — is an engaged, informed public. Being angry and stupid isn’t good enough.

Now, obviously, we disagree on the attributes of the two parties, at least in emphasis and intensity. But we agree on the core premises that policy matters and that honest debate over policy is essential to good governance.

One problem with the win at all costs model–which, again, is absolutely bipartisan, the Democrats are just better at it right now because they’re in opposition–is that it leads to politics being seen as a sport where you merely root for whoever happens to be wearing the team colors at the moment. Ordinary voters are more likely to be turned off by the rancorous atmosphere and the core electorate will likely be more energized than ever to make sure that the “bad guys” lose.

Perhaps it’s a function of age and cynicism as much as actual change in climate, but this does strike me as genuinely recent. While I was a genuine enthusiast for Ronald Reagan and the Republicans when I was first seriously interested in politics, I never thought that Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Tip O’Neil–or even Mike Dukakis and Robert Byrd–were anything other than honorable men with whom I disagreed on some important issues of policy. Indeed, I thought that way about Harry Reid until he took on the Chief Obstructionist mantle as Minority Leader.

Now, it is rare for me to take a member of the Democratic leadership seriously. The presumption is that whatever comes out of their mouth is scripted for political advantage rather than motivated by genuine conviction.

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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. RA says:

    For every Democrat that Kos inspires, he inspires 2-3 Republicans into action. Tom Daschle used these slash and burn tactics and lost.

    From a political stand point Kos is a looser. None of the candidates he supports ever win. In that respect he is very good for Republicans. Americans recognize extremists when they are honest about their policies. Kos is way out of the mainstream even if he and his hellions don’t see it.

  2. Herb says:

    Democrats Changing? What a joke, If they were about to change, they must first stop lying, Then thay have to learn how not to obstruct every piece of legislation put before them, Then they have to have a idea rather than just shoot their big mouths off with no ideas at all, And lastly, they must have a plan and some soloutions, that so far has escaped their mentality.

    Change? They don’t have the capacity to change.

  3. mycat says:

    No one who voted for Karl Rove, oops I mean Bush, has any business complaining about partisanship or ends vs. means scorched earth ruthlessness. It took years for Democrats to realize that that we would have to use Republican tactics against them (not the illegal tactics or immoral tactics, just the highly partisan ones). If any Republican wants to step back to the good old days of civil disagreement between people of good will, you will have start with some honest asssesment of your own politicians and clean yor own house.

  4. James Joyner says:

    mycat: Did you actually read the post?

  5. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Mycat, are you on drugs? It is obvious that your knowledge of American Political History is lacking. If we limit our search to just the last 50 years, I call your attention to the political history of Lyndon Baines Johnson. After that, I would like to draw your attention to the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy to the Presidency in 1960. Pay particular attention to the votes in Illinois. Particularly Chicago. Then look at how the defeated, then Vice President, acted. I hate to be rude, but you are either misinformed, a liar, or an idiot. Maybe all three.

  6. Bithead says:

    Let’s not give Kos quite so much credit, James.

    My read is that Kos is a symptom, not a cause.

  7. Taleena says:

    While I was a genuine enthusiast for Ronald Reagan and the Republicans when I was first seriously interested in politics, I never thought that Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Tip O’Neil–or even Mike Dukakis and Robert Byrd–were anything other than honorable men with whom I disagreed on some important issues of policy. Indeed, I thought that way about Harry Reid until he took on the Chief Obstructionist mantle as Minority Leader.

    I think there are still honorable men and women in the Democratic party, leadership and voters. I have come full circle, it is only recently that I have come back to thinking that there is honor there. Granted some, like Mr. Zuniga, I think are digusting and mired in thier own self importance. Some though are honorable people with a complete disconnect from reality.

    Some who say, “The US is imperialist! Don’t question my patriotism!” really do love thier country, even if thier version of the United States is a distorted reflection of the reality. I live in a blue state on an island that has a military base on the top end and an artist colony on the south end. 95% of the people I talk to have the same aims: a country at peace, the helpless are aided, brotherhood resides, and dreams are pursued.

    The problem intrudes when you get to the method of obtaining these goals, and the left’s methods don’t work. Instead of questioning methodology they lash out and become even more disconnected from reality.

    If the goal is to throw an apple 100 feet to the north, the right says “I’ll build a slingshot, may not be exactly dead accurate but I can get close.” The left says, “if I throw hard enough south, the apple will circle the globe and end up at the goal.” Same goal, but the method doesn’t work. Instead of reexamining the method, the left blames the right for the failure.

  8. jimbo says:

    Taleena hit it right. Leftist solutions don’t work. I live in a very liberal town in a state that is migrating from evenly split to very left. My neighbors are wonderful people but very misguided. A lot of it is puerile Bush hatred that grew out of the 2000 debacle. A lot of it is real concern about the perceived bigotryof the religious right. Even more of it is just ignorance that expresses itself in policy prescriptions based on a complete misunderstanding of how the world works but motivated by a sincere desire to do good. There is also anti-americanism. By that I do not mean that liberals are unpatriotic or that they love their country any less than anyone else. The anti-americanism that I speak of is a complete acceptance of fashionable media opinion even if it is contrary to our nation’s interests. The problem then is that too many Republicans jump on this and call it unpatriotic. There is also a problem in that liberals go into politics because they want government to solve problems. Those who know better than to expect the government to solve problems don’t go into politics. That leaves the field open for the religious right and the pay to play crowd.