J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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The Silence of the Netroots (cross-posted on NYC Indymedia)

Posted by chanders on September 3, 2006

The moment Ned Lamont toppled pro-war incumbent Senator Joseph Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic Primary, a new– but also a very old– narrative got underway in American politics. Captured by Time Magazine, new (or old) story went something like this: “With Lieberman’s primary loss, the netroots movement has established itself as a power center among Democrats. But will its influence haunt the party in November?"

The capture of the soul of a political party by its formally excluded, the transformation of outsiders into insiders is nothing new; indeed, such is the narrative that underlies the triumph of the modern-day Republican Party, from the ashes of Barry Goldwater to Ronald Regan’s shining “city on a hill.” But before progressive activists become too enraptured by the triumph of the netroots, there are some serious questions that need to be answered– or at least discussed. Is a “passion to win” all that really matters in politics? How do the social dynamics of the internet affect the makeup of the liberal blogosphere? And what is the place of big ideas in today’s liberal, not to mention progressive or radical, American movements?

Lamont vs Tasini: A Passion to Win

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the most powerful liberal political blogs like the Daily Kos, MyDD, Eschaton, the Huffington Post, is their pragmatism, their passion to win.  The absence of such a killer instinct among segments of the American left has long been  a source of frustration for many progressives; as ex-60’s radical turned Democratic Party activist Todd Gitlin wrote in the summer of 2001:

The right also tends to win in the great game of organization—and in a mass democracy, that means the great game of politics. Our side likes to have fun. We cherish our differences and identity factions. We like to argue about the political significance of movies and TV shows, not about the politics of pensions and living wages. The fanatics of the right get up early and stay up late. They sit through meetings. They take instructions. This does not make them insuperable. But it does make them the team to beat. And the left will not beat them until it is just as serious—yes, just as fanatical—about winning.

For pragmatic progressives like Gitlin, then, there seems to be a new reason to hope. The netroots “crashing of Washington’s gates wasn’t about ideology, it was about pragmatism,” wrote Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas in the Washington Post in the summer of 2006. Closer to home, and even more bluntly, Daily Gotham contributor Michael Bouldin had this to say about his vision of politics: “I believe strongly that politics is not about "taking a stand" or "expressing feelings" or other such therapeutic drivel; it is about winning.”

Bouldin’s commentary was written in reaction to the candidacy of anti-war Democrat Jonathan Tasini, and Tasini’s candidacy, as much as anything else, demonstrates the playing-to-win mentality of much of the liberal blogosphere. The most powerful lefty blogs, with the exception of the Huffington Post, have either ignored Tasini entirely or systematically denigrated his candidacy, especially in comparison for the near-holy crusade that became the Lamont (or rather, the anti-Liberman) campaign. Despite the numerous “member diaries”written about Tasini in the past few months on the Daily Kos, there has been no “featured” diary about the Democratic candidate for at least the past month, maybe more. Atrios of Eschaton has ignored Tasini entirely. Ditto with Talkingpointsmemo. And MyDD, one of the prime movers and shakers behind the Lamont campaign, had this to say about Tasini: “I had interest in Tasini early on, but I did some research and concluded that Tasini didn’t have the infrastructure ready to seriously challenge Senator Clinton.  I didn’t blog about Tasini, but it’s good he’s getting some time to push Senator Clinton on key issues.”

While there are numerous explanations advanced for the lack of netroots support for Tasini– Clinton is more liberal than Lieberman, Tasini ran a bad campaign, the vote isn’t just about the war– there can be little doubt that, basically, Tasini was seen early on by much of the netroots as a “loser,” and there it stands. When Tasini fought Clinton to a standstill in what can only be described as a “stealth” Moveon.org primary, it was seen by the netroots, those that noticed it at all, that is, as the final nail in the campaign’s coffin rather than a surprising outcome for a candidate that has received almost no media attention, online of otherwise.

The moral of the story goes far beyond the success or failure of one little known anti-war candidate. I myself donated to the Lamont campaign and have generally paid little attention to the primary race here in New York (though I’ll almost certainly vote for Tasini on primary day and for Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, on Election Day.) The point, rather, is to document the overwhelming desire to win on the part of the lefty blogosphere. And while part of me can’t help but be encouraged– indeed, electrified– by the renewed focus on politics on the American left, another part of me knows for sure that “winning” isn’t the only thing that helped lead to the 40 year triumph of American conservatism. It was, in part, their embrace of bold, nay, their embrace of absolutely radical political ideas. The more than the online left moves from a radical political vision to a pragmatic, electorally defined pragmatism– moves from the political to politics in Sheldon Wolin’s marvelous phrase– the more that any ultimate electoral triumph may be as hollow as the 8 year Clinton interregnum that has helped lead to our current sorry state of global affairs. In short, memo to the lefty blogosphere: winning is not enough.

The Powerlaws of the World Wide Web.

If the driving force behind the new Democratic Party politics wasn’t on the Internet, and if the Internet didn’t demonstrate some fundamental social attributes, none of this would matter as much as it does. But the fact is, the very center of online liberal life has become the pragmatic, election-focused, win-at-any-cost politics of the Daily Kos. Despite the unlimited freedom promised by the internet, solid social science research demonstrates that the distribution of traffic on the web exhibits what Clay Shirky calls a “powerlaw,” a tendency for a few websites to have a tremendous amount of traffic (and power) and a vast majority of websites to have about the same lack of power. Writes Shirky, “in systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.”

So, there is a powerful center to the communities of the world wide web. For conservative bloggers, dominated by Little Green Footballs and Michelle Malkin, the center most resembles talk radio. For liberals, it resembles a highly efficient electoral machine. This is obvious if one looks at either the Technorati Top 100 or the “Advertise Liberally” blog network. And while I’d rather the center of the liberal blogosphere be more like an election machine than a rabid talk radio station, I wouldn’t mind a little of a third option: a venue where committed progressive, liberal, and yes indeed, genuinely radical political thinkers could debate the future of American and world affairs. At the moment, such an option seems unlikely, with the thinking of the online left dominated by opinions those of  Mole333 from The Daily Gotham:

“I didn’t stay [in the Democratic Socialists of America]. What I discovered was that, at the time at least, it was composed of a bunch of squabbling, dogmatic fools that left me even more disgusted than mainstream American political parties. In much the same way that is what turns me off to the Greens today: excessive dogma and insufficient practicality. Those are reasons I dislike the Republican party of today as well. Why should I like those qualities in the left when I dislike them in the right? I have had no real experience with the DSA since then. I have no idea whether they have evolved since my brief experience with them so long ago. But what I have learned over the years is that good ideas do not always mean an effective and inclusive political philosophy. That is the lesson that DSA certainly needed to learn 20 years ago and I think the Greens need to learn today.”

To answer the question posed: one should “like those qualities in the left when I dislike them in the right” because, in the end, it’s partly those qualities that helped the right win. A liiberal netroots truly concerned about the meaningful capture of power would engage intellectualy with liberals, anarchists, radicals, black pwer proponents, and yes, Michael Bouldin, even socialists. Power only matters, my dear Democrats, when one has ideas about what to do with power once one gets it.

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