Friday, April 28, 2006
By Lakshmi Chaudhri in In these Times
We have no interest in being anti-establishment,” says Matt Stoller, a blogger at the popular Web site MyDD.com. “We’re going to be the establishment.”
That kind of flamboyant confidence has become the hallmark of blog evangelists who believe that blogs promise nothing less than a populist revolution in American politics. In 2006, at least some of that rhetoric is becoming reality. Blogs may not have replaced the Democratic Party establishment, but they are certainly becoming an integral part of it. In the wake of John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 presidential elections, many within the Democratic leadership have embraced blog advocates’ plan for political success, which can be summed up in one word: netroots.
This all-encompassing term loosely describes an online grassroots constituency that can be targeted through Internet technologies, including e-mail, message boards, RSS feeds and, of course, blogs, which serve as organizing hubs. In turn, these blogs employ a range of features —discussion boards, Internet donations, live e-chat, social networking tools like MeetUp, online voting—that allow ordinary citizens to participate in politics, be it supporting a candidate or organizing around a policy issue. Compared to traditional media, blogs are faster, cheaper, and most importantly, interactive, enabling a level of voter involvement impossible with television or newspapers.
No wonder, then, that many in Washington are looking to blogs and bloggers to counter the overwhelming financial and ideological muscle of the right—especially in an election year. Just 18 months ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story depicting progressive bloggers as a band of unkempt outsiders, thumbing their nose at party leadership. But now, it’s the party leaders themselves who are blogging. Not only has Senate Minority leader Harry Reid started his own blog—Give ‘em Hell Harry—and a media “war room” to “aggressively pioneer Internet outreach,” he’s also signed up to be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the top political blog, Daily Kos.
Stoller predicts that as an organizing tool, “blogs are going to play the role that talk radio did in 1994, and that church networks did in 2002.”
An Internet-fueled victory at the polls would certainly be impressive—no candidate backed by the most popular progressive blogs has yet won an election. But electoral success may merely confirm the value of blogs as an effective organizing tool to conduct politics as usual, cementing the influence of a select group of bloggers who will likely be crowned by the media as the new kingmakers.
Winning an election does not, however, guarantee a radical change in the relations of power. Technology is only as revolutionary as the people who use it, and the progressive blogosphere has thus far remained the realm of the privileged —a weakness that may well prove fatal in the long run.
In 2006, the biggest question facing blogs and bloggers is: Will their ascendancy empower the American people—in the broadest sense of the word—or merely add to the clout of an elite online constituency?
The birth of a revolution
Alienation may not have been the mother of blogging technology, but it most certainly birthed the “political blogosphere.” The galvanizing cause for the rapid proliferation of political blogs and their mushrooming audience was a deep disillusionment across the political spectrum with traditional media—a disillusionment accentuated by a polarized political landscape.
In the recent book Blog! How the Newest Media Revolution Is Changing Politics, Business and Culture, Web guru Craig Shirky links the rise of political blogs to the sharpening Red/Blue State divide. Both 9/11 and the Iraq war reminded people that “politics was vitally important,” and marked the “moment people were looking for some kind of expression outside the bounds of network television,” or, for that matter, cable news or the nation’s leading newspapers.
Progressives were angry not just with the media but also with Democratic Party leaders for their unwillingness to challenge the Bush administration’s case for war. That much-touted liberal rage found its expression on blogs like Eschaton, Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo, and continues to fuel the phenomenal growth of the progressive blogosphere. Like the rise of right-wing talk radio, this growth is directly linked to an institutional failure of representation. Finding no mirror for their views in the media, a large segment of the American public turned to the Internet to speak for themselves—often with brutal, uncensored candor.
As blogs have grown in popularity—at the rate of more than one new blog per second—they’ve begun to lose their vanguard edge. The very institutions that political bloggers often criticize have begun to adopt the platform, with corporate executives, media personalities, porn stars, lawyers and PR strategists all jumping into the fray. That may be why Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the founder and primary voice of Daily Kos, thinks the word “blog” is beginning to outlive its usefulness. “A blog is merely a publishing tool, and like a tool, it can be used in any number of ways,” he says.
But for many, to rephrase director Jean Renoir, a blogs are still a state of mind. To their most ardent advocates, blogs are standard-bearers of a core set of democratic values: participation, egalitarianism and transparency. Books like Dan Gillmor’s We the Media, Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, and Joe Trippi’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised have become the bibles of progressive politics. Taken together, they express the dream of Internet salvation: harnessing an inherently democratic, interactive and communal medium, with the potential to instantaneously tap into the collective intellectual, political and financial resourcesof tens of millions of fellow Americans to create a juggernaut for social change.
According to Moulitsas, “The word ‘blog’ still implies a certain level of citizen involvement, of giving power to someone who is not empowered”—especially to progressives who, according to a study released last year by the New Politics Institute, have overtaken conservatives as the heavyweights of the political blogosphere.
Political blogs have often been most effective as populist fact-checkers, challenging, refuting and correcting perceived errors in news coverage.
“Independent bloggers have challenged the mainstream media and held them accountable, whether it’s with Judy Miller or Bob Woodward,” says Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington. The most significant effect of this “we can fact-check your ass” credo has not been merely to put journalists on notice, but to change the way public knowledge is produced on a daily basis. “It’s hard now for an important story to hit the front page of the New York Times and just die there,” says Huffington. A news article is now merely the beginning of a public conversation in the blogosphere, where experts, amateurs and posers alike dissect its merits and add to its information, often keeping it alive long after journalists have moved on.
Popular understanding of what blogs are and what they can do has been muddled by an inevitably hostile relationship between political bloggers and traditional media. Writing in the Dec. 26 issue of The New Republic, Franklin Foer took bloggers to task for nursing “an ideological disdain for ‘Mainstream Media’—or MSM, as it has derisively (and somewhat adolescently) come to be known.” But Foer, like so many traditional journalists who criticize blogs, failed to grasp the very nature of his intended target.
Blogs are literally vox populi—or at the least the voice of the people who post entries and comments, and, to a lesser extent, of their devoted readers. Telling bloggers that they’re wrong or to shut up is somewhat like telling respondents to an opinion survey to simply change their mind. When journalists reject bloggers as cranks or wingnuts, they also do the same to a large segment of the American public who seeblogs as an expression of their views. Such dismissals feed the very alienation that makes blogs and bloggers popular.
The irony is that bloggers are most powerful when they work in tandem with the very media establishment they despise. “Bloggers alone cannot create conventional wisdom, cannot make a story break, cannot directly reach the vast population that isn’t directly activist and involved in politics,” says Peter Daou, who coordinated the Kerry campaign’s blog outreach operations. Blogs instead exert an indirect form of power, amplifying and channeling the pressure of netroots opinion upwards to pressure politicians and journalists. “It’s really a rising up,” says Daou.
Can this online rebellion lead to real political change? The prognosis thus far is encouraging, but far from definitive.
Can the netroots grow the grassroots?
If television made politics more elitist and less substantive, blogs—and more broadly, netroots tools—have the potential to become engines of truly democratic, bottom-up, issue-rich political participation.
Blogs allow rank-and-file voters to pick the candidate to support in any given electoral race, influence his or her platform, and volunteer their time, money and expertise in more targeted and substantive ways. Democratic candidates in the midterm elections are already busy trying to position themselves as the next Howard Dean, vying for a digital stamp of approval that will bring with it free publicity, big money and, just maybe, a whole lot of voters.
When Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) decided to take on Iraq veteran Paul Hackett in the Democratic primary for the Senate race in Ohio, he moved quickly to neutralize his opponent’s advantage as the unquestioned hero of the progressive bloggers. The ace up Brown’s sleeve: Jerome Armstrong, founder of the influential MyDD.com and veteran of Howard Dean’s online campaign. Brown’s next move was a blog entry on The Huffington Post titled, “Why I am a Progressive.”
But not everyone is convinced that blogs can be as influential in a midterm election, when there are a large number of electoral contests spread across the country. “Raising money at a nationwide level for a special election is one thing,” Pew scholar Michael Cornfield says, “but raising it and developing a core of activists and all the ready-to-respond messages when you have to run hundreds of races simultaneously—which is what will happen in 2006—is another thing.” Moreover, the ability of the Internet to erase geographical distances can become a structural weakness in elections where district lines and eligibility are key.
An effective netroots strategy in 2006 will also have to master the shortcomings of the Dean’s campaign, which stalled mainly because it failed to grow his support base beyond his online constituency—antiwar, white and high-income voters. In contrast, the Bush/Cheney operation used the Internet to coordinate on-the-ground events such as house parties, and rallies involving church congregations.
Cornfield describes the Republican model as, “one person who is online and is plugged into the blogosphere. That person becomes an e-precinct captain, and is responsible for reaching out offline or any means necessary for ten people.”
This time around, Armstrong is determined to match the GOP’s success. GrowOhio.org, which he describes as “a community blog for Democratic Party activists,” will coordinate field operations for not just Brown but all Democratic candidates in each of Ohio’s 88 counties. Its primary goal is to reach rural voters in areas where the campaign cannot field organizers on the ground.
“This isn’t just about using the net for communications and fundraising, but for field organizing,” Armstrong says.
What is also new in 2006 is the effort to redirect attention from the national to the local. “It’s not just about focusing the national blogosphere on Ohio, but about building from the ground up in Ohio,” Armstrong says. “Over 90 percent of our signups on GrowOhio.org are Ohio activists, and we will soon have Internet outreach coordinators in all 88 counties.”
But many like Daou remain skeptical about the power of blogs to directly impact politics at the grassroots level. “You’re not going to go out there and mobilize a million people and have them all come to the polls and donate money. Blogs will never do that,” he says.
And they may be even less effective in areas that are traditionally not as internet-savvy as the rest of the country, be it the rural red states or impoverished inner cities. Creating a virtual “community center” is unlikely to compensate for the Democrats’ disadvantage on the ground. Due to the eroding presence of unions, Democrats no longer possess a physical meeting place where they can target and mobilize voters—unlike Republicans, who rely on a well-organized network of churches, gun clubs and chambers of commerce.
What is clear is that the 2006 elections will test the claim of blog evangelists that online activism can radically transform offline politics—a claim that is central to their far more ambitious vision for the future. In their book Crashing the Gate (to be released in April), Moulitsas and Armstrong envision blogs as the centerpiece of a netroots movement to engineer an imminent and sweeping transformation of the Democratic Party:
We are at the beginning of a comprehensive reformation of the Democratic Party—driven by committed progressive outsiders. Online activism on a nationwide level, coupled with offline activists at the local level … can provide the formula for a quiet, bloodless coup that can take control of the party. Money and mobilization are the two key elements of all political activity, and if the netroots have their way, the financial backbone of the Democratic Party will be regular people.
Whether a truly decentralized and “leaderless” netroots can function like a political party is debatable, but the latest wave of technological innovation does offer unprecedented opportunities for constructing a progressive movement for the digital age. Such an outreach effort would use the Internet very much like conservatives such as Richard Viguerie used direct mail to build a powerful political force. But in order to craft a genuinely democratic form of politics, the progressive blogosphere will have to overcome its greatest weakness: lack of diversity.
The rise of the blogerati
In Newsweek, Simon Rosenberg, a beltway insider who lost the DNC chair to Dean, described the progressive blogosphere as the new “Resistance” within the Democratic Party, engaged in a civil war to wrest power from a craven and compromised beltway leadership. According to Rosenberg, the leaders of this “resistance” are the top progressive bloggers, more specifically the most popular and increasingly influential Moulitsas. Rosenberg told the Washington Monthly, “Frankly I don’t think there’s anyone who’s had the potential to revolutionize the Democratic Party that Markos does.”
Yet both the progressive blogosphere and the “revolutionaries” who dominate its ranks look a lot like the establishment they seek to overthrow.
The report by the New Politics Institute—which was launched by Rosenberg’s New Democracy Network—notes: “Clearly, blogging is a world with a handful of haves, and a nearly uncountable number of have-nots. There are likely a few hundred thousand blogs in this country that talk about politics, but less than one-tenth of one percent of them account for more than 99 percent of all political blogging traffic.”
For better or worse, traffic numbers have become an endorsement of the political agenda of specific individuals. While A-list bloggers repeatedly deny receiving any special treatment, the reality is that both the media and political establishment pay disproportionate attention to their views, often treating them as representative of the entire progressive blogosphere.
In a Foreign Policy article, political scientists Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrell cheerfully note, “The skewed network of the blogosphere makes it less time-consuming for outside observers to acquire information. The media only need to look at elite blogs to obtain a summary of the distribution of opinions on a given political issue.” Why? Because the “elite blogs” serve as a filtering mechanism, deciding which information offered up by smaller blogs is useful or noteworthy. In effect, A-list blogs get to decide what issues deserve the attention of journalists and politicians, i.e., the establishment.
The past two years have also marked the emergence of a close relationship between top bloggers and politicians in Washington. A number of them—for example, Jesse Taylor at Pandagon, Tim Tagaris of SwingStateProject, Stoller and Armstrong—have been hired as campaign consultants. Others act as unofficial advisers to top politicos like Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), who holds conference calls with preeminent bloggers to talk strategy. When the Senate Democrats invite Moulitsas to offer his personal views on netroots strategy—treating him, as a Washington Monthly profile describes, “a kind of part-time sage, an affiliate member”—the perks of success become difficult to deny.
Armstrong sees the rise of the blogger-guru—or “strategic adviser,” as he puts it—as a positive development. Better to hire a blogger who is personally committed to the Democratic cause than a D.C.-based mercenary who makes money irrespective of who wins.
But the fact that nearly all these “advisers” are drawn from a close-knit and mostly homogenous group can make them appear as just a new boys’ club, albeit one with better intentions and more engaged politics. Aside from notable exceptions like Moulitsas, who is part-Salvadoran, and a handful of lesser-known women who belong to group blogs, top progressive bloggers tend to be young, well-educated, middle class, male and white.
Reach, representation and credibility
The lack of diversity is partly a function of the roots of blogging in an equally homogenous tech-geek community. Nevertheless, women and people of color constitute the fastest rising segment of those joining the blogosphere. Feminist and female-authored political blogs like Feministing, Bitch Ph.D, Echidne of the Snakes, and Salon’s Broadsheet made considerable gains in traffic and visibility in 2005, as did Latino Pundit, Culture Kitchen, and Afro-Netizen. Better yet, they’re forging networks and alliances to help each other grow. There is no doubt the membership of the blogosphere is changing, and will look very different five years from now. “We’re just a step behind, just like any other area,” says Pandagon’s Amanda Marcotte.
But while the growth of the blogosphere may increase the actual traffic to a greater number of blogs, it also makes visibility far more scarce and precious for each new blogger. As one of the top women bloggers, Chris Nolan, noted on the PressThink blog, “The barrier to entry in this new business isn’t getting published; anyone can do that. The barrier to entry is finding an audience.”
Elite bloggers can play a key role in generating that audience. As Marcotte points out, “A lot more women are moving up in the Technorati rankings” (Technorati is a search engine for the blogosphere) because A-listers like Duncan Black and Kevin Drum in 2005 made it a priority to promote female bloggers. But when someone like Moulitsas decides to stop linking to other blogs—as he has recently done because he doesn’t want to play “gatekeeper”—or when top bloggers repeatedly cite their fellow A-listers, it has enormous consequences. “It’s pretty darn hard today to break in to the A-list if the other A-listers aren’t linking to you,” says Global Voices co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon.
If blogs derive their credibility from being the “voice of the people,” surely we should be concerned about which opinions get attention over others. The question of representation affects not just who is blogging—and with great success—but also the audience of these blogs. What kind of democratic consensus does the blogosphere reflect when the people participating in it are most likely to be white, well-educated men?
Yet when it comes to issues of diversity, A-list bloggers like Moulitsas and Stoller can get defensive, and at times, dismissive. “Take a look at what you have today. Take a look at the folks who’re leading the party, dominating the media, or even within corporations. Do you think the top ranks of any of those institutions is any more representative?” responds Stoller, his voice rising in indignation.
Where Stoller openly acknowledges the problem—describing blogs in one of his posts as “a new national town square for the white progressive base of the Democratic party”—and the need to take steps to tackle the disparity, Moulitsas is less generous. In his view, it’s simply absurd to demand what he sarcastically describes as an “affirmative action of ideas” within an inherently meritocratic medium such as the blogosphere: “I don’t see how you can say, ‘Well, let’s give more voice to African American lesbians.’ Create a blog. If there’s an audience, great. If there isn’t, not so great.” Besides, he suggests, if a Salvadoran war refugee—in his words, a “political nobody”—like him can make it on the Internet, there’s nothing stopping anyone else from doing the same.
As for the relative paucity of top female progressive bloggers, Moulitsas is indifferent: “I haven’t given it a lot of thought. I find it totally uninteresting. What I’m interested in is winning elections, and I don’t give a shit what you look like.” It’s an odd and somewhat disingenuous response from an advocate of blogging as the ultimate tool of democratic participation.
Keith Jenkins, who authors Good Reputation Sleeping and works a day job as the picture editor at the Washington Post, says the low barriers to entry do not in themselves offer a sufficient guarantee of equal participation. “It’s less about actively stopping and standing in the way and more about affirmatively enabling access, which was the underlying argument of civil rights movements and freedom movements across the board,” he says. “It’s about affirmatively making it possible for everybody to have a seat at the table, which benefits not only the people who are sitting down, but also the people who are already seated.”
“We need to be encouraging a more diverse group of people to blog,” agrees Global Voices’ MacKinnon. “But we also need to be linking to them and giving them traffic so that they have a chance to make it to the A-list.”
While the organic growth of the blogosphere may resolve issues of race and gender over time, it will do little to address its overwhelming bias toward urban professionals. And that can’t be good news for a party that is already being punished at the polls for its weak connection to working-class Americans.
“For me the greatest problem is low-income people,” Cornfield says. “The irony is that it’s not because they don’t have money to get a laptop—especially with the $100 laptop now. It’s that people who are poor don’t have the civic skill sets and motivation to go online and do these sorts of things. That will take a concerted effort.”
At a time when the visible digital divide may be shrinking as increasing numbers of Americans come online, it may be replaced by an invisible version that benefits those who are well-educated, well-connected and organized.
Stoller does not think that it’s important for blogs to reach a less-affluent audience: “Not everybody has to be part of that conversation. If someone wants to have access to those discussions, they should be able to do that. But for the most part, people—like that person working two shifts—will go on with their lives knowing that good people are making good decisions and policies on their behalf.” Bloggers like Moulitsas—who is equally unconcerned that his blog will never reach “someone working at the DMV”—are likely betting that the cadre of activists they reach will be able to form connections across those differences within their community.
Perhaps sites like GrowOhio.org will prove them to be right if it manages to mobilize a constituency—e.g. rural voters—that is least likely to be wired, and in a region where the party’s on-the-ground resources are weak. But any such strategy is unlikely to work if those in charge of crafting it—be they bloggers, politicians or so-called netizens—show little interest in expanding the reach of the progressive blogosphere to include the largest, most diverse audience possible. If the blogs are unable to bridge the class divide online, there is no reason to think they can create a grassroots movement that can do so in the real world.
“If you do make an active effort, it is easier to accomplish through the Internet than through pretty much any other medium including direct mail,” Cornfield says. “But it will not happen on its own. It has to be a concerted effort.” Social movements are built by people not ghosts in some virtual machine.
The Washington Monthly profile of Moulitsas included a revealing quote, in which he expressed disappointment at not being able to fulfill his dream of making it big in the tech industry back in 1998: “Maybe at some time, Silicon Valley really was this democratic ideal where the guy with the best idea made a billion dollars, but by the time I got there at least, it was just like anything else—a bunch of rich kids who knew each other running around and it all depended on who you knew.”
The danger is that many may come to feel the same way about the blogosphere in the coming years.