Politics

The Battle of the Blogs

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As anybody with high-speed Internet knows, MyDD and Daily Kos sit at the top
of the liberal Netroots movement, which over the last five years has made
astonishing strides in its campaign to transform the Democratic Party into a
hard-fighting, proudly liberal, and, most importantly, victorious entity.
Though their websites offer distinct communities and commentaries, and though
they have very different
personalities, MyDD founder Jerome Armstrong (a former astrologer) and Kos's Markos Moulitsas (a former Army man) have always
gotten along--the two co-authored a 2006 book, Crashing
the Gate
, about the rise of their movement. Their bond has been rooted
mostly in common foes: Republicans, namby-pamby Democrats, the Iraq War,
divisive "identity politics," and the centrist Democratic Leadership
Council. But the harmony that existed between MyDD and Kos
since the birth of the Netroots no longer exists today, and a bitter
internecine struggle within the progressive blogosphere is to blame. Just as
bilious in tone as previous fights with Republicans or Joe Lieberman, it has
revealed fault lines in the movement that will be tough to cover back up. There
have been charges of misogyny and of bullying, and some longtime members have
walked away from their cause altogether. And what's at the heart of it all is
that most loaded of questions: Barack or Hillary?

 

The
Netroots have been arguing about the 2008 campaign since the day after John
Kerry lost, but the debate turned ugly when
Armstrong revealed his vote in the February 12 Virginia primary. "In the
end, what compelled me to vote for Clinton was looking at someone that seemed
practical about the battle we have on our hands and looking ready to engage in
the fight," Armstrong blogged
that day. "I'd rather be part of the fight than be told to stay on the
sidelines because I'm too partisan."  

Armstrong had long voiced concerns that
Obama's campaign was too personality-driven and too reliant on the votes of
Independents and Republicans. But his official endorsement made readers go
ballistic. "Voting for the DLC candidate makes you part of the
fight? Come on," wrote one commenter. Another suggested, "If you
aren't a part of her campaign, you really oughta try to sign up and get some of
those $$$ while you can"--a dig at Armstrong's past campaign work for politicians
like Howard Dean, Jon Corzine, and Mark Warner. A group of far nastier comments
were deleted. 

At Daily Kos, commenters were ripping
Armstrong to shreds. One user wrote, "MyDD
isn't even a pro-Clinton site these days. It's just a toxic waste dump
dedicated to throwing slime at Obama and hoping it sticks. … I know that Kos
and Jerome are friends and partners, but it's perhaps time for Kos to reconsider linking to MyDD from the DK blogroll."

Clintonites and Obamabots were ferrying
between the two sites, "recommending" posts sympathetic to their
favored candidate (thus ensuring more prominent placement on the page), and
brutally attacking one another in the comment sections. In late March,
Armstrong, upset by name-calling between Clinton and Obama supporters on MyDD,
barred new user accounts on the site for a week. The sense of betrayal among
fellow Netrooters after his Clinton
endorsement was palpable. Armstrong was backing a candidate who, as Chris Bowers,
another leading lefty blogger, wrote on Open Left, hadn't
fully rejected the DLC, hadn't opposed the Iraq war from the start, hadn't
offered overwhelming support for Net Neutrality, and hadn't campaigned in small
caucus states. That Bowers' list read like the table of contents of Crashing the Gate made Armstrong's
endorsement sting even more.

The fight got even weirder in April,
when the Huffington Post unearthed
an audio recording of Clinton
berating the Netroots at a closed-door fundraiser. "We have been less
successful in caucuses because it brings out the activist base of the
Democratic Party," she said. "They know I don't agree with them. So
they flood into these caucuses and dominate them and really intimidate people
who actually show up to support me." But Armstrong shrugged the incident
off, just like he has shrugged off all the other harangues he has fielded the
last couple months. "Anybody that's got a tape recorder can make news,"
he told me. "I don't really care about that quote." But what about
the "citizen journalism" and "people-powered politics" he
had spent years championing? "I tend to be contrarian," Armstrong
said. "It's a trait that I have. Clinton
has had plenty of bashing out there, and I think Obama gets way too much slack."

 

Moulitsas
has been happy to do the Clinton-bashing. Straw polls conducted among Daily Kos readers throughout the
primary cycle consistently showed Clinton
with less than ten percent of their support. Earlier in the campaign, Moulitsas
flirted with endorsing Chris Dodd or John Edwards, but he took the temperature
of his readers--and the Democratic electorate--and went with Obama in late
March. (Moulitsas did not respond to interview requests for this article.) The
day he did so, Armstrong wrote a long post about the lasting damage Reverend
Wright was doing to the Democratic Party.

Kos's endorsement capped a difficult
period for Clinton
supporters on his site. On March 14, about 75 pro-Clinton Daily Kos diarists,
feeling besieged, had proclaimed a "writer's strike" in protest of
what they claimed were widespread instances of misogyny and general
intemperance from Obama supporters. "The straw that broke this camel's
back was when I put up a post about
International Women's Day
," explained "Alegre," who led the
Daily Kos boycott. "The usual suspects just came in and started crapping
all over it." She told me, "I don't want to be a part of Daily Kos
until they change their tone and start supporting all Democrats."

After announcing her departure from the
site, Alegre was the subject of insults by dozens of commenters. Moulitsas fumed
on the site's front page
, "People expect me to give a damn that a
bunch of whiny posters ‘go on strike' and leave in a huff. When I don't give a
damn, people get angry that their expectations aren't being met." Of
course, characterizing Clinton supporters,
especially female Clinton
supporters, as "whiny," didn't sit well with many. A Maryland mother of two
in her mid-40s, Alegre said she won't publicize her real name because she fears
harassment from anti-Clinton bloggers and commenters.

There's no doubt that the tone of the
Netroots' Clinton-bashing has veered rather far from policy substance. After
the Huffington Post scoop, Daily Kos
front page writer Dana Houle wrote a bizarre diary
(one he didn't post to the homepage) recounting how his impressions of Hillary
Clinton had changed since 1992, when he saw Bill Clinton give a speech at the
University of Michigan. "It was the night I learned the term MILF, and it
was applied to Hillary Clinton," wrote Houle. In the same post, he
described seeing a couple in the crowd at the Clinton speech engaged in a sex act. Later
Houle, who is 43 and was once  chief-of-staff for New Hampshire Congressman
Paul Hodes
, brushed off the suggestion that sexualizing Clinton had been inappropriate. "Some
people will look for a reason to be outraged no matter what," he explained,
telling me that most of Clinton's
support in the liberal blogosphere comes from marginal writers.

 

The
Netroots has always had a hostile streak, and it's natural that as the
Democratic Party and the Netroots themselves began to wield more power, some of
that hostility would be directed inwards. Its denizens are also a relatively
homogeneous bunch--largely male, middle-aged, college-educated, and upper
middle class. The Democratic Party is a diverse coalition reliant on African
Americans, single women, union members, and Latinos. Compound that demographic
gap with the impersonality and frequent anonymity of the online world, and it seems
inevitable that feelings would be hurt, and that some progressives would feel
unwelcome in the clubhouse.

Armstrong sees no permanence in the
ruptures that have emerged--both he and Moutlitsas stress that they have
remained friends throughout the campaign. Armstrong has seemed to accept Clinton's inevitable
defeat, writing about his hopes that she uses her political capital
to push for reforms in the Democratic primary process that would decrease the
influence of caucuses. For Armstrong and Kos, with
the primary all but over, everything is approaching normal again.

"I don't think division within the
Netroots is all that big of a problem in terms of unifying the Party,"
Armstrong says. "The people who participate in the Netroots are the most
loyal Democratic voters. It's other voting blocs that are more problematic."

And while he's right that people who
spend a lot of their discretionary time on progressive websites aren't likely
to abstain or vote for Republicans, he may be too cavalier about the toll of this
struggle on his movement. "I've always gotten the impression there that
women didn't really hold a high place in their heart," Alegre says,
referring to the male leaders of Daily Kos. "I'd go back. But I don't know
if I'd be welcome after the stink I caused."

Dana
Goldstein is a staff writer at The American Prospect.

By Dana Goldstein

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