The Left's New Machine

The New Republic

You have read:

0 / 8

free articles in the past 30 days.

Already a subscriber?

Log in here

sign up for unlimited access for just $34.97Sign me up

MAY 7, 2007

The Left's New Machine

Most political activists can point to one catalyzing event, an
episode in each of their lives (or, more often, in the life of their
country) that shook them from their complacency and roused them to
change the world. You can find many such stories if you troll
through the netroots, the online community of liberal bloggers that
has quickly become a formidable constituency in Democratic
politics. But the episode that seems to come up most often is the
Florida recount. For instance, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Jerome
Armstrong's book, Crashing the Gate, the closest thing to a
manifesto of the netroots movement, begins like this:Five years ago, the Republicans took over the government through
nondemocratic means. Establishment Democrats, for the most part,
stood back and watched as a partisan judicial body halted the
counting of presidential votes. While conservative activists led
the charge on behalf of their party, there was nothing happening on
our side. That was the spark. Fed-up progressive activists began
organizing online. Fueled by the new technologies--the web,
blogging tools, internet search engines--this new generation of
activists challenged the moribund Democratic Party establishment.

The 2000 recount is an apt birthing ground for the netroots. It
perfectly fits their view of U.S. politics as an atavistic clash of
partisan willpower. And their analysis of that episode, while
somewhat crude, has a certain truth. The liberal intelligentsia,
and much of the Democratic establishment, tried to hold itself
above the fray. During the recount, liberal pundits were concerned
above all with maintaining civility and consensus, and they flayed
Democrats for any hint of partisanship or anger. (In a New Yorker
editorial, Joe Klein scolded that Al Gore "reinforced his partisan
reputation by challenging the results in Florida" and cautioned
that "vehemence of any sort--ideological, political,
analytical--seems ill-advised.") Elite liberal opinion-makers
insisted that their side play fair. Gore, they declared, must allow
for the possibility that his opponent could win a fair recount,
must renounce street demonstrations, must be intellectually
consistent--permitting, say, military ballots that did not fulfill
the letter of the law to be counted. Members of the Gore recount
team like William Daley and Warren Christopher, seeking to uphold
their reputations as statesmen, nervously complied.

The contrast with the Republican side could not have been more
stark. The only complaint conservative pundits had with the George
W. Bush operation was that it was too soft. (George Will wrote that
there was a "ferocity gap"--but, in a classic case of projection,
he insisted that Democrats were more ferocious. ) Bush never
conceded the possibility that he could lose. Nor did he feel any
obligation to maintain intellectual consistency. His campaign
demanded the letter of the law be carried out in those instances
when it suited his side, and it flouted the letter of the law in
those (military ballots, illegally submitted absentee ballots in
Seminole County) when it did not. It whipped up a mob to halt a
recount in Miami-Dade County that at the time appeared potentially
decisive. Conservatives celebrated these developments without a
hint of dissent. While Democrats in Washington constantly undermined
the Gore campaign by telling reporters that Gore should concede,
Washington Republicans maintained ranks. Through their greater
resolve and partisan discipline, the Republicans triumphed.

All the lessons the netroots have gleaned about U.S. politics were
on display in this noxious denouement, and those lessons have been
reinforced time and again throughout the Bush presidency. The
Democratic leadership and the liberal intelligentsia seemed
pathetic and exhausted, wedded to musty ideals of bipartisanship
and decorousness. Meanwhile, what the netroots saw in the
Republican Party, they largely admired. They saw a genuine mass
movement built up over several decades. They saw a powerful message
machine. And they saw a political elite bound together with
ironclad party discipline.

This, they decided, is what the Democratic Party needed. And, when
they saw that the party leadership was incapable of creating it,
they decided to do it themselves. "We are at the beginning of a
comprehensive reformation of the Democratic Party," write Moulitsas
and Armstrong. What they have accomplished in just a few years is
astonishing. Already, the netroots are the most significant mass
movement in U.S. politics since the rise of the Christian right
more than two decades ago. And, by all appearances, they are far
from finished with their task: recreating the Democratic Party in
the image of the conservative machine they have set out to

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

Like any movement, the netroots is a pastiche of people and groups,
with subfactions and varying levels of attachment. For that reason,
there's almost no characterization that is true of every member.
And yet, as movements go, the netroots are relatively coherent and
centralized. If you were to trace the history of the netroots,
Jerome Armstrong--sometimes called "The Blogfather"-- is the place
to begin.

In 2001, Armstrong began publishing a blog called MyDD, or "My Due
Diligence, " which made prognostications about political events and
stocks, sometimes based on astrology. (As one astrological
newsletter wrote, "Astrologer Jerome Armstrong notes that Ixion and
Quaoar are following close in Pluto's wake in early Sagittarius,
and connects the rise of the political version of religious
fundamentalism with the astronomical exploration of the Kuiper Belt
in 1992.") By 2002, MyDD allowed readers to post their own
commentaries, and it began to take off as a locus of activism for
Howard Dean supporters.

One frequent guest commenter on MyDD was Markos Moulitsas Zuniga,
then a software programmer living in Berkeley, California.
Moulitsas quickly developed a following and started his own liberal
blog, called Daily Kos. In the years since then, Daily Kos has
exploded in size, long since eclipsing MyDD (which has forgotten
its financial/astrological origins and now stands for "My Direct
Democracy"). Daily Kos now attracts more than half a million visits
per day.

The next most influential netroots blog is probably Eschaton,
written by Philadelphia economist Duncan Black under the pseudonym
"Atrios." There are countless other blogs in the netroots orbit,
including Crooks and Liars, Americablog, FireDogLake, and on and

Some of these sites have unique stylistic features (Crooks and Liars
has lots of video clips, FireDogLake has on-the-scene reporting
from such events as the Lieberman-Lamont race or the Scooter Libby
trial) or a particular slant (Americablog tends to focus on gay
rights issues). But, despite differences in ideology and style,
these blogs share a basic orientation: liberal, partisan, and
strongly critical of Bush and the Iraq war. Between them, and many
smaller blogs, they have attracted what amounts to a mass

Outsiders often use the terms "netroots" and "liberal bloggers"
interchangeably, but they aren't exactly the same thing. The
netroots are a subset of the liberal blogs, constituting those
blogs that are directly involved in political activism, often
urging their readers to volunteer for, or donate money to,
Democratic candidates. Other liberal bloggers, sometimes called the
"wonkosphere," advocate liberal ideas but do not directly involve
themselves in politics. Most of the popular sites in the wonkosphere
are maintained by academics or (generally) young liberal
journalists, such as former American Prospect staffer Joshua Micah
Marshall of Talking Points Memo or Washington Monthly blogger Kevin
Drum. The quality of these blogs varies immensely, with the best
ones offering a level of reporting and analysis far better than
typical mainstream media fare. While journalistic liberal bloggers
are not directly part of the netroots, the two groups generally
regard one another as allies and criticize one another tepidly if
at all.

Two deep, organic bonds hold together the netroots. The first is
generational. Netroots activists tend to be in their thirties, like
Moulitsas and Black, or younger. Even those who are older, such as
Armstrong (who is in his early forties), often developed a strong
interest in politics only recently. Nearly all of them, then, share
the common experience of having their political consciousness
awakened and shaped by the Bush years.

Their newness makes them outsiders to the game. They are, by their
way of thinking, self-made men and women who pulled themselves up
from obscurity by dint of pure merit. They see the Washington
establishment, by contrast, as a kind of clique, filled with
mediocrities who attended the best schools or know the right
people. The netroots shorthand for this phenomenon is "Washington
cocktail parties"--where, it is believed, the elite share their
wrong-headed ideas, inoculated from accountability. "They still
have their columns and TV gigs," Moulitsas wrote on his blog last
December, describing the Beltway elite. "They still get treated
with reverence by the D.C. cocktail party circuit."

In point of fact, the most successful bloggers have been pulled into
the warm embrace of the political establishment. Moulitsas consults
regularly with influential Democrats in Washington. Presidential
candidates hire popular bloggers or court them with private
dinners. Last year, numerous top Democrats trekked to Las Vegas to
attend YearlyKos, the liberal blog convention, where they sucked up
to the attendees as relentlessly as if they were software
executives. The climax of the proceedings was a party for bloggers
thrown by then-presidential hopeful Mark Warner, costing more than
$50,000 and featuring chocolate fountains. None of these things,
however, have softened the netroots' sense of grievance and

The second bond is a shared political narrative. This is not exactly
the same thing as a shared ideology. The ideology of the netroots
is, indeed, somewhat amorphous, as liberal bloggers themselves
often point out. A major source of the ideological confusion is
Moulitsas himself, who is almost comically lacking in philosophical
depth. In one oftdiscussed blog post, he described himself as a
"libertarian Democrat" and proceeded immediately to outline a
philosophy that was pure traditional liberalism. ("A Libertarian
Dem believes that people should have the freedom to make a living
without being unduly exploited by employers. ... A Libertarian Dem
gets that no one is truly free if they fear for their health, so
social net programs are important to allow individuals to continue
to live happily into their old age.")

Some liberal bloggers have tried to turn this ideological confusion
into a strong point: Far from being ideologically hidebound, as
their critics often contend, they are ruthlessly strategic
political calculators. Moulitsas eagerly touts this line. "They
want to make me into the latest Jesse Jackson, but I'm not
ideological at all," he told The Washington Monthly. "I'm just all
about winning."

It is true that the netroots embraces political calculation. But the
strategies put forward by these activists almost invariably involve
shifting the Democratic Party at least a bit to the left. Some of
them are explicit about this. "Hiding from progressives and the
left will lead to Democratic losses in 2006," wrote MyDD's Matt
Stoller last year. "Running as a progressive will lead to victory."
One survey of netroots members found that two-thirds wanted the
Democratic Party to move to the left.

So the netroots are clearly liberal, and more liberal than the
Democratic Party as a whole. Ideology, however, is not the
movement's defining trait. What unites them is a desire to
replicate the successes of the conservative movement dating back to
the 1960s.

When you turn to the '60s to find an antecedent for the netroots,
the natural comparison would seem to be the New Left. The parallels
are certainly there: Both movements were led by young people and
political outsiders, driven by distrust of establishment liberalism
and stoked by an unpopular war. But the netroots do not see
themselves in the New Left mold. Rather, they see themselves in
what was called, in its insurgent days, the New Right, and before
that was known as the Goldwater movement.

The intellectual genesis of the netroots analysis lies in a book
called Before the Storm by left-liberal historian (and tnr
contributor) Rick Perlstein. He argues that the conventional
narrative of the '60s pays far too much attention to left-wing
activism. After all, he observes, the '60s ended with the left
smashed by a rising conservative tide that has continued to this
day. The real story is that of the grassroots countermobilization
on the right, which took its most public form in the Barry
Goldwater campaign. This movement built counterparts to the
dominant liberal institutions, slowly took control of the
Republican Party from the moderates who had been running it, and
jerked the national agenda sharply to the right. Perlstein's book,
wrote blogger and George Washington University political scientist
Henry Farrell in a Boston Review essay, "enjoys near-canonical
status among netroots bloggers."

Like the New Right (and unlike the New Left), the netroots is
committed to working within the two-party structure. They have
relatively little use for street demonstrations and none at all for
Naderite third parties. They fervently support Democrats and, with
increasing frequency, work for them directly.

Indeed, if there is a single thing that the netroots most admires
about the right, it is its philosophical and political unity. There
are, to be sure, numerous strands of thought on the right, each of
which emphasizes different elements of the conservative canon. But
there is far more holding together the conservatives than there is
breaking them apart. This has been true dating back to the founding
of National Review, with its emphasis on fusionism--the
conservative creed uniting economic libertarians and social
traditionalists. Religious conservative groups lobby for tax cuts,
and economic conservatives support anti-abortion judges. One of the
key figures uniting the conservative movement is Grover Norquist, a
GOP activist/lobbyist who holds weekly meetings in which
conservative activists and intellectuals hammer out a common

The netroots look upon this great right-wing apparatus with
unconcealed envy. Traditionally, to the extent that movements exist
on the left, they have been dispersed among single-issue
organizations--environmentalists, labor unions, pro-choice
activists--that mobilize only when their own pet issues are on the
agenda. This piecemeal structure leaves each component group
fighting solo battles against a large and cohesive coalition. Also,
since there are political issues that do not directly affect the
single-issue groups, it leaves swaths of liberal territory

The netroots are scornful of single-issue liberal groups--or,
really, any liberals at all who are not wholly dedicated to the
cause of Democratic victory. As Stoller has written on MyDD, "To
the extent that I have a political hero, it's probably Grover
Norquist, not Ralph Nader." The netroots' dream is of a liberal
army of grassroots activists, pundits, policy wonks, and
politicians all marching more or less in lockstep.

This dream inevitably brings the netroots into conflict with many
liberal political commentators, the Democratic Leadership Council
(DLC), and other outposts of the center left. The traditional
interpretation of this feud is as a pure ideological spat between
the left and right wings of the Democratic Party--and it's true
that there's a strong ideological component to the spat. But the
deeper divide is ethos, not ideology. The movement sensibility of
the right, which the netroots are so determined to replicate, is
largely foreign to the liberal and Democratic elite.

One of the defining features of the conservative movement is an
intense social pressure upon its adherents not to break ranks. One
episode from the 1990s demonstrates a fair sense of the prevailing
ethos on the right. David Brock, until then a member of the
conservative movement in good standing, set out to write a book
about Hillary Clinton. Rather than producing the undiluted hit job
he and his readers expected, Brock found himself painting a not
entirely unsympathetic portrait of the first lady. The reaction
among his colleagues was swift and brutal. The organs of the
right--The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, National Review,
The Washington Times--denounced him for his heresy. A conservative
friend of Brock's, the late Barbara Olson, disinvited him from a
dinner party she and husband Ted Olson were throwing for fellow

For conservatives, it was simply the expected outcome--a traitor
getting his due. "People get bumped off invite lists every day,"
shrugged then-Weekly Standard writer Tucker Carlson. Such a blase
reaction might not say very much if Carlson were known for his
movement reliability. But, in fact, just the opposite was true:
Carlson himself was (and is) one of the most independent
conservative pundits. Indeed, earlier that year, he himself had
written an unflattering article about Norquist (perhaps motivated,
in part, by a long- standing feud between Norquist and Carlson's
father). When the Standard, in a display of movement loyalty,
refused to publish it, Carlson sold it to The New Republic.
Norquist subsequently confronted Carlson at a restaurant and called
his article "not helpful to the movement." Other conservatives laid
into him. "No one who believes what we believe should be attacking
Grover," chastised Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise

None of this is to suggest that lively debate cannot be found on the
right. To the contrary: Conservatives have always argued fiercely
amongst themselves. The difference is that conservatives are
expected to toe the line in disputes between their side and the
left. A conservative can criticize President Bush for being
insufficiently conservative or suggest that running against Social
Security is tactically unwise. What he cannot do is denounce the
idea of impeaching a Democratic president for covering up a sexual
affair in 1998 or question Katherine Harris's capacity to
administer Florida election law fairly in 2000.

Most liberals find the movement ethos of the right incomprehensible.
"This kind of treatment has no parallel among liberals," wrote
Slate's Jacob Weisberg in 1997. Among intellectuals and
commentators on Weisberg's side, the prevailing norm is largely the
opposite: to go out of one's way to demonstrate nonpartisan bona
fides. Around the same time that Brock was getting shellacked for
failing to toe the party line, Sidney Blumenthal was all but drummed
out of liberal journalism for toeing it too closely, thanks to his
chumminess with the Clintons. The worst thing that can happen to a
conservative is to be seen as disloyal. The worst thing that can
happen to a liberal is to be seen as "in the tank."

This ethos of political detachment among liberal intellectuals finds
its natural counterpart in the strategies of the DLC. The DLC's
basic idea is to embrace the political center--a model that is
incompatible with movement politics. Movements require unanimity
against external critics. The DLC model not only permits divisions
among Democrats; in a sense, it relies upon them. The premise of
the DLC's strategy is that the left wing of the party is
unacceptable to the majority of voters. The answer is to explicitly
disavow that left wing--to create a Third Way between the left and
right poles.

Initially, at least, this seemed a successful strategy. Bill Clinton
won the presidency in 1992 in part because he defined himself as "a
different kind of Democrat"--one who favored capital punishment,
welfare reform, and so on. But, over time, the DLC strategy led to
a kind of ideological retrogression. Having reestablished the left
pole of the national debate further to the center, the only way for
Democrats to maintain their centrist image was to move further
right still. By the late '90s, the DLC had abandoned its preference
for universal health insurance for small piecemeal reforms and
flirted with partial privatization of Social Security.

This veneration of centrism created an atmosphere in which
Democratic unity was impossible. Democrats who unequivocally
opposed the Bush administration's agenda were not, by definition,
"centrists." And so, during the early Bush years, Democrats eager
to preserve their standing as moderates often found themselves
acquiescing to a conservative agenda that, not long before, would
have been considered far outside the mainstream.

The netroots understand that this is not a fair fight. As Black (aka
Atrios) has argued, you cannot sustain "a Democratic party in which
all the leading Democrats are forever running against their own
party. Triangulation can work for one man, but when every leading
Democrat is constantly falling all over himself (yes, this is
exaggeration) to get away from Those Damn Dirty Democrats, you have
a party which is without foundation and where capitulation is
confused with bipartisanship."

For the netroots, partisan fidelity is the sine qua non. As
Moulitsas told Newsweek in 2005, "The issue is: Are you proud to be
a Democrat? Are you partisan?" What they cannot forgive is
Democrats or liberals who distance themselves from their party or
who give ammunition to the enemy. The netroots will forgive
Democrats in conservative districts for moving as far to the right
as necessary to win elections. But they do everything within their
power to eliminate from liberal states or districts moderates like
Joe Lieberman or Jane Harman, whose stances are born of conviction
rather than necessity. This is precisely the same principle
espoused by Norquist and other GOP activists. They will defend
Republicans who need to demonstrate their independence from the
national party in order to maintain their electoral viability. (As
Norquist once remarked about Lincoln Chafee, "A Republican from
Rhode Island is a gift from the gods.") But deviation by a
Republican from a conservative state--say, Arizonan John McCain--is

Another point of commonality between the netroots and the
conservative movement is the belief that moderation is a kind of
social malady brought about by residence within the Beltway.
Conservatives believe that Republicans generally begin their
national careers in a state of innocence but are perpetually
susceptible to the blandishments of the liberal elite. The right
has developed its own idioms--e.g., "strange new respect"--to
describe the ways that they believe establishment bastions like The
New York Times flatter and cajole conservatives into abandoning
their principles.

The lure of this seduction is held to be so strong that it can only
be prevented through regular doses of ideological inoculation. Part
of the function of the conservative counter-establishment was to
create separate social networks for the right that would counteract
the effects of Georgetown cocktail parties. The old Washington
social set rewarded Republicans for bipartisanship and punished
them for hewing to their original beliefs. The new
counter-establishment would do the opposite. Norquist has boasted
about spurning traditional Washington social life for his
alternative, movement-only dinner parties. "We didn't come to get
invitations to their dinner parties or their receptions," he told
The Washington Post a decade ago. "We don't need permission, seek
approval, or hang out with the people who built the welfare

The netroots harbor a similar anti-Washington populism and, like the
conservative movement, have set about creating alternative
institutions and social networks. Some of them--such as Media
Matters, which monitors conservative bias in the news, or the New
Politics Institute, which promotes innovative approaches to
organizing--are based in Washington. (Neither is a creation of the
netroots, but both are closely allied and hire bloggers as
fellows.) Others are virtual. The most important of these is an
e-mail list called Townhouse. It includes "many bloggers and other
representatives of the netroots as well as a large number of
partisan journalists and grassroots groups," Moulitsas has written,
and its purpose is to "have a unified message in the face of a
unified conservative noise machine."

The party-line sensibility that pervades the netroots is not some
artificial, Stalinist imposition. The close ties that exist among
the netroots and its allies grow out of the technology they use so
naturally. As insular as elite Washington may be, the netroots'
world is arguably more so. The leading liberal bloggers all know
one another and generally regard one another as friends, or at
least allies. The countless smaller liberal bloggers may not inhabit
the same social circles, but the nature of the form encourages them
to share the same political sensibility. After all, if you are a
new liberal blogger, your only way to escape total anonymity is if
larger, established blogs point readers to your site. E-mail
feedback and reader comments tend to be uniformly partisan as well,
reinforcing the path of least resistance.

Even Matthew Yglesias, who writes one of the most independent-minded
liberal blogs, confessed in March that he had soft-pedaled his
opposition to gun control. "I don't write about this issue much
because, hey, I don't want to be a wanker," he wrote. "Wanker" is
the netroots equivalent of the conservative term "squish"--an
expression of derision reserved usually, but not exclusively, for
ideological defectors. It describes behavior that, for liberal
journalists and policy wonks who came into politics a generation
earlier, was a badge of honor.

In replicating the form and structure of the conservative movement,
inevitably the netroots have replicated its intellectual style as
well. The netroots, like the conservative movement, believe that
they represent a natural political majority, one that can only be
stymied by the timidity of their party's political establishment. A
Choice Not an Echo, Phyllis Schlafly's 1964 pro-Goldwater tract,
insisted "there is no way Republicans can lose so long as we have a
presidential candidate who campaigns on the issues." The logic of
the netroots is eerily similar. "If we do our part to support the
new generation of Democrats, the opposition doesn't stand a
chance," writes Moulitsas. "Because all the money, all the name ID,
all the connections don't stand a chance against a real
people-powered movement."

Just as the Goldwaterites reserved their strongest contempt for the
moderates who controlled the GOP, the netroots are at their most
single-minded in their opposition to the moderates who they believe
control the Democratic Party. The netroots often identify this
enemy in amorphous, populist terms-- "the Beltway," "the D.C.
establishment," etc. When it comes to identifying its adversaries
more specifically, the two institutions named most often are the
DLC and tnr. Netroots activists speak of these two institutions in
stark terms. "This is the modern DLC--an aider and abettor of
Right-wing smear attacks against Democrats," wrote Moulitsas, who
proceeded to threaten to "make the DLC radioactive." In a posting
about tnr, titled "tnr's defection to the Right is now complete,"
Moulitsas wrote that this magazine "betrayed, once again, that it
seeks to destroy the new people-powered movement for the sake of
its Lieberman-worshipping neocon owners." Both the DLC and tnr are
perpetually described as "dying" or "irrelevant," yet
simultaneously possessed of sinister and ubiquitous control over
the national discourse.

In reality, of course, the DLC is a political enterprise and tnr a
journalistic one; each has on its staff individuals who do not
always agree with each other; and neither institution exerts total
control over every individual on its payroll. While both the DLC
and tnr supported the Iraq war, both stridently opposed almost
every other element of the Bush agenda. The overwhelming majority
of DLC missives and tnr articles are perfectly congenial to
mainstream liberalism and perfectly hostile to the Republican Party
of George W. Bush. But these sorts of subtleties generally escape
the Manichean analysis that pervades the netroots.

What makes such internal enemies so dangerous is that they engage in
self- criticism. It is not that the netroots forbid internal
debate. Far from it: They indulge in all sorts of disagreements,
tactical and substantive, just as conservatives do. What they
consider treasonous is any criticism of any part of the Democratic
Party or its activist base from the right. You can attack the
Democratic leadership in Congress for failing to force a troop
withdrawal from Iraq, but you cannot attack it for opposing a troop

For instance, Moulitsas wrote that Tom Vilsack, in his former
capacity as chairman of the DLC, "not only signed off on editorial
decrees by the DLC opposing [John] Murtha's and other withdrawal
plans, but also gave safe haven for these warmongering 'Democrats'
to divide the party." It is permissible to divide the party from
the left, by opposing a moderate Democratic position. But if you
divide the party from the right, you are an enemy of the movement.

Like any political community, the netroots have developed
distinctive linguistic tics that hold special meaning to adherents,
and these reveal something about the way the movement thinks. Among
the most revealing is the netroots' incessant use of the words
"meme" or "frame" to describe ideas. It is a formulation that
assumes that establishing the truth about an idea matters less than
phrasing the idea in the most politically effective way and
repeating it as much as possible. As Ed Kilgore (a moderate liberal
blogger with a complicated relationship to the netroots) has put
it, this wording "reflects the strange belief that politics is all
about 'noise' and 'narratives'; whoever makes the most noise or
gets the most Google hits is going to win, regardless of objective

This somewhat cynical outlook is not a habit the netroots have
merely fallen into; it's a deliberate strategy. Political punditry,
in their view, is not a form of intellectual discourse but of
political battle. In an interview last year with ABC News,
Moulitsas explained the ethos with remarkable clarity:

I learned to talk the way I do in the U.S. Army. And we don't mince
words. In politics, I don't see it any different. I see it as a
battlefield. We didn't create this political environment; the
Republicans did. The Rush Limbaugh[s] and Ann Coulter[s] created
the world we live in, and, for too long, Democrats tried to keep
the high ground: "Oh well, we're not going to go down in the muck
with them."

And the bottom line is that they've been winning and we've been
losing, and it isn't because a couple of people use a potty word.
It's because they were aggressive, they promoted their side very
effectively, they riled up the troops, they motivated their
supporters, they made sure their base was well-nourished.

When you're in a battle, you use any weapon available. One of the
netroots' distinctive contributions to American political discourse
is the extremely promiscuous use of the insult "chickenhawk." To be
sure, people outside the military who favor a war ought to be
conscious of the fact that they will not personally bear the risks
of battle. In the hands of the netroots, however, it has become an
all-purpose refutation. In response to one Thomas Friedman column,
Black wrote, "'You' are not 'surging' so go back to your
billionaire's pad and shut the fuck up. You've helped cause enough
misery, none of which actually involved you." The insult can even
be used to discredit critics on subjects unrelated to warfare. When
National Review reporter Byron York wrote an unflattering account
of YearlyKos last year, Moulitsas sneered, "Byron is just another
chickenshit who didn't serve his nation in uniform."

As a matter of logic, these insults are preposterous. Taken at face
value, they suggest that it's illegitimate to support a war if
you're not fighting in it. But nearly all liberal bloggers claim to
support at least some wars--say, the fight in Afghanistan--and very
few of them have ever served in the Armed Forces. (Moulitsas is a
notable exception, having served in the Army.) So, by their own
standards, most liberal bloggers are chickenhawks, too. In the
netroots, though, the measure of an idea is its rhetorical
effectiveness, not its truth.

The notion that political punditry ought to, or even can, be
constrained by intellectual honesty is deeply alien to the
netroots. They have absorbed essentially the same critique of the
intelligentsia that the right has been making for decades. In the
conservative imagination, journalists, academics, and technocrats
are liberal ideologues masquerading as dispassionate professionals.
Those who claim to be detached from the political struggle are
unaware of their biases, or hiding them.

Norquist once said something to me that gave perfect expression to
this view. During the 2000 campaign, the two of us were making
small talk before we were set to debate, and he offered that the
event would be clarifying for his team as well as for my team. I
replied that, while I certainly have strong opinions, I wasn't
working for any "team." Norquist smiled at me in a slightly
condescending way and said, "Sometimes, we're on a team and we don't
realize it. "

This is more or less the same view of the netroots. They attack
liberals who, in their fervor to be seen as fair-minded, bend over
backward so far that they do violence to truth. And they are quite
right to do so. But the netroots critique is not that the liberal
intelligentsia has stretched the conception of fairness too far; it
is that the conception of fairness itself is folly. Any sense of
detachment from the partisan fray is impossible. Earlier this year,
Black made the point quite lucidly:

Lots of people imagine themselves to be, somehow, above the fray.
The most obvious group which does this is journalists and their
brethren. They fail to see themselves as actors on the political
stage, instead of detached observers. ... I've also seen it in
academics, who for all their supposed liberalness, to a great
degree really see themselves outside of this grand messy business
called politics. It's dirty, somehow.

You see it in technocrats, who too often devise their magical pony
plans without considering the need to understand the broader
context. From what people say, you see it in a lot of liberal
donors/institutions, who somehow like to see what they do as
operating outside of politics.

This ethos helps explain the enormous distrust between the netroots
and the traditional liberal intelligentsia. (Or, as Black put it,
the "incredible gap between those who see the debate as a kind of
game and those who, you know, actually give a shit about stuff.")
Part of it is the slight whiff of anti- intellectualism in some
quarters of the netroots. (Moulitsas, echoing Black's thoughts,
suggested that "'intellectuals' who'd rather read books and measure
purity are next-to-useless. I prefer people of action, not of [sic]
elitist academics.") The prevailing sentiment here, however, is not
a distrust of pointy heads. Rather, it's a belief that political
discourse ought to be judged solely by its real-world effects. The
netroots consider the notion of pursuing truth for its own sake
nonsensical. Their interest in ideas, and facts, is purely

Because they convey facts and opinions about the news to their
readers, bloggers associated with the netroots are often mistaken
for journalists. That is, as reporter Garance Franke-Ruta (who
covers the blogs) has put it, a "category error." This was thrown
into stark relief earlier this year, when John Edwards hired Amanda
Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, two bloggers who were prominent in the
netroots. The pair quickly came under enough fire for past
controversial blog posts--Marcotte, for example, had speculated,
"What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his
hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit?"--that the Edwards campaign decided
to cut them loose. Before it announced the decision, however,
Marcotte and McEwan's allies lobbied heavily on their behalf. The
liberal online magazine Salon reported the firings, but the Edwards
camp hunkered down and refused to release a public statement while
it decided on a course of action, then denied the firings to Salon
the following day. Liberal bloggers in close contact with the
campaign remained resolutely cryptic about what they knew. "The
bloggers closed ranks around the Edwards campaign, some even
claiming that Salon had gotten the story wrong," Salon's Joan Walsh
later reported. To Walsh and other journalists, the relevant metric
is true versus untrue. To an activist, the relevant metric is
politically helpful versus politically unhelpful.

There is a term for this sort of political discourse: propaganda.
The word has a bad odor, but it is not necessarily a bad thing.
Propaganda is often true, and it can be deployed on behalf of a
worthy cause (say, the fight against Nazism in World War II).
Still, propaganda should not be confused with intellectual inquiry.
Propagandists do not follow their logic wherever it may lead them;
they are not interested in originality. Propaganda is an attempt to
marshal arguments in order to create a specific real-world
result--to win a political war.

The netroots have already changed U.S. politics in sundry ways. They
have pressured the Democratic Party to adopt more innovative
tactics rather than rely on the cookie-cutter advice of high-priced
consultants. And they have pressed the party to adopt a more
adversarial tone. Earlier this year, for instance, liberal bloggers
successfully lobbied Democratic candidates to boycott a debate
forum sponsored by Fox News, on the grounds that their
participation would legitimize Fox's dubious claim to be a balanced
news organization.

They have raised significant sums of cash for politicians, organized
volunteers, and brought together like-minded activists. This has, in
turn, created an alternative power center for recruiting candidates
for office. Before the netroots, potential candidates who wanted
the national party to take them seriously needed to raise large
sums from familiar donors. Now they can raise money on the Internet
and approach the national party from a position of strength. "They
have totally changed the equation for what makes it possible for
somebody to be a viable candidate," notes Mark Schmitt of the New
America Foundation.

But the most important role played by the netroots is to purvey
liberal and pro-Democratic propaganda to offset that coming from
the right. As Moulitsas has noted, "We're better as a message

It has taken an abnormally long time for this message machine to
come into existence. In the decades after World War II, the news
media evolved a strong professional standard of nonpartisanship.
Network news broadcasts faced little financial pressure, and
newspapers--fattened up by advertising monopolies-- followed the
dictates of their professional values rather than the demands of
the market. They maintained costly bureaus in Washington and abroad,
and their ideology was mostly high-minded establishment centrism.

The first outlets to break away from this news oligarchy all sprang
up on the right--talk radio, Fox News, the Drudge Report. Such
partisan outlets did a brilliant job of injecting pro-Republican
stories and ideas into the mainstream public discourse, using
classic propaganda techniques, endlessly repeating ideas, phrases,
and images that helped their side with little regard for truth or
intellectual consistency. During the '90s and the outset of the Bush
years, this was the landscape: a large mainstream media, with a
social liberal bias mostly buried beneath studious nonpartisanship,
and a wildly partisan conservative media. All the pressure on the
mainstream media came from the right. Even liberal opinion
journalists, in this unbalanced world, felt obliged to demonstrate
their nonpartisanship.

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?"

The creation of a liberal message machine has not only filled a
vacuum in the political discourse. It has also had an impact on the
mainstream media itself. One revealing window into how this has
worked, as it happens, is Joe Frickin' Klein himself.

In early January, Time unveiled a new blog, Swampland, featuring
several of its political writers, including Klein, a columnist for
the magazine. While this was almost certainly not its intended
effect, Swampland turned out to be a fascinating experiment about
the effects of bringing mainstream journalists into close contact
with the Internet left.

Klein's initial forays were classic Klein: His second post was a
blast at "illinformed dilettantes" of the left who prove that
"[l]iberals won't ever be trusted on national security until they
start doing their homework." Predictably, the netroots lashed into
him. Just as predictably, his immediate reaction was to lash back,
in a follow-up blog post attacking "illiberal leftists and
reactionary progressives" and suggesting that his critics did not
want the administration's strategy in Baghdad to succeed.

The next couple of weeks, however, saw none of the sorts of
criticism of liberals that marked Klein's first post and much of
his career. When, a few weeks later, he ventured back onto
controversial terrain, he did so in an apologetic tone, almost as
if he were cringing in anticipation of the blows that were sure to
follow. "I know it's become common practice to slag David Broder in
the blogosphere," he wrote. "But let me say this in David's defense
.. . ."

Klein still regularly took issue with his liberal critics, but the
frequency of his dissents declined markedly, and the esteem with
which he treated his tormentors rose commensurately. He continued
to endure constant criticism and would often post three or four
updates to his blog items, each replying to a wave of attacks.
Moreover, Klein began with increasing frequency to concede the
truth of the criticisms against him--e.g., "I was (correctly)
hammered last year when I said on Stephanopoulos that 'all
options--including nukes--should be on the table' in our dealings
with Iran." And his liberal opinions seemed to grow more frequent
and less hedged. ("I'm dedicating the rest of my life to making
sure that we never go to war so foolishly again--if at all.")

Liberal bloggers regarded the newly tamed Klein with unconcealed
satisfaction. In a post on how the netroots was successfully
lobbying the mainstream media, Yglesias wrote, "I might also note
that Swampland is suddenly full of posts I find much more agreeable
than the ones they were doing early on. " His fellow blogger Ezra
Klein (no relation), of the Prospect, offered a persuasive
explanation of his namesake's more liberal-friendly tone:

It's worth remembering that, for years, the only thing these
quasi-liberal columnists heard was how biased, outof-touch, and
incomprehensibly progressive they were. So they began tailoring,
consciously or not, their work to defend against those criticisms.

Klein, like many journalists, had spent his career in a world where
there was only one real movement in U.S. politics. He had become
accustomed to sustained ideological mau-mauing, but he had expected
it only from one side, and, over the years, this imbalance had
taken its toll. Now, suddenly, there are two such movements,
balanced on either side of the moderate mainstream.

Whether or not liberals ought to consider this a good thing depends
on how wide their frame of reference is. At the narrow level, the
netroots take part in a great deal of demagoguery, name-calling,
and dishonesty. Seen through a wider lens, however, they bring into
closer balance the ideological vectors of propaganda in our public

Take the case of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain soldier who
camped out at Crawford, Texas, in August 2005, demanding to meet
with President Bush. The press corps did not treat her as a serious
story, and understandably so--there were many parents of fallen
soldiers with strong views on Iraq, so why should hers hold such
weight? But the netroots took hold of the Sheehan story, harping on
it for days, and forced it onto the national agenda. This is the
sort of thing conservatives have been doing for years. The Swift
Boat Veterans For Truth deserved no special credibility, either,
but, in 2004, the right-wing media apparatus elevated them onto the
national stage. Was the veneration of Sheehan intellectually
shabby? Without a doubt. Was it, considered as a whole, a bad
thing? That is not so clear.

The Democratic Party, as Moulitsas has written, is indeed undergoing
a comprehensive reformation, as is liberalism in general. At the
end of this reformation, what will the left look like? It will look
a lot more like the Republican machine that prevailed in Florida.
It will be nastier and more ruthless, and less concerned with
intellectual or procedural niceties. It will be more of a
disciplined movement and less of a collection of idiosyncratic

Conservatives have crowed for years that they have "won the war of
ideas." More often than not, such boasts include a citation of
Richard Weaver's famous dictum, "Ideas have consequences." A war of
ideas, though, is not an intellectual process; it is a political
process. As my colleague Leon Wieseltier has written, "[I]f you are
chiefly interested in the consequences, then you are not chiefly
interested in the ideas." The netroots, like most of the
conservative movement, is interested in the consequences, not the
ideas. The battle is being joined at last.

share this article on facebook or twitter

print this article


You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.

Back to Top