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Sunday, September 24, 2006

I'm really stupid, I write for time, and I never worked for Suck

The Netroots Hit Their Limits
Liberal online activists are finding you can't move elections with just modems and IM

Posted Sunday, Sep. 24, 2006
You've heard the story: the Netroots, the Democratic Party's equivalent of a punk garage band—edgy, loud and antiauthoritarian—are suddenly on the verge of the big time. The gang of liberal bloggers and online activists who helped raise millions of dollars for Howard Dean's presidential campaign two years ago are now said to be Democratic kingmakers.


So they're branching out. Beyond posting exhaustive pieces about bias in Fox News coverage and uploading videos of presidential wannabe George Allen making a fool of himself, they're adopting the old-school tools of electoral politics, like canvassing their neighborhoods and calling their member of Congress. They're getting nitty-gritty in their focus too. The liberal online fund-raising group ActBlue, for instance, is trying to get activists to donate serious money to state-legislature campaigns that bloggers once considered too unsexy to care about. The goal is to put Democrats in control of state governments, where many key decisions are made.

The Netroots phenomenon began in 1998 when two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs circulated an online petition demanding that Congress, in their phrase, "move on"—that is, stop trying to impeach President Clinton. Thus was born, which now has 3.2 million members. Most of the bloggers who have become Netroots leaders can trace their influence back only a couple of years, to 2003 and '04, when the growth of partisan liberal online activism was spurred by a strain of antiwar, anti-Bush fervor and frustration with congressional Democrats for not standing up to the President. Blogs like Daily Kos and MyDD grew rapidly. Today their combined readership (more than a million people weekly) dwarfs that of the dead-tree versions of established purveyors of liberal thought like the New Republic, which has a print circulation of about 62,000. The conservative Rightroots movement is only just getting started.

Because the Netroots are bound by a medium and not by geography, they have been able to nationalize fund raising for congressional and Senate races more effectively than other groups of their size and relative inexperience. They are also the liberal rival to conservative "noise machines" like the online Drudge Report and talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh. When Allen called an opponent's political operative by the racial slur macaca at a recent rally, the blogs touted the video, and the incident became a national story, contributing to a troubled campaign that has shrunk Allen's lead in his Senate race from double digits to 3 points.

Yet a coarse estimate of the Netroots' numbers shows them to be something less than a groundswell. The readership of the largest liberal blogs and the membership of MoveOn suggest that the Netroots could total 6 million people, and that assumes blog audiences don't overlap, which they do.


No one recognizes the Netroots' limits more than the activists themselves, which is why they are changing their tactics. First of all, they're becoming pragmatic about policy goals. There's little demand from the Netroots for Democrats to support gay marriage, for example, even though 91% of the people who gave money to or worked on Dean's campaign back it, according to a 2005 Pew poll. "We're not asking anyone to commit political suicide," says Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn. If the Democrats win the House, it will be on the strength of moderate candidates in places like Indiana, many of whom don't support one of MoveOn's top priorities, a timetable for withdrawal of troops from Iraq.


What's more, the Netroots are, paradoxically, attempting to maximize their effectiveness by going off-line. MoveOn is organizing its members to make a combined 5 million phone calls before Election Day, asking people to vote for Democrats. Markos Moulitsas, who runs Daily Kos, is talking about building real, bricks-and-mortar gathering halls where progressives can meet and organize political activities in person. Jane Hamsher, who runs the piquant online hangout Firedoglake, and other bloggers have started the "roots project," in which they employ nonweb political tactics like writing letters to the editors of their local newspapers. "We can hammer the New York Times and the Washington Post forever," Hamsher said, but "candidates are more influenced by what we're doing in their own backyards."

Even with these changes, the Netroots won't be kingmakers. The fact is, day-to-day campaigning in 2006 is not very different from how it was in 1996: candidates call a few very rich people to ask them to give money so the campaign can run ads on television and hope soccer moms catch them between cooking dinner and driving to practice. If the Democrats win in the fall elections, the roots of that victory will not be on the Net.

I once said to a friend who knows this well, "a few dedicated men can cause a great deal of damage if they choose". That was a paraphrase of a comment about the WWII Special Operations Executive, but the point is this. The online audience may be small, but they are incredibly active and smart.

70 percent of you will send an e-mail to a politician or a newspaper. That is an insane response rate. Which one could easily find out.

No, elections are not like they were 10 years ago. If you read your own damn copy, it would point out that Webb got 281K online, no small amount of money. He couldn't have gotten that 10 years ago. Ask Donna Edwards about online support, or Ned Lamont. Bloggers know that what happens online is a prelude to what happens offline, because many have worked in the field, as I have. But what being online does is allow people to organize, to talk, to plan, to share ideas. That didn't exist 10 years. Before Meetup imploded, that was the obvious example of how one moved from online to offline.

Some of these people wouldn't be running in November without online support.

Oh, and this anti-authoritarian thing. Jen and I would probably be the most anti-authoritarian of the bunch, and she's an Ivy League educated lawyer and I'm a pro-veteran freelance writer. FDL is run by a former federal prosecutor and MBA holding Hollywood producer, Escaton by a former Economics professor, TPM by a historian with a Ph.D from Brown, Daily Kos by a lawyer, AmericaBlog by a lawyer, need I go on? Black Flag this is not.

But I'll let Stirling Newberry take it from here.

posted by Steve @ 5:38:00 PM

5:38:00 PM

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