OpenLeft Aims to Open Doors in DC
Two giants of the liberal blogosphere joined forces today with a longtime Washington consultant to launch a new website, OpenLeft, designed as a hub for dialogue between progressive outsiders and Washington insiders.
Former Clinton White House official Mike Lux is leading the effort with Matt Stoller and Chris Bowers of MyDD, the influential blog that forced tight-fisted Democrats to donate more than $2 million to candidates last year, helped stymie Fox's Democratic presidential debate, and launched one of the first "grassroots polls" in the history of American politics.
"OpenLeft is not just about tools and tactics. We have a different set of ideas about how our culture and country should work," says Stoller, a 29-year-old Harvard graduate who has repeatedly rocked the Democratic establishment with searing blog attacks and aggressive grassroots campaigns. "We believe that power and wealth should be distributed more equally than they are now," he explains. So the site aims to empower netroots activists, challenge and criticize institutional players--and somehow build progressive coalitions along the way.
The organizers envision OpenLeft--named as a counterpoint to the 1960s' New Left--as the newsletter of the broader progressive movement, which increasingly uses Internet activism to force "open" transparency and accountability on the political establishment. Of course, that establishment includes some bloggers, who now work for politicians or run "A-list" blogs, which draw enough readers and revenue to make them free-standing media elites. As Bowers emphasizes in his first post on OpenLeft, "what was once a fluid, 'outsider' and 'open' form of new media is now witnessing the crystallization of a new 'establishment' all its own."
Yet unlike most liberal blogs, insiders will not just drop by OpenLeft for "chats" and fundraising. The organizers are recruiting institutional partners to fund the site, collaborate on campaigns and stick around for sustained criticism from their fiery bloggers and commenters.
Lux says OpenLeft will work with organizations like the Sierra Club, People for the American Way (PFAW) and USAction to provide "a bridge between outside movement people and insiders." The blog offers organizations potential visibility, members and fundraising, if they engage readers in a real ongoing dialogue about their strategy and policy objectives. Lux thinks groups will embrace a chance to engage new members, because the old model for liberal organizations is already dead. He has a point. Most of today's activists are not card-carrying members of anything, they don't respond to direct mail fundraising, and they are unmoved by initiatives that assume their support and ignore their ideas.
Ralph Neas, a longtime Washington insider, former Senate counsel and President of PFAW, says his organization will partner with OpenLeft by providing policy blog entries and buying ads. The site is a "perfect political marriage" of a "savvy political operator [and] two young aggressive and talented political bloggers," says Neas, and he should know. After the Senate confirmed Samuel Alito's Supreme Court nomination, Stoller blasted Neas' organization for turning a potential victory into a "system failure." When Neas saw the criticism, he asked Lux, a former political director of PFAW, to arrange a meeting with Stoller. After a two-hour breakfast rehashing the nomination battle at the Mayflower Restaurant in Washington, Neas came away converted. "The sense I get is the Matt Stollers and Chris Bowers are going to be around a long time. [They are] very astute, very aggressive and impatient," he added.
The interaction may serve as a model for OpenLeft's attempts to constructively challenge the progressive establishment. Last month, Bowers and Stoller sparked an extensive public exchange with the leadership of Third Way, a new centrist "strategy center" in Washington. It began when Bowers questioned the group's moderate motives, which Third Way protested.
Stoller found their response "unsatisfying," and went on to criticize the group for using "fraudulent" economic analysis, "dishonest" polling data and generally "triangulating against the left" to raise money. Third Way offered an extensive rebuttal, defending its moderate Clintonian politics.
Leaving aside the left-center debate, the exchange was remarkable for its candor, depth and speed. There are very few avenues for activists to study or challenge the unelected liberal establishment, which routinely "speaks for" the left in Washington. And excluding major donors, letters sent to most liberal leaders go unread--never mind a response. Yet now, a blog like MyDD or OpenLeft can convene a substantive debate that would otherwise not occur, at least in public, based on the site's visibility, influential audience and fundraising potential. (OpenLeft will be a partner in the netroots fundraising page at ActBlue.com, which raised $1.5 million for Democrats last cycle.)
OpenLeft wants to scale and routinize these debates. So the blog will adopt an unusual policy for the blogosphere: a right of response. Stoller says every liberal organization or person facing criticism from the site will have a right to respond in a thorough "front page" post. (Right-wingers need not apply, since OpenLeft only caters to a progressive audience.) The rule would address a common failure of both the traditional media and the blogosphere; neither generally allow sufficient space for rebuttals from most subjects of their coverage.
Some critics point out that blog attacks are not always the best starting point for engagement. William Beutler, the former editor of the Hotline Blogometer, thinks that Stoller's confrontational style may alienate insiders. "I don't see [OpenLeft] as being a website the establishment will leap to get involved with," said Beutler, who works at New Media Strategies, which advises Republican Fred Thompson. Daniel Drezner, a conservative academic blogger who has battled with Stoller online, voiced a similar skepticism of OpenLeft's goals. "I'm not sure Matt Stoller is going to be a bridge-builder," he said.
Other power players say it's essential that bloggers remain aggressive while working within the system. "Whenever something is effective, the establishment would like to refract it for its own purposes," argues Rob Johnson, a board member of an elite group of Democratic donors called the Democracy Alliance.
"It's up to individual bloggers to stick to their guns," despite pressure to change, he explained in a recent interview about OpenLeft. Bloggers can benefit from access, he added, as long they maintain their "wild animal" approach.