Politicos Court Netroots at YearlyKos
Covering this weekend's YearlyKos conference was challenging for journalists and bloggers alike. Reporters are supposed to avoid becoming part of the story, but that is virtually impossible at an event that often focused on media criticism and invited journalists onstage to discuss their craft. Most bloggers believe in disclosing conflicts of interest, but the entire act of analyzing the conference presents a conflict--at least for bloggers who hope Yearly Kos will further empower Democratic activists online. (Count me in: I spoke on a panel about foreign policy and netroots activism with several writers.)
YearlyKos was complicated to cover because it boiled down to a gathering of writers who often write about one another: bloggers critiquing reporters; reporters covering the blogosphere; bloggers analyzing politicians; politicians courting (and blogging about) the netroots; and of course, bloggers writing about bloggers. It sounds chaotically incestuous. Sometimes it was, with insiders interviewing each other about each other. The New York Times picked up on this theme, observing that while bloggers may think they are rebels, the success of Yearly Kos showed they are becoming "part of the American political establishment."
Yet many of the online activists are new insiders who got noticed more for ideas and attitude than for their political connections. The top bloggers also have an ongoing dialogue with thousands of people, providing an instant, public reality check through online comments. (Typical political insiders do not face such accountability once they enter pundit orbit.) As Salon's Peter Daou emphasized this weekend, bloggers can cross-pollinate with mainstream media without being co-opted, because "the blogosphere is a new power base, a stand-alone entity with its own ethos." Most important, this open, interactive structure may be a model for profound societal changes beyond Democratic politics.
Stirling Newberry, a business consultant, writer and blogger at BOPNews, told me the conference's blogger-reporter interactions are one example of a broader phenomenon: the blurring of the line between consumers and producers of information in our economy. He argues that as technology enables people to generate their own content--be it writing, images, music or movies--they cease to be defined solely as consumers. The recent success of user-generated sites like MySpace and YouTube show this trend beyond political blogs. (By providing profile pages created by millions of its consumers, MySpace broke into the top ten most popular sites on the Internet this year, which are mostly top-down content providers like Yahoo!, MSN and MapQuest. MySpace is also the top social networking site, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, followed by Blogger.)
The evolution is simply happening faster in politics because the netroots have had an immediate impact on politicians and reporters, while it would take a lot more money for consumers to have that kind of impact on traditional companies. This influence stems from the netroots triple threat: issues advocacy, voters and money. All three were on display.
Many reporters covering YearlyKos asked about netroots "endorsements," but that's not what politicians want most from bloggers. They want the triple threat deployed on their side, usually starting with information advocacy. As Senator Harry Reid said in his keynote address on Saturday, one of the things that impressed him most about the Internet was the power and impact of bloggers "to spread information" and foster a "revolution in communications." He credited the blogosphere with successfully advancing information and messages to protect Social Security and expose the Bush Administration's lies regarding the outing of CIA agent Valarie Plame. (Her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, spoke on a YearlyKos panel about the incident.)
Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor and potential presidential candidate, came to the conference for voters--and not simply the thousand or so voters in attendance. He recognizes that bloggers influence many people, including millions of rank-and-file Democrats who don't regularly read blogs but are receptive to advocacy for a more aggressive, confrontational party across all fifty states. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens on the top blogs rarely stays there. Chris Bowers, a MyDD blogger who has polled and studied the netroots, provided a great example during a survey presentation this weekend. He declared that Senator Joe Lieberman is currently learning exactly how bloggers can influence the broader Democratic electorate, as he faces a mounting primary challenge from businessman Ned Lamont.
The seeds of that challenge were planted years ago by a handful of bloggers, including Connecticut activist Keith Crane, who created DumpJoe.com to highlight Lieberman's shortcomings and recruit a primary challenger. Bloggers bird-dogged Lieberman's unique ability to step up for President Bush when he needed it most, from parroting fanciful talking points about progress in Iraq to undermining Democratic efforts to stop extreme Supreme Court nominees. Nevertheless, in 2005 Lieberman still "laugh[ed] off talk of a challenge," according to the New York Times. The netroots changed that in a hurry; today Lieberman is in a close race. The most recent independent poll found the three-term incumbent's lead cut nearly in half, which the Hartford Courant described as a "dramatic tightening" that shows Democrats increasingly see Lamont "as a credible challenger." The Lieberman campaign is trying to catch up with this reality. In addition to running personal attack ads, Lieberman campaign manager Sean Smith recently assured me that the "Republican President and Congress have the country headed in the wrong direction, and Senator Lieberman is as angry and as frustrated as Connecticut voters are." Judging by the number of Lamont stickers dotting the convention halls in Las Vegas, Yearly Kos attendees are not buying it. They see Lieberman as a disloyal enabler of President Bush's policies; they will keep making that case across the country and in Connecticut.
Then there is the netroots' money, of course. It first poured in during the 2004 presidential campaign; John Kerry raised $57 million online, compared to the $9 million Bush raised online. Yet grassroots donations online have changed races large and small. Jon Tester's primary victory in Montana was a hot topic this weekend; his campaign received donations from the "Netroots Candidates" page at ActBlue, which has already raised $200,000 this year, with the midterms still five months away.
Throughout the weekend, the blogger who lent his name to the conference doggedly championed the attendees' power more than his own. But on Sunday Markos Moulitsas Zúniga passed yet another insider power threshold. He appeared on NBC's Meet the Press--the most coveted Beltway bully pulpit--to explain the netroots. As Moulitsas is the first to acknowledge, his writing and ideas got him far, but the netroots community took DailyKos to the next level. And this weekend's gathering helped put more faces on the netroots' triple threat, which apparently caught Tim Russert's attention more than any online commentary. (Russert also offered some MSM criticism this weekend, in a must-read letter blasting The New York Times Magazine for a recent interview by Deborah Solomon.)
YearlyKos was a success for helping the mainstream media see hundreds of bloggers as real people for perhaps the first time, just as many of the bloggers were meeting one another for the first time. Now the question is whether the bloggers and activists will be even more effective as they get to know one another better.