By now, most people are weary of hearing how blogs are changing American politics. The search engine Technorati estimates 70,000 new blogs are created every day, but most are obscure and will remain so forever. Only a few bloggers have the audience and credibility to effectively break stories, pressure the traditional media, incubate new ideas or raise real money. These influential bloggers are usually sharp, opinionated and focused on the world “offline.” They refuse to view events through the solipsistic blinders of their own websites.
Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the founding writers of MyDD and Daily Kos, are two such influential bloggers. They’ve written a provocative new book that offers a perceptive analysis of progressive politics and proposes to revolutionize the Democratic Party through a “bloodless coup.”
Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics is both of the blogosphere and beyond it. Writing with the outrage of outsiders and the access of insiders, the two bloggers analyze a Democratic Party they find oddly complacent despite its losing record and tarnished reputation. They argue that the party’s most consequential problem is not branding but its sclerotic leadership, quarrelsome coalitions and anachronistic fundraising methods.
Armstrong and Zúniga characterize the party’s coalition structure as more of a “gaggle” of single-issue constituency groups than a coherent movement. Primary campaigns are dominated by “single-issue dogmatists” who place “too much emphasis on what the party can do for them and not enough on what they can do for the party.” This charge is leveled against environmentalists, labor unions and even the dejected prochoice organizations that just lost two Supreme Court confirmation battles. Channeling Hillary Clinton, the authors call on Democrats to simultaneously protect legal abortion and “acknowledge that abortions represent a failure” requiring “viscerally disturbing procedures.” Since so few Democratic leaders publicly challenge the prochoice movement’s strategy, even when it fails, this argument is constructive. Yet many people will resent being told to soften their language in defense of a fundamental and constitutional right. While it is hard to prove which language is most persuasive, Crashing the Gate also makes a compelling case that single-issue groups’ purist demands on Democratic candidates have a tendency to backfire, sidelining viable progressive candidates and insuring Republican victories.
While progressives still debate how to balance disparate policy agendas with the needs of the larger movement, there has long been a consensus that competing for the same clique of mega-donors is counterproductive. Besides the infighting it fosters, the national party’s pursuit of large donations, many grassroots activists claim, has driven it from its populist economic roots. In 2002 soft-money donations were prohibited by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms, which were dubbed the “Democratic Party suicide bill” because of the anticipated crippling effects on funding. Yet Armstrong and Zúniga have a different take: Democrats were finally forced “to reconnect to real people” and modernize their fundraising. The new methods catalyzed a fundamental shift in the party’s balance of power, first demonstrated in the online fundraising for Howard Dean’s primary campaign, then amplified in the 2004 election, when Democrats “achieved financial parity with the Republicans” for the first time in modern history.
The authors tout this “netroots” success as a sustainable way to engage more supporters and liberate the party from moneyed interests, but they also deliver a stern warning for the establishment: Donations will evaporate if Democrats continue to hire worthless consultants, shirk accountability and lose elections. In this model, netroots activists and grassroots donors are essentially shareholders–they demand transparency, accountability and decent returns on their investments. Some have criticized bloggers like Zúniga for concentrating on money and strategy at the expense of public policy; a recent Washington Monthly profile even belittled his “obsession with tactics” over ideology. But such criticism ignores the civic benefits of the new fundraising landscape. Democracy functions better when donors push politicians to win campaigns based on their defining issues, instead of using financial pressure for policy changes, favors or special access. Unlike traditional mega-donors, most of the netroots activists ask very little for their donations. Many have no business interests, they don’t want special access and they could care less about photos from a ballroom fundraiser. They just don’t want their money wasted.
Armstrong and Zúniga call on activists to challenge political and media elites and demand the Democratic Party purge its well-connected loser consultants. These steps will, in turn, create opportunities to develop the intellectual and communications infrastructure to compete with the conservative machine. They note that much of this work must happen offline, in the real world, but add that the netroots are an integral part of the game plan.
Their plan is not unrealistic; no serious political initiative would launch today without a strategy for online fundraising, blog engagement and netroots activist recruitment. But technological advances are not inherently empowering, progressive or egalitarian. Much of the online audience is richer, more educated and less diverse than the rest of America, according to an October 2005 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Crashing the Gate does not sufficiently acknowledge these inequities in technological access, or explain how they can distort online opinion and activism. Progressive bloggers should not only write on behalf of the members of America’s underclass but also empower them to join the discussion.
In the end, Armstrong and Zúniga have written the rare polemic that focuses more on fostering innovation than defending a particular worldview. They decline to outline a progressive policy agenda and humbly reject attempts to anoint themselves leaders of their website communities, let alone the netroots. Instead, they are trying to develop a decentralized progressive movement that draws strength from its members and has no traditional leaders to be co-opted. It is an admirable vision of “people-powered politics,” and one that the Democratic Party sorely needs.