Progressive Blog #Fail: Moral Failure or Demographic Doom?
(This post is written by Pachacutec, not by me. Pachacutec was a long time blogger at FireDogLake, and deeply involved in Netroots Strategy through 2009. – Ian)
I read with interest my old friend Ian’s take on the failure of the progressive blogosphere, or “netroots,” from its beginnings in the early 2000’s until now. Ian and I had a little exchange about it on twitter, and he invited me to blog my take. Bottom line: I think Ian gets it partly right, but oversimplifies what happened.
Ian thinks the problem was essentially a moral failure:
So progressives have no power, because they have no principles: they cannot be expected to actually vote for the most progressive candidate, to successfully primary candidates, to care about policy first and identity second, to not take scraps from the table and sell out other progressive’s interests.
He also thinks progressives are more tribal than Tea Party conservatives are:
Unlike the Tea Party, most left wingers don’t really believe their own ideology. They put partisanship first, or they put the color of a candidate’s skin or the shape of their genitals over the candidate’s policy. Identity is more important to them than how many brown children that politician is killing.
The Tea Party, say what you will about them, gets a great deal of obeisance from Republicans for one simple reason: they will primary you if they don’t like how you’ve been voting, and they’ll probably win that primary. They are feared.
I don’t want to get distracted by this last point, but let me just state my opinion that Tea Party, liberals, and anyone else you can name are all tribal as hell, and just as tribal as each other. What made the Tea Party different in electoral effectiveness was Koch brothers’ money. There were moral failures in the netroots, most spectacularly in the ways that various people responded to scarcity, the dearth of any money to be made and food to be bought out of full time activist liberal blogging. But that’s not the big reason for progressive bloggers inability to translate online passion into raw political power.
My role in the netroots was part activist blogger and partly as a guy trying to find a way to get sustainable funds into progressive blogs. That meant I purchased and paid close attention to metrics of progressive blog audience demographics. One reason we didn’t become a destabilizing political force, able to shape policy and elect politicians, was because we just lacked the demographic reach to do it. We thought (hoped) we could be a populist wave for change. Turns out we were just a current.
Progressive blog audiences mostly reached more educated white boomers, and, with some exceptions, more men than women. Progressive blog audiences geographically reached all over the US, but their very dispersion made it difficult to get anything going on the ground where people of like mind could coordinate together. That limited audience reach and growth that could translate into coalition building and political power.
It’s true, as Ian hints, that our white boomer audiences were still mostly people who believed in institutions. They grew up that way. They were collectively shocked at the direction of the country and the corruption of media and government in the Bush years, but they were not radicals. They still believed in these institutions. Most wanted reform, not fundamental systemic change. They still listened to a lot of NPR.
This is what Ian is getting at in his argument, though I don’t see this so much as a moral failure as it is a lack of educated boomer tribal experience, a function of cohort. These boomers believed in the American Dream, but the next generation coming up is having a very different experience in its formative years. I see this as more of a systems phenomenon, related to how generations learn and form their assumptions, than as a collective moral failing.
Some bloggers tried to get around their weakness in organizing people on the ground by allying with unions, whose whole infrastructure of politics was about people taking collective action locally. But it was an uneasy alliance for tribal reasons: blog audiences were not working class and were far less diverse than the membership of service employee unions.
Without funds to amplify or rapidly escalate their local reach, the way the Tea Party has had, the netroots got bypassed by the fundraising and organizing machine of Obama campaign, which tapped the rising demographic wave ready to be plucked on the center-left: young people, women and people of color.
The 2008 primary wars were the worst time for progressive blogging, because the ugliest sides of latent liberal tribalism between the Clinton camp and the Obama camp were in full bloom. Obama held the netroots in contempt and allied with establishment forces and hedge fund money to suck all the organizing life out of the netroots. That’s what constitutes the “failure” Ian describes, but with hindsight, I don’t think there was any way we could have overcome all of these systemic obstacles. We lacked money, we were too narrow in our reach, too unorganized, and as a result, we could not overcome establishment efforts to beat us back.
We did have a partial victory with Lamont over Lieberman, where we succeeded in creating a local presence. However, as Ian points out, Lieberman won as an Independent. We have, in part, both the Clintons and Obama to thank for this. As validators, they helped Lieberman. Obama travelled right through Connecticut during the campaign and avoided an appearance with the Democratic nominee, Ned Lamont, reneging on a non-public promise. Lieberman had been his mentor in the Senate. None of this was an accident. Bill Clinton talked up Lieberman, in spite of the fact that Holy Joe made much of his name pontificating about Bill’s penis.
Still, the Lamont campaign showed the establishment that the netroots really had to be dealt with. Obama performed the hit, in what we have come to know as his signature Quiet American style. There were no drones involved, unless you want to use the word to describe paid and unpaid tribal attack hacks, rather than flying death machines. Either way, Obama never likes to leave fingerprints or get his hands visibly dirty.
What remains of the netroots is not a movement in itself but a continuing current. Some people came through this very clarifying period for one’s character scarred but with their integrity intact. Duncan (Atrios) and Digby still document the atrocities. Howie Klein fights the good fight for grass roots candidates and against the DCCC. Joe Sudbay works persistently and effectively for gay equality and disenfranchised immigrants. Marcy’s persistent OCD and ability to connect the dots influences the influencers and the debate on the NSA. Ian shakes his fist at us, challenges us and reminds us of things we try not to think about because we just want to get through our day. Even Tom Matzzie, who has left politics, pops up from his embedded perch to fuck with Michael Hayden. There are others as well, I’m just citing examples to make my point.
Collectively, we failed at our most lofty ambitions, though we didn’t fail at everything. But with climate change and the time it will take for a possibly more radicalized youth cohort to effect more radical economic and social change, it may all be too late. Then again, it took decades between God and Man at Yale and Ted Cruz. There is something to be said for just finding a way to hang around and keep the narrative alive. It’s about all we can still do, and below the level of institutions, there are signs the culture may be catching up.