The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Jerome Armstrong: A blogger is the first follower, not the leader

By Jerome Armstrong

I want to say something about the role of a blogger, just to try and frame the expectations and limitations inherently in place. The blogger is like that first follower in the famous Derek Sivers video, that is: “the first follower is the person that transforms the lone dancing guy into someone leading a movement.” So, when I saw Howard Dean dancing solo among the Democrats, at a Democratic Party gathering up in Seattle in June 2002, I started blogging, ‘hey there’s a guy dancing here’ I’m dancing now too, and so on, and a movement started…

This is the arena of politics, the politicians are the ones that have to be the crazy lone dancer for there to be bloggers to stand up and dance along. That’s their role. So its not a correct frame to say “FDL didn’t go down with the ship against ACA” in spring ’10, when already, the the only ones that came forward to dance, Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, both stopped, and became supporters. No dance, nothing to follow; the music has stopped.

As for the modern day (2001-2013) Democratic Party’s politicians. They’ll dance quite a jig during the campaign. When in power, they’ll dance on an populist issue here or there, usually when it’s not likely to have much a chance of passing. Mostly though, they just look busy while holding up the wall.

And it’s not about ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ but about the politicians moment on the stage. When a leader starts dancing, the early followers jump in, and a movement starts. If the leader stops dancing, that’s when a movement dies. If, however, even in losing, they kept on dancing, that’s a movement that will live another day.

This is something we see play out over and over on both sides of the aisles, among the populist progressives and libertarians, usually against the old guard. A dance starts, they laugh first, then get pissed, start fighting, charge in using whatever it takes, claim ownership of the floor, and shut down the dancer.

(This a comment elevated from my post on the failure of the why progressives don’t get much of what they want from politicians.  It is written by Jerome Armstrong, not by me. Jerome was the founder of MyDD (Kos’s Blogfather) and co-author of Crashing the Gates, among other things- Ian)


Why Obama And Democrats Don’t Do Much of What Liberals Want (Netroots Failure: Part 2)


Jerome Armstrong’s Oral History of the Dean and Clark Movements


  1. Hugh

    A blogger is whatever he/she wants to be. I don’t understand this leader/follower mumbo jumbo. It sounds like an excuse not to take a stand, not to make an effort. I gave up on waiting for leaders some time before the 2008 election. As far as I am concerned, it is if not us, who? and if not now, when? We are the change that’s coming if it is going to come at all. I am not looking for and don’t need any saviors.

  2. Logan

    It’s just an observation that without politicians willing to lead, blogs are going to be limited in what, if anything, they are successful in doing. If you can’t find a politician worth backing, you won’t have any ability to demonstrate the strength and size of a blog and its members. Understanding the political incentives facing politicians and why they “stop dancing” is important for figuring out how the progressive blogosphere can and cannot be successful.

  3. Texas Nate

    @Hugh, Jerome put in about eight years of effort and had a bigger political impact than 99% of the population. It would behoove you to listen to his thoughts on his experiences. Unless there is a sudden dramatic change in human nature (which has never happened in human history), any successful movement will still need leaders.

  4. Jeff Wegerson

    M L King was a leader put not an electable politician. MLK was a leader for an ideology, as Ian would say. Jesse Jackson followed MLKs script and ideology. Ran for president, lost, quit dancing perhaps. Ralf Nader similarly. Currently the Pauls?

    The Pirate Party in Germany shot up to 3-4% on an ideology and a technology. The technology was what they called “Liquid Democracy” or Adhocracy. Their limitation was the thinness of their ideology but the strength of their technology propelled they beyond the limits of their ideology. Just saying that there is something there in the technology that calls for some careful attention.

  5. bystander

    I found this to be insightful when Jerome first put it in the comments. Started to respond, and then decided I needed to think more carefully about it. There are two corollaries that bounced around in my head as I read, and I’m still not sure how, or if, they “fit.”

    The first is the hazard (?) of the “great man” syndrome. Consider that lone dancer for a blogger to dance along with. It is hard to know in the beginning whether this initial dancer has the chops to keep dancing – even when there is support for the dancer in the face of push-back. Being tied to this dancer – this “great man” – means being vulnerable to the dancer’s ability and willingness to dance and keep dancing. As Jerome makes plain wrt the ACA, if the role of the blogger is to amplify (?) the dancer, when the dancer stops dancing, there is nothing to amplify. No one of substance (?) is waving the flag for the bloggers to salute. That train of thought leads me to wonder about the viability of that blogger’s role as Jerome has defined it. It’s the role, not the blogger, that I find fragile.

    The second thing that came to mind was Glenn Greenwald’s theory of the Rotating Villain:

    The primary tactic in this game is Villain Rotation. They always have a handful of Democratic Senators announce that they will be the ones to deviate this time from the ostensible party position and impede success, but the designated Villain constantly shifts, so the Party itself can claim it supports these measures while an always-changing handful of their members invariably prevent it.

    So, when I imagine a politician from the Democratic Party’s claimed ideological space begin a dance a blogger might want to dance along behind, I wonder at what point the dancer is going to be offered an “out,” or co-opted out. Whether the dancer lacks the ability or the willingness to keep dancing doesn’t matter; the end point is the same – the effective outcome is identical. And, the dancer can retreat back to within the prescribed boundaries of the party’s ideology leaving the blogger in Jane Hamsher’s territory. There isn’t any good way for the blogger to hold the dancer accountable. And, in the event of a Party-scripted retreat, there is no way for the blogger to hold the Party accountable, either.

    The role, as Jerome has defined it, leaves the blogger vulnerable to chasing something ephemeral. I don’t argue that what Jerome has described is, in fact, the way things work. But, if I were a blogger, I’d have to consider the odds of a successful dance to be quite low. You could advance an idea/policy for a period of time via the politician dancing, but when that politician quits, effectively, you’re done. If I’m a blogger, I’d have to think about defining a different role.

  6. S Brennan

    Texas Nate, I’ve always voted policy, not cult personality, that’s why it’s been clear to me SINCE 2003 that Obomer was/is a Randian ideologue. Conversely, now that Bush [the 2nd] is a seasoned CiC would you want him leading the country again? Jerome’s experience can teach us lessons, but they do not confer upon him wisdom…or…more importantly, predictive powers. Back to Obomer…anybody who voted/supported Obomer was not looking for a man with worldly experience.

    I do on occasion, vote strategically, but unlike the sophistry of “the lessor of two evils”, when faced with two evils, I vote for a pol who has the least capability to enact his evil, either through his own incompetence and those that he surrounds himself with, or the political forces arrayed against him. A blogger can inform his/her readers of this option, which supporters, or mainstream media CAN NOT DO, but not…if they are on the take. FYI, whatever the form of payment, you’ve been bought.

    The whole idea that the job of bloggers is to find followers, a pied piper…is exactly how I left most sites, once so married to a candidate [however secretly] the justifications and rationalizations start and the independent analysis stops. Barry Ritzholtz and Ian are the only two blogs I visit daily, I visit these very different bloggers precisely because they are independent men, beholden to no one.

    I disagreed with this post when it was in comments, sometimes perfectly decent men come up with perfectly stupid ideas. Professional credentials can’t make a bad idea good, or do you still think Obama is a Constitutional scholar?

    Apologies Jerome, I like much of what you say about making common cause when interest[s] coincide…after all that is the underlying premise of democracy…and southerners are nothing like the upper class “liberal” based stereotypes. Oh, it’s easy to be a “liberal” in safe enclave, it’s a little harder to do it when you are outnumbered, courage matters.

    So Jerome, what about Chuck Hagel? He argued against a Syrian bombing campaign, hell of war record [yes, folks courage matters], competence, high energy, good speaking voice, good looks, decent morals…can Hillary be stopped…I don’t want anybody to be President of the United States, who was amused by an anal rape with a knife …there’s just something about that, that doesn’t sit right with me…you?

  7. Texas Nate

    @S Brennan, don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking Jerome’s description of his experience as a prescriptive. Hell after 10 years of working in electoral politics and another 5 in “public affairs” (ie legalized corporate bribery of pols) I don’t even know if I believe in the concept of representative democracy anymore.

    However I have seen it again and again that there is a STRONG desire on the part of human beings to abdicate personal responsibility for decision making and follow a perceived leader. The flattened networks and attempt at non-hierarchical leadership didn’t seem to work very well for Occupy but the failures of the 60s radicals (and every elected official) illustrate very clearly the dangers of turning activists into icons.

    I should also note that I worked with/for Jerome for several years so tend to be defensive of a friend and mentor.

    I think Ian is absolutely right that the forging of a new ideology is the most important thing. We’ve got to destroy the neo-liberal frame before we can do anything else.

  8. It makes sense only given the assumption that one must remain within the system and follow duly anointed system Leaders. Which, I agree, is what “progressives” are and what they do. So it’s appropriate to the context. (Nor do I think “voting Green” or something like that changes the dynamic.)

    But it doesn’t begin to exhaust the options that were open to an outfit like FDL, if it had wanted to try to do what’s right and necessary, rather than what fits into the bounds of crackpot “pragmatism” but is neither good nor sufficient.

    Meanwhile the real goal is to get completely new movements going, from the soil up. If those will have leaders at all, it’ll have to be their own organically arisen leaders. Otherwise one might as well give up.

    I’d say bloggers can most likely be “leaders” in the sense of what Eric Hoffer called the revolutionary men of words. Like the 18th century philosophes, who certainly weren’t looking to their favorite noblemen or ministers to lead them within the bounds of ancien regime politics.

    If you think about it, it’s a testament to how deep the two-party indoctrination has sunk, how far the rot has gone, that so few bloggers see themselves this way.

  9. peon

    People with money have gotten very good at holding back the howling masses from their gates.
    They know to appease the peasants you need to allow a Robin Hood to pop up once in a while. Let him have his Merry Band of followers. It gives the peasants hope and keeps them working.
    In the new “virtual” age you don’t even need a real Robin Hood, just the symbolism. Thus we get Obama, he is black, fit, cool, therefore he must be a “secret man of the people”. True believers waited out almost the whole 8 years of his performance before they began to lose hope. (Hopey-Changey).
    Well if a POC can’t do it (Person Of Color), we will try a woman! Surely that will be revolutionary! Exit Obumer, enter Clinton. Eight more years of looting, debt and wage slavery. Eight more years of disillusionment.
    Perfect casting in the play-the poor and working Right wingers get to focus their bigotry and women hating for 16 more years of looting. The working and poor”libruls” get to feel all “hopey-changey” and wait for their symbolic “leader” to break free from their corporate chains.
    Bloggers document the atrocities or drink the kool-aid.

  10. Hugh

    I agree with Russ. Tying your fortunes to one of two corrupt, corporatist parties and their predictably anti-progressive candidates is a recipe for failure. We should not be out pursuing politicians. We should be creating a movement with a clear vision and clear programs to get us there. Political candidates and a political party should be recruited out of this movement. No compromises and no playing nice with the legacy parties. And if any of our candidates don’t fight for our program, they’re gone, period.

    We need to understand that movements are where power really resides. The demise of American unionism can be traced back to the anti-Red attacks in the early1900s not on the unions themselves but on the social movements which powered them. Unionism became institutionalized. It ossified and by the 1980s came under withering and sustained attack which has largely marginalized it. On the other hand, look at the Tea Party which isn’t a party at all. It’s a movement, and look at its power, bastardized, incoherent, and astro-turfed as it is within the Republican party. If a Republican ignores them, they primary his/her ass, doesn’t matter who it is.

    Think what we could do with a movement that was actually for somthing worthwhile, which described in clear and simple terms the kind of society most of us want and how to get it, and which stayed outside the two parties altogether.

    None of this is rocket science. People a century ago understood how to do this. It’s just we have forgotten and had it indoctrinated out of us.

  11. Jerome Armstrong

    Yes, the viability is pretty limited in this role. In the arena of politics, we have elected ‘leaders’ that ultimately are the individuals that write legislation, and once they get enough of their fellow members to follow, it becomes law.

    In the context of FDL and opposition to ACA among progressives, the blogger basically latches onto the system as it exists, trying to influence the outcome.

    Of the blogger latches onto a candidate hoping they do what they say when elected. It is not optimal, but I’m being descriptive more than prescriptive.

    @S Brennan I’m not going to go google ‘anal raped with a knife’ to know what that’s about. But I guess people that do, are going to wind up here on your site Ian.

    I agree that the two-party system is getting in the way. There’s just not a clear way forward other than taking some steps. I’ve abandoned being aligned to a party, and encourage others to do so as well. I also encourage 3rd party voting. I think making a legislative alliance on populist issues makes sense right now. But these are tactics, not a real strategy.

    I don’t actually agree about the new ideology, or rather, let me say, I don’t think it’s happening for quite a while. Rather, as I remarked previously, the structural and systematic failures have to be dealt with first. The declaration of independence happened before the constitution and bill of rights.

  12. nihil obstet

    @Jerome Armstrong, how you deal with structural and systemic failures depends on your ideology. The pressing issue for the largest number of Americans in the immediate future is financial insecurity, most notably among the un- and under-employed. I’d say we will increasingly see a large population become disconnected from the psychology of employment. We’ll see more unable to feed and educate children. And more suffer the financial effects of natural disasters as weather becomes more extreme.

    Conservatives are likely to continue to believe that it’s the fault of the takers and moochers, who are just unwilling to work. That’s ideology that leads to repression. Neoliberals are likely to phrase it differently, to wring their hands over the necessity for American standards of living to fall so that those in developing countries can rise (fairness, you know), and to recommend modest training programs to teach victims the skills that they claim will enable everybody to climb back into the middle class. That’s ideology that more gently leads to repression.

    Some of dfhs embrace the right of every member of a society to the means of a decent life. We want a basic income, health care, education, and pensions for everyone in a rich society. That’s ideology that looks to figure out how to create and distribute resources in ways that address the structural and systemic problems whose symptom is our widespread financial instability. People who can’t attach to the current employment society are likely to be open to an alternative ideology, but we won’t get there unless we have a way to explain that “working hard” is neither necessary nor increasingly possible. The declaration of independence was at least as much a statement of ideology as a blueprint for dealing with systemic failure.

  13. S Brennan

    Jerome, I know most have forgotten our 8 month bombing campaign in Libya in order put Al Quada in charge of the best crude on the planet. I just wouldn’t have counted anybody who posts here among them. I am surprised you forgot, or did not know? Here’s the story, what happened and Hilary’s reaction.

    I know you are probably looking to latch onto a campaign…I’d avoid Clinton’s, a woman laughing at a horrific rape is going to…how shall I say…send mixed messages

  14. Jerome Armstrong

    My view is that the American way of life is over, and that the global way of life has started out the gate looking a lot like corporate hegemony. I would like to see a worldview that is global & populist start emerging.

    @S Brennan After about 40 campaigns from 2003 through 2012, I’m done. I’ve retired last year from working/consulting/advising on anymore elections. I am hoping to get around to write some reflections about ’08.

  15. Ian Welsh

    Americans had a pretty good idea of what ideology they wanted before the revolution. Most of the rights of man stuff was created before, not after.

  16. Montanamaven

    I am with Russ and Hugh. MLKJr was part of a much larger movement for social and economic justice. Rosa Parks was too. I don’t think the designation leader or follower means much in that context.

    When I think of movements, I think of the tremendous contribution that Alice Waters has made with her farm to restaurant movement and edible schoolhouse idea. She has impacted in a good way more than DiFi or Pelosi from San Fran. She’s an originator , a visionary.
    Look at the Zapatistas too. And the squatters.

    When Ian first proposed a new ideology I was struck with the word itself. I myself have a philosophy that guides me through life. The difference between ideology and philosophy is a whole blog entry in itself. And I’m on my second glass of wine so it may have to wait.

  17. Montanamaven

    @nilhil obstet
    Most excellent! ‘Working hard” is stupid. “Productivity” is a weasel word for working your ass off. Wobblies the IWW fought for more leisure time not higher wages. In leisure time you create. The powers that be and their lame ass lackeys the progressives don’t want the working class to have leisure time. In leisure time, besides inventing rock and roll, they ferment dissent.

  18. Celsius 233

    @ nihil obstet & Montanamaven

    Excellent points. Progress as defined by leaders will destroy us.
    Philosophy is the theory about how to live life.
    Education and curiosity, coupled by intelligence, provide the way; no theories required…

  19. Amos Anan

    I won’t post my real thoughts on Obama and his effect on the progressive movement. I’ll just say that he was and is a juggernaut that couldn’t be challenged without a vicious backlash that he’d be happy to foster. Welsh touched on it with the timid “identity” term. In my view Obama is the worst president in my life (going back to Eisenhower). He’s worse than “W” in that he was elected to reverse the worst of “W” but instead he extended, enhanced and institutionalized that “worst.”

    He’s been going after fundamental democratic and Democratic institutions since entering office (Social Security and Medicare) and pushing war and corporate control (TPP negotiations classified). Obamacare is a huge gift to the worst parasites in American health care, the mega-corporate insurance and pharmaceutical interests. Obama even boasted it was a Republican plan.

    Remember how Obama was going to give Democrats a generation of new supporters? Instead we have a generation of the jaded, conned by yet another political con artist. The web leaders of the progressive movement didn’t fail America. America was failed by a self-serving self-interested con artist at just the right time for him and the worst time for America. It’s another lost generation for the people in trade for a slightly more secure and wealthy future for an individual.

  20. Jerome Armstrong

    I think the ideas/solutions are already out there Ian. I am reminded of that Dylan Ratigan video I liked to a few days ago:

    Where he said he quite the oligarchy at MSNBC when it became obvious:

    A. Knowing that the solutions to reform the system already exist.

    B. That pretending we don’t know the solutions exist is the easiest way to maintain the system.

    We have the technology, wealth and abundance to provide everyone on the planet for their food, shelter, education, and healthcare needs. But it’s a system of greed, ignorance and fear that prevents the technology, wealth and abundance to be accessed by everyone.

    Or as Ratigan says there too: “99% of the people on the world are fearful, narcissistic, and insane.”

    Which means that the 1% have to change to live by being brutally honest authentic and transparent. Revolutionary. We’re just planting seeds in the hope that 7 generations later the ignorance of humanity hasn’t destroyed the planet– that we are by then living up to the ideals.

  21. Jerome Armstrong

    @Amos Anan
    Sounded pretty real to me.

  22. markfromireland

    @ Jerome Armstrong November 6, 2013

    Which means that the 1% have to change to live by being brutally honest authentic and transparent. Revolutionary.

    How nice to see that vanguardism is alive and well. After all it’s worked so brilliantly well every time it’s been tried elsewhere.

    The fact that it’s alive and well and living in America with its long long long history of imposing how it thinks other people should live and think by violence does not, I admit, fill me with joy.

    Tell you what – perform the experiment on your fellow Americans and only on your fellow Americans first if it works you can be certain the rest of us will follow along.


  23. Via Texas Nate:

    I don’t even know if I believe in the concept of representative democracy anymore

    Sadly, that’s looked like the point much of our political and governing class has wanted to instill in the public for many years now.

    “Representative democracy just doesn’t work, so let us dispense with it.”

    Of course, it can work, but not on the model that has been instituted in this country. Paralysis and futility are baked in to the process as we have received it.

    Rethinking the whole apparatus and the props that hold it up, which I assume Ian is attempting in this really remarkable series of posts, is worthwhile and in my estimation overdue.

  24. Ian, to what are you referring when you say that “Americans had a pretty good idea of what ideology they wanted before the revolution”? One recalls the slave society built up around the Virginia colony, or the fact that the Mayflower Pilgrims were so stuck-up that they couldn’t make it in Holland because Holland was too tolerant, or the severe penalties the colonists had to impose for mingling with the societies of the native peoples of this land because “going Indian” was simply too attractive. What was Crevecoeur’s advice to new immigrants? “Get yourself some slaves.” Early America was a society of reactionary European rejects of various ideological stripes who had to stick together because the penalties for not doing so were too high. “Democracy” came about in such a society because the elites among them couldn’t decide who was the mostest, though they could decide who was the leastest — see e.g. Shay’s Rebellion. The real revolutionary ideology of that time was French, and it became real to the world in 1789 with the publication of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man.”

    Jerome, I think the “system of greed, ignorance, and fear” is called “capitalism.” The 1% created it to maintain themselves as a 1%, and the only reason any of the rest of us have more than a few crumbs off of their tables is because, once upon a time, the 1% were at one point in history threatened by a utopian movement called “communism.” Now, human beings are versatile, so we are capable of dreaming “communism” in a great variety of ways and in fact we are capable of forming a great diversity of societies in a great variety of ways. But to spell out the enormous diversity of which we are capable (and thus the utter ridiculousness of the “there is no alternative” Margaret Thatcher doctrine) is not to say what we will be corralled into doing.

  25. Ian Welsh

    A good half of the pre-US was not a slave state. Americans have plenty to be ashamed of in their history (as is true of most nations), but the northern states did not have a lot of slaves.

    Read the pamphlets written pre-Revolution. Remember, this is the Englightenment. Read Voltaire. The idea of the universal rights of man, the rediscovery of Roman and Greek democracy was all there. Read Thomas Paine, if you want to read a real radical, far more radical than anything you could get away with saying now.

    People knew what they were fighting for.

  26. @ Che Pasa
    Representative government needs a big discussion. It does not work here. The system was rigged from the get go. (Read Sheldon Wolin’s scary brilliant “Democracy Inc: Managed Democracy and the Spectre of Inverted Totalitarianism” -His chapter on the elite and their “Eyes Wide Shut” cult will have your hair stand on end. Also Jerry Fresia’s “Toward and American Revolution”.)

    Direct democracy for all its hazards (the rabble) works but on a smaller scale than we have here. Swiss direct initiatives are interesting. Iceland’s citizens could challenge the power of the elite. Yes, you get the criticism from progressives that we will return to the bad old days of Jim Crow if more decentralization happens. But “states rights” is not all bad and the phrase needs rethinking. Here in Montana we passed more money for children’s health care and we stopped the use of arsenic in gold mining with citizen initiatives. Our coal loving ex governor also wanted a state health care system with cheap drugs.

    Much to discuss which is what I use blogging for. Get the conversation going.

  27. I love Thom Paine. Harvey Kaye wrote an interesting book called “Thomas Paine and the Promise of America”. It times of real revolutionary thought, Thom Paine’s name comes up more and more. But he was shoved aside in the US and died a pauper as the capitalist Hamiltonians won the day. He felt that the single biggest reason why the colonists won the war was the Continental. They produced their own money and not borrowed from the bankers at usurious fees. The only reason they finally failed was that the British learned how to counterfeit them. Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary made sure the Greenbacks were almost impossible to counterfeit. So Paine understood that he who controls the money system controls how money is spent. He also introduced the idea of a national pension plan for the young and the old. He believed in universal suffrage. He was a visionary. Right now we don’t get to hear in the main stream papers or TV from visionaries, just an endless parade of dreary bureaucrats and apparatchiks.

  28. Southern slaves arrived in Yankee ships.

    To the yankee’s credit, Abolition.

    Maybe Abolition for the rental of humans, as opposed to their sale, might have global populist appeal.

  29. Ian: Right, so there was a diversity of ideologies in early America. And then you have the contradictions within each individual, so for instance Thomas Jefferson could be the author of the Declaration of Independence (which in this country can get you a one-year jail term if inserted in the wrong place, as Sherman Austin discovered) and a brutal slavemaster all in the same person.

  30. Ian Welsh

    The enlightenment was the strongest, oncoming philosophy of the time, which is why the period was named “the Enlightenment.” It was the philosophy, the ideology, that inspired people.

    The first president of the US, George Washington, did manumit his slaves. At the time, he was considered the greatest of the founding fathers, Jefferson’s star, though great, was not the highest back then. Might be best if that were true today.

  31. @ Montanamaven

    There was a rather quickly aborted attempt to reconsider/revisit the constitutional question of representative government a few years ago called A People’s Constitution.

    It was fascinating to me to see how quickly it devolved into competing and sometimes quite antagonistic factions, between those who were interested in coming up with something new or newish (I was among them) and those who wanted to go back to the Articles of Confederation or something like it as “good enough.”

    There seemed to be, withal, a pretty widespread recognition that Our Sacred Document is itself a big part of the problem.

    But maybe the American concept of constitutional self-government has reached the breaking point.

  32. Jerome Armstrong

    If I ever have the chance to create a statue or a monument, it will be of Thomas Paine in statue form, with 4 or 5 quotes imprinted on nearby stone that open peoples mind.

  33. Jerome Armstrong

    @markfromireland I don’t know about Ireland much, am a scot-brit, but I think that Russell Brand is doing a better job of it than anyone in the US at the moment.

  34. Hugh

    Representative democracy or republican democracy has been largely a myth in US history, if not an oxymoron. The Framers were of the propertied class and represented their interests. The system of checks and balances was both to limit one faction of them from gaining control but more importantly to defend their interests against the mob, i.e. ordinary citizens. Shay’s Rebellion was an example of this defense, but the Framers built into the Constitution others. There is the electoral college which still exists. And direct election of Senators did not occur until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913. The franchise was not defined in the Constitution. State laws initially restricted it to white property owning males. It was not until Jackson and the 1820s that the push was made for universal white male suffrage. And while the 13th and 14th Amendments ended slavery and extended in theory equal protection of the laws. Poll taxes and literacy tests persisted for another century. Even nearly 50 years on from the Voting Rights Act, we continue to see voter suppression on a wide scale, and validated by a reactionary Supreme Court. It was not until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 that women got the vote. And of course, we live in an age of the gerrymander where House seats are drawn as anti-democratically as possible and where the Senate itself is a kind of gerrymander favoring low population states in the South and West. And we live in an age of kleptocracy where the rich own the government and the elites and use them solely to defend and increase their wealth.

    So looking at US history and the present, I am hard pressed to see any era where there has been even an approximation of representative democracy. And while today we have the form of it, I can think of no time in our history where we have ever been more distant from the substance of it.

  35. Much like decentralized organic agriculture , the Articles of Confederation were indeed good enough for any purpose other than concentrating wealth and power.

    Hamilton and Madison were quite frank in “The Federalist” that the main reason the counterrevolutionary 1787 constitution was necessary was in order to concentrate enough power to build a continental empire. For good measure, Madison threw in lots of modern-sounding stuff about divide-and-conquer among the people.

    Other “federalists”* like Randolph also openly said that the Articles allowed too much democracy.

    *American history’s greatest Orwellian inversion? The centralizers, therefore really anti-federalists, successfully anointed themselves “federalists” and branded the dissenters, many of whom were true federalists, as “anti-federalists”.

  36. markfromireland

    @ Jerome Armstrong November 6, 2013

    Are those feeble non-sequiturs which incidentally demonstrate that you have neither read his NS article or watched the BBC interview the best you can come up with?

    Or are you trying to evade my point about vanguardism? Let me spell it out for you. Everywhere and every time what you are proposing has been tried the result has been a vicious tyranny that has slaughtered its own civilian population before launching wars of aggression. Your vacuous and glib response is a damned good example of why your movement failed – and why it deserved to.


  37. @Che Pasa:

    My disillusionment with representative democracy isn’t a thirst for some kind of dictatorship, rather a desire to see actual direct democracy get a chance. My experience on campaigns has been that a campaign is a collective endeavor but at the end of a win, only one person (sometimes two if the spouse is a political player) goes on: the candidate and the rest of the team is disposed of (kind of like Obama’s campaign economic policy peeps).
    So many times I’ve seen a naive but idealistic candidate go to DC and get completely swallowed by the system, the staffers (inevitably old DC hacks) and the money people.
    If we must run a democracy through a filter, I would at least like to see the elected representatives accountable to those who brought them. The star system is head turning and really changes people for the worse.

  38. @mfi you are sure quick to turn implacably hostile. Settle down.

  39. Matt Stoller

    The problem with representative democracy isn’t so much that it doesn’t work as that we don’t have that much of it anymore. Voting isn’t democracy. For example, Iraqis “voted” for Saddam Hussein but no one would call that democracy.

    In the U.S. over the last 50 years, spheres of public power have been undermined – courts and unions and the housing system and the educational system and so forth – such that individuals might have the illusion of choice but not the substance of it. The neoliberal program has been to remove as much of the forms of power from public input as possible, through a whole series of strategies that we can name but don’t need to (financialization, monopolies, TARP, privatization, public-private partnerships, arbitration, charter schools, etc). Our systems are increasingly run by large private unaccountable oligopolies in league with secretive government agencies and the contractors who love them.

    Voting in the US isn’t entirely frivolous and it’s not really rigged (with some exceptions), but it is increasingly less and less meaningful. Consider that the entire system of economics has been exposed as a ludicrous corrupt fraud, yet much of our policymaking regarding resource allocation is still dominated by economists that no one votes for. There is simply no way to be included in the policymaking conversation unless you are an economist with certain biases, a wealthy businessperson, or a connected elite. That’s a system of representative aristocracy. It’s not that democracy doesn’t work, it’s that most of the important spheres have been carved out of democratic input. And this isn’t just an elite-directed push, a huge slice of what used to be the netroots is obsessed with stupid elitist credentialling. The liberal fetish for economists is anti-democratic – Paul Krugman and Bob Reich are basically Democratic political consultants with bad track records on trade, finance, and corruption, and they happen to know a good deal about policy. But their job is to bound the discourse around what is “practical”. Note that both promoted the ACA, but now that it’s proving to be an implementation disaster, they are both talking up the fundamental problems with neo-liberalism, as if single payer people weren’t pointing this out when it mattered.

    Look at Rachel Maddow’s incessant mockery of Rand Paul for lifting text from wikipedia. That’s an anachronistic elitist sneer at someone who doesn’t care about the silly norms of academia. Stealing ideas is bad, of course, but lifting generic text from a global commons about a movie isn’t stealing ideas. Meanwhile there’s actually a huge amount of intellectual theft of ideas going on among the chattering classes. Carving out spheres of importance from democratic input is one of the most important jobs of the intellectual class.

    When people have democratic power, they actually use it and like it. For example, when the Syria war was proposed, the public actually wanted Congress to weigh in. The credentialled experts said ‘we need war’, but the public wasn’t buying it. And when Congress essentially said that there was no way Obama would get the votes, the public was happy. Congressional approval actually trended up, briefly, before the shutdown.

    This is true across the board – when the public gets a chance to weigh in on banks, for example, they do. People aren’t stupid. But they know they have no power, and they have decided to focus on getting in on the corruption rather than working to change the system.

    How to create systems for democratic input isn’t impossible, it’s just not what anyone in power really wants to do right now.

  40. markfromireland

    @ Nate Wilcox November 8, 2013 Do you think that a lifetime of dealing at firsthand with the results of American viciousness and the sort of intellectual and ethical vacuity displayed by Armstrong above might have something to do with that Nate? The standard American reaction to people not acting and thinking in a way they approve of is violence to force them into the approved way of thinking and doing things. That’s what Armstrong and his vanguardist solution is proposing.

    Which means that the 1% have to change to live by being brutally honest authentic and transparent. Revolutionary.

    The inevitable result of what he’s proposing is a tyranny that is brutally repressive at home and warlike abroad. You’re right I’m implacably hostile to it I’m hostile to it both on principle and because I’ve seen it in action.


  41. Via Matt Stoller:

    How to create systems for democratic input isn’t impossible, it’s just not what anyone in power really wants to do right now.

    Do they ever? Once power and control is acquired, it seems to be human nature to maintain as small and close-knit a circle of “friends” protecting it as possible. An aristocracy, tightly controlled, for example.

    It happens even in putatively democratic systems.

    The American system as it is now is an anachronism, grossly out of step with the rest of the world, inherently disenfranchising and unrepresentative. It is perhaps not as tyrannical — yet — as some of its critics make out, but the signs are clear where the system is heading, and that’s not toward more and greater freedom and democracy for the common herd. Just the opposite.

    So what should we do?

    The Occupy Movement demonstrated quite clearly the limitations of direct democracy as it was formulated and implemented at many Occupy encampments. It was too easily subverted on the one hand and too unwieldy on the other to be sustainable. Which doesn’t mean it’s worthless, it means that the model used was too fragile to meet the challenges and pressures of the time and the environment. If we want a sustainable alternative to the current system of governance, it will have to be stronger. On a small scale, with a tight-knit community, the model used by Occupy can and does work. Many, many lessons can be learned from it and other similar exercises in democracy.

    David Graeber wrote a book about it: The Democracy Project…

    Nathan Schneider has another: Thank You Anarchy…

    But there’s no way I can conceive of for this USofA — continent spanning domestically and with endless overseas tentacles of empire and finance control — to be governed successfully on a direct democratic model. The ‘representative’ model we have serves to protect the monied and property-owning elites, as was its intention. No direct democratic alternative that protects and serves the populace as well as or better than the elites can successfully govern something as vast as the present day USA.

    If the US were more like Switzerland, on the other hand… but it isn’t and it can’t be.

    Because I would much prefer a more democratic model to the one we have, I’ve suggested the only way to get there is by breaking up the current huge nation into smaller parts, much as the Soviet Union was broken up and significant parts of Europe have been cut up into smaller pieces — sometimes with a great deal of unpleasantness to be sure.

  42. Nate Wilcox

    @mfi — you’re leaping to battle against something Jerome didn’t say based on your misinterpretation of a casual comment on a blog post. Again, please settle down. You contribute some really smart stuff but there’s no need for us to be so hostile and suspicious amongst ourselves is there?

    @Matt Stoller — I don’t have any objections to democracy, it’s the idea of representation without accountability. In theory a congressperson answers to their electorate but at ~1/2 million people per district there’s no actual relationship between the congresscritter and those nominally represented.
    The part that really galls me is the way there is no accountability from the elected official to the people who actually got him elected. I’m thinking that perhaps smaller groups should be elected to represent larger groups up to the point where a congressperson would directly answer to a council of say 30 people from their district and could be impeached by them at any time. Those 30 would represent in turn another 300 or so, who in turn represented 3000, who represented 30,000 who represented 300,000. Just throwing that out there, thinking out loud.
    @Che Pasa My understanding is that the Occupy movement was not implementing anything approaching direct democracy. There was no solid parliamentary procedure being used just a sort of sham direct democracy that was controlled from behind the scenes by a small cabal using a number of tricks coming from the old Bolshevik school of control & manipulation.

    The Archdruid had a very nice analysis of that.

  43. markfromireland

    @ Nate Wilcox November 9, 2013

    @mfi — you’re leaping to battle against something Jerome didn’t say based on your misinterpretation of a casual comment on a blog post. Again, please settle down. You contribute some really smart stuff but there’s no need for us to be so hostile and suspicious amongst ourselves is there?

    One of the major differences between me and someone like you or Armstrong is that unlike you I’ve seen, heard, and smelt – above all smelt, at first hand the results of what Armstrong is proposing. And what he was proposing was crystal clear.

    I am not one of you Wilcox and I find any suggestion that I am more than somewhat offensive. I’m one of the people who has to try to sort out the miserable human mess that people like Armstrong cause.


  44. markfromireland

    @ Ché Pasa November 8, 2013

    The American system as it is now is an anachronism, grossly out of step with the rest of the world, inherently disenfranchising and unrepresentative. It is perhaps not as tyrannical — yet — as some of its critics make out, but the signs are clear where the system is heading, and that’s not toward more and greater freedom and democracy for the common herd. Just the opposite.

    So what should we do?

    Take a leaf out of Hizballah’s book. They succeeded because they provide the services that people wanted and I’m not talking about their military services, I’m talking about their social ones. In another social context the same is true of the Social Democrats in the Sweden. At their height (say from late 1930s upto about 15 years ago) it was possible to have a cradle to grave life experience using SD-run institutions starting with kindergartens and ending with a funerary services. For a very long time they were seen by everyone as the ‘natural party of government’.

    Much of this would involve going back to institutions such as the Friendly Society – what we now think of as co-ops, and the credit union. To name but two.


  45. Jerome Armstrong

    What Matt is working around is both deconstructing narratives and replacing them with alternative ones. Property is a good one, and commons are something that is more than symbolic. That’s why we have to hold out hope for this place, the internet.

    I’m a longtime proponent of doubling the number of current representatives, but it’s probably not feasible. The breaking the nation up into smaller parts, is a decent way things may go. The central organizing feature, the dollar, would probably need to collapse for that to happen. The rest of the world would also need to de-leverage from the dollar. That’s an awful lot of destabilization to imagine.

    But that’s not the only direction things are heading. With fits and starts, a global governing body is emerging. It’s pretty hegemonic right now, with the backing of it being the US military and surveillance, and the financial hoarding of money into the grasp of plutocrats and global corporations.

    Surely, things could collapse. The going rate seems pretty untenable on multiple levels. The US might go under financially from a massive environmental calamity. But, it’s also imaginable that the prodding central planners keep things just stable enough over the next century that a global political body emerges. That’s certainly a technocratic dream.

    What I tend to believe and put into practice, is along the lines of participating locally and in the community for change; recognizing the limitations while believing that even small actions are good steps toward changing the nation or world as a whole.

    And though we are in a race toward globalization, it shouldn’t be thought of as only having one path that leads there. As there are libertarian notions at work on the internet. Such as free trade and electronic money to begin with, that really freak out the nation-state model of laws. Likewise, common property of language and communication freaks out the mass conglomerate media holdings. These ‘free’ and ‘common’ paths are not going to go away on their own, only become more open, more embraced, and more dangerous to the existing structure of power.

  46. Nate Wilcox

    @mfi I honestly have no idea what you are talking about or who or what you think I am. If you were in Texas maybe we could hash it out over a beer. If you think jump-starting the Howard Dean campaign and helping start one of the only populist insurgent movements in the US Democratic party in the past 30 years (Jerome’s signature accomplishments) was the acme of human evil, not sure what to say.

  47. Texas Nate

    “One of the major differences between me and someone like you or Armstrong is that unlike you I’ve seen, heard, and smelt – above all smelt, at first hand the results of what Armstrong is proposing. And what he was proposing was crystal clear.
    I am not one of you Wilcox and I find any suggestion that I am more than somewhat offensive. I’m one of the people who has to try to sort out the miserable human mess that people like Armstrong cause.”

    I think we’re all human beings trying to sort out the miserable human mess we all cause together. I’m sure Jerome’s karma for the Dean campaign is pretty heavy as is yours for being a CIA plant/agent provacateur on Ian’s blog. ; )

    “One of you Wilcox”

  48. @ Nate Wilcox

    @Che Pasa My understanding is that the Occupy movement was not implementing anything approaching direct democracy. There was no solid parliamentary procedure being used just a sort of sham direct democracy that was controlled from behind the scenes by a small cabal using a number of tricks coming from the old Bolshevik school of control & manipulation.

    Haven’t had an opportunity to do more than skim your link to Archdruid’s assessment, but I think, from what I have read, he’s off on another track altogether which had very little to do with how various Occupy efforts were attempting to implement models of direct democracy. The basic framework and model comes from here:

    Of course, it’s evolved since then, but that was what was adapted or attempted by hundreds of Occupy encampments. It’s not a parliamentary or representative model, it’s a consensus model. None of the dozen or so Occupy operations I was familiar with followed an identical pattern, however. They were all somewhat different, sometimes radically different. Some actually used Roberts Rules as the basic framework for Assemblies and decision making, hardly direct democracy at all.

    Others did their best to emulate the Madrid example, but it was such an unfamiliar model for nearly everyone that it proved very — VERY — difficult to handle. Most participants had never been exposed to anything like it and had no idea how it worked. Initially, even getting a copy of the Quick Guide was no easy task, and few people had time to sit through some other Occupy that was trying to conduct a General Assembly and get it right. The one that I found came closest to an ideal was Occupy New Haven, but what else would you expect from a bunch of Yalies with time on their hands?

    As for the idea of a cabal of Socialists or Marxists (Bolsheviks? Good god) running things: they wish. Oh, the initial struggles between our Socialist/Marxist betters and those who were actually going to put this Occupy juggernaut into gear were short but fierce. It was occasionally operatic. The Socialists eventually said fuck it and left, never to be seen again — because they could not handle the reappearance of anarchist alternatives to their carefully worked out ways of doing things, ways that were obviously (in their minds) superior and time-tested.

    Was there a cabal of any kind running things? Depended on where you were. Remember, there were hundreds of encampments and there are still dozens of active “evolved” Occupy groups. Some of them were being “run” from behind the scenes by a small group who maintained power for however long they could manage it, but resistance to this kind of authoritarian control was generally pretty swift and certain, so I didn’t see cabals running things for very long.

    I was very nervous about the Spokes Council model being introduced in New York, though, because I thought it would lead directly to a cabal-like situation, but I understand the Spokes Council model was never really implemented in New York — not only was there a tremendous amount of resistance and opposition, but the Nov 17 raid on Zuccotti Park took place during what I understand was the last real attempt to implement it. There were a few Occupy efforts that adopted it nonetheless and they seemed happy enough. It was their choice. There was no effort I was aware of to force it on any other Occupy, and the way it was handled in New York was… unfortunate.

    Generally speaking, it was too easy for the loudest voices or the most persistent demands to subvert an assembly. It could also be remarkably easy for an energetic and coordinated working group or affinity group to take the assembly in directions it probably was ill-advised to go. These were among many other hazards that are difficult to work through, and for many groups there simply wasn’t time.

    The learning curve for this sort of group dynamics is pretty steep and long, and with literally no one to show how to do it successfully — which was the case nearly everywhere except New York and a few other cities where experienced people came from Spain and Greece and the Balkans to demonstrate, critique and hand-hold or there had long been an active anarchist anti-globalist community — it was tough and almost bound to fail.

  49. markfromireland

    @ Nate Wilcox November 9, 2013

    I’m sorry you’re comprehension impaired. What Armstrong wrote was very clear as was my response.

    I am not interested in continuing this conversation with you, the willfully ignorant aren’t worth bothering with.


  50. Nate Wilcox

    @Che Pasa thanks for the info. My ignorance on the subject of Occupy is as boundless as my ignorance on many other topics. Do you feel that the methods they attempted to use to implement direct democracy were the best available?

    @mfi thanks. Do not address me again you rude person. Your comments were off-topic in the first place and since you’re so happily and definitely not part of the old “netroots” project and have such contempt for everyone who was not sure why you commented in the first place beyond doing the bidding of your handlers and disrupting discussion here by creating conflict out of nothing.

  51. @Nate Wilcox

    Not to be flip, but the “best” direct democracy is the one that works best in the interests of essentially all the participants, and the one that works best is almost always the one that’s taking place among a small, coherent group of reasonable, like-minded, collaborative people who share much and have culturally ingrained means to curb conflict within the group.

    It’s superficially not all that different from Archdruid’s observation, but the tell that he’s off on a different track than was attempted by and through Occupy is his claim that Anglo-Saxon tribal assemblies were the origin of what he calls “democracy.” OK, if you want to go that way. A huge argument could be had over that concept of origin, though, one I won’t engage in here.

    Occupy’s models came from Spain, Greece, the Balkans, anti-globalist anarchist assemblies in many places, cooperatives and mutual aid endeavors, the Zapatistas, intentional communities, even the Quakers, and those models have more in common with ancient Athenian direct democracy than they do with what is known about Anglo-Saxon tribal assemblies.

    Given how unfamiliar these models were to most of those who tried them, however, and how difficult they were to engage in at all, let alone under such severe time constraints and threats from authority as Occupy was under during its first phase, it’s a positive wonder the efforts worked as well as they did. Whether some other direct democratic model might have worked better, every Occupy had its own adaptation. If there had been time and better interOccupy communications had developed, quite possibly another, evolved, model would have been discovered and had a chance to be implemented. But there was no time; police pressure and arrests were constant from the outset, infiltration and subversion by provocateurs was ever-present, the destructive raids and evictions began only a month or two (in some cases much less time) after the encampments were established, and there was little opportunity to come up with something better before the encampments and movement were dispersed.

    As they dispersed, they took with them the rudiments of direct democracy that they had picked up at the encampments, and those are still being practiced and built on among the dispersed Occupy communities.

    I don’t see it working well for very long in a large assembly, however, any more than direct democracy worked very well for very long in the large assemblies in ancient Athens — at least if Thucydides is to be believed.

  52. Dan H

    Hugh said, “So looking at US history and the present, I am hard pressed to see any era where there has been even an approximation of representative democracy. And while today we have the form of it, I can think of no time in our history where we have ever been more distant from the substance of it.”

    Really well put.

  53. markfromireland

    ROFLOL Nate – I’ve enjoyed bating you – thanks for giving such a clear example of why your movement failed and the entertainment. Better luck next time.

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