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Clueless in the "Progressive Blogosphere"

If you haven't seen the new study from the liberal New Politics Institute on "The Emergence of the Progressive Blogosphere: A New Force in American Politics," check it out. Its well-intentioned yet infuriatingly self-satisfied "analysis" of the supposed differences between the conservative versus progressive blogosphere reveals (once again) how the still waters of myopia and denial continue to run very deep indeed within Democratic circles.

According to authors Chris Bowers and Matt Stoller, both veteran activist bloggers, the conservative blogosphere merely recreates "the top-down, coherent messaging structure that characterizes the conservative movement" offline. The progressive blogosphere, on the other hand, has "forged a new constituency, a new set of leaders, and a new forest of social relationships."

Bad, dictatorial conservatives. Good, empowering progressives.

What's more, claim the authors, "conservatives use the same tactics on blogs that they do (sic) in mainstream politics -- attack the media and attack progressives." Progressive blogs, on the other hand, "offer forums where people can actively engage ... in political dialogue."

Mean old nasty conservatives. Nice, friendly, issues-oriented progressives.

(And no, progressive bloggers would never "attack the media" for it's uncritical toadying to the White House, right? Nor would they ever "attack" our conservative president for his idiotic, counter-productive and horrifically destructive policies in Iraq. No, progressives are just too ... well, they're just too nice to do anything like that.)

Anyway, the authors conclude by noting that, "The right wing tends not to build independent online communities, using their existing offline communities [instead] to generate web sites that reinforce their politics and their ideology." In contrast, progressive blogs supposedly "build communities of activists and generate new [and independent] political activity online." Unlike conservatives, they claim, the "progressive blogosphere is introducing new actors into the political scene."

First of all, the above is just horse-pucky. As the authors themselves note elsewhere in their study, conservatives have built potent online communities throughout the blogosphere, especially at the state and local level. And as some Democrats have learned to their dismay, these bloggers have introduced many thousands of new readers to online political activism.

But even if it's true that conservatives tie their blogging activities to offline political organizations more closely than progressive bloggers do, what's wrong with that? I mean, the point is to actually organize people to WIN elections, right? Which, in case Bowers and Stoller hadn't noticed, still take place offline, in the real world, where flesh-and-blood people actually live.

The main problem with Bowers and Stoller's so-called "strategic overview of the comparative advantages of the progressive and conservative [blogosphere]" is its head-in-the-sand avoidance of the real reason why conservatives -- online and off -- have been kicking progressive butt in recent years.

I'm referring, of course, to the maddening inability of progressives in general -- and Democratic candidates like Kerry in particular -- to connect with the majority of heartland voters on the issues that they most deeply care about.

As the Harvard University political theorist Michael J. Sandel put it: "The Democrats have ceded to Republicans a monopoly on the moral and spiritual sources of American politics. They will not recover as a party until they again have candidates who can speak to those moral and spiritual yearnings" and put forward viable alternative solutions to these concerns.

That's the elephant in the room that Bowers and Stoller won't talk about.


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With a presidential approval rating hovering around 40%, an increased belief by Americans that the administration is ineffective in dealing with the economy, foreign policy and terrorism, and the recent Katrina-related debacles, hope springs eternal for the next elections.

Agreed. But I think we also need to remember how in the 2004 election, despite people's dissatisfaction with Bush, in the end they simply didn't trust Kerry and thus were unwilling to switch leaders during "time of war."

The point being, no matter how bad the polls are for the GOP candidate in the next election, the Dems still won't win unless they field a candidate who the people believe listens to their concerns and has the grit to stand up and say what he really thinks without evasion.

Oh please.

Yes, alright already, Kerry was a lame candidate, but the takeover of the message as evidenced by Fox News legitimizing Swift Boat Veterans as gospel spouters to the conservative masses also played into the loss of the 04 election. The constant Conservative thruming over the past several years on radio and TV in the Heartland has convinced voters there that Government (as represented by Democrats) is not in their best interest. That government is a big Liberal plot. That issues like Estate Taxes matter to Joe Farmer in Kansas, when in fact like so many issues, it is irrelevant to most voting Americans. The COnservative message assumes that voters are stupid, and then makes them dependant on the GOP's version TRUTH, in exchange for not burdening them with facts.

Yes, in FACT, the progressive blogosphere has "forged a new constituency, a new set of leaders, and a new forest of social relationships." And allow me to exemplify it this way: I would liken the Progressive blogosphere's efforts to change the Democratic party to a similar phenomenon of Conservatives railing against this failed President we now have. You can look for and find such blogs, perhaps starting with Andrew Sullivan's, but you won't find as many as you will the generic "Bush is infallible" type, even in the face of sinking poll numbers.

So given that comparison, which party is currently in "denial"?

I hear what you're saying, Bujeeboo, and perhaps I should clarify: I don't deny that the progressive blogosphere has created new political relationships and gotten many new people involved in active political work. Far from it. I think it's done a great job. I just think conservative bloggers have done essentially the same thing -- in fact, they've arguably done an even better job.

As for Fox and the rightwing media attacking the Democrats maliciously, what else is new?

The point is to be able to respond more effectively than we have in recent years to such attacks. And to do that, I think we have to listen more closely to what heartland voters are thinking and then propose solutions to their concerns that are more in the people's genuine interests than those proposed by the yahoos.

Who says, for instance, that "family values" is about gay marriage? Why isn't it about child care for working parents?

Anyway, I remember how in the 1970s and 80s, Democrats consistently ignored citizen concerns about crime and about the welfare system creating generations of dependency. I know, because I was a progressive activist myself, that we treated those popular concerns as "backward." And sure enough, we lost most every election.

Then along comes Clinton, who for the first time in 20 years acknowledged that crime and welfare dependecny were, indeed, legitimate popular concerns. And what's more, he proposed solutions that were more progressive than those proposed by the GOP. And guess what, he got elected -- in no small measure I think, because people felt he was listening to their real concerns and was willing to stand up for what he believed in without evasion.

People did not feel the same way about Kerry, and it will do us no good to blame conservatives for that. It's up to us to get our own house in order here.

Just my opinion, anyway.

Fox News? Big deal.

One the one hand, Fox News. On the other hand, ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN. On the one hand, talk radio; on the other, pretty much every major newspaper in the country.

Look, the overall media is heavily skewed to the left. The only difference between now and (say) twenty years ago is that some parts of it aren't skewed to the left.

The complaint appears to me not so much that Fox skews the overall news (which is utterly absurd given their ratings) but that Fox has any role at all.

As for Fox and the rightwing media attacking the Democrats maliciously, what else is new?

Oh, puh-leese.

The point is to be able to respond more effectively than we have in recent years to such attacks.

The reason that the Swiftboat Vets had such an impact is that Kerry just stood there like a cabbage.

Who says, for instance, that "family values" is about gay marriage? Why isn't it about child care for working parents?

Uh, the people talking about family values. That's who says that. Good grief. Family values are pretty much the diametric opposite of welfare programs, and if you try to address them that way, you will just push more voters into the arms of the Republicans.

It's up to us to get our own house in order here.


Just my opinion, anyway.

Not just your opinion, that last bit. It's cold hard fact.

Thanks for the response. I think Progressive blogs are trying very hard to take control of the message (out of exasperation with the Dems), much along the lines of the example you gave about gay marriage where the Dems are nowhere to be found. The Dems may yet lose a few more elections before anyone figures out who owns the agenda; progressive bloggers or the Democratic party. I just don't see the same struggle on the Right. Its brand is one of cohesiveness, from the top down, and I also see that as a vulnerability.

And in addition to appealing to the Heartland on their issues (which I feel the Right often makes straw men to create issues), how can we bring back complexity to the issues? I swear, the sound byte is killing the Progressive agenda more than anything. The Right pre-chews every fact for their audiences. And I also see this in the Conservative blogs.

I was curious what you thought about the report under "Blog Sprawl" and if you agree with the assessment of the influence of small, local blogs on elections even though progressive blogs hold the edge on overall traffic. I had more trouble accepting that assertion in the report than anything else.

Here's what the report said, bujeeboo:

"While progressives may have a marked advantage in overall blogosphere discourse, it could also be argued that conservatives are taking a decisive lead in the sort of targeted blogging that will provide them with real, tangible benefits in the 2005‐2006 elections and beyond."

Now, I'm not sure that conservatives are taking a "decisive" lead in this area, but they do seem to be doing a very effective job of using blogs as "collective organizers."

For example, although the official Bush campaign blog did not invite comments from readers and was more top-down in orientation, the party's online efforts nonetheless succeeded in signing up half a million interested volunteers as early as seven months before the election, or so wrote Michelle Levander of MediaChannel.org. In addition, the GOP Web site's campaign loyalty program called "Team Leader" enabled volunteers to collect points for writing a letter or soliciting a new party member that could then be redeemed for coffee mugs or golf caps emblazoned with the party logo. Using sophisticated web tools, the Bush-Cheney site Web site followed a step-by-step blueprint aimed at converting interested Republicans into committed volunteers. "Within minutes of signing up," Levander reported, "the Web site creates a tailored 'activity center' for each user. It provides contact information for each user's local radio stations and newspaper. There are sample letters they can send on key issues, as well as a tracking system that allows the user -- and the Party -- to keep score each time someone writes a letter to the editor or encourages a friend to sign up. Regional campaign offices also take advantage of the database."

As for the man who pioneered political blogging in campaigns, former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, he believes that the Democrats' biggest mistake was in treating their blog-fueled constituency like some giant online ATM machine. "If Kerry had thought about the Internet differently and realized that it could be used for a lot more than just raising money, I think they would have done better. They only asked what do we do to raise money? They should have asked what do we do to [mobilize] volunteers?"

There is more than a little truth in what Trippi is saying. According to one study, three out of four Kerry campaign emails between March and November of 2004 made direct appeals for money, compared with fewer than one in five Bush campaign emails. In contrast, 78 percent of Bush campaign emails during that same period urged people to forward the message to a friend, whereas only 5 percent of Kerry emails did so. And 22 percent of Bush campaign emails offered a way to contact an online team of supporters, versus exactly none of the millions of Kerry emails sent out during that time.

Finally, even former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe praised the conservatives' online efforts in the election. "They were smart," he told the Washington Post. "They came into our neighborhoods. They came into Democratic areas with very specific targeted messages to take Democratic voters away from us. They were much more sophisticated in their message delivery."

So bottom line, I think Democrats and progressives can learn a thing or two from conservatives about how to use blogs and other online media as "collective organizers."

Oh, and by the way Pixy Misa, I loved your line about Kerry standing there "like a cabbage" while the Swift Boat veterans bitch-slapped him.

So true, so true. When are Democrats going to get tired of cowering and evading and avoiding controversy -- and instead stand up and proudly argue for what they believe in?

David -- In my view the jury is still out on how the two parties use the blogosphere. We are at the beginning of a sea change in communications and the 2004 election cycle saw tremendous innovation on all sides. I have long believed that the GOP's strong discipline, and top down command and control message delivery hampers their ability on the Internet to foster even larger communities than they have built in support of their cause precisely because of the decentralized distributed nature of the medium. That same discipline across the broadcast media has obviously served them well. I am not saying that they have not been successful on the Internet -- just that they will become even more successful as they learn to adjust accordingly -- which I have no doubt they will do. One of the problems in this discussion is that there is a difference between how "official party institutions" and netroots activists from both parties use the net. Powerline is much more effective than the RNC's official site -- so too are several progressive blogs much better and more effective than the DNC's official site. Institutional Democrats and their campaigns have tended to think of the new medium as an ATM machine that prints money -- this is primarily due to the fact that as a party out of power the Democrats have focused on being financially competitive (The Republicans focused on direct mail to address the same problem when they were in the minority.) The Republican party on the other hand is in the majority -- they do not need the fundraising aspects of the Internet nearly as much as the Democrats -- Their problem in the past was an inability to compete with Democrats in Get Out the Vote and other organizational aspects -- so that is where the official apparatus of the party seemed to be focused in terms of using the Internet.

The ongoing work on both sides from blogs like Powerline, DailyKos, Little Green Footballs, Atrios etc exist in different media food chains. The Drudge Report, and Fox were built long before the blogosphere hit its stride. Thus it was easier for a blog on the right to move a narrative such as Swift Boats from blogs, to Drudge to Fox and then into the mainstream media. Progressive bloggers had now such prebuilt mechanism to feed a narrative into.

I guess what I am trying to say is it is in my view really difficult to try to do an apples to apples comparison.

The one thing that is clear is that progressive bloggers have built what they have built on their own many times having to jump hurdles placed in their way by institutional Democrats -- and with no prebuilt chain of media outlets to spread their narrative.

Just as with Direct Mail, Radio and Cable Television institutional Republicans are among the pioneers in this new medium -- take it very seriously and remove hurdles for netroots bloggers. And there is a prebuilt conservative echo chamber on stand by to help amplify the narrative.

Given these two competing structures it is a miracle, or near miracle that the progressive bloggin community has accomplished as much as it has.

Mr. Trippi acknowledges that the progressive blog community is fractured. Given that the Dems view the Internet as an ATM machine and "the rest of us" view it as a place to effect change (Dems can take us or leave us, as far as I am concerned) it is remarkable that progblogs are doing as well as they are, without an official party flagpole to run up with their ideas or vice versa.

I view the progressive blogoshpere as the wagon for the Dems to hitch their wagon to. Not the other way around, for the simple reason that the Dems AREN'T PROGRESSIVE right now. And I don't think I am alone in my sentiments.

Thanks Joe and Bujeeboo -- those are great comments from both of you that helped deepen and clarify what I was trying to say.

Joe, you once said that in some respects, blogging was to the 2004 campaign what television was to the 1960 campaign -- a paradigm shift in media that can't help but recalibrate how campaigns are conducted.

If so, then I wonder if you think we might see a weakening of the tyranny of "sound bite" politics (which was driven by TV's 90-second story format). Might blogs enable more substantive issues-oriented campaigning, in which victory goes to the candidate who can mobilize and direct what Hugh Hewitt calls blog-enabled "opinion storms?"

Oy! Minding my metaphors:

I view the progressive blogoshpere as the STAR for the Dems to hitch their wagon to. And the vice versa part afterwords just made it funnier!

Dailykos links to an outstanding article by Peter Daou in Salon.


The part about blogs not wasting time and energy attacking the Bush Administration given "the Triangle" scenario makes perfect sense.

For my part, the last time the Dems solicited me for money I took a line from Rawstory.com and scrawled on the solicitation: "No 'balls', no bucks". They simply have to wake up to what we (via the blogs) are screaming about.

"No balls, no bucks."

I agree with that, and even go a step forward: "No brains, no bucks."

This last was my response to MoveOn.org's and NARL's futile and counter-productive attempt to oppose the nomination of Roberts to the Court.

I'm tired not only of gutless Democrats. I'm also fed up with ideologue progressives who keep shooting themselves in the feet because they are so isolated and out of touch with mainstream public opinion (which in the case of Roberts, finds him to be an honest and qualified nominee who does NOT support violence against women's clinics, as NARL disingenuously claimed).


You didn't even know who "Media Matters" is and you wrote a book about blogs. Now I'm expected to believe you have researched the blogosphere enough to tear someone elses research down?

Hmm. . .

Thanks! I appreciate that.

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