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As Long as We Remember...

March 16, 2006

A New Road Through The Wilderness

Tony Soltero

Many years ago a friend of mine was reading a William Safire column reprinted in the local newspaper. He kept shaking his head, and eventually came over to me and pointed out the issue – Mr. Safire was taking an anti-poverty advocate to task because of some dubious, four-degrees-of-separation "connection" to a pro-choice group. He probably figured this would discredit the activist in the eyes of his readership.

I asked my friend why Mr. Safire would go to this kind of trouble, when this activist was doing what appeared to be good, productive work.

He told me: "The right doesn't mind charity. They don't mind people donating money and clothes, working in food banks, building houses, that kind of stuff. What they don’t like are people who work to organize the poor. That worries them, because it's a threat to their power. So he had to come down hard on this activist, because that's what he was doing. He was going beyond their accepted parameters of advocacy for the poor."

I filed that observation away, and over the years I've noticed that my friend was right – and it wasn't just about poverty, or even entirely about politics.

Established power structures might at times be inert and sclerotic, but if anything motivates them to act, it's the prospect of a competing power structure.

The national Democratic Party leadership briefly springing to life for the purpose of taking down Howard Dean's presidential campaign is a textbook case of this kind of thing. Once that mission was accomplished, they happily crawled back into their caves.

And given the historic difficulty of organizing those who don't have much in the way of resources, the established power structures usually wind up having their way.

Enter the Internet.

What used to be an arduous process of building a community of like-minded people, and folding that community into a larger effort of effecting political and social change, has now become vastly easier, thanks to broadband. As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, the advent of blogs has made the development of large-scale nationwide grassroots (or "netroots," to use the popular term) communities a very real possibility, with profound implications for the political future of America, if not the world.

There are many totalitarian regimes, like China, Singapore, and Iran, which understand the Internet's potential to mobilize challenges to traditional power structures, and, as such, have aggressively acted to censor the web.

Here in America our government is more subtly trying to do the same, through back doors, like suing to shake private information out of Google under the guise of "monitoring child porn.” But it's going to be extremely difficult for any government to fully get its arms around the medium – it’s just too decentralized. And that is extraordinarily exciting for the 99% of us who aren't members of those established power networks.

We now have a new book detailing this phenomenon: Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the hosts, respectively, of MyDD and Daily Kos, two of the highest-trafficked and most influential political blogs on the Internet. Daily Kos, by itself, draws more traffic than the top five Republican-oriented blogs combined, and it boasts more readers than a few big-city newspapers. MyDD isn't far behind. I am a registered member of both communities.

The book describes the emergence, growth, and increasing influence of the Democratic netroots. As the Washington party leadership grew more and more detached from the rank-and-file over the years, losing election after election in the process, the party's grassroots came to realize that rather than sitting back and accepting the status quo, the maturing of the Internet had given it a new and powerful tool to organize and apply pressure to the powers-that-be.

The Howard Dean presidential campaign was the first major shot across the bow for the netroots, and it took the party establishment completely by surprise, forcing a massive effort by the smoke-filled-room crowd to extinguish it. Crashing the Gate covers the Dean story in good detail, which led to a happy ending for the netroots when Governor Dean was unanimously elected to the DNC chairmanship. To this day this remains the netroots' most significant achievement.

Armstrong and Moulitsas are at their best when taking aim at the Beltway political-consultant industry, which they convincingly point to as the Democrats' single biggest albatross. They quote a Republican official who tells them: "I don't get it. When a consultant on the Republican side loses, we take them out and shoot him. You guys – keep hiring them."

Their examination of the DC consultant world reveals a culture that's perpetually terrified of taking chances, of thinking outside the box, of doing anything the least bit unorthodox in a misguided attempt to play it safe.

And as the electoral losses pile up, there are still few signs that the national party has learned anything about the need to re-examine the role of consultants – and the authors shine a bright flashlight upon this attitude. It is a message the national party would do well to heed if it ever wants to be in the majority again.

The authors also feature Democrats who have run successful campaigns going against the party insiders' conventional wisdom, with Sen. Russ Feingold (D., WI) being the standard-bearer for such accomplishments.

Mr. Feingold, a strong advocate of campaign finance reform, was facing a tough re-election fight in 1998, and – despite his precarious situation – declined an infusion of Washington cash, preferring to control his campaign spending in the spirit of his reform advocacy. He won.

Since then, he blew off "conventional wisdom" and cast "politically risky" votes against the Iraq war and against the Patriot Act – and won by an even larger margin in 2004. Not surprisingly, Senator Feingold has now emerged as a netroots favorite; he even posts on blogs. He's now being mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2008.

Crashing the Gate is a sobering book, bleak in its assessments of the current state of the Democratic Party and the nation, but it is ultimately a hopeful one, laying out a roadmap for the Democrats to upgrade their antiquated infrastructure, and signaling that the netroots will be one of the essential keys to the ultimate revitalization of the party, and not a moment too soon.

The authors are realistic about the netroots' potential; blogs have been extraordinarily effective fundraising tools, but are still fairly limited when it comes to influencing policy. So far the netroots has endured more losses than wins, but then again, it took Willie Mays 14 major-league at-bats to get his first hit.

This is probably the first time in history that ordinary, rank-and-file people possess the ability to organize themselves effectively enough to challenge established power structures. There's still a lot of growth ahead, a lot of lessons to be learned.

There will be more successes and more setbacks for the netroots. But as Crashing the Gate describes, we might very well be on the verge of William Safire's worst nightmare.

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