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Week of 1.18.08

An Incomplete Argument
A Response to Matt Bai by Joan McCarter, contributing editor, DailyKos

Joan McCarter, contributing editor, DailyKos
Joan McCarter
Contributing editor, DailyKos
In the following review of The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics by Matt Bai, one of the DailyKos' top bloggers challenges Bai's characterization of the blogosphere and his belief that liberals lack a "big idea" for governing.

The Argument is an entertaining, often insightful, and in some instances highly illuminating examination of the state of the outsider in Democratic politics today. Particularly interesting for me, since this was all new to my eyes, is his examination of the Democracy Alliance, and where all that money is, and isn't going. But this blogger is going to focus on the part she knows best. And, regarding the blogs, I found Matt's book frustratingly incomplete in two critical areas regarding the blogosphere: its narrow focus on the activist component of the blogs, leaving out the wonkosphere, and that most critical element that gave rise to the blogosphere and drove its massive and meteoric success—the failure of traditional media in our political discourse.

But let's start with the central premise of Matt's book: the Democrats lack "the big idea," and as far as the blogosphere is concerned, are more concerned with strategies and tactics—with winning—than with developing a philosophy for governing. From my perspective that's an incomplete premise to begin with, and Matt's evidence to support it is too narrow.

Just about every lefty blogger I know came to online activism because of their core belief in a traditionally liberal governing philosophy. It's best summed up by Matt Stoller in response to Jonathon Chait's thoughtful look at the blogs in TNR from a few months ago.

Basically, we're a group of people who feel very betrayed by the leadership of our country, our media, and our party. We care about ideas because bad ideas implemented tend to kill lots of innocent people, and we don't like that. We are liberal because we believe in liberal ideas, and by and large, we've been proven correct. The Iraq war was a terrible idea. Bush has been a horrible President. Running on Iraq in 2006 was a good idea. Stopping Social Security privatization was possible and necessary. A 50 state strategy made sense because a wave election was foreseeable. Don't trust the telecom companies with the internet. Let's figure out this global warming thing.

We don't necessarily distinguish between politics and policy, or activism and journalism, and we don't pretend that there is an above the fray and an 'in the muck'. Most of all, we respect ideas because ideas, when implemented, have immense power. Ideas matter. Conservative ideas have affected us personally, whether it was growing up in a suburb or having no health care insurance. And to the extent that you create ideas or appropriate ideas and organize around them, you can build a new society. That's what the right did, which is why we respect the right.

That's our starting point. It's not articulated in every post, but it's the foundation of every post, the foundation of why we are doing what we are doing. It informs every action we take, every word we write. That goes for the entire left blogosphere. Which brings me to what Matt's perspective on the blogs is missing: there are a multiplicity of sites, many of which are doing some pretty heavy lifting on the ideas side of the debate. His singular focus on Markos and Jerome, admitted tacticians who consider themselves firmly in the activist camp, leaves out some of the seminal work done in the wonkosphere—work that informs our activism.

That foundation is, essentially, the common good. From an articulation of the common good expressed by Rep. Jim McDermott in an interview at Daily Kos with Armando over two years ago, to Michael Tomasky's key article, much thought has been paid in the online world to precisely how the concept of the common good, grounded in progressive politics of old, can be shaped into a governing philosophy for Democrats in the 21st century. From Tomasky's essay on this "civic republicanism" as he called it, sprung the excellent, four-part work by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin on what they call "The Politics of Definition," summed up neatly in their thesis:

Progressives need to fight for what they believe in—and put the common good at the center of a new progressive vision—as an essential strategy for political growth and majority building. This is no longer a wishful sentiment by out-of-power activists, but a political and electoral imperative for all concerned progressives.

Which brings me to a second, more minor quibble. This work has to be found in the foundation of the social infrastructure we have inherited from the progressives who came before us—from FDR and the New Deal, from LBJ and the Great Society. In fact, Matt chides the bloggers for their lack of historical perspective, saying "the way the netroots saw it, the more you knew about Democratic politics before 1998, the less relevant you actually were." At the same time, he repeats in his introduction here what seems to be his favorite part of the book:

As Andy Stern says eloquently in a scene from chapter nine, speaking to a roomful of wealthy donors: "You can't stop globalization. You can't stop trade. That debate is over. I like to say to people who want to return to the New Deal that we are now as far from the New Deal as the New Deal was from the Civil War. I don't think Franklin Roosevelt looked back to Lincoln to decide what to do. And I don't think we can look back to FDR." I love that scene.

Indeed, we can't stop globalization or trade. But we can, and most definitely should, learn from the New Deal. FDR undoubtedly studied the political lessons of Lincoln in both his political successes and his governing successes. Just because the Depression wasn't the Civil War didn't mean there weren't valuable lessons for FDR. And because globalization and international terrorism aren't the Depression and World War II doesn't mean we can't find direction from the New Deal in our approach to politics and governing today.

There are many of us who do indeed remember politics before 1998 (and many of us were even intimately involved in politics before then), and aren't so blinded by hatred of Bush and his particular brand of Republicanism to forego those lessons. And while we're keeping these ideas in mind, we're trying to find the right people to elect to further them, and, yup, that means tactics and strategy and a focus on winning.

The other critical element I believe Matt misses in his treatment of all of us on the left is the basis for the disdain he so obviously and frequently feels in his travels as a member of the traditional media. The subject is vast enough for an entire online enterprise, and certainly enough to fill an entire 300-page book. The abdication of responsibility by the traditional media in political discourse during and since the 2000 election is slightly tangential to Matt's larger point, but hugely critical to the rise of the blogosphere and to the current state of Democratic politics and what we're trying to accomplish. Matt's perspective on it would have been fascinating to see.

For me, there are a couple of telling instances in the book that reflect the troubled relationship the Democrats have had with the traditional media and the vain attempts of many in the party to find approval there. The first is what Matt most accurately describes as the absolutely vapid slogan Democrats landed on for the 2006 election, "Together, America can do better." The second is the scolding Barack Obama gave to the Daily Kos community for our intemperate language towards Patrick Leahy on the Roberts nomination.

Both instances would have done the Dean of Washington punditry proud. For what better sums up the last 20 years of David Broder's writing than "Together, American can do better," or a U.S. Senator telling his constituents that comity was more important than substance when it comes to the nomination of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court? This is what a couple of decades of an American press seemingly blinded to the radical extremism of the modern day Republican Party, and wedded to the too easy narrative that the Democrats are wimps, gives us; a self-fulfilling prophesy of Democratic Party leaders trying to do David Broder proud. And a radical right 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court.

I certainly don't lay all of the Democrat's woes at the feet of the traditional media, nor do I hold Matt personally responsible for every ill done by the traditional media. At the same time, I don't think there's anyone in the political left who doesn't remember the skewering of Al Gore in the media in 2000 over such critical issues as his clothing choices and his sighs, and doesn't hold the traditional media just a little bit responsible for Bush and the disaster his six years in office has wrought. And don't even get me started on the press in the run-up to the Iraq War. A fuller treatment of this from Matt's perspective would have been welcome.

All of which is to say, as engaging and informative as The Argument is on many levels, it barely scratches the surface on what the netroots is and what we hope to achieve. The book encapsulates a sliver of the movement in a moment in time that is quickly slipping by; at Internet speed, any book about the blogosphere is likely to become dated between the time the author writes the last word and the book hits the shelves. In this case, obviously the book had to go to print before there was time to fully digest and discuss the 2006 election, so the landscape has already changed. But this is still a book to keep in the library, if nothing else than for the fascinating character studies and moments in time it portrays.

This article was originally published on DailyKos on Sep 27, 2007, and is reprinted with the author's permission.