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Scuffle at the ‘Gate': The Coming Split Among ‘Progressive' Bloggers

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

I've finally finished my first 'speed-read' of the Kos/Armstrong book 'Crashing the Gate' and I have a strong first impression: There's a major split coming in the so-called 'progressive blogosphere,' and these two talented thinkers and writers won't be able to straddle the divide much longer.

And here's a thought: Are the 'netroots' responsible for Howard Dean's successes - or for his failures? That question may be revisited someday as part of a future quarrel on ideology vs. infrastructure.

The brawl they try valiantly to avoid is one that's been brewing for some time now, but has yet to fully erupt. One side of the progressive/liberal commentariat (especially bloggers) wants to grow and strengthen the Democratic Party - while placing ideology second. The other fights for a set of core values first and foremost, and considers the Democratic Party to be nothing more than a weapon in an ongoing struggle.

One side would provide technical and consulting support to Democratic candidates that represent a wide ideological swath - and, not incidentally, would like to be the Party's new leadership. The other side, while having remained true to the Party by and large for many years, now stands ready to abandon it if need be - especially on the national level, should a right-leaning candidate (or one cynically assuming a right-wing pose) lead the ticket in 2008.

Short version: If Hillary's the nominee, there's going to be a major scuffle at the 'gate' between these two factions. The relative unity of the blogging left, which has been one of its major strengths, will be fractured. The overall effect of such a split is hard to predict.

Kos and Armstrong seem to want it both ways for now: they want to be the New Democratic Technocrats who lead the party into a bright future using the modern tools they feel they command, and yet they maintain their stance as idealistic 'grassroots/netroots' activists and proto-populists. (They're vegetarians, too, as the book mentions in passing.)

Paging Dr. Faust.

Both Sides Now

The Kos/Armstrong split personality is evident from the get-go. They lead off with an inspiring epigram from Gandhi, then leap immediately into a foreword written by Democratic technocrat (and Iraq War supporter) Simon Rosenberg.

Rosenberg's campaign for DNC chair became a litmus test for blogger sensibilities. He had all the right 'new technology' credentials as a fundraiser, and he'd been very smart about raising high-tech money in the Silicon Valley and using the Internet politically. He had also been courting the biggest bloggers assiduously.

The problem was that he was hopelessly out of step with his own Party's base on Iraq (so much for the "people-powered politics" of the book's subtitle). To observers like this one, his position on the war was morally wrong. Even worse, his statements about it were blunders - he came off sounding arrogant, callous, and indifferent to the issue (especially when he said: ""I think the debate that is not happening is whether or not the war was a good idea. The war was a good idea. I think the American people were behind the President.")

By choosing Rosenberg to write the foreword, the authors were making a statement about technology power, not "people power." Nothing wrong with that, especially if you're writing about new political techniques and infrastructure. The problem is, then you have to stay out of the idealism business.

If Rosenberg is 'progressive,' especially in the Democratic context, there's a lot of confusion about what the term means. (To be fair, Rosenberg himself expresses surprise that he was chosen.)

Opening Gambits

Like many bloggers with 'technocratic' tendencies, Kos and Armstrong are working actively as consultants for Democrats. Others of us may have backgrounds in political or policy consulting, but either choose not to go that route or are only willing to work for candidates and projects we support. Yet others stand resolutely aloof from political or governmental work of any kind.

The authors begin their book with an impassioned review of the Republican 'coup' of 2000, and their entry into blogging as a way of joining the debate despite being part of the old power structure. They lament the fact that we can't say "To hell with the Democratic Party" because of the two-party system. So far, so clear: that love/hate feeling has driven a large number of the Party's members for many years.

They then move into a taxonomy of conservatism that doesn't drive their agenda for the Democratic Party, and which seems like a digression. By now Democrats all know what the Party opposes, but what does it stand for? Stay tuned: that question will surface again and again.

The 'Interest Groups'

The first sign of the coming split appears in the section entitled "Divided We Fall," which is a slam against single-issue groups and their influence in the Party. They argue that this influence has allowed the GOP to re-paint the erstwhile "party of the people" as a bunch of tree-huggers etc. etc.

While I understand the problems these groups represent, and am essentially sympathetic with the authors' description of the difficulties inherent in working with "visualize word peace" types, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that these groups are the ones responsible for weak candidates with evanescent platforms, or the ruling class of cynical and ineffective consultants like Bob Shrum that they lament later on.

Discomfort with these groups has surfaced before, especially in Kos' writings. He's framed it in generational terms in the past - saying, in effect, why do we young moderns have to suffer these sclerotic peaceniks? They're careful to avoid such divisive talk in this book, but their aversion to 'interest groups' seems to boil down in part to personal discomfort with Birkenstock-wearing Boomers. The result is that they surrender too soon on the 'interest group' issue.

The real questions to be asked about these "interest groups" are ones that Republicans seemed until recently to be much more talented at framing and answering, i.e.:

1. How can they be mobilized to the Party's best advantage?
2. How can we counter the perception that they are "special interests"? (The Right's been especially brilliant at reframing this one, until Wal-Mart's a 'family friendly' entity while the unions representing many of its customers are an 'interest group' - note that even Kos and Armstrong use that terminology.)

Instead, the authors surrender - perhaps for stylistic rather than tactical reasons. The California Nurses' Association (CNA) has been extremely effective politically against Schwarzenegger here in California, for example, without being typecast as an interest group.

Isn't it at least equally likely that we need a Democratic strategy to face the perception problem head-on, rather than accepting the Republican frame? How about this one: "The nurse who takes your temperature, the teacher who educates your kids, the workers who unload your refrigerator, are not 'interest groups' - they're your community." It could be that Kos and Armstrong should visit the CNA, and learn.

A Party Unbound

They would really like a Democratic Party whose first priority is winning, free to operate at a safe distance from the ideologues. "Let the party be the party," they write, "with the movement outside looking in." The risk in that strategy - one they don't seem to acknowledge - is that the more distant the "movement" becomes, the fainter its loyalty to the Party. Put up a Clinton/Obama ticket and you'll probably lose them altogether. I'm not sure letting the Party be the Party is always such a good idea - either ideologically or tactically.

On the other hand, there is much to like in this highly readable book. For example, they're dead-on with statements like these: "To their detriment, progressive organizations feel comfortable advocating policy-based solutions ... while the other side is waging an ideological war." While it's not new news, it's stated clearly and concisely.

And there are real gems, like their analysis of the impact of labor groups on election results - especially the difference in voting patterns between gun owners overall and gun owners who are union members. The more that Democrats stop thinking in stereotypes and study the internal dynamics of groups they've written off, the more successful they'll be.

Their analysis of the conservative infrastructure for finding, breeding (and paying) new talent is excellent, and should be required reading for every large progressive donor. Conversely, their analysis of Howard Dean's candidacy may place too much emphasis on the role of new tech - 'netroots,' etc. - in his campaign. After all, he lost.

What Did Dean Mean?

Another interpretation of Dean's candidacy can be taken as a direct refutation of the technocratic approach. Maybe Dean's campaign caught fire because of its ideology, and ultimately failed because of its dependence on the netroots. If that's the case, then forget all this new-tech stuff - be true to the 'Democratic wing of the Democratic Party' and you'll be in great shape. It's true that Dean raised a lot of money via the Internet, but maybe he started concentrating more on money (and technology) and less on message, to his own detriment.

I'm not saying that's an accurate interpretation - but it could be. Has anyone done a detailed study of the Dean campaign to address these issues, or is everybody using it as confirmation of their own ideological - and/or technocratic - biases?

To be fair ...

Again, to be fair to the authors, they conclude by reminding us that "this hasn't been a book about new ideas or message, even though those are critically important in taking back our country." They say much that's interesting and provocative, and their vision and energy are a welcome break from the tired leadership now dominating the Party.

But the ideological shuffle can't go on forever. The strategy of leading national Democrats may force the progressive world to choose between its values and the Party. If that day comes, Kos and Armstrong may have to heed the words of the old song: Which side are you on, boys? Because if that day comes, being a better technocrat just won't be enough.

A Night Light

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