I don't write many meta posts about the netroots and the blogosphere, mainly because I find Internet triumphalism a wee bit self-absorbed. But I just finished writing the last chapter of my upcoming book The Uprising, which includes an analysis of the netroots, and I think lately those in the netroots face a teachable moment of self-reflection.
You may have noticed that the blogosphere has been ablaze about the issue of domestic surveillance. Today, the blogospheric pressure is coming down on Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd (D) to basically use his committee chairmanship to prevent a bill from passing that would retroactively immunize telecom companies from legal prosecution for their complicity in helping the Bush administration unconstitutionally wiretap. The push is good, and valuable and I support it wholeheartedly.
But here's what bothers me. Dodd is the chairman of the Banking Committee -- one of the most powerful panels overseeing all the financial and regulatory issues that working-class folks face every single day of their lives. The mortgage foreclosure crisis is just one huge example. And yet, there has been relatively little netroots or blogospheric pressure on Dodd to use his chairmanship for such issues of economic power and class.
Dodd has New England aristocrat politics (not surprising as the son of a senator from one of the wealthiest states in the nation). He has long been thrilled to swim in the ocean of corporate money that envelopes Washington. He has mastered the art of tacking to the left on non-economic-class issues, but staying within the Washington mainstream on the issues of money that really run the nation's capital (though, I should say, he has become a bit better on these issues since running for president...sometimes opportunism bears fruit).
The Hill newspaper this week detailed a routine shakedown scheme he tried to pull off on Wall Street recently -- a scheme whereby he planned to shakedown bankers for cash in exchange for his time discussing the mortgage crisis with them. This is par for the course on many economic power issues for Dodd. You may recall it was Dodd who, back in 1995, "assailed President Clinton for his veto of legislation that would limit fraud suits brought in the name of stockholders," according to the New York Times (Dodd ended up leading the veto override of the bill against major consumer groups).
So perhaps the netroots and the blogosphere doesn't bring pressure to Dodd on economic power issues because we know he is predisposed to conflict avoidance on that set of issues. But I doubt it. I think it has more to do with the netroots wearing its class on its sleeve.
Though there is little in the way of scientific data about the netroots, various bloggers have documented how its demographics trend wealthier, whiter and more male than the rest of the population. And any look across the major progressive blogs and online advocacy groups shows that much of the focus in the blogosphere (beyond pure partisan issues, which dominate) is not on class issues like trade, globalization, wages, health care, pensions and jobs but on non-class issues like wiretapping and net neutrality and Gitmo. There are, of course, notable exceptions like Iraq and like specific blogs, but the trend is pretty clear.
I see this, by the way, in the reaction to my own posts -- posts about major issues like trade get very little attention no matter how huge they are, but mention the name of a presidential candidate or Fox News, and the hits go off the charts. I mean, here we have a Congress about to pass a massive extension of NAFTA, and it is barely ever mentioned in the blogosphere -- it is stunning.
This isn't to say that wiretapping, net neutrality, media ownership don't have class components or that they are are unimportant -- every issue, at some level, has class implications and this set of issues is VERY important. But this set of issues gets a vastly disproportionate amount of time, attention and bandwith from the netroots than the former set of issues -- a set of issues that also ALL about class and are important. In fact, most middle and working-class Americans think issues like wages, jobs, health care and pensions are are MORE important.
So, why should we consider this dichotomy? Because if the netroots and the blogosphere is really going to be a part of any broad-based movement (which, I don't think it is just yet) then it is going to have to figure out how to meld its bourgeois focus with the kitchen-table concerns of everyday, non-political-junkie Americans.
Part of that means trying to avoid focusing every single policy debate on Washington, and actually doing the much harder work of exploring state and local issues. This obsessive netroots focus on Senators and House members and the presidency is just downright debilitating when it comes at a time when progressives have real, untapped power to pass things in major arenas like state legislatures.
Another part of that means becoming cognizant that wearing class on a collective sleeve has drawbacks in trying to include and engage the vast middle of the country that just wants to be able to secure a good job, afford health care, and be able to retire without going into poverty.
Strangely enough, bourgeois spokesman Tom Friedman recently captured what I'm talking about in his latest column interviewing progressive leader Van Jones:
"'Try this experiment. Go knock on someone's door in West Oakland, Watts or Newark and say: 'We gotta really big problem!' They say: 'We do? We do?' 'Yeah, we gotta really big problem!' 'We do? We do?' 'Yeah, we gotta save the polar bears! You may not make it out of this neighborhood alive, but we gotta save the polar bears!'' Mr. Jones then just shakes his head. You try that approach on people without jobs who live in neighborhoods where they've got a lot better chance of getting killed by a passing shooter than a melting glacier, you're going to get nowhere -- and without bringing America's underclass into the green movement, it's going to get nowhere, too."
Jones goes on to essentially say that in order for the environmental movement to actually be a broad-based movement and not just bourgeois parlor chatter, it has to have a class-based appeal so that it resonates outside the cocktail party circuit. And the same can be said for many of the biggest causes in the netroots and the blogosphere -- and the same questions should be raised about why the core economic issues rarely get netroots attention, other than when they are deemed a good partisan weapon against George Bush.
Some of you may point out individual blogs or blog posts about some of the kitchen table issues, and I fully acknowledge that they are out there. One of the things I say in my book is that it is difficult to address "the netroots" or "the blogs" as a monolith because these are such a dynamic and fast-changing things. But again, the trends are pretty blatant. And every now and again, it is important to reflect on the trends' implications. I consider myself a proud member of the netroots -- but I think we do our efforts a disservice if we don't think about how to go from talking to ourselves to talking to America, and about how to go from a gaggle of voices into a cohesive movement.
Cross-posted from Working Assets