THE BLOG
01/12/2006 01:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

THE (Broken) TRIANGLE: Progressive Bloggers in the Wilderness

"This, then, is the reality: progressive bloggers and online activists -- positioned on the front lines of a cold civil war -- face a thankless and daunting task: battle the Bush administration and its legions of online and offline apologists, battle the so-called "liberal" media and its tireless weaving of pro-GOP narratives, battle the ineffectual Democratic leadership, and battle the demoralization and frustration that comes with a long, steep uphill struggle."

NSA and Alito

Last September, I published an essay laying out what I saw as the scope of blog influence, with 'influence' defined as the capacity to alter or create conventional wisdom. I used a triangle construct to set out the relationship between the netroots, the media, and the political establishment: "Looking at the political landscape, one proposition seems unambiguous: blog power on both the right and left is a function of the relationship of the netroots to the media and the political establishment. Forming a triangle of blogs, media, and the political establishment is an essential step ... Simply put, without the participation of the media and the political establishment, the netroots alone cannot generate the critical mass necessary to alter or create conventional wisdom."

I concluded that "if the netroots alone can’t change the political landscape without the participation of the media and Democratic establishment, then there’s no point wasting precious online space blasting away at Republicans while the other sides of the triangle stand idly by."

The NSA scandal and the Alito confirmation hearings are just two more examples of the left’s broken triangle and of the isolation of the progressive netroots. A flurry of activity among bloggers, online activists, and advocacy groups is met with ponderously inept strategizing by the Democratic leadership and relentless -- and insidious -- repetition by the media of pro-GOP narratives and soundbites. It's slow-motion-car-wreck painful, and most certainly NOT where the left's triangle should be a half decade into the new millennium, as the Bush-propping machine hums and whirrs, poll numbers rise and fall, Iraq bleeds, scandal dissolves into scandal, terror speech blends into terror speech. The landscape is there for everyone to see, to analyze. Enough time has elapsed to make the system transparent. It is dismaying for netroots activists to see the same mistakes repeated despite the benefit of hindsight.

Within days of the warrantless domestic spying story breaking, I wrote a cynical piece titled The Dynamic of a Bush Scandal: How the Spying Story Will Unfold (and Fade). It seemed clear that the lack of coordination between the netroots and the Democratic leadership, coupled with the media’s equivocation and obfuscation, would lead to another potentially impeachable offense fading and "blending into a long string of administration scandals."

Looking at the contours of previous scandals, I ventured this prediction: "Polls will emerge with 'proof' that half the public agrees that Bush should have the right to "protect Americans against terrorists." Again, the issue will be framed to mask the true nature of the malfeasance. The media will use these polls to create a self-fulfilling loop and convince the public that it isn't that bad after all. The president breaks the law. Life goes on."

And like clockwork, we get this from CNN: Poll finds U.S. split over eavesdropping, not to mention this from Rasmussen. (One of the rare benefits of a second Bush term is that the patterns of media and political behavior that have led us to this point are more easily discerned.) I ended the NSA piece by referring to Bush's "skillful use" of scandal fatigue: "Bush weathers the storm and moves on, further demoralizing his opponents and cementing the press narrative about his 'resolve' and toughness.... It's a battle of attrition that Bush and his team have mastered. Short of a major Dem initiative to alter the cycle, to throw a wrench into the system, to go after the media institutionally, this cycle will continue for the foreseeable future."

Which brings me to the Alito hearings, a perfect instance for the left's triangle to change conventional wisdom, to shape public opinion. But rather than a Democratic triumph, the Alito hearings have thrown the dichotomy between the netroots and the Democratic leadership into even starker relief, illustrating the profound dysfunction of the left’s triangle. As well, the depth and breadth of media complicity and the obliviousness of so many Democrats to it, is alarming. From the choreography of Specter and Alito creating the "open mind on abortion" soundbite that media outlets dutifully ran with, to the Sen. Graham/Mrs. Alito tear-fest that should have prompted Dems to slam the Republicans for bringing the Judge's wife to tears but instead turned into another Dem-bashing occasion, to the complete failure of the Democratic leadership to create the appropriate tone of outrage (in soundbite form), the chronic breakdown of the establishment and media sides of the left's triangle is apparent.

This, then, is the reality: progressive bloggers and online activists -- positioned on the front lines of a cold civil war -- face a thankless and daunting task: battle the Bush administration and its legions of online and offline apologists, battle the so-called “liberal” media and its tireless weaving of pro-GOP narratives, battle the ineffectual Democratic leadership, and battle the demoralization and frustration that comes with a long, steep uphill struggle.

How would a functioning triangle have worked?

1. Weeks before the hearings, Dem leaders would have encouraged the netroots to build a buzz about one or two pivotal Alito issues. These issues would then have been hammered repeatedly during the hearings, reiterated by Dem surrogates, by outside groups, and blasted across blogs as the hearings progressed. (Presidential power and the nexus between the NSA scandal and Alito would have been one of those issues.)

2. Weeks before the hearings, Dem leaders would have set a trap for Alito by using his obvious and easily anticipated strong point against him, namely his demeanor. The Bush tactic, as evidenced by John Roberts, is to suck the life out of the proceedings by making everything as boring and pedantic as possible. The media then obediently claims the hearings are proof of the nominee's thoughtfulness and composure. In a functioning triangle, Dems, with the help of the netroots and honest media figures, would have prepared the public by making Alito's demeanor an issue using 'question of the day' framing, as in: "Are you troubled by the gap between Alito's radical views and his matter-of-fact attitude?" or something along those lines.

3. A list of mainstream reporters, GOP shills like Norah O'Donnell and Wolf Blitzer, would have been targeted by a Dem war room: their various Bush-propping tricks (like using polls to 'prove' that Americans are "divided" and don't share liberal activists' alarm over Alito, that the hearings are boring and Alito is a shoe-in, that Democrats are pre-judging Alito but Republicans aren't, etc.) would have been laid out in a detailed memo before the hearings.

4. An army of bloggers and online activists would have been recruited to flood these reporters with complaints whenever those tricks were employed. Screen shots, video clips, caricatures, chain emails, Flash pieces, podcasts, any and all available technology would have been used to individually target reporters who peddled GOP storylines on Alito.

5. Dem leaders and surrogates would have expressed outrage at rightwing media bias and demanded fair coverage. Every media appearance would have included a direct slam at the press for misleading the American public about Alito and Bush's hidden agenda. Again, Alito's "composure" would have been an issue: why is he so low key when his beliefs are so radical?

That's just a small example of how the left's triangle might have worked. Unfortunately for the progressive netroots, the intricate interplay of Republican persuasion tactics, media story-telling, and 21st century information flow seems beyond the ken of most Democratic strategists and leaders. The hellish reality progressive bloggers have acknowledged and internalized is still alien to the party establishment. Dem strategy is still two parts hackneyed sloganeering and one part befuddlement over the stifling of their message.

Maybe the Democratic establishment wants it so, maybe they don't know better, but progressive bloggers and activists are starting to see the bitter reality of their isolation: the triangle is broken and they're on their own until further notice.