Is the Left-Wing Netroots (As We Know It) Dead?

January 7, 2009

bloglogosIs the left-wing Netroots as we know it dead?  While the question may be dramatic and perhaps even premature, the notion of the “Netroots” as a strong political force seems to be waning a bit.  Okay, that’s putting it mildly: part of me believes the Netroots is dying a fast death, and if not dead yet, at least it’s on life-support.  To be fair, this is a transition period in our government, and frankly, there just isn’t that much going on – particularly for a blogosphere used to a non-stop campaign for almost two years.  So, the jury will be out until well into the Obama administration.  But the signs aren’t promising that our current blogging “infrastructure” can support a move towards fighting for an administration rather than fighting against one.  Perhaps there is an opportunity for the rise of a new infrastructure?

As I lay out in this piece, the “celebrity” bloggers who helped build the first-wave of blogging infrastructure are finding themselves increasingly marginalized and left outside the power structure of our current government.  The size and scale of Obama’s victory was so overwhelming that the Netroots cannot credibly claim to be the sole driving force behind it – indeed, those those who frequent DailyKos and similar sites were but a tiny component of a much larger coalition that led to our new President’s victory.  These “celeb-bloggers,” so used to being lauded in political circles, saw their influence waning (not coincidentally with the rise of the Obama machine) well into the campaign season and before the November victory.  Their subsequent behavior tells you a lot about where they stand and how they are desperately trying to reclaim their influence – not to mention traffic to their sites.  Note: I’m specifically talking about the community/activist sites like DailyKos, MyDD, OpenLeft, etc – not bloggers, left-wing and otherwise, in general.

Combining the declining influence of these first-wave of bloggers with the void of a mostly politics-free transition period (which has left only a smaller sub-segment of the Netroots participating in discussions) has been a nasty recipe for the left-wing blogosphere as a whole – a vicious cycle further marginalizing it from any pragmatic position of influence.   Can these same sites and this same infrastructure recover?  Or is it time for a new infrastructure – a Netroots 2.0, to replace the old one?

The first hints of “celeb-blogger” marginalization came in 2006-2007 when Jerome Armstrong, aka “The Blogfather” and former co-author with Markos Moulitsas, returned to MyDD from his failed bid working for Mark Warner and found himself on the sidelines in an amazing primary race.  The resulting two years came with perhaps the most stupendous series of intellectually dishonest, poorly sourced, and comical non-stop slams against Barack Obama, including his infamous refrain that “Obama can’t win a general election” (sample here).  Up through the general, Armstrong would cite the worst pollsters to prove his point, ban any discussion he didn’t like and knock users off the site on a daily basis (particularly those who called him on his analysis, which was a lot of people).   Now he’s not posting much of anything anymore.

He was joined in his disillusionment over the Obama campaign by his colleagues Matt Stoller and Chris Bowers – who left halfway through the campaign season to launch OpenLeft.  I recall watching a behind-the-scenes video of one of the Netroots Nation conferences that featured a fiery Matt Stoller practically frothing at the mouth as he decried Obama and the notion that he was building a “movement.”  The anger really shocked me.  Why was he so furious about Obama?  Indeed, many bloggers spent endless posts debating what constitutes a “movement” and whether the Obama campaign qualified as one.

What is it about that “movement” notion and the Obama campaign in particular that really bothered them?  I’m not a mind-reader, but it doesn’t take an enormous leap of faith to imagine that these bloggers saw their own marginalization happening before their eyes.  Indeed, the Obama campaign may not have been a movement, but it certainly built its own infrastructure and didn’t need to rely on any of these “celeb bloggers” to get the message out.  

So, some of these bloggers were feeling marginalized, but what about their quality of writing and the leadership they provided for so many years?  Should that not earn them the benefit of the doubt?  After all, when someone like Markos Moulitsas posts something on his site, it still holds a lot of sway over thousands of readers.  But should it?  The “come to Jesus” moment for me, who mostly spent time on DailyKos, came in the fall during the financial bailout debate.  Markos started posting a series of angry posts slamming the bailout – which is fine, fair enough.  But, as I noted then, he never analyzed the actual economic/financial implications of the issue, just slammed it politically.  It was at that moment that I first truly thought to myself: “Who are these bloggers that we put so much trust in?  Are they really the responsible people we want building and leading our insfrastructure?” 

It is since November 4th that things have really gone off the rails.  Part of it comes from the community nature of these sites: many of the participants were clearly there for the election.  Once it was over, many (if not most) didn’t return, leaving a small core group of people – many of them serious liberal activists who are incredibly passionate about their issues.

The “celeb-bloggers,” however, have found themselves even more marginalized than ever during the Obama transition, and many of their posts represent a real lashing out – a temper tantrum that essentially screams, “Don’t forget about me!  I’m still relevant!  I’m still a political force, listen to me!”  For Markos, it has been his never-ending crusade to prevent Caroline Kennedy from being appointed Senator from New York (one less spot for him to pick his “Netroots” candidate, a la Ned Lamont, and star in that candidate’s advertising perhaps?).  For Chris Bowers and Matt Stoller, et al, they decided to go on a label-fest, scoring each of Obama’s cabinet appointments as “progressive,” “center-right,” “conservative,” etc.  To their credit, at least, they could see their own influence waning long before the election and they knew they were on the outside looking in.  So they engaged in this essentially meaningless exercise as one last gasp of proving their relevancy.  Stoller finally gave up, leaving Open Left for a House staffer position (a decision, in a fit of grandeur, he described not as accepting a simple job opportunity, but as a means to solving a larger “progressive movement” problem he dubbed the “Rootsgap” – dude, congrats on the new job, there’s nothing wrong getting work in this economy).

And the most amusing figure to emerge in this post-election period has been David Sirota.  Now, I have slammed him previously for his shoddy work, his historical ignorance, and his intellectual dishonesty.  But I have to praise him as someone very savvy at making a name for himself and promoting his own brand.  Indeed, he has filled the void of this quiet political period with some of the most ridiculous work I’ve ever seen, almost all of it aiming his fire at Democrats.   If there is a conflict to be found within his own party, Sirota will find it.  Most recently he has found his latest shtick, slamming political “aristocracy,” by taking on the relative unknown Senate appointment Michael Bennett from Colorado.  Why is he an aristocrat?  Because he doesn’t have a lot of years in elected office and he went to Ivy League schools!  Elite!  Even Markos jumped on the Sirota bandwagon (he went from crashing-the-gates to slamming outsiders for not being insiders – yikes).

But give Sirota credit – from the second Obama started making appointments, he started screaming the loudest.  His posts have been the blogger equivalent of someone waving their arms and saying, “Hey!  Look at me!”  Not much going on in the world?  Enter David Sirota with his manufactured outrage – gins up his name recognition even more.  Gets him on TV more during this political dead-zone period.  He’s played this card very well for himself – using the void of real news to create his own.

So that’s where we’re left: a group of “celeb-bloggers” who see their own influence waning and lash out with written temper-tantrums, or a new wave of bloggers who use classic traditional media techniques of ginning up fake outrage and creating conflict to get ratings.  Add in a community of die-hard liberal activists who remain hanging around the blogs while so many others have left, subjecting every move Obama makes to a liberal purity test, and the result is a vicious cycle which feeds off each other, leading to a precipitous decline in the Netroots.  For every post of someone screaming “Obama isn’t listening to us!” all I can think is, “But why should he?”   It’s certainly not because he owes his victory to us.

I suppose it’s possible that things will improve once Obama gets inaugurated.  That DailyKos members will not, for example, slam his healthcare plan for not being progressive enough, but instead will train their fire on Republicans who will want to block any chance of reform.  It’s possible.  Possible.

Someone wrote on my “farewell” diary from DailyKos, “If not here, where?”  In other words, that blogger was saying: DailyKos is the only option for the left-wing blogosphere, so you’re stuck here.  I thought a lot about that.  And that strikes me as a very un-American notion.  Whatever happened to competition?  Innovation?  Why shouldn’t a new generation of bloggers emerge building a new infrastructure?  Bloggers who aren’t as beholden to their years of “influence” during the Bush administration and are looking to operate in the new reality without any baggage?  Is there an opportunity for a new left-wing Netroots?  Is one necessary?

It still may be premature, but I am increasingly of the belief that the first generation of bloggers and their sites have seen their best days.  And I hope something new emerges in their stead.

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15 Responses to “Is the Left-Wing Netroots (As We Know It) Dead?”

  1. Prole Says:

    Nice work. Although I fear that the lesser lights you mention (Armstrong, Stoller, Sirota et al) will take solace in your calling them “celeb-bloggers” and they’ll continue to think they’re in the same league as Kos, which they most certainly are not.

    Nice capture of Stoller’s retard-rants against Obama. Can’t wait to see which member of Congress is going to have to suffer him on staff. (Hopefully, for her sake, it’s not Donna Edwards.) Those who know him will be surprised if he lasts six months on the Hill. Somebody please install a hidden camera to capture the smackdowns to come on him there!

  2. fernan47 Says:

    The Orson Scott Card link on the economic crisis above is a horrible anti-Democratic rant. I’ve read him and thought he was smarter than that. Apparently, he is a genuine rethug.

    I hope this link has nothing to do with you dansac.

    Actually, I only found DKos during the primaries and was new to blogging in general at that point. The nastiness really shocked me although I had some sense how verbally abusive the blogosphere was in general.

    I don’t agree with the front pagers all that much I have to say, especially Markos who fostered a lot of abuse of Hillary and now Caroline which was over the top and entirely unhealthy.

    Wherever there is any degree of power and money there will be abuse of some sort. I haven’t followed the rantings of specific diarists all that much as I am distracted by the vicious trolling that goes on.

    So, what to do indeed? Starting a blog is ridiculously easy, building it seems hard on the other end of the scale.

    I am desperate for a place where constructive people take innovative and radical positions and built a community around ideas, not taking pot shots at whomever stands up.

    Idea one: Push Obama to totally reorganize our monetary and financial system while he roots out the criminals in these multiple disasters. I want the stolen money found and the criminals brought to the bar of justice.

    I want Obama to make policies and create the best possible legislation (not the best compromise legislation).

    I want to celebrate this victory without feeling guilty because Obama has not passed someone’s purity test.

    Oh, and I love the coding at DKos. It allows people to keep track of what they have said, what others have said, etc. The interface is wonderful. How do they do it and can it be duplicated without a lot of fuss?

  3. dansac Says:

    fernan47, you raise a lot of great questions – but first let me just say that WordPress generates those links automatically, I have nothing to do with any “related” posts above.

  4. Kyle the Mainer Says:

    I’ve learned to stay out of the DKos arguments (I/P and Rick Warren most recently).

    I think some things about the netroots will have to change now that Democrats control Congress and the Executive. But I’m sure there are many people (probably those who have been a part of the netroots longer than I have) that would disagree with me.

  5. benintn Says:

    Very interesting points, all of it.

    What makes the netroots move? How do they help where their GOP counterparts failed? One secret of success seems to be guiding, rather than controlling, message.

    The problem re: MyDD is more about message control (not discipline, control). Kos might rant, but he’ll hear from others about it and he opens it up for comments.

    Openness, free speech, and democracy go hand in hand. The Obama campaign message fit better with DKos than with MyDD. In the end, we sacrificed a bit of liberal “orthodoxy” for true liberalism – freedom of expression, open access, leading to remarkable agility and extraordinary real-time responsiveness.

    I don’t think Kos and OpenLeft will “end” but they’re more effective in campaigning than in actually leading.

    My $.02

  6. benintn Says:

    after my initial comment, i bumped into this:
    http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2009/01/transparency-as-a-pr-principle-not-a-tactic007.html
    Talks about new media, PR in the info age, and need for discretion + transparency.

  7. icebergslim Says:

    Welcome back, dansac!!!!

  8. icebergslim Says:

    You are point on, dansac.

    MyDD is a joke and Jerome should be ashamed of himself. He is totally discredited, none of his “conventional wisdom” punditry came true and he was totally left out in the cold. Matt Stoller lost me with the “Obama is Dead” piece at Open Left. After that shyte, I was done with him.

    They believe they are relevant, but the pie is too big, they are not that relevant. Obama put this movement together WITHOUT the input of the blogosphere. In fact, when I started “This Week With Barack Obama” on Daily Kos, there were hardly any supporters. That place was swamped with Edwards supporters, remember. Obama took his fight, directly, to the voters. He used the technology tools and pushed them to the limit. He did not have no big time blogger on his staff, but he had the best run website for a candidate, ever.

    It was like when Edwards went down, to me, in the summer of 2007 due to lack of raising money and had to take public financing. That was the end of him, but there were rumors that some big time bloggers supported him, but they surely did not use their bullhorn to help him, did they?

  9. Shhs Says:

    Long time reader first time poster ; ). I think the Net-roots is @ it’s best when it pushes back against MSM memes, or even uncovers the MSM stories for frauds (like the backwards B girl).

    I have issues w/the Caroline Kennedy Burris disconnect. Many ppl on Kos wanted to know where Caroline stood on the “issues” no one seems to care where Burris stands. I also took issue w/ppl basically pooping on every dem that once worked for the Clintons.

    I think Daily Kos needs to find what they are best @, and I don’t think Markos helps the situation.

  10. dansac Says:

    Great points Iceberg. Obama has in many ways been a reality check on just how important some of these bloggers really are.

  11. LaEscapee Says:

    Obama put this movement together WITHOUT the input of the blogosphere.

    except for those that trashed anyone who wasn’t a true believer.

    Wanna know what has happened to the “sphere”? Take a look at the usernames and tell me how many people are still posting that fought those battles.

    The “celebs” never bought into the rhetoric, they were always skeptical of the words and lo and behold it looks like they may have been right.

    Sorry dansac really didn’t want this to be my first post here but you know I’m an ass 😉

  12. dansac Says:

    Sigh. LaEscapee, you’re not an ass, and I’m glad to see you. But I’m not glad to see that you’ve bought into the same, tired, “true believer” rhetoric. The same thing went on at DailyKos for months in the primary if you didn’t buy John Edwards, as I didn’t (I thought he was a total phony). There are always “true believers” on these sites trashing each other. But since Obama won, his stayed around longer. But it’s a meaningless point.

    The “celebs” never bought into the rhetoric, they were always skeptical of the words and lo and behold it looks like they may have been right.

    Again – a tired cliche. There’s nothing he’s done thus far as far as I can tell that really clashes with any of his words from the campaign. Nothing. And this is particularly true since he hasn’t been inaugurated yet.

    I don’t know – I find the whole notion that Obama is “betraying” his rhetoric to be completely factually untrue and a cliche that’s worn itself out already.

    Love ya LaEscapee.

  13. Clownshoes Says:

    I agree with everything you say here. Cheers Mr. Dansac! You’re on the right track.

    Just to emphasize your point: Sirota is becoming the left’s Anne Coulter, perversely aimed at our own party.

  14. brklyngrl Says:

    Hi dansac, good to fine you! Despite, or maybe because of, my very brief stint as an OpenLeft front pager, I’m totally with you.

  15. Kitty Says:

    “Sirota is becoming the left’s Anne Coulter, perversely aimed at our own party.”

    He’s taken to calling Obama “Dear Leader”


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