A heavy burden lay upon the first convention of the “netroots” — that amorphous mass of progressive activists participating in blogs and grassroots organizations outside of the Democratic Party — in Las Vegas earlier this month. The mainstream media came in force. So did many of the stars of the Democratic Party, as well as plenty of candidates for office and representatives of old-line liberal constituencies such as big labor, environmental lobbies, and Hispanic organizers.
They came because many believe the netroots might hold the key to unseating the GOP, after 25 years of disastrous rule. With the Democratic Party itself unfocused, spineless, and trapped by special interests, all eyes are on these ambitious outsiders. The hopes pinned on them are as high as the stakes.
CASTRATED ELEPHANT?: Netroots bloogers and the Democratic Party try to work together to beat Republicans.
The netroots activists have a lot of history to undo. Thirty years ago, conservative Republicans — having suffered through ideological irrelevance in the 1960s, and burdened with Watergate while watching the country embrace a new set of progressive social values in the ’70s — committed themselves to an unprecedented multi-billion-dollar, multi-generational campaign to reshape public opinion. Through think tanks, strategic political campaigns, and media manipulation, they won support for everything from supply-side economics to reversing affirmative action — and painted Democrats as spendthrifts, appeasers, and flip-floppers.
As some progressives put it, Democrats were focused on sales — i.e., getting out the vote on Election Day — while Republicans mastered marketing. The result: total Republican control over the federal government.
Immense national displeasure with George W. Bush, however, has opened a chance to crack the Republican stranglehold on political power, and the netroots just might be able to play a decisive role in breaking their grip — but only if they are willing to work in concert with others. They have a lot to contribute, but also a lot to learn. And there isn’t much time.
No question, important Democrats are treating the denizens of virtual spaces such as DailyKos, MyDD, HuffingtonPost, LiberalOasis, and TPMCafe — I call them the ProgBloggers — as though they matter. The first annual YearlyKos conference, held in Las Vegas the weekend of June 9, received a raft of top Democratic Party first-stringers: Senate minority leader Harry Reid; Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean; presidential hopefuls Wesley Clark, Mark Warner, Bill Richardson, and Tom Vilsak; and Senator Barbara Boxer. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was scheduled to speak but had to cancel to tend to congressional duties.
That’s about as deeply inside the Democratic Party leadership as it gets. Plus, some top union organizers were there, most notably from the fast-growing Service Employees International Union, which split off from the AFL-CIO last July and is investing heavily in left-liberal politics. The Democrats clearly believe in the importance of the netroots.
That’s confirmed by a new Political Insiders’ poll from National Journal, the weekly magazine that is to national politics what the Wall Street Journal is to finance. It shows that more than two-thirds of Democratic Party insiders believe that the netroots will, on balance, help their party in the 2006 midterm elections.
That’s why party leaders kowtowed to the thousand or so YearlyKos attendees who gathered in Sin City two weeks ago. Warner plied them with food and booze at a lavish party in the Stratosphere tower. Reid and Boxer thanked the netroots for their important work.
And the netroots responded, packing the hall for their speeches, applauding vigorously, and speaking highly of them afterward. Clearly, they want to be thought of as important.
But the relationship between the party and the netroots is not as tight as it might seem. Although they need each other, they are not at all on the same page about what they can do — or want to do — for each another.
To many in the party, it’s all about money. Many of the National Journal respondents specifically cited the netroots’ ability to raise money for candidates. From the multi-million-dollar Web fundraisers for Dean’s 2004 presidential bid to the critical thousands directed to obscure congressional candidates, these online progressive communities can move grassroots dollars in a way not previously seen. And so the Dems came to the YearlyKos gathering in part to facilitate their efforts. And a few days later, back inside the Washington Beltway, Warner hosted a fundraiser — $250 a plate and up — for ActBlue, the Cambridge Web site devoted to funneling small progressive contributions to Democratic office-seekers.
Secondarily, the party sees the netroots as an attack-and-defend tool, able to respond quickly to lies and misrepresentations by the Republicans.
The netroots certainly intend to fulfill both roles, but they see themselves as much more important. They want to shape national debate; help form and implement national Democratic political strategies; select candidates and campaign themes; and get out the vote. In short, they want to lead, not follow. Direct, not just contribute. And if they feel marginalized, they’re not likely to be much help at all.