the world of DailyKos

In the New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben reviews a new book by the bloggers Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Z?niga, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics. He uses the opportunity to describe the network of Z?niga’s DailyKos, Talking Points Memo, Atrios, and related blogs as “the most ambitious, interesting, and hopeful venture in progressive politics in decades.” I found the review a perceptive description of this network (which draws at least half a million people a day); but I have mixed feelings about its impact and potential.

Armstrong and Z?niga describe Howard Dean’s appeal in ’04 as “ideologically agnostic, purely partisan.” That’s also a reasonable summary of their style of web-based politics. [See an explicit statement here.] They want to see Democrats play hard. They admire politicians, like Gov. Dean, who attack the Republicans; and they despise Democrats, like Senator Lieberman, who cloud the issue by praising Republicans. Their fury at Lieberman is not ideological, for they will support Democrats who defend the Iraq war–it’s rather the anger of a sports fan who thinks that an athlete is not playing to win.

To give Z?niga and his allies their due: They have pioneered techniques that allow many thousands of people to participate in Party politics. People without much money can make small financial contributions that are aggregated strategically on the Web. Participants can also volunteer time and contribute ideas. Devoted fans of the Democrats are becoming players.

Another benefit of this new style of politics is to increase participation and competition in every community, even the “reddest,” most gerrymandered of GOP congressional districts. Unlike the official parties (which save their ammunition for “swing” seats), Kos and his allies believe that every election should be contested. That is good because it gives more people opportunities to participate.

I should also note that 2006 is the perfect year for the Kos approach. The main issue really will be incompetence and corruption in one-party Washington, and people (some people) really will vote Democratic simply in order to check and oversee the Republicans. This is one year when it may work simply to attack the incumbent party and promote an alternative set of players.

But that approach didn’t succeed in ’04, and it won’t work in ’08. The reason, in my opinion, is a basic imbalance between liberals and conservatives. For a long time, there have been more of the latter than the former.


To be sure, what “conservatives” believe has changed over time. Today, most self-described conservative voters favor Social Security, Medicare, the right to interracial marriage, and free-speech rights for gays–all positions that conservatives opposed forty years ago. Liberals have won many struggles.

But there is not a majority in favor of ambitious change in a liberal direction, whereas there is a majority in favor of the kinds of policies that Republicans favor (which include Social Security and Medicare, along with tax cuts, school prayer, and government surveillance of communications). Real social change requires either new policies or new arguments, not just more aggressive competition.

I am not one of those who claim that Democrats lack “new ideas.” The GOP is mostly singing from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 hymnal, whereas various Democrats have innovative proposals. The problem is rather that Democrats need consensus about coherent and compelling new ideas much more than Republicans do, and they must make their ideas more central to their campaigns. If neither side has a mandate for change, people will usually vote for the party that best reflects their attitudes on moral issues–currently, the GOP.

I like Kos’ wiki space, which allows people to collaborate in designing new policy ideas–that could be revolutionary. However, I don’t think that’s where the participants are putting their energy; the results, so far, aren’t terribly compelling. While McKibben praises the Kos energy policy (and it seems impressive), the health care page, which is more typical, is just a short critique of the status quo with some talking points about several alternatives–nothing novel or particularly persuasive. I can’t find any discussion of the new Massachussetts health care plan: a bipartisan effort that deserves consideration and scrutiny. It would be churlish to complain about an ordinary progressive blog that failed to address health care in a substantive way–but DailyKos receives an average of 500,000 daily visits and offers myriad opportunities for those visitors to contribute ideas. If all those people overlook the Massachussets health care plan, then I infer a lack of interest in health policy. In contrast, there is enormous interest in Scooter Libby, Condi’s admission that thousands of tactical mistakes were made, Tom DeLay’s resignation, etc., etc. Again, a critical style may work in ’06; but ’08 is not far away.

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  • “But there is not a majority in favor of ambitious change in a liberal direction, whereas there is a majority in favor of the kinds of policies that Republicans favor (which include Social Security and Medicare, along with tax cuts, school prayer, and government surveillance of communications)…If neither side has a mandate for change, people will usually vote for the party that best reflects their attitudes on moral issues–currently, the GOP.”

    I would disagree with these statements. Frankly, arguments about the inevitably conservative nature of the country seem to forget everything between 1932 and 1968. If conservatives are inevitably the dominant ones in US political culture, why for a time were establishment pundits talking about the era of liberalism? Why did Eisenhower reject the “conservative” label, as if it were politically radioactive?

    My second quibble would be with how you characterized agreement with GOP positions. Specifically, the orthodox movement conservative line on Social Security and Medicare is vastly unpopular with most of the country–ask Newt Gingrich et al how easy it is to cut Medicare. Ask George Bush how easy it is to change Social Security. You certainly have a point that there is no consensus about a need to change or expand these programs–but to say that the average person favors the GOP line is simply mistaken. Moreover, the lack of support for things like expanding the safety net is at least partially due to the fact that no national leaders with any power are talking about strengthening it. This, of course, is something that Kos and Jerome aim to fix. Their focus is on tactics, not policy–because policy is the job of experts and politicians, not partisan warriors.

  • Peter Levine

    I wasn’t clear about two things.

    The GOP position is to “protect” Social Security and Medicare. Rhetorically, it’s the same position as the Democrats’. True, the president floated a privatization scheme, but he presented it as a way to strengthen and preserve Social Security. Besides, the Hill GOP sank it, preferring the status quo.

    The conservatives’ advantage is a feature of a particular period: 1980-present. Liberals were at least as dominant from 1932-1964, and happy to use that l-word. The situation can again change–but only if liberals (or progressives, or whatever we call ourselves) come up with policies as innovative as the New Deal and Great Society were in their day. Protecting the mid-20th century innovations is no way to win, since Republicans have also embraced those programs.

  • Ah, I see–thanks for clearing that up. I must say, I’m not as sanguine as you are about Republicans accepting and wanting to protect Soc. Sec.–reading most conservative publications (especially ones that are explicitly targeted to conservative audiences, e.g. Weekly Standard or NR), the basic position seems to be that Soc. Sec. is a (politically) necessary evil at best.