The Progressive Netroots Is Doing Just Fine

In a blog post on The Daily Beast, blogger David Freedlander writes a long blog post that essentially works out as a long session of concern trolling on behalf of the progressive Netroots, “Netroots Bloggers Mark 10th Birthday in Decline and Struggling for Survival.” He uses some anecdotal evidence to support a narrative, that by all accounts, he wrote in advance and didn’t let facts get in the way. A lot of people have already responded (see below) and some have been charitable in saying that he “gets a lot of things right,” but it seems that isn’t really the case. I disagree with almost everything in the article beyond the specifics of the people he interviewed (and selectively quoted, it seems). The real story is that the progressive Netroots is not only not declining and not struggling for survival, it’s more powerful than ever before.

The biggest problem with the article is that he defines the Netroots almost solely as “bloggers,” which is a terrible definition that was never valid. The Netroots was never just the bloggers. It wasn’t even just the commenters. Taking it even further, it wasn’t even limited to the lurkers or readers who never commented. The Netroots was always — always — all of us who were using the Internet as a tool towards moving politics in a more progressive direction. Even before the blogs took off, e-mail discussions were a massive component of the Netroots and this is still true. Even before that, Newsgroups and IRC and other early venues were creating the proto-Netroots. So when he says that people are abandoning “the Netroots” for Facebook and Twitter. Nonsense. People who are active on Facebook and Twitter, and Pinterest and Tumblr, and any number of other venues, are part of the Netroots. And, often, they are more effective at accomplishing things politically than those same voices were when they were simply posting to the smaller blogs that few people read. It isn’t remotely the case that the Netroots has shrunk — just because people have shifted the format of their Netroots activism doesn’t mean they’ve stopped being active. And if you think otherwise, check out my Facebook timeline or my Twitter feed — things I can’t possibly read all of because there are so many people participating, something that never happened to me as a blogger. This false reliance upon blog reader stats and comments is even more misleading when you take into account the idea that there really is no easy way to discuss the influence a blogger has by simply looking at the number of hits their blog has. There are so many ways of reading blogs that aren’t counted in traditional blog measurement instruments — such as RSS feeds with full text, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, e-mail forwards, etc. — that there is no way to tell how traffic now compares to traffic ten years ago. And if a particular blogger has a small but influential readership, including reporters and politicians, you could have way more impact on the overall conversation than you could with many more readers who are nobodies or who are passive.

Another almost entirely misleading aspect of the way Freedlander defines “Netroots” is he suggests that in the early days, there was some kind of cohesion and one overally community of activists who later got split apart over divides like Obama-Clinton and Obamacare-Public Option. This is incredibly inaccurate, even if some of the bloggers themselves agreed with this characterization. From the very early on, there was a small national blogosphere that was semi-cohesive, but long before anybody knew who Obama was, there really were numerous other blogospheres in existence. In 2003-2004, for instance, there began a massive rise of individualized state blogospheres, most of which were only tenuously connected to the national blogs (by 2007, New Organizing Institute and Blogsunited tried to connect these state level blogs, with only some limited success). Around the same time, there were posts about how Atrios of Eschaton had “jumped the shark” and numerous bloggers were referring to Daily Kos as the “Great Orange Satan” in non-ironic ways. The national progressive blogs were overwhelmingly white and male and straight and non-Hispanic/Latino. And individualized blogospheres in each of those spaces were fully developed before Obama jumped into the presidential race. So to suggest that the first real divide came over Clinton-Obama is total nonsense. And I can give you specific names and specific blogs where these things were well-developed before then. An self-labeled “Afrospear” comprised of African-American bloggers was already in existence in 2007 and Netroots listservs serving various constituency groups were very active then, too.

And while he does a good job of pointing out the key goal of the progressive Netroots: “…the goal was nothing less than to remake the American political system by pushing Democrats leftward,” he totally gets it wrong in describing how this was supposed to be accomplished. Freedlander seems to think that the goal was to do this through a series of independent blogs that stayed outside the system. There were some people in the Netroots who thought this, but very early on the goal for many of us was to use this as a way to influence insiders or replace them if they didn’t move in the direction we thought they should. In that context, many of the things Freelander sees as things that were a negative for the Netroots were actually an incredibly big positive. The fact that megasites like Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, the Center for American Progress and others have so many readers, that hundreds of Netroots activists have taken campaign jobs, party jobs and places of influence throughout the movement, and that so many of those amatuer bloggers and activists now get paid to advocate for the things they used to type about when they were in their mother’s basement in their pajamas while eating cheetos is a series of massive victories.

One more major problem with the article is that it openly states that the reason that Netroots activists, in large numbers, were upset with Obama was that he didn’t reach out to them and was dismissive of their role in politics and policy and the party. There is some truth to the idea that this is what Obama did, but no truth to this being the driving force behind the reason so many progressive bloggers were upset with the president. That is ridiculously nonsensical and it paints the bulk of leftists as petulant children who whine becaue the popular kid wasn’t nice to them. That may be how the media works, but that has nothing to do with why most liberal Netroots people had, and have, problems with Obama. The divide with Obama was somewhat in place prior to the election, but it really kicked up a notch when Obama started choosing people like Rahm Emanuel as key figures in his administration. And it was exacerbated by his failure to fight hard enough for a public option, and his slowness in advancing LGBT rights, and his slowness in ending the war in Iraq, and the surge in Afghanistan and his continuation of Bush policies on civil liberties and the use of drone strikes, and the fact that he didn’t push for a real stimulus package and on and on and on. The divide between us and Obama was 100% about policy and his failure to do not only the things we hoped he would do, but quite a few of the things he said he’d do.

A few other key points that are problematic:

-He claims that the Netroots is 10 years old. I was blogging in 1998, and I was far from the first. Josh Marshall was doing it before me, as were a bunch of others. A few other really key blogs started blogging within a year or so. 10 years isn’t quite right.

-It really, really isn’t the case that Obama hasn’t reached out to bloggers. As a blogger who never really got above C-level at best, I had both the state and national Obama campaigns reach out to me in both 2008 and 2012 and the White House and OFA reach out to me in between elections.

-This quote baffles me: “Earlier this month, liberal websites lit up trying to drive a story that Mitt Romney had brought an illegal cheat sheet to the first debate. The White House dismissed them as ‘the tin foil hat crowd.’” While it is true that a few “liberal websites” pushed this, it isn’t the case that most prominent bloggers or Netroots activists thought much of the story. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it tin-foil hat stuff, and that phrase was unnecessarily insulting, it wasn’t even remotely a story to me because it wasn’t proveable and, more importantly, so what? Even if you could prove that Romney cheated in a debate, it wasn’t the type of thing that was going to move too many voters, so it was a non-story. And I don’t know of too many bloggers that focused on it much because it wasn’t worthy of attention.

-Freedlander claims that a lot of the conversation has moved to Facebook and Twitter and that bloggers “have not been able to keep up.” This is total nonsense. Almost all of the bloggers I know — and many more in the broader Netroots community — have fully adapted to these new tools and use them extensively, often in the same ways they had previously used blogs. Not only that, the number of conversations has grown greatly over the old comment sections and the number of people seeing information from bloggers and Netroots activists has expanded greatly over these new channels.

-He seems to suggest that the Netroots can no longer raise significant money for candidates, but this is certainly not true and I’ve seen numerous candidates make the bulk of their money online and I’ve seen blogs and Netroots groups raise sums that are far from insignificant. We are unable to compete with the money that can be spent by post-Citizens United big money groups, but that’s true of every other traditional group, too.

-He suggests that the Netroots support and success with candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin doesn’t mean much because all of the Democratic establishment got behind them. But why do you think the rest of the Democrats got behind these candidates? Any suggestion that Warren didn’t, in some significant way, get to where she is because of the Netroots is laughable.

-He also says that the protests in Wisconsin were pointless because the “ended up securing the anti-union lawmakers who voted on them in the first place” is totally inaccurate. The state senate flipped hands and numerous recall elections were successful. And Gov. Scott Walker was closer to getting recalled than just about any governor in history.

Finally, the overall point of the article is to suggest that the Netroots doesn’t have much influence anymore. Obviously a lot of that argument has already been addressed, but one last key point relates to campaigns and organizations. I’ve worked with or consulted with dozens of campaigns and organizations in the 2010 cycle forward, and every single one of them was focused on bloggers. They read them obsessively. They give them interviews. The do media outreach to them and treat them like traditional reporters. They do events with them. The provide them with talking points. They obsess over blog posts, too. An example is illustrative. The first time I got in any trouble on my last campaign was the day that I answered a request from a hostile mainstream reporter and ignored a request from a hostile blogger. In this contex, the thing I was supposed to do was to quickly respond to the blogger and give him what he needed and totally ignore the reporter who had been working at the mainstream publication since the year I was born. And in a world where there is a massive decline in local media, bloggers, Facebook, Twitter and the Netroots become the default method of distributing information via mass media for nonpresidential campaigns. How’s that for a “lack” of influence?

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