Crashing the Gate
Everyone who cares about the impact of the blogosphere on American politics should read Crashing the Gate by Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong. Therein, two of the most powerful figures in the liberal blogs explain what they think the netroots can do for the Democratic party. No doubt the specifics of their plan will surprise many of their liberal, blogging allies. Whether you share their vision or not, you can't fault Moulitsas and Armstrong for being less than forthright about their agenda.
Markos “Kos” Moulitsas created the biggest liberal blog in the world. His co-author Jerome Armstrong helped engineer Howard Dean's internet fundraising juggernaut and founded a successful blogging community of his own. Given the authors' pedigrees, Crashing the Gate says surprisingly little about blogs. I was expecting a crash course on the theory and practice of netroots democracy from two movement pioneers. I thought Kos and Armstrong were going to give concrete advice for ordinary people to increase their influence in the Democratic party through the internet.
The central insight of Crashing the Gate is that small donor internet fundraising can shift the balance of power within the Democratic party. The authors hope that Democratic candidates will be able to wean themselves from DC establishment money by appealing directly to rank-and-file Dems online.
It is ironic that these self-proclaimed populists' main suggestion for improving the electoral fortunes of the Democrats is to revitalize its consultant class. The authors’ all-out attack on the party’s corrupt and antiquated electoral machine is by far the strongest part of the book. Unfortunately, it often seems as if they regard the netroots primarily as a means to end the Democratic establishment’s stranglehold on campaigns rather than as an engine for social change in its own right. Most Democratic candidates rely heavily on the national party for election funds. The establisment's assistance doesn't come cheap. Candidates who take money from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) also have to accept the "assistance" of D.C.-based political consultants who fly in and take charge.
The authors don't hesitate to point out that these consultants tend to be careerist losers who don't play to win because they lack any structural incentive to do so. They maintain that Democratic campaigns have been hijacked by"an “incestuous” “old boy asshole network" of Democratic operatives whose primary allegiance is to the D.C. committees that will rehire them after their next defeat.
I was shocked to learn that most Democratic media consultants get commissions for advertising. In other words, these consultants pocket 7%-14% of the cost for all the ads they place. This potential conflict of interest should concern all Democrats. Members of the same inner circle also make decisions about how much a campaign spends on advertising, and which of a handful of DC political ad firms get the business. Perhaps the most alarming revelation in the chapter on the “beltway mafia” is the that most campaigns don’t even test their ads before they run them, because (you guessed it) the consultants seldom think it’s necessary.
Kos and Armstrong make a number of cogent suggestions for revitalizing Democratic campaigns: firing consultants who lose, treating political advertising more like consumer advertising, and using the latest information technology and marketing psychology to deliver narrowly tailored messages to targeted segments of the electorate (e.g., Democrats, Republicans, ethnic minorities, rural voters, unmarried women, blog readers, combinations and permutations of the above, etc.).
Despite the merits of these proposals, there’s something missing from Crashing the Gate, namely, the gate crashing. Markos and Armstrong are really selling the fund raising power of the netroots to other people who want to tweak Democratic inside baseball.
To the extent that the book has a larger vision, it’s about how to spend the small donor dollars raised online. The authors don’t seriously discuss the blogosphere as a source of ideas or as a nexus for activism. They seem more interested in the blogosphere as a medium for placing targeted ads than as a new engine for independent news or as a novel brake on the power of the mainstream media and politicians.
Kos and Armstrong devote several pages of a short book to the need for offline infrastructure. They envision a vast network of democratic organizations staffed by well-paid professionals recruited in college and nurtured throughout their careers. I agree that this infrastructure is vital to the success of the progressive movement. The conservative movement is sustained by a vertically integrated system of thinktanks (“idea factories"), right wing media, political strategists, lobbyists, fundraisers, and donors. The left clearly needs a counterpart to compete with Grover Norquist and his K Street cabal, FOX News, the American Enterprise Institute, PNAC, and their legions of allies.
The authors’ outright hostility towards so-called “special interest groups” within the Democratic party has already generated a great deal of discussion. Approximately one third of Crashing the Gate is an attempt to establish that environmental groups, Big Labor, and abortion rights activists are like gangrene on the Democratic party. The book doesn’t provide any real evidence that these groups are harming the party. Obviously the party is in bad shape and special interest groups exist, but we mustn’t confuse correlation and causation.
The authors complain that environmental movement is too focused on policy solutions and therefore ineffective against right wing partisans who are waging “ideological warfare.” Organized labor has rendered itself irrelevant by mindlessly shoveling money to the Democratic establishment while ignoring the need to organize new workers and reposition unions in a changing economy. The authors are right about Big Labor, but the obvious take home message is not that we should all be docile team players. The unions teach us that if you give money by rote without making substantive demands, you’ll get screwed.
Crashing the Gate singles out the reproductive rights movement for a special measure of hostility softened only by dripping condescension. The authors rightly criticize NARAL for endorsing the ostensibly pro-choice Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Islandover promising pro-life Democrat. James Langevin. There is no doubt that NARAL blundered by endorsing Chafee, especially before the Democratic primary and after it was clear that Langevin's candidacy was doomed. Even so, the authors don’t succeed in showing that NARAL’s behavior is systematic of the shortcomings of pro-choice movement.
On the contrary, pro-choice organizations are generally too coopeartive. They have to fight the (well-founded) suspicion that their organizations are extensions of the Democratic party. Basically, choice groups are fighting to prove their independence to the Democratic establishment. They can see as well as Kos and Armstrong that unions, gun control activists, and proponents of racial equality lost out by being consummate team players for a "team” that was more interested in wooing swing voters than standing with its own base.
After slagging the environmental movement for being too wonkish and the unions for being toadies, the authors have the nerve to accuse the pro-choice movement of being too enamored of principle to compromise on “reasonable” policy solutions like 24-hour waiting periods and parental notification. The authors complain that abortion rights activists put people off by marketing their agenda under the larger brand of freedom, choice, and equality. These are guys who never met a Big Brand or an Overarching Narrative they didn’t like. Yet, they deride defenders of reproductive freedom for ignoring the “moral dimension” and the “gray areas” of abortion. I used to think that Kos was a relatively indifferent pro-choicer who supported an empirically misguided but strategically motivated “compromise” on abortion. Having read Crashing the Gate, it’s uncomfortably clear to me that his main interest is on this issue is reverse-engineering his strategic arguments to mask his discomfort with abortion itself. What Kos doesn’t get is how condescending it is to disguise a moral objection to choice in strategic terms. He wonders why pro-choicers get so angry at him. It’s simple: If you think that abortion is wrong, or bad, then say so. Don’t pretend that we should sell out choice to save choice.
At first, it seems odd for Kos and Armstrong to devote so much time to blaming activist groups for the sorry state of the Democratic party. However, upon reflection, this activist-bashing fits well into their general vision for the netroots. Their goal is to overthrow the Democratic establishment and replace the old hacks with slick new consultants who can harness the fundraising power of small donors. Seen through this lens, activist groups present a two-fold threat.
First off, groups like NARAL and the ACLU are competitors for donations from progressives. For example, the money I sent to Paul Hackett was money I didn’t send to Planned Parenthood. Second, and perhaps more importantly, special interest groups are an obstacle to Kos' and Armstrong’s plans for the netroots as a political force.
The power of the netroots depends on large numbers of far flung people lining up behind a handful of carefully chosen candidates. Would-be netroots powerbrokers don’t want donors with litmus tests. They want people who will fall in behind the candidates they choose with their new hightech consulting metrics for electibility.
Often, progressives would be smart to take their advice. The Democratic party needs to start winning elections and the netroots can't help unless we get together. So, I’m willing to make compromises on a race-by-race basis. And if netroots proves its ability to deliver seats, its priorities will get more weight in the party at large. (At least that’s the theory.) I supported Paul Hackett because I thought he offered the best overall combination of electability and commitment to systemic change within the Democratic party. Hackett believed his own rhetoric about citizen legislators and the power of the blogosphere to foment and coordinate grass-roots activism. He inspired ordinary readers within the netroots by looking to them as more than an ATM (to repurpose a phrase).
Crashing the Gate contains a lot of valuable advice for Democrats. However, I was disappointed that Kos and Armstrong are primarily interested in professionalizing the party through think tanks, paid operatives, and a new breed of internet savvy media consultant. I wanted to hear about how new technology might enable ordinary citizens to assert unprecedented influence over politics and the media from the bottom up.