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March 14, 2006

Crashing the Gate

Imagedb

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.

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» Inside Kos' book from dustbury.com
If you've been curious about Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, the new book by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas "Kos" Zúniga, Lindsay Beyerstein has... [Read More]

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» How DINOs evolve, how they go extinct from newsrack
SOMEHOW RELATED, 3/16: Lindsay Beyerstein reviews Kos and Armstrong's new book "Crashing the Gate": "...there’s something missing from Crashing the Gate, namely, the gate crashing." [Read More]

» I confess: like all liberals, I am morally and intellectually bankrupt from Seeing the Forest
From Eloquent Thomas on Majikthise: You see, morons, you are morally and intellectually bankrupt. How did Thomas find this out? Because it's true! A few days ago the moral and intellectual credit card company filed moral and intellectual liens on... [Read More]

Comments

Sounds like at least part of the agenda for the authors is to rake in big bucks consulting to the new net-savvy party.

I think there is a need for think tanks and the like, and particularly to groom the next generation of wonks and operatives. There is also a need to focus on results. I can't imagine hiring a political consultant without an explicit arrangement of bonuses for winning the election. If they don't believe they can put my candidate over the top enough to put some skin in the game, let them work for someone else.

"staffed by well-paid professional operatives recruited in college and nurtured throughout their careers. I agree that this infrastructure is vital to the success of the progressive movement."

College? Can we build a progressive movement where the cadres all come from college? What about the working class? 73% of Americans don't have college degrees. What about them? What exactly does the word "progressive" mean in this context?

Thank you for this thoughtful and courageous post. I skim the DKos & MyDD posts without hanging out. I remember a Mark Schmitt post about the environmental movement being unwilling or unable to integrate their message with the Party. And John Emerson, long long ago, had a series about the national resources (expertise, organization, professional media)Republicans bring to very local issue fights over school boards, ID, clinics, environmental disputes.

I know Kos and Newberry had a severe falling out. I really don't know the details, Stirling can be cryptic and well, imperious. But I do think in Newberry's own oracular new science style, he is advocating a much greater localism, a much less heirarchal use of the Internet than you describe here. Hell, Newberry thinks it is inevitable and resistance is futile.

The censure movement this weekend vaguely disturbed me. It felt too directed, controlled, focused. The Cuellar/Gonzalez primary was similar. I would compare it to the New Orleans and Schiavo episodes, where each left blogger was working independently toward a common goal. This just felt wrong.

I am not interested in impressing Washington or winning a few elections. It will take a lot of weight to get choice back, and I want dominance, however long it takes. Dominance will come by creating successful councilpersons and school board members and city choice groups who feel their backs are covered. Who then run for congress.

Sorry for length.

It sounds like a recipe for disaster, to me.

Do these lads understand that millions of people in the core constituency of the Democratic Party aren't even ONLINE? Unions, NARAL, and other "interest groups" are able to represent the marginalized who can't share their thoughts through email or small online credit card contributions. In Los Angeles, the SEIU represents thousands of working poor, many of whom don't have an internet connection. Their needs matter too.

"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."

Forget cranks like Kos who know how to throw a good rant but don't have much for the rest of us other than "Contribute Here" Ned Lamont links. Go to Firedoglake or Glenn Greenwald. At least they're trying to come up with new models.

Much of your summary sounds like the book is pretty unoriginal. The focus on think-tank like institutions and ideology over specific policy is right out of Lakoff. The criticisms of labor are really old. And the criticisms of the pro-choice movement, are, well, as old as the pro-choice movement. It sounds almost as though what they're saying is, "With internet donations and a different breed of consultants, we can win without really changing anything."

And of course, I wonder what they think of the segments of the population that don't really have consistent internet access (the elderly, the poor, etc.).

It sounds like the gentlemen need some instruction in politics. When it comes right down to it, all politics is local. They get some of that. But by local, it's about who runs for jailer and dogcatcher and city council, etc. When you run for a state representative, you have to have get along a number of local judge executives, mayors, etc. That's where the power really comes from.

I think their mentality is still one of corporate politics. You mentioned they express great animosity toward special interest groups. Hell... bloggers are special interest group. They just want to redefine those special interest groups for their own ends. They see how the Republicans have played their game for a couple of decades now and they want to update it some and utilize the new plan.

As far as the blogosphere, there's two sides I see to this. As one mentioned above, many don't even know or care about the blogosphere. This is true. While Technorati claims upwards of 31 million blogs right now and a lot of people read them, there's still quite a few who don't. It's access is somewhat limited in their ability to reach voters directly. However, more and more, traditional media seems to be using blogs for ideas and information. If not as a primary source, certainly a secondary source, for rumors and to see what the BUZZ is. That, I think, is where blogs, particularly political blogs, can really find their strength.

I've not read the book yet and I'm curious to see what it says but it sounds like it's something of a dissappointment.

And honestly, on the "special interest groups," I got news for them. EVERYONE is a special interest group. If I call my congressperson needing something, I'm a special interest. If the local dairy farmers' group goes to Frankfort (our state capital), to talk to a legislator, yep, they're a special interest group. The trick is trying the level the playing field a bit more.

Great post.

Kos seemed to have a positive encounter with interest groups yesterday. Maybe because they were asking him for advice :)

Kos is so committed to ignoring organizations committed to women's rights, except to condescend to them, that the importance of early money, something EMILY's List has parlayed into great success for their cause for the past 20 years, just occurred to him today. Literally. He should hold a fundraiser for himself so he can take a sabbatical to run a state senate race somewhere, without netroots assistance, which really doesn't happen at that level, and learn a little bit more about running campaigns.

I'm curious about one thing, since I haven't read the book. The part about not testing ads because the consultants say it isn't necessary. Do you mean not using a focus group to test ads, or not testing generally in a poll? Focus-group testing sounds really expensive, at least to do it right, when you're on the ground trying to get elected and can't make a bunch of different ads to test. If it costs $10,000 just to make one (and that's not a bad estimate), you damn well better be able to use it when your funds are limited. Not testing different arguments in a poll is flat out stupid, and I can't imagine it not happening, no matter what Kos said. Can you clarify?

Snopes entry on Catherine MacKinnon's position on heterosexual intercourse. I think you may be citing the myth.

There are big chunks of MacKinnon's career that I'm no fan of, but she's often unfairly misrepresented.

Entered to wrong thread, never mind.

John Emerson, long long ago, had a series about the national resources (expertise, organization, professional media)Republicans bring to very local issue fights over school boards, ID, clinics, environmental disputes.

That was probably my partner at Seeing the Forest, Dave Johnson. Dave is an underestimated treasure in the blogosphere, partly because STF doesn't have much entertainment value. He's been clued in to the Republican PR machine for as long as I've known him.

Peter Daou at Salon pays attention to Dave -- Daou's recent thing about "storylines vs. stories" was pure Dave. The storyline on Gore, for example was "Gore is a phony and a prig." A high proportion of the Gore 2000 stories were fit into that storyline.

I don't think that Kos should be given the last word on the "interest group" question, but people need to understand his point.

A lot of environmentalists and pro-choicers make a point of working with Republicans whenever possible. That made short-term sense 25 years ago, but in the long term it was a disaster even for pure single-issue voters. By now the Democratic Party is virtually helpless, and the pro-choice and environmentalist Republicans are mostly gone -- and the few remaining ones are completely whipped, as we saw with the Alito vote. Twenty years of kissing Chafee's ass got NARAL nothing real. None of the other supposed moderates came through even as much as Chafee did.

I encountered this way back in the beginning, when NARAL was Oregon Senator Bob Packwood's biggest supporter. Packwood had libertarian tendencies and count4ed as a moderate for that reasons, but on most other issues he was a generic Republican. That didn't bother NARAL, but it bothered me a lot.

People respond, "Well, duh. NARAL is a single-issue group. What do you expect them to do? Packwood did the job for them."

But my point isn't to tell single-issue groups what to do. What I'm trying to say is that single-issue politics is flawed and ultimately can be self-defeating.

Pro-choicers and women were indignant when it seemed that the Democrats might waffle on the abortion issue. By working with Republicans in single issues, though, pro-choicers (and environmentalists and gay rights groups) effectively dissociated themselves from labor issues, war and peace issues, corporate regulation issues, equality issues, etc -- most "moderate" Republicans are standard Republicans on these issues. And by and large, abortion, gay rights, and the environment did relatively well during the Reagan-Bush years, compared to everything else.

Something done got broken.

Marxist feminism, gay activism and attempting to cripple the military will keep the Democrats on the losing side.

The reason is that those redneck Americans are a lot smarter than than stupid intellectuals who write and read this site.

You see, morons, you are morally and intellectually bankrupt.

Excellent post, Lindsay.

"That made short-term sense 25 years ago, but in the long term it was a disaster even for pure single-issue voters. ... What I'm trying to say is that single-issue politics is flawed and ultimately can be self-defeating."

I think you're assuming a politics that didn't exist during the 1980s, and may not exist now. I think you need to consider the possibility that a coalition will form if it is able to form, and its lack of formation in the 1980s is simply a reflection of the impossibility of it forming then. I have a distinct memory of talking to a young career woman in the 1980s who was very pro-choice, pro-business and pro-Republican. It made no sense to her to support the Democrats, and she felt her reproductive rights were safe with the Republicans. When I asked her about the anti-choice elements in the Republican party, she said that those were old-fashioned people who were going to fade away with time. In other words, she felt the Republicans could give her everything she wanted politically. I don't know if she went so far as to send money to a group like Naral, but let's assume for a momment, hypothetically, that she did. She was a woman who supported choice. Therefore it would be perfectly legitimate for Naral to represent her opinions, and also she would have been one small reason why Naral might open to supporting both parties. And it's crazy to ever assume the Democrats are some kind of progressive party. They often aren't.

I recall having a lot of conversations with friends back then about why it was so hard to pull together a unified progressive coalition. And always, the answer seemed to be, that the people who cared about progressive causes, at that time, did not always see a lot of overlap of interests. The upper-middle class white woman with a career might have supported feminist causes, but not necessarily environmental ones or racial ones. The environmentalists did not always see their cause as having anything to do with race issues. I recall in 1991 I went to the Highland Center for a workshop for environmental activists and at that time they were pushing the idea that minorities were often the hardest hit by most environmental problems. And the group they assembled was perhaps one third minority, which was a change from the all-white environmental rallies that I'd been to. And there was an older black gentleman there who made a passionate speech about the environment in downtown LA, which was the environment he cared most about.

The overlap of these interests is easier to see nowadays. Partly we've had time to make the connections. Partly the Republicans have become more extreme and that's helped crystallize how much of American society has interests counter to the Republican agenda. But people didn't see much overlap of interests during the 1980s, and that made coalition building difficult.

There is a reason the 1980s had the specific texture that it had. It wasn't just people being stupid. It was people being in a different mental space.

You see, morons, you are morally and intellectually bankrupt.

Yeah, the moral and intellectual credit card company has filed moral and intellectual liens on my moron house and my moron car. They kept raising my moral and intellectual credit limit higher and higher, and when eventually I couldn't even pay the 25% moral and intellectual interest rate, they sent the moral and intellectual repo man after my moron ass.

Lawrence -- certainly people should have figured things out quicker than they did. Opposition to abortion was pretty well established as a core Republican policy during the Reagan administration, and the 1994 Republican House takeover also was a rightwing takeover of the Republican Party. But NARAL and Planned Parenthood didn't change their game.

While Democrats aren't reliably progressive, they're seldom less progressive than the average Republican.

My memory of the 80s is that a lot of people caved in to Reagan and saved themselves (their own issues) as best they could. After doing that it's hard to demand loyalty from the people who you've abandoned.

I would rather think of a happier future than grumble about the past, but there are things about the past wich need to be addressed and not misrepresented.

A few disconnected comments:

1) The blogosphere is not a place where there is a lot of room for ideas, and it has become less so.

2) NARAL sold itself out with regards to Alito, when they didn't even bother to really show up for the fight. The problem with single issue groups is that they are mostly very ineffective, and seem to exist only to attach themselves to a money drip.

3) The Republicans are mostly reactionaries, with a conservative minority. Congressional Dems are mostly conservatives, with a progressive/liberal minority.

4) Kos and Armstrong do indeed want to professionalize the party. They're not wrong - all along the line Democratic operaties are less skilled and less well trained, on average, than their opposite numbers.

5) Kos and Armstrong are Democrats first, and liberals/progressives second. They want Dems to win, and are not all that concerned with what Dems will do once they get there.

6) For progressives, it is important to become the majority party in the Democratic coalition. If you aren't, when the Dems get in power, they are only going to be the lesser of evils.

I agree with everything you're saying, Ian. I'm all for building infrastructure and professionalizing the party. My ideal Democratic part would include highly skilled operatives and a vibrant grassroots.

"1) The blogosphere is not a place where there is a lot of room for ideas, and it has become less so."

Could you expand on this? It seems like a contrarian assertion. What do you mean by "room for ideas"?

"certainly people should have figured things out quicker than they did. Opposition to abortion was pretty well established as a core Republican policy during the Reagan administration, and the 1994 Republican House takeover also was a rightwing takeover of the Republican Party."

I agree with your assertion regarding 1994. However, I think there was a stretch that possibly started in the 70s and maybe lasted all the way to 1994, when libertarians might have reasonably thought they had some chance of taking over the Republican party so they could use it to enact their agenda. Thus certain types of people might have rationally given their loyalty to the Republicans, not because it was ideal, but because they had some hope of gaining control of it and then making it ideal. The free-market business woman I recall who was pro-choice would be an example of what I mean.

It would be interesting to meet her again and find out if she is still pro-choice. If she is not, then that would be an interesting example of how the groups we belong to can shape our opinions over the long term. It would also be interesting to see if she was still a Republican. If she is not, then that would be an interesting example of how political coaltions go to extremes and then fall apart.


"certainly people should have figured things out quicker than they did"

I can't agree with that. I feel like your making assumptions about who the word "people" here refers to. I feel it refers to a group that never existed.

Me: "certainly people should have figured things out quicker than they did"

You: I can't agree with that. I feel like you're making assumptions about who the word "people" here refers to. I feel it refers to a group that never existed.

I was assuming that they were pro-choice people of good will with more brains than a bag of rocks. And probably one of my two assumptions was wrong. The fact that NARAL hasn't even figured things out yet probably does suggest that they were worthless, imbecile shitheads in 1980, too.

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