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The Hope of the Web

Jerome and Kos also want to end the reign of the Washington-based political consultants who, they insist, have lost dozens of campaigns and squandered hundreds of millions of dollars. Their exhibit A is Bob Shrum, who had already managed, and lost, seven Democratic presidential campaigns when he was hired to run John Kerry’s in 2004. They especially dislike the Beltway consensus that Democrats should concentrate on the states where they hold an advantage. Along with Dean, they advocate a fifty-state strategy, arguing that the party can build national momentum by contesting even impossible districts, identifying new Democratic voters, and encouraging them to contribute money and campaign work along the way.

Many of the bloggers who are in touch with Jerome and Kos have become self-taught experts on such topics as polling and focus groups. One point they make is that many campaign managers are simply buying TV time in order to enrich their own consulting firms, which charge as much as 15 percent of every dollar spent on ads. Jerome and Kos argue for a variety of different approaches, including sophisticated database technology that would enable Democrats to approach, for example, registered Republicans whose families may be suffering from Parkinson’s disease and would be open to an appeal to support stem cell research. And they want campaigns better able to take advantage of the potential campaign workers who can be mobilized by the Web sites—people willing to spend an hour every few evenings, say, using excess cell-phone minutes to call potential swing voters in close congressional races halfway across the country. On every front they’re eager to wrest control from the well-connected, Ivy-educated Washington Democratic elite, arguing that it is out of touch with the larger body politic.

They also aim to come up with a core message about the Democratic Party, and what it means, that will compete successfully with the GOP’s ideas of national security, limited government, lower taxes, and “moral values.” They favor a broad, economic populist message, emphasizing issues like improvements in Social Security, much-expanded health care, and fairer taxes. After they toured Governor Schweitzer’s ranch in Montana, and passed up the chance to shoot prairie dogs, “We asked him what he would want to hear if people on the street were asked about the Democratic Party. Schweitzer paused for a bit, then responded with conviction, ‘They are the party on our side.’”

In its account of the political possibilities of the Internet, Crashing the Gate seems to me the most ambitious, interesting, and hopeful venture in progressive politics in decades. It’s not a model that will win overnight. Kos picked a dozen Democratic challengers, most in quixotic races against heavy favorites like Tom DeLay, to raise money for in 2004, and all of them lost. But as he points out, it took patient work for the Republican right to build up its strength after the Goldwater debacle of 1964. And indeed, in the eighteen months since Kerry’s defeat, Web activists have tested the new approaches in special elections with some successes. One example came during last August’s election for a seat in Ohio’s 2nd District, a Republican stronghold since 1974, which Bush carried in 2004 with 64 percent of the vote. Normally the Democrats would barely have bothered contesting the seat, but Paul Hackett, a political novice recently returned from a tour as a Marine Corps major in Iraq, launched just the kind of antiwar campaign the on-line activists had been urging: he was, the authors write, “boldly outspoken, unafraid of taking the battle to Republicans.” Asked about gay marriage, he said: “Gay marriage—who the hell cares? If you’re gay, you’re gay—more power to you. What you want is to be treated fairly by the law and any American who doesn’t think that should be the case is, frankly, un-American.” The Internet activists raised $500,000 of the campaign’s total $850,000 budget—nine thousand people giving an average of a little more than $50 apiece. On election day, the word went out at 10:30 in the morning that Hackett needed $60,000 for get-out-the-vote expenses, and six hours later $60,000 had poured in. The on-line activists had to tell people to stop giving.

In the end, Hackett came astonishingly close to winning; his opponent, Jean Schmidt, won by only 3.5 percent, which Newt Gingrich said was a “wake-up call to Republicans.” A more threatening postscript for the GOP may have come this winter when Beltway Democrats forced Hackett out of his next race, for the Ohio Senate seat now held by Republican Mike DeWine, to make room for a candidate, Sherrod Brown, they thought had a better chance of winning. There was much grumbling on the Web sites about dropping Hackett, but the majority opinion seemed to be: it’s okay; we like Hackett, but we want to win, and Brown is both a loyal Democrat and an electable candidate.

Indeed, Crashing the Gate is all about winning. That’s what animates the on-line activists—that’s why the number of hits on the Web sites rises as elections approach. The issues aren’t secondary, exactly, but there’s a clear consensus that worrying about the fine points of policy is an empty exercise without real power, and that power comes from party unity.

It’s threats to that party unity that really anger the Web activists. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, for instance, faces a primary challenge that was first given real prominence on Daily Kos and allied Web sites. Not because he isn’t liberal on issues such as Social Security; but because he doesn’t behave like a Democrat—he seems happy to go on the Sunday talk shows and praise the President for starting the Iraq war or criticize Democrats for being weak on national security. In a photo widely circulated on the Web, he was the first on his feet applauding the President’s Iraq policy during this year’s State of the Union address. Lieberman may well survive the primary challenge he faces from Ned Lamont, a high-tech entrepreneur and former newspaper editor who opposes the Iraq war, but it seems possible that if he is strongly challenged, this will affect his positions in the years to come.

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What gives Kos and Jerome credibility is less their solid and straightforward book than the Web community they’ve helped to inspire and build. It includes a series of literally interlinked sites, ranging from the enormous if somewhat predictable, such as MoveOn.org, partially financed by George Soros, to the tiny and tightly focused. A few are expert blogs on particular topics: the University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, for instance, gives detailed accounts of the day’s events in Iraq at his Informed Comment site, JuanCole.com. Others derive from more traditional journalism: Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo (www.talkingpointsmemo.com) employs a couple of full-time reporters to uncover and explain the latest developments in the Republican congressional scandals. Others are more traditional blogs (if “traditional” can be applied to a medium four or five years old). These include Eschaton (www.atrios.blogspot.com) and Firedoglake (www.firedoglake.com), where bloggers offer their take, hour by hour, on a wide range of news events as they happen over the course of the day. Bigger and better-funded sites such as the Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com) feature a variety of well-known journalists with partisan commentary on the issues of the moment. The site called Crooks and Liars (www.crooksandliars.com) presents selected video footage from newscasts and talk shows. Each of these sites, and the hundreds of others they link to, has its own personality; if there are qualities that unite them, they would include skepticism about government claims and a tone of cynical humor about the pretensions of the Bush administration.

At the center of this world, however, is Daily Kos, which because of its particular architecture, and the open spirit of its founder, has become an experiment in Web-style democracy. Kos himself posts a few blog entries every day. But each year he appoints five assistants who can post comments of their own on his front page. Many of these have become household names (albeit pseudonymous ones) in the blogging world—Meteor Blades or Armando are far more widely read than, say, The New Republic‘s TRB, despite the magazine’s hundred-year head start. (As a measure of comparative fortunes, The New Republic announced last month that its circulation had fallen by 40 percent in the last few years.) But anyone who joins Daily Kos—a free and painless process—is allowed to post “diaries”—really mini-essays—about particular topics at any time. As I write this, on a Monday morning in late February, there are dozens of new diaries posted within the last hour on such subjects as “The End of Medicaid Is Beginning” by chuckles1, or “Dangers Posed by IRS Secrecy” by redlami, or “Time for a Port Pivot” by AlphaLiberal.

To sort out this flood of information (and misinformation), the site allows members to read the diaries and then, by clicking a button, “recommend” them if they think they’re important. The ones with the most recommendations appear at the top of the page—at the moment, for instance, “McCain: 100% Wrong on Everything” is the most widely recommended. Members can do more than recommend diaries—they can also comment on them, and hundreds often do, rebutting or correcting or adding to press accounts. The technology works remarkably smoothly, and it changes regularly as Kos and friends develop new software.

When we consider Kos’s own Web site and its numerous links to other blogs, we see something like an expanding hive of communication, a collective intelligence. And the results can be impressive. A writer with the pen name (mouse name) Jerome à Paris, for instance, organized dozens of other Kossacks interested in energy policy to write an energy plan that I find far more comprehensive and thoughtful than anything the think tanks have produced. It’s been read and reshaped by thousands of readers; it will serve as a useful model should the Democrats retake Congress and have the ability to move legislation. The blogs began as purely reactive and bloggers still spend much of their energy responding to the “mainstream media.” But a kind of proto-journalism is emerging, and becoming steadily more sophisticated. If you want to understand (albeit with plenty of spin) the ins and outs of Scooter Libby’s defense in the Plamegate trial, for instance, the place to go is Firedoglake.

Some of the discourse is less edifying, of course. There is much familiar and often tiresome ranting at the Bush administration, at intelligent design advocates, at Fox News. But much of that disappears when there are specific factual issues to be addressed. For instance, the site’s commentators have become experts at monitoring the regular press and television for signs of rightward bias, and they respond en masse. When The Washington Postkept repeating the GOP’s charge that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to Democrats as well as to Republicans, on-line activists assembled data and organized an overwhelming response, showing that Abramoff mainly worked with Republicans. This finding was soon picked up by the press and television and much less was heard about Abramoff’s evenhandedness. Reporters long cowed by conservative charges of bias (as Michael Massing demonstrated in his recent essays on press coverage of Iraq2 ) now find that they are getting closer scrutiny on the Internet. Since the liberals of the blogosphere are better organized, this is starting to have a balancing effect. Kos says he gets fifty times the number of visits received by the entire right-wing “blogosphere,” where his biggest competitor is probably a site called Instapundit.com.

Since the Internet is a limitless virtual archive, it can quickly track down almost anything any journalist or politician has said and done in the last decade. Even when people try to make things disappear, someone in that huge throng of readers probably has a copy. When Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, helped lead the fight against Social Security privatization, he made good use of quotes from the reports in local newspapers of congressmen speaking to their constituents in small forums. He showed that pols were making reassuring statements to voters in their districts and then voting the other way on Capitol Hill. (He also helped track down photos of President Bush and Jack Abramoff.)

One testimony to the power of Daily Kos is the list of dignitaries who come to visit. Democratic superstars like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have posted diaries (and have gotten and have received criticism as well as praise). But the national attention it has been getting is not the most interesting part of the entire process. What is most striking is the way people are learning to use the technology to connect with on-the-ground reality. As mid-term elections approach, with the Republicans weakened for the first time in at least twelve years, the diaries on the Web increasingly become vehicles for raising money or recruiting volunteers. People post accounts of their efforts to revitalize local Democratic precinct headquarters and offer each other tips on how to build mailing lists. In some places, the party machinery has simply rusted away from years of neglect, even as the GOP, thanks to such strategists as Roger Ailes and Karl Rove, has spent decades building an efficient vote-getting machine.

The Democratic Party organization has spent more than a generation coasting on the momentum it built up in the 1960s and early 1970s, and that momentum has been running out. But the Web sites linked to Daily Kos and their millions of users have been giving the Democrats a new charge. It would be premature to ascribe strong electoral power on a national level to these new voices—many millions of voters have never heard of them. But what seems most striking about the ever-louder Internet voices associated with Kos is that they share a strong desire to win, and new means to make that desire matter.

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    Michael Massing, ‘The End of News?‘ and ‘The Press: The Enemy Within,’ The New York Review, December 1 and 15, 2005.

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