Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Okay, not that anyone else cares, but I can't resist responding to Jonathan Chait's article in The New Republic about the Democratic netroots.

Chait starts his piece with an account of the 2000 Bush-Gore Florida fiasco, and Markos Moulitsas's pointing to Florida '00 as a prime motivating experience for his entry into online activism. This is a not-unreasonable approach for Chait to take--Kos is the 800-pound gorilla, and Bush v. Gore was important in the rise of the liberal blogosphere. (Chait doesn't mention it, but Talking Points Memo started as an effort to organize Democratic action in the Florida controversy.)

But to focus exclusively on Kos and on the Florida recount oversimplifies things. It makes Chait's narrative all about the political spectrum, about pulling the national conversation farther left, regardless of policy debates taken on merit. It makes it all about wanting to create a Democratic machine that is as formidable and ruthless as the GOP machine. And that's not all the netroots are about. I'm sure I don't speak only for myself as a netroots denizen by naming two other experiences that outraged and lit a fire under me: I was shocked by the performance of the political media in 1998 with regard to Monicagate. And I'm continually horrified by the Bush Administration's ongoing refusal to govern in good faith, to play any issue straight, rather than treat issues merely as political footballs. Iraq and anti-terrorism are the number one example, but it's lots more than that. I would like the Environmental Protection Agency to, y'know, protect the environment. I would like the Justice Department to behave justly. I would like the FDA to regulate food and drugs in the public interest. I could go on and on.

I realize there is an ideological debate over, for instance, whether there should be an EPA and what its role should be. But the Bush GOP has not engaged that debate--it pretends to support the EPA's mission, while it ignores or suppresses the work of EPA professionals. That's an example of bad-faith governance.

Integrity and truth-telling and fairness and perspective and responsibility--all have become scarce commodities in elite American political discourse. That, to me, is what necessitated the blogosphere. In the wake of 9/11 it was probably inevitable that the U.S. would veer in a "conservative" direction. (Scare quotes are because it rankles me that national security is considered the pet issue of the right, but in fact it is.) What was not inevitable were the deceptions and the censorship (often self-censorship) and the bad faith and the buck-passing.

In similar fashion to the focus on Kos and Florida, Chait overstates the extent to which Rick Perlstein's Goldwater book is the Bible of the netroots. Important, yes, and universally admired, but I honestly don't see the uncritical desire by the Internet Left to emulate the "Direct-Mail Right" that Chait sees. It's not all about realpolitik, it's very much about restoring truth-telling to American political culture, and Grover Norquist is a poor role model for truth-telling.

Chait's strategy is understandable to the extent that it clarifies his thesis, but what's galling is how self-serving the article is, to the political journalism establishment and especially to The New Republic itself. Instead of repeating my rant from last night, I'll point to Eric Alterman and Matthew Yglesias, who were given space at the TNR website to respond and do a nice job of skewering TNR's disingenuousness. In light of how Chait portrays bloggers as envious and ungrateful toward the Dem establishment and, above all, a bit dumb (unsubtle, unsophisticated) it's interesting that Chait misses a few subtleties about the bloggers. Yglesias corrects one mischaracterization of himself, and surely Matt Stoller was being ironic when he called Grover Norquist his political hero.

Chait's sharpest insight is this, about the contrast between conservative and liberal intellectuals:

The worst thing that can happen to a conservative is to be seen as disloyal. The worst thing that can happen to a liberal is to be seen as "in the tank."

This is a great observation, as far as it goes. The range of acceptable opinions among conservatives is really narrow, while liberals are more concerned with at least appearing independent and with distinguishing themselves from the pack. (Gen-X liberals even more so, I'd bet, due to pop culture's mass neurotic dread of "selling out.") But it is wrong and distorting (due to the Kos/Florida problem) to treat the netroots as the funhouse-mirror counterpart to the conservative movement--as being as slavishly devoted to left-wing loyalty as the Weekly Standard is to right-wing loyalty.

Allow me to point out, again, that it's quite possible to be in the tank without being seen to be in the tank. The DLC - TNR mode of liberalism has given us the phenomenon of "liberal contrarianism," which is cleverness passing as originality -- a highly predictable sort of originality.

In the latter pages Chait makes several assertions that are just ass-backwards: that a blogger in Flyoverville is a starfucker as if a starving young J-school grad in Dupont Circle isn't one; that bloggers are intellectually dishonest (and magazine writers are honest? Mr. Chait, do you really believe there's no difference between the U.S. case for war in Afghanistan and in Iraq?). Atrios declares that he is not "above the fray," and Chait portrays that as a confession that he is not objective. What Atrios is doing is accepting responsibility for the consequences of what he writes. By being "above the fray," Jon Chait is evading responsibility. What Atrios is refusing to do is pretend politics is a parlor game or that words in print don't matter. Incidentally, the talk in the blogosphere of "memes and frames" is in the service of being responsible--of seeking to understand how words and ideas impact the political realm.

The crazy thing about this article is that I'm sure TNR will portray it as a glowing profile of the left blogosphere. Holding his nose in disdain, Chait concedes that the Democratic Party is being reformed by the netroots. From the penultimate paragraph:

At the end of this reformation, what will the left look like? It will look a lot more like the Republican machine that prevailed in Florida. It will be nastier and more ruthless, and less concerned with intellectual or procedural niceties.

On the contrary, I've been thinking lately, partly in relation to the U.S. attorneys scandal, that there are a number of fusty old traditions -- intellectual and procedural niceties, you could call them--for which I have a newfound appreciation. I'm for the government making personnel decisions in a orderly and transparent way, on merit. I'm for not deleting your e-mails. I'm for confirmation hearings, rather than recess appointments. In fact, I'm for hiring attorneys from the finest law schools, and not just from Pat Robertson's crackerjack-box, Draw The Bunny correspondence school of Who Would Jesus Investigate.

I could go on and on. I'm big on niceties and on due diligence. I'm for search warrants. I'm for WMD intelligence being analyzed and filtered in a careful, time-tested way, by the professionals, rather than stovepiped and cherry-picked. I'm for planning for the occupation, not just the invasion. I'm for not placing much trust in an informant named "Curveball."

You get the feeling from this article that in progressive political discourse, what's at stake is bragging rights, Valedictorian vs. Salutatorian, an epic contest between Marshall Wittman and Amanda Marcotte. The Republican radicals Bush and DeLay and Rove are absent from Chait's story; Left and Right are abstractions. There are certain precious goods in American civic life, including that set of procedural niceties that we call the Constitution, that are under threat, and not from some bullshit abstraction like "incivility," but from the Republican radicals.

TNR has made some real lulus, some real wingdings, in its editorial decisions the last few years. Backing the Iraq War, endorsing Joe Lieberman, etc. I wonder what sorts of intellectual and procedural niceties they observed.

Check out the responses by Atrios and Digby if you haven't already.

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