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May 9, 2006

Talkin’ ’bout a revolution: Markos ‘dailykos’ Moulitsas and the new grassroots

Just after Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater — arguably the low point of conservative politics in late-20th century America — conservatives regrouped and set out on a decades-long campaign for political power. In “America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power” (Bonus Books, 2004), Richard Viguerie and David Franke documented a little understood aspect of that campaign: the systematic use of alternative media (even devices as simple as direct mail) to build a movement. By the time Viguerie and Franke wrote their book, they could point to a long string of successes.Now comes “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics” (Chelsea Green, 2006), by two well-known liberal bloggers, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (www.dailykos.com) and Jerome Armstrong (www.myDD.com). Much of “Crashing the Gate” is given over to well-worn critiques of the Democratic Party: that it’s an unfocused collection of interest groups, that’s it’s dominated by “an old boy asshole network,” and the like. For Moulitsas and Armstrong, the resurgence of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement will be driven by emerging technologies and the users thereof, especially blogs, e-mail campaigns and the concerted efforts of netroots activists. Unlike Viguerie and Franke, Armstrong and Moulitsas aren’t prepared to wait 40 years to tout their successes. For them, now’s the time. Thus, the book has an ebullient, triumphal tone that will doubtless induce optimism in those who think that a dedicated cadre of wired activists can turn the country around. For those of us who think the Democratic Party’s problem is message, not media, the book is more likely to arouse jaded sighs. I spoke with Markos Moulitsas Zuniga by telephone a week or so ago. He will be speaking at the next Metro Democratic Club meeting tonight free of charge for anyone interested. Here’s part of the conversation:LEO: What do you think progressive politics should look like over the next two years?MMZ: What’s exciting about politics right now is that so many people can now be involved in ways that weren’t possible just a few years ago. Technology has completely revolutionized politics. What I’d love to see about progressive politics is movement organizations, like moveon.org and democracyforamerica.com and the bloggers continue to grow, and politicians and the party embracing this new people-powered movement. I think there is definitely strength in numbers. The Republicans have known this for years. That party has been built on people, their evangelical base, their small-dollar donor base, and Democrats haven’t. And finally, because of campaign finance reform, the party has had to start looking at people again, and essentially people will lead it out of the wilderness.LEO: In the book you describe netroots activists as “fiercely partisan, fiercely multi-issue and focused on building a broader movement.” And you write, “We are educated, informed, up on current events, and speak our minds, and therefore are not susceptible to falling in line and goose-stepping to autocratic drummers — inside or outside the movement.” That sounds like an idealization to me, especially with regard to the notion of being multi-issue-oriented. It seems to me intuitively that one of the things the ’Net does is bring together populations who share very focused-niche interests. What’s your reason for asserting that netroots activists are more likely to be “multi-issue”?MMZ: If you look at the organizations that are having the most impact right now, that are giving the Republicans fits, I would argue that it’s dailykos.com and moveon.org, and neither of those organizations are predicated on any single issue. We may rally around various issues, but we’re multi-issue. The old model was Sierra Club just did environment, and NARAL just did choice, and so on. And that is dramatically changing. The movement is now based on electing a progressive majority. We all have issues we care about, don’t get me wrong. We all care about our issues, whether gay rights, or the environment, or choice, or labor rights, but there’s an understanding among this new generations of activists that it’s much more pragmatic. We have to have a Democratic majority to see all of our interests play out, so we’re not in our issues silos.LEO: In the book, you assert that Howard Dean’s rise to the leadership of the Democratic Party was a triumph for netroots activists. We’re in the midst of primary season, with national elections only six months away. The Democratic Party still seems in disarray, even around issues that one would expect to seem quite clear. At a time when one might expect the party to be rising, it seems to lack momentum; its energy is dissipated. What’s happening?MMZ: It’s been a year since Dean took the helm of the Democratic Party. Movement-building isn’t measured in months, it’s measured in decades. It took the Republicans 30 years, from being way out in the wilderness in 1964, to take over, to start electing their conservative activists at the school-board level, at the county level. In 1980, 16 years later, they were able to get Ronald Reagan into the White House. And it took them another 14 years — a total of 30 years — to get the Newt Gingrich revolution and take over Congress. This is all a long-term process. We haven’t even had one single election since Dean was elected. But the key is that we had nothing when Dean took over. Nothing in the states. There was no party in about 90 percent of the country. Did not exist. Suddenly you have Dean, who is putting money into the states. And we’re slowly building. If we win in November, it’s not gonna be because the movement is healthy and finished. Far from it. If we win in November, it’s gonna be because the Republicans screwed up. People ask me, “How do you feel about 2008? Are you optimistic?” And I say, “I’m really, really optimistic about 2016.” That’s the year when we will finally have parity with the institutions and the on-the-ground organizing the conservatives have today. Contact the writer at martyrosen@gmail.com