Friday, January 13, 2006

Slicing and Dicing "Progressive Activists"

Chris Bowers has a truly fascinating post up over at MyDD, ostensibly about Hillary Clinton's lack of popularity in the progressive blogosphere, but really encompassing a sort of political sociology of the the world of "progressive activists."

He begins by stipulating a few important points about the "netroots:" they are by no means co-extensive with or even representative of the Democratic "base;" but nor are they "tinfoil hats" or people marginal to the regular political process. They are, in fact, a segment, and a growing segment, of the small but influential universe of "progressive activists."

Chris then goes on to argue that while the "netroots" should not be confused with the actual party base, they are the "base" among progressive activists: i.e., despite their relative wealth and educational attainments, they are (or just as importantly, perceive themselves as being) engaged in a sort of inside-the-upper-crust class warfare against the "elite" progressive activists who dominate Washington, the major political institutions, and many national campaigns. It's this warfare that animates netroots hostility to HRC, suggests Bowers, because she is perceived as the perfect vehicle for those "elite" activists.

I do think Chris is accurately capturing the predominant netroots view of the supposed struggle for the Democratic Party. His careful focus on netroots perceptions keeps him from having to definitively identify himself with the belief that Washington's Democratic activists are a single tribe that regularly gathers in Georgetown salons to share twelve-dollar martinis and biting comments about bloggers, and plot the next Establishment campaign (a belief as remote from reality, IMO, as the "tinfoil hat" view of the netroots).

Interesting and valuable as it is, Chris' analysis doesn't quite come to grips with two issues.

The first issue is that there is another class of "progressive activist" out there that's not necessarily part of the netroots or of the "elite" DC establishment: state and local elected officials and party personnel and volunteers, union political organizers, racial and ethnic group activists, single-issue devotees, and hyper-engaged plain citizens. Sure, some of them read or contribute to blogs, and some of them are affiliated with Establishment institutions as well. But many of them (especially in red states) don't particularly trust either of Chris' two categories of "progressive activists," and as a whole, they are probably closer in views and lifestyles to the actual "party base" than either one. And overall, I suspect this third class of activists tends to like HRC a lot more than the netizens do, and that matters.

The second issue is the bigger one: the question of exactly how much impact any activists have on rank-and-file opinion, especially in a widely contested presidential nominating process like the one we'll probably see in 2008.

We already know Washington Elite Activists have never had the power to simply impose their will on the Democratic electorate, long before there was any netroots. Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Ed Muskie in 1972, a whole host of candidates in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980--these were all "DC elite activist" candidates who crashed and burned. And by the same token, Democratic nominees George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton had limited support from those quarters when they first ran for president.

The "netroots" activists are too new to have that kind of humiliating track record, but the fate of their two favorite 2004 candidates, Howard Dean and Wes Clark, cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant. This is by now an ancient argument, but I'm struck by the unwillingness of many Dean veterans (more now, oddly enough, than at the time it was happening) to worry about the fact that the campaign peaked before a single actual Democratic voter had a chance to say anything about it. Yes, there were many factors that contributed to Dean's demise, with media obsession about "the scream" being one of them, but the widespread assumption in the netroots that Dean was "taken down" by Washington Democrats unfortunately avoids reflection on the possibility that all the cash and energy and excitement simply were not communicable to actual voters.

In other words, activists of every class and every stripe are important to what happens in 2008, and perhaps netroots hostility to Hillary Clinton is a leading indicator of an attitude that could eventually engulf an HRC campaign (if she actually runs, which I for one am not that sure about). But in the end, it truly is about the party rank-and-file, and even the independent voters who participate in many key stages of the nominating process. All of us activists need to remember that, and regularly balance our self-regard with a slice of humble pie.
-- Posted at 4:55 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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