Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Chait on the Netroots

The LA Times' Jonathan Chait has a big cover article in the current New Republic analyzing the netroots as a political phenomenon. I did a post on it over at TPMCafe, and won't go through the whole thing here, other than to say that Chait's piece, despite a few questionable assertions, is a very good introduction to the whole topic of the netroots' role in Democratic politics. That it appeared in The New Republic, a favorite whipping-boy of many netroots activists, will probably negatively pre-dispose more than a few readers. Indeed, it's a token of Chait's excellence as a journalist that a fair number of bloggers have some good things to say about his article, overlooking not only his long association with TNR but his own early effort at blogging, the short-lived but venomous (and often very funny, at least to non-Deaniacs) Diary of a Dean-o-Phobe.

If you're interested in other reactions, you can check out Chris Bowers' post at MyDD, or the responses published by TNR by Eric Alterman and Matt Yglesias. The criticism most consistently aimed at Chait is that he overemphasizes the role of a handful of high-profile bloggers in coordinating the netroots "message." I think that's a bit unfair, since the whole piece was about the netroots as a self-conscious political movement, which is obviously what most of its most prominent personalities think it is. Chait might have dwelled a bit more on the inherent tension between the medium's decentralized nature and various effort to make it a unified political force; it's a tension you see every day in the comments threads of most "activist" sites.
But still, even with as many words at his disposal as Chait had, you have to generalize somewhat, and I think it's fair to take this movement at its own word as a coherent political faction.

I do have one small issue with Chait in his treatment of the DLC as an object of particular opprobrium in the lefty blogosphere.

On the one hand, he shoehorns the DLC and TNR together as institutions that haven't really earned the hatred they frequently elicit in the netroots:

When it comes to identifying its adversaries more specifically, the two institutions named most often are the DLC and tnr. Netroots activists speak of these two institutions in stark terms. "This is the modern DLC--an aider and abettor of Right-wing smear attacks against Democrats," wrote Moulitsas, who proceeded to threaten to "make the DLC radioactive." In a posting about tnr, titled "tnr's defection to the Right is now complete," Moulitsas wrote that this magazine "betrayed, once again, that it seeks to destroy the new people-powered movement for the sake of its Lieberman-worshipping neocon owners." Both the DLC and tnr are perpetually described as "dying" or "irrelevant," yet simultaneously possessed of sinister and ubiquitous control over the national discourse.

In reality, of course, the DLC is a political enterprise and tnr a journalistic one; each has on its staff individuals who do not always agree with each other; and neither institution exerts total control over every individual on its payroll. While both the DLC and tnr supported the Iraq war, both stridently opposed almost every other element of the Bush agenda. The overwhelming majority of DLC missives and tnr articles are perfectly congenial to mainstream liberalism and perfectly hostile to the Republican Party of George W. Bush. But these sorts of subtleties generally escape the Manichean analysis that pervades the netroots.

That's all completly accurate. though it should be noted that some who deplore the DLC and TNR would argue that being wrong about the Iraq War makes being right about anything else irrelevant (a position that becomes a bit complicated for the many netroots supporters of John Edwards' presidential campaign). But Chait goes on to echo the often-expressed netroots take on the DLC as an organization that led the Democrats into a trap of moving "right" on issues in recent years as an accomodation of the conservative ascendancy:

Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 in part because he defined himself as "a different kind of Democrat"--one who favored capital punishment, welfare reform, and so on. But, over time, the DLC strategy led to a kind of ideological retrogression. Having reestablished the left pole of the national debate further to the center, the only way for Democrats to maintain their centrist image was to move further right still. By the late '90s, the DLC had abandoned its preference for universal health insurance for small piecemeal reforms and flirted with partial privatization of Social Security.

Now if you happen to believe that the whole Clinton administration was, to use Howard Dean's description, nothing more than an exercise in "damage control"--a rearguard effort to find a way for Democrats to win presidential elections in a conservative climate--then obviously the DLC was complicit in that effort. But the idea that the DLC "moved right" after 1994 just isn't correct. If it ever abandoned its "preference for universal health care," I missed it; like most Democrats, the DLC endorsed "small piecemeal reforms" as better than nothing. The "flirtation" with "partial privatization of Social Security" was in the context of broader social security reforms that would have made the system more progressive, and predated the late 1990s. As even Will Marshall, the PPI president most associated with the "flirtation" Chait's writing about, was a good soldier and probably turned down 200 press inquiries during the fight over Bush's social security proposal, which the DLC formally opposed.

In reality, the DLC moved "left" in conventional terms during the late 1990s, and has continued in that direction ever since. During the late 1990s, the DLC, to the discomfort of some of its political allies, came out unambiguously for abortion rights, gay rights, public financing of political campaigns, and efforts to strengthen unions. It loyally supported Gore during the 2000 end-game, and warned against the Bush approach to "bipartisanship." I am particularly aware, having written most of this, that the DLC published about a million words attacking the Bush tax cuts in a particularly hyperbolic way, worthy of a blog if such had existed at that time.

Oh well. The broader point is not about the DLC, but about the widespread belief that Democrats lost in 2000 (technically), in 2002 and in 2004 because they were cowards. A lot of things were going on in all these elections, and reducing it all to an unwillingness to "fight" is one of the netroots conceits I really can't share. It's not that surprising that the viscerally pugilistic journalist Jon Chait finds that a point of common ground with the netroots, but for my money, it's brains rather than guts that Democrats have too often lacked.
-- Posted at 12:30 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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