I picked up Crashing The Gate – Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics from the DailyKos website, albeit apprehensively. The Kos community has a “reputation,” and some would suspect that any printed material associated with the site would parallel what is said there. Nevertheless, I was curious to hear what Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga would say, knowing they wouldn’t have to deal with the instant (and often aggressive) feedback the “Kossacks” dispense. For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised.
The authors are no strangers to the Internet or its political enablement. Armstrong is a household name in the arena, having started one of the first political weblogs, MyDD.com, and assisting with the Howard Dean campaign’s blogging efforts. Zuniga is just as well known, if not more so. He founded DailyKos, which is likely the most popular political group weblog site in existence. In other words, these guys should know their stuff, and for the most part they seem to.
As pure reading material goes, the book (“Progressive Partner Special Limited Edition”) is precisely 196 pages of 100% post-consumer waste recycled, old-growth forest-free paper, including 14 pages of reference notes and indices. The type is large, well spaced, and generally easy on the eyes. I knocked this puppy off over three afternoons, including note taking.
While I didn’t fact check every line of the book, what I received was a pretty thorough, analysis-driven opinion of what has gone wrong with Democratic Party politics. It starts with a definition of “the enemy,” the “cons” of the Republican political thought process. Corporate insiders, right-wing think tank graduates, religious leaders, and old-school mindsets are overstuffed in a barrel. What pops out is the realization that the Republican Party is less a tank mowing over everything in its path than a loosely bound, fragile coalition that has succeeded not by Borg-like assimilation, but through sheer patience and will.
Onward to the “failing” side, in which Armstrong and Moulitsas slice and dice their political party in what can only be described as a semi-hostile, scathing rebuke of the disorganization, the infighting, and the selfishness which has kept it divided. The authors are, however, quick to point at two examples of success (in Colorado and Montana during 2004). In those cases, campaigns took decidedly different approaches, but one thing seemed certain – anything BUT the status quo could work.
Diving deeper into the situation, Crashing The Gate now hits the hot button that is going to piss a lot of Progressives off – the wholesale pilfering of campaign dollars by political/media consultants, who enrich themselves fabulously while using worn out techniques that lead to failure after failure. The D.C. power base, showing no inclination to stop the madness, is not forgotten either. If any one point becomes perfectly clear to readers, it will be that big money has and is wasted in extraordinary magnitudes.
At this point, J & M point to McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, as the tipping in the power struggle over Progressive direction. McCain-Feingold redirected high-dollar contributions from direct-to-politicians pockets into 527 organizations that cannot “explicitly advocate the election or defeat of any candidate for federal office.” What it really did, according the authors, is force Democrats to look to “the people.” Numbers no longer followed dollar signs – they had to follow individual support roll counts. Then Howard Dean captured the Internet’s imagination.
The authors give Howard Dean a lot of credit for initiating the “grassroots movement,” something I found unsurprising considering they were in the middle of it. By engaging a myriad of internet tools managed by foot soldiers, Dean quickly proved McCain-Feingold naysayers wrong. The Democratic stronghold eventually trounced Dean – they took it upon themselves to define him as “unelectable,” and turn Dean’s overzealousness into perceived nuttiness. It was a concerted attack, and not without casualties. First and foremost, John Kerry lost the Presidential election, and that is where I inferred that the tables really turned. While “wounds were being licked” offline, Internet activists maintained engagement as thought the battle wasn’t over. As described, after Terry McAuliffe (Chairman of the DNC) departed, the bloggers made their presence hard to ignore, uncovering dirt on hand-selected McAuliffe successors, one after the other. Howard Dean maintained his loyalty to those folks, and the end result…he is now Chair of the Party.
The last chapter, entitled “Inside The Gate,” follows up on some successes for the Democratic Party in places like Montana and Virginia, and infers that “grassroots” campaigning, not “netroots” organization, was the primary motivating factor. In many campaigns, however, “netroots” did play a role, and even when losses were incurred, the efforts succeeded in draining opposing candidates of funds and energy while giving good reason for progressives to relish in their newfound power. Fair warning – the net was not to be ignored.
No review of a political reference would be complete without some conclusion for those so inclined. Rather than air my personal views, I will provide some perspective-based alternatives:
A) If you are anything close to Progressive (which I suspect many readers will be), you may at first feel a bit betrayed by your leaders, and certainly enraged by the pilfering of contributions that came from your pocketbook. Your suspicion that what is being suggested is emulation of the long-term strategies of the enemy is not unfounded. Crashing The Gate sometimes infers just that, albeit with a bit of a “net twist.” Be patient until the end – you may wind up wanting to blog for your favorite local candidates – but it won’t be an easy road. I’d say I concur with the authors that there is no short-path to election success, no matter the effort – the authors are making no promises, and that is refreshing from any set of written words deemed political. And be forewarned – what led to victory in a particular place and particular situation, might not work the next time. I interpreted that by reading between the lines.
B) If you lean right you will feel warm (and smug) over your Party’s triumphs, and a little confused as to why someone would so openly lay out a potential roadmap for defeating you. You may be inclined to read the book again, just to make sure you have a game plan to thwart any such attempts. Alternatively, you might brush off any thoughts of a grassroots movement ever having a chance of taking your team to the mat. You have a “big machine” on your side, one constructed over decades – how could any grassroots effort put a dent in it? This reader, having a meager understanding of how “new media” communications spreads, says the latter take might not be a wise one. Conservatives have their pundits, but they should ask themselves whether they could engage armies of them.
C) If you sit in the middle, a most likely social liberal and fiscal conservative, I’d say you may still feel a bit lost. You have choices: go the route of the ultra-organized “idea generators,” but risk more betrayal on the fiscal end while you turn blue over the social fanaticism; or, you can bet on those who still haven’t gotten their act together, but have a lot of momentum, gained recently, in the new media realm. Yes, the progressives have a “new machine,” but can they effectively control it as it grows? The conservatives have certainly proven they can steer theirs, and it is anything but small. Either way, you’ll solidify your previous view that politics is about big money, intensive recruitment, and, ultimately, some form of indoctrination. You might not exactly get the “warm-fuzzies” if you fancy yourself an independent thinker.
I said my satisfaction with the read contained some caveats. It did, and they affect my overall opinion of the book as such:
1) I found the historical elements of the book the very compelling – again, while I didn’t check facts, I didn’t feel I needed to. The first couple of chapters were relatively unbiased – at times I almost felt like the authors were glorifying Republican efforts. Then, wham, they actually say Republican strategies are “brilliant,” while describing their party’s entitlement participation philosophy (meaning, one should be happy to have a job on a Democratic campaign, even if you electricity just got shut off) in comparison to the well paid, constant grooming and care that Republican “students” usually received.
2) I was hoping for a complete separation between the web diatribe the authors are associated with, and their view to initiate change through hardcopy publication. Unfortunately, I found at least one element of major distraction, on pages 114 through 118, which referenced events regarding politically motivated compensation for both old and new media input. It hinted, unnecessarily, of some bitterness, while I would rather have heard a token “Oh well, that is how the game is played.” The section in question was hard to shake – it followed me for the last sixty or so pages. Additional anecdotes describing “normal, sane” candidates having the ability to win elections left me chuckling a few times as well, meaning I had some difficulty disassociating the authors with some of what I have read at DailyKos.
3) The title conflicted with some of the nuances within. For someone sitting on the fence (as described above), I thought the authors would have tried to harder to convince that the supposed “progressive revolution” isn’t just more of the same. The dollar signs strewn throughout made me think more about all the money that politics engulfs (even if it is raised by citizen journalists) than the power any individuals have to instigate real change. I sometimes felt that the subtitle could have included “people-powered fundraising.”
4) As the authors point out (as excuse or not), the manuscript was scrapped late in the process. They started from scratch, under considerable time pressure, and I can respect that. In my eyes (assuming it is true), they scored some points here for admitting the need to start over, and re-working on the fly.
I know many have their opinion of bloggers in general, and it is not always the most favorable. However, as a reader of weblogs, including some politically oriented ones, I have to say Crashing The Gate is a heck of a job from a couple of “bloggers.” I am now intensely curious to see if Glenn Reynolds’s An Army of Davids paints a different (and/or alternative) picture of the “netroots” phenomena.
As a final offering, Armstrong and Zuniga note that the world of progressive bloggers could already be four to five million strong, with extraordinary growth predicted for the future. In addition, they offered that anyone, anywhere could contribute. But, a democratic system requires mutual acceptance, healthy debate, and a willingness to accept a role alongside, not hands above, the rest. The online world already seems to be straying from those core tenets, with clubby recruitment gatherings, A-list bloggers and too much crosstalk. Without some correction, I wonder whether the growing political force the authors portray can sustain itself long term, or whether new media will turn out like old media – sensationalist, untrustworthy, and begging to be ignored.
This review was posted first, and in its entirety, at Slashdot. Thanks go out to them.