Traditionally, political stories like this one start with an anecdote. An illustrative example, that is, that sets the stage for the BIG IDEA. This story, for example, is about how the progressive cause is advancing thanks to BLOGS. It has the secondary purpose of alerting you that two of the most acclaimed progressive bloggers in America, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (of DailyKos.com) and Jerome Armstrong (who started MyDD.com), are coming to town. Theyve co-authored a book, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, and theyll be at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh this Friday at 7:30 p.m. So I think Ill begin with the tale of how our Raleigh congressional election suddenly jumped up on the national radar screen last week thanks to a bunch of local blogs and the biggest national one, DailyKos.
The problem is, anecdotes tend to be a littlewell, S-L-O-W. You know, like traditional journalism?
But if this one is going to convey how the political blogosphere works, its got to go F-A-S-T, like bloggers do.
No wasted words. What happened is
Miller counterattacks. He e-mails supporters and the press with a link to Robinsons Web site, so they can hear the thing for themselves. Soon, progressive bloggers are posting the link. I put it up on indyweekblogs.com/dent, our political blog. BlueNC.com posts it too, and gawd knows how many others. The reaction is immediate
The MSM (mainstream media) isnt that interested in Robinson, or his ads, which are hard to describe. Hes an outspoken critic, says The News & Observer in a bland, he-said, she-said article, who has a knack for getting media attention. No, hes completely outrageous, which bloggers have no trouble demonstrating by reproducing his stuff in its entirety
MoulitsasKosisnt in San Francisco right now. (Or Berkeley, where he actually lives.) Hes traveling cross-country promoting his book, which is about bloggers saving the Democratic Party, then the country. Nonetheless, hes read getmeoutofdixies diarywhich I haventand tells me about it when I interview him by phone from Minneapolis last Tuesday
Yes, Robinsons putting it out there to the right-wing, but its Miller whos working overtime to make the 13th C.D. race a national progressive cause. Two days later, Miller posts his own diary on DailyKos, entitled Markos and I Are Just Good Friends. Its a jokeMiller says hes never even met Kos. But Robinsons antics are no joke, Miller warns. He raised almost $3 million in 04, running in a different congressional district in western North Carolina, and must be taken seriously
The words volunteer and contribute are, of course, live links. Click on them, and youre taken to the BradMiller.org Web site, where a credit-card donation is welcomed.
Bottom line: Robinsons ads, and mailings, are playing to his base. But thanks to the blogosphere, Miller could also play to his baseand it cost him virtually nothing. DailyKos gets half a million readers a day, and they include every other major progressive blogger in America. Under assault by Robinson, and with the MSM yawning in disinterest, Millers gone straight to the netrootsthe activists who get their news from the Internetand made himself famous.
Within a few hours, Millers post gets 90 responses, including
The Netroots Mature
Its called a blogswarm. A blogger ferrets out a ripe piece of news and posts it, and other bloggers find it and link to it, which brings swarms of blog readers to it all at once. It happened again last week, with comic Stephen Colberts skewering of President Bush and the Washington press corps at the White House Correspondents Dinner. The MSM ignored it, even though it was televised; but once CrooksandLiars.com got the video of Colberts performance posted, blogs everywhere linked to it, and millions of readers swarmed to watch and laugh.
To Kos, it was the latest example of the maturity of blogs as a reporting and organizing tool. The press ignored it, he says. But we didnt need them any more.
Maturity? Its only three years since the original blogswarm, which occurred when Howard Dean, the little-known ex-Vermont governor running for president, electrified the Democratic netroots with a single speech that the blogosphere grabbed and ran with. At a time when all the leading presidential candidates were cowering in fear of Bushs popularity, Dean followed them to the stage of a California Democratic Party meeting to demand: What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the presidents unilateral intervention in Iraq?
That was in March 2003. By December, Dean was leading the presidential field, and the reason was the blogstheyd helped him raise $50 million in amounts averaging just $70, and theyd put his antiwar, Democratic wing of the Democratic party message out to the masses while the MSM was still thinking Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman were Democratic front-runners.
Dean, of course, didnt win. The party establishment turned on him, as Kos and Armstrong relate in Crashing the Gate, and chose the hapless John Kerry instead. Armstrong, who started MyDD back in 2001 (DD stands for direct democracy), understands what happened as well as anyone; as a consultant, he helped forge the Dean campaigns pioneering Internet strategy, which used local Meetups (Meetup.com) and a blog of its own to build the national network of Deaniacs. Kos, too, understands; his blog covered the Dean campaign, and the emerging progressive movements within the Democratic ranks, better and more comprehensively than anyone else. As a result, by 2004 DailyKos had emerged as the most-read progressive blog by far, a status it still retains.
Crashing the Gate, though, isnt about how they did it, or how to do it either, for that matter. People who read it thinking theyll learn how to be blogmasters will be disappointed. Instead, its about the potential of the blogs to transform the Democratic Party.
Its thesis, argued in a chapter called This Aint No Party, is that the Democrats are hamstrung by their single-issue constituencieswho want gun control, or abortion rights, or gay rights, periodand by an aging cadre of campaign consultants like Bob Shrum, 0-for-8 in presidential campaigns, who are in love with TV commercials and blind to the new, Web-based media. (In love with TV ads, and making huge amounts of money on them, Crashing charges, by the fact that they buy too many and charge candidates a flat, 15-percent commission on every single one. Republican consultants, the authors say, charge a fee per campaign, not per ad.)
The weakness of the single-issue groups, Kos and Armstrong say, is that they depend on a small number of true believers for contributions while leaving out huge numbers of generally progressive folks who are not, however, totally into their issue.
Whats worse, their isolation leaves them open to ridicule from the Republican/Vernon Robinson/Rush Limbaugh noise machine. In their vernacular, environmentalists are just tree huggers who dont care about jobs. Pro-choice women are insensitive to the emotional toll of having an abortion. And gun control advocates? Wimps.
To their detriment, Kos and Armstrong say, progressive organizations feel comfortable advocating policy-based solutions to problems. Meanwhile, the other side is waging an ideological war. Their narrative is the protection of the American way of life, the creation of jobs, the growing of the economy, the march of progress. The environmental movement [for example] has no competing narrative, only narrow policy fixes.
This wont do, they say. Fortunately, the Internet is the perfect way to reach out past the groups, and the MSM, to the progressive generalists who were the heart of the Dean campaign. And if Deans ranks proved too small for the task in 2004, two years later Kos and Armstrong estimate that the number of progressive blog regulars has grown to 4-5 million folks, who read 60 million pages a day on the top 70 progressive blogs. By 2010, they think 20-25 million regulars is not inconceivable, especially given how the Republicans are screwing up in Washington.
So whats their narrative? Kos and Armstrong say thatll come from the netroots, not from them. Armstrong, whos left MyDD again to start Netroots.com, thinks the message must come from a candidate, not a focus group, not even from the bloggers.
Right now, hes helping former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a potential 08 presidential contender. Warners talking about a post-ideological, pragmatic statement that government is essential to a lot of things in our lives, Armstrong says. No, it wont fit on a bumper stickeryet.
The perfect Kos-Armstrong candidate, though, would be a lot like Paul Hackett, the lawyer and political neophyte who last year jumped into a seemingly hopeless Ohio congressional raceit was for an open seatafter serving in Iraq as a Marine Corps reservist. Hackett, they write, was a straight shooter who ripped Bushs war, was generally liberal, but also turned aside loaded questions with answers like: Gay marriage? Who the hell cares? If youre gay, youre gay. More power to you. What you want is to be treated fairly by the law, and any American who doesnt think that should be the case is, frankly, un-American.
No policy fixes there.
Hackett was embraced by the online activists to the tune of more than $500,000 of his $850,000 campaign total. Local bloggers talked him up first, then some bigger ones like SwingStateProject.com, and finally the majors came aboard with storiesincluding DailyKos and MyDD, among others. Hackett didnt win. But he came within 3 percent in a heavily Republican districtwhich was shockingly close, Kos and Armstrong say.
They see hima soldier, patrioticas a template for populist-type Democrats everywhere.
The Local Netroots
What the big blogs are to national politics, littler blogs are becoming to local issues in the Triangle. And just as their larger counterparts come in many varieties, so too do the local progressive blogs.
Theres JimBlackMustGo.com, for instance, where ex-Democratic campaign consultant Joe Sinsheimer collects the newspaper stories aboutand publishes his own investigations on the fund-raising peccadilloes ofembattled N.C. House Speaker Jim Black.
Friends of Ty Harrell helped him win the N.C. House District 41 Democratic primary with their scathing Web site about his opponent, WhoIsChrisMintz.com.
Other local blogs include PamSpaulding.com on Durham and gay issues, mainly; stinging-nettle.blogspot.com by Raleighs John Burns; ThePoliticalJunkies.net; and the Indys political blog dent (indyweekblogs.com/dent).
In a different vein entirely, lawyer-activist Mark Kleinschmidt has been trying to save his clients life, and win him a new round of DNA testing, with the help of his campaign blog, JerryConner.blogspot.com. On it, Kleinschmidt provides a podcast interview with the defense team.
And thats just the tip of the icebergor blogospherearound here.
Only a handful of local blogs, however, attempt to do at a community level what a DailyKos does nationally, which is gather and comment on all of the local news you need to be politically aware.
One that does, and is probably the best at it, is OrangePolitics.com. Its the brainchild of Chapel Hills Ruby Sinreich, who in real life workslike Armstrongas an online advocacy consultant too. (She helps nonprofit groups master the Internet as Web maven in a Washington, D.C.-based firm, Netcentric Campaigns.)
Sinreich started OP with the help of a few other contributors in September 2003. Her purpose wasnt to build the progressive community in Orange County, which already predominates. Rather, it was to get them paying attention, not just to the war and big national issues, but local government too.
I love local politics, because thats where we can have the most impact, Sinreich says. I wanted to frame the local issues for progressives and say, If youre progressive and you share my values, heres what I think about obscure local questions like garbage and bus transportation.
At times, Sinreich admits, OP can have a little bit of the old water-cooler feel about it, with the same old antagonists going at it over whatevers the issue of the day. But its also a forum where progressive insiderslike Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, one of the founding writers, or Kleinschmidt, a Chapel Hill Town Council member and another founderfeel comfortable making their views known. Sinreich herself is on the Chapel Hill planning board.
And when news is happening, as with the shootings at the Apple Chill festival recently, lots of people weigh in: The post by Sinreich on it drew 146 comments, a pretty good measure of its value in town.
Moreover, OPs a place where candidates for office really must show up. Whos David Marshall? Sinreich posted, insider-like, when he filed to run in Carrboro. Soon Marshall was blogging away, charming readers with his nice-guy approach but also, Sinreich says, proving that he didnt know that much about the issues in Carrboro. He lost the electionbut OP made him lots of new friends.
And if he keeps reading it faithfully, as 300-500 folks do daily, according to Sinreich, hell soon get an education on everything from conservation overlay districts to how the local school systems are funded. For local progressives, and office-holder wannabees, reading OP is de rigueur.
Other community blogs, however, are as different from OP as, say, Raleigh is from Chapel Hill. Take BelowtheBeltline.org, for example. Its not only not the product of Raleigh insiders, its written by two anonymous outsiders, who use the pseudonyms Lunsford Lane (hes famous in Raleigh history as a slave-turned-freeman) and Dr. Walter de Gama (whose only response to the questions I e-mailed was that the Dr. is for Doctor of Love).
BelowtheBeltlines authors, whoever they are, pound away at the grip of Big Real Estate on Raleigh government, with special attention to the members of City Council, how they vote on rezoning applications, and how much money they get from developers. Theyre fed up with Republican Councilor Philip Isley and Democrat Jessie Taliaferro, thats clear. And lately, theyve added Democrats James West and Joyce Kekas, and Republican Tommy Craven, to their no-good list, citing their opposition to bigger impact fees on developers. Those five members voted down Mayor Charles Meekers attempt to raise the fees to Carys level, opting instead to leave them less than half of what Cary charges. Sticking the taxpayer with this giveaway to the building industry is why, Lunsford Lane said.
Still, though BTBs clearly got some readers, is good at seeing what the MSM doesnt, and bothers Democrats like Taliaferro by blogging for a progressive Raleigh, its authors anonymity, and their policy of not publishing comments, makes BTB just about useless as an organizing tool for the progressive community. In Raleigh, progressives need an organizing blog too. So does Durham.
But whats really needed is a state progressive blog, one that pulls together the best information from all the small and local blogs while multiplying their readers. Or it was needed, until BlueNC.com came along.
James Protzman, a Chapel Hill businessman whos financially able, at 55, to work about half-time at his other enterprises, literally jumped at the chance to help start BlueNC.com. Like Kos and Armstrong, Protzman thinks the progressive community is fragmented, such that its whole is less than the sum of its parts. The various North Carolina issue groups hes backed over the yearspro-choice, environmental, social justice, fair electionsthey all have great content on their shelves and their Web sites, he says. But no one sees it.
A statewide progressive blog could amplify their voices, Protzman thought.
And between DailyKos and OrangePolitics, he had two good modelsone national, one localfor making it work.
So far, so good.
Protzman credits a third-year law student at UNC-CH, Lance McCord, for starting BlueNC and being its whiz kid, the one who keeps it clicking and who invited him to be in on it. Lately, though, with McCord and a second law student-founder, John Livingston, tied up with schoolwork, Anglico (Protzman) has been BlueNCs most effective voice.
Anglicos favorite pastime is making fun of Raleigh moneybags Art Pope, whom he calls the Puppetmaster, and the various cogs in Popes Puppet Show, including the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, a political advocacy group there called Civitas, which is headed by former state Republican party chair Jack Hawke, and various GOP campaign committees.
Pope, whose family is loaded, is the one pulling the strings when people like Hawke and JLF President John Hood start to move their lips, Protzman maintains. They always say the same thingthat free markets work, and government doesntbut nobody ever answers them, Protzman says. So he doeswith sarcasm and parody.
They argue that eventually the markets will take care of everybody, and protect the environment eventually. But theres just not any evidence that thats true, Protzman says.
(Anglico, incidentally, is short for Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Companywhat Protzman did in the Navy. He chose it because we [progressives] are in a war. I wish the metaphor didnt apply, but it does.)
Right now, BlueNClike DailyKosis focused on electing Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives, where the Republican majoritygiven Bushs unpopularity and the scandals surrounding ex-Majority Leader Tom DeLayis starting to look shaky.
Two North Carolina Republicans, Reps. Robin Hayes (8th C.D.) and Charles Taylor (11th C.D.), are considered vulnerable, so BlueNC is going all out to give space to their Democratic opponents, school teacher Larry Kissell and ex-football quarterback Heath Shuler, respectively.
Shulers pro-life, which is a problem for some local activists, but not Protzman, who agrees with Kos that a pro-life Democrat will always be better than a pro-life Republican. (Whys that? Because he wont vote for a Democratic House leadership thats so solidly pro-life, Protzman says.) Still, most folks around the Triangle never heard of Kissell or Shuler, he adds. So they appreciate getting the information.
BlueNCs also giving space freely to a local blogger in Taylors district who goes by the name Screwy Hoolie. Taylor, a wealthy businessman, has brought a bunch of ethical complaints down on himself over the years, plus his recent problem: He was the congressman blocking federal aid for a memorial to the 9/11 passengers who died aboard United 93. Screwy Hoolie had a field day with that until the new movie came out and Taylor changed his mind.
So far, BlueNC is building itself slowly, cautiously, with about 1,000 visitors per day (3,000 page views) and just four regular contributors (other than Hoolie).
But the goal, Protzman says, is to make it a business, perhaps with sister blogs in other southern states (McCords taken a job in Atlanta, for instance).
Could BlueNC someday launch a progressive candidate into the governors office, or a U.S. Senate seat?
Protzman pauses. You know, despite my general cynicisms, I wouldnt be doing this if I werent an optimist. Its a lot to hope for. But I dont think its too much.