Thursday, August 03, 2006

Netroots mind-control

Over at the party line Aaron takes the position that Netroots don't stand for anything supporting his argument with the observation that they aren't single (or multi) issue groups (like the Sierra Club). He also points out that statments about Netroots principals are notoriously vauge, something which even the fence-sitters have to admit (see also this response). Instead of accomplishing certain policy goals then, he posits that net groups like DailyKos and MyDD exist mostly to empower their owners and get them a seat at the political table. This is a bit plausiable but then, why are people so eager to help Kos and MyDD? After all, I certainly want to empower myself and get a seat at the tables of power, but most people don't really care to help me achieve that goal. What do Kos and MyDD offer their membership?

Many detractors claim that Kos earns his large following through Rasputin like powers of propaganda. David brooks explains that Kos "The Keyboard Kingpin, aka Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, sits at his computer, fires up his Web site, Daily Kos, and commands his followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs, to unleash their venom on those who stand in the way". Apparently Kos has some kind of mind-control device hidden in his html. But while simple propaganda can explain why a misguided youth would join Jim Jones, it's not really enough to explain why so many intelligent people appreciate "netroots".

Mark Schmitt doesn't blog much, but whenever he types it pays to listen. Here he provides an explination that doesn't rely on magic mind-control powers:
They aren't looking for the party to be more liberal on traditional dimensions. They'’re looking for it to be more of a party. They want to put issues on the table that don'’t have an interest group behind them - like Lieberman'’s support for the bankruptcy bill -- because they are part of a broader vision. And I think that'’s what blows the mind of the traditional Dems. They can handle a challenge from the left, on predictable, narrow-constituency terms. But where do these other issues come from? These are "“elitist insurgents,"” as Broder puts it - since when do they care about bankruptcy? What if all of a sudden you couldn't count on Democratic women just because you said that right things about choice - what if they started to vote on the whole range of issues that affect women's economic and personal opportunities?
This explains what we are seeing in Conetticut far better than brain-wave manipulation: liberals are tired of being represented by single-issue groups which sell out all the small liberal issues for one or two big ones. And it's no wonder that an Iraq-war supporter like Aaron* would be afraid of something like this: in the world of single-issue advocacy groups a project like the Iraq-war (which has strong proponents amongst a small circle of "liberal" pundits) is a reasonably powerful interest group in the Democratic tent. In the world of liberal voter opinion on the other hand, Iraq-war supporters have just enough adherents to comfortably fit around TNR's conference table.

Now, I don't know if the netroots are going to be successful in this goal or how true to their vision they will stay. God know the movement often seems short on brain-cells and high on emotion and some of their views on political strategy really are dumb. On the other hand liberals need to admit that the single-issue organizations of the past are no longer working. A solution has to be found, even if this isn't it.

*To be fair his position is not entirely clear. I think it currently stands at "There was no right answer to the Iraq question". Certainly he's not willing to asert that invading Iraq was a mistake even in retrospect.


Paul said...

I tend to think of single-issue advocacy groups as specialists and therefore more efficient than whole-package constituencies.

At a more fundamental level, though, given our electoral institutions, doesn't it behoove a party to appear less, rather than more, monolithic? I would think that from the perspective of an undecided voter whose views are not uniformly "liberal" or "Democratic", a party with some degree of diversity and fragmentation would be more inviting - or at least more accomodating - than a party that moved more as a unit.

But that's just off the top of my head.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

A single-issue group is going to be more efficient at pushing through an individual policy but is forming a group of single-issue groups the best way to push for generally liberal legislation? As the bankruptcy bill showed, issues without an interest group can get overlooked even though the vast majority of liberals care. Single-issue groups have a role to play but a broad *liberal* ideology might play a unifying force in the same way that the conservative movement offers a unifying frame for a variety of diverse groups.

I see the case for fragmentation but it doesn’t convince me. The flip-side to the benefits you name is the "don't know what they stand for" problem which to me is not a good trade off. We need a principled appealing definition of “liberal” which can attract a broad range of people. Netroots seem to have undertaken this task but are getting criticized for defining it too broad. To me this criticism has it backwards: any definition narrow enough to satisfy the “what issues do you stand for” criteria is necessary going to be too small.

Aaron said...

I don't know where "mind control" enters into my argument, perhaps you could point this out to me? :)

My point, as I laid out in my post (and even boldfaced!), is that Kos' popularity derives from the fact that he supports a pastiche of popular (and generally anti-) progressive positions, but that there is no underlying philosophical consistency. Again, why support Warner (presumably) because of his success in a red state as a relative moderate but then attack the DLC for promoting exactly that tactic? It can't just be reduced to "most special interest groups are unipolar and Kos is multipolar", either; again, my criticism is his lack of philosophical consistency, not the breadth of his positions, as such.

And truth be told I'm not really "scared" about Iraq, but I think that this raises an important point: even at their most triumphalist, people like Peter Beinart were not calling for anti-war Democrats to be excised from the party. There was a call for the minimization of influence of people like Michael Moore and MoveOn, on the basis that anti-imperialist sentiment shouldn't drive Democratic foreign policy, but nobody was running primary campaigns against anti-war Democrats or trying to push them out of the party. If we agree that this is an acceptable tactic -- pushing Democrats out of the party for unpopular beliefs -- where does it end? Who's to say that you can't do it for issues that you and I might agree on but aren't popular in the Democratic mainstream?

Bottom line is that I don't think that the Netroots deserve an ideological veto.

Aaron said...

also, as a roundabout, but more terse, answer: I think that Kos is popular for roughly the same reasons that is.

Aaron said...

or to put it yet another way, if anti-war Democrats wanted to call for an internal reshaping of the party such that pro-interventionalists (like myself) were not the party spokespeople, I would probably lament -- and argue against -- the decision but I would accept the tactic. I don't accept that trying to push somebody out of the party over any issue -- even issues that I dissent from, like Lieberman's moralism -- is a sound idea.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I think the case for accusing Beinart of purge-mongering is just as strong as the case against Kos which is another way of saying that niether are very strong. But hey, if you see the Lieberman primary as a purge and not as a standard part of the democratic process that's fine. I'm sure I'm not going to convince you and you're not going to convince me.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Also, I want to be clear, I never accused you of blaming mind-control for Kos' success. I mostly took that tact to make fun of David Brooks and his laughable piece on Kos.

Aaron said...

As I've said before, there is exactly one good reason for mounting a primary challenge against Lieberman: the fact that he has consistently undermined Democrats since Bush took office.

However, trying to expand that rationale into an overtly ideological critique is tantamount to endorsing the idea that sufficient unpopularity on any one issue is reason enough for running a candidate out of the party. For obvious reasons, I think that is a disastrous policy for the Democrats; our great strength, as Paul Begala recently noted, is in our ideological diversity.

We do agree about the inanity of the Brooks column, though.

Paul said...

So Tom thinks people are allowed to advocate in the Democratic primary in whatever way they like. And Aaron thinks the netroots is (are?) trying to execute a narrow ideological purge.

But what's the practical cash value of the difference between these two positions? Suppose the motives of Kos really are that ominous (if, in fact, such motives ought to be of concern)...what would the difference be? Kos and his crew would still try to use their collective power to boot Lieberman from his seat regardless of any desire for a purge, right? And we would say they were within their rights to do so, no?

I don't see that Kos's motives and mental processes have many actual consequences in practice. The crucial thing seems to be that he opposes Lieberman in favor of Lamont - why seems not to matter a great deal, except maybe in principle.

Or am I missing something?

Thinker said...

Paul, if one hopes to influence any political race, is it better to explain one's reasoning and motives, or simply to make a testimonial claim - vote for X because I will (or vote against Y because I will)?

I think explaining one's thought processes are preferable. Where I disagree with Aaron is that it appears to me that he is trying to bludgeon Kos for doing so.

Aaron said...


The real question (as I've noted) is where we go from here, assuming that Lieberman loses on Tuesday; MyDD's answer suggests that the Lieberman primary isn't going to be an isolated event. As such, I think that it's reasonable to try to discern the circumstances under which a Democrat can expect to field a well-funded primary challenge.

I've already suggested one criteria: if that Democrat has been shown to reliably sabotage his party for personal gain.

Now, personally, I think that it's bad enough that the Netroots want to push people out of the party because of ideological differences. But it's much worse when your realize that their ideology, as such, is so loosely and poorly defined that it essentially gives them total carte blanche to attack whomever whenever.

And, Bill, although I may or may not be "bludgeoning" Kos, you'll note that I'm not suggesting that he be run out of the party...

Paul said...

I think I'll wait until they actually start attacking whomever whenever before I lose any sleep. And I might even wait until they start doing so by undemocratic means.

And Thinker, my question wasn't about being forthright with one's beliefs, it was about the substance of those beliefs. It doesn't seem obvious to me that Kos's reason for pushing Lamont makes a great deal of difference one way or the other.

Post-Lieberman/Lamont, Kos will back other candidates and oppose others and in each instance he will have to make the case that such support or opposition is warranted. Either he will convince enough people to make a difference or he won't. And if enough people are convinced, well, that's the way the system works - the worst you could accuse him of is poor judgment. But if his judgment is really that poor, his long-term record will become so bad/ridiculous that he'll lose influence.

And right now, it's not even clear what races he'll want to be most involved in in the future.

Aaron said...

I mean, I don't think that I've accused anybody of doing anything illegal. Just ill-advised, inconsistent and self-defeating, especially from people who are so eager to promote the (characteristically) nebulous idea of "winnerism."

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I'll second Paul. It's best to wait till someone actually starts doing "ill-advised, inconsistent and self-defeating" things before you spend a lot of time attacking them. Attacking a fellow liberal on mere suspicion is a waste of time resources and legitimacy.

Aaron said...

Attacking a fellow liberal on mere suspicion is a waste of time resources and legitimacy.

Tom, this makes my point so beautifully that I wish that I had said it myself.

If we all agree that time and money (and perhaps credibility) are finite resources, then doesn't it follow that we shouldn't waste them by pursuing needless (and poorly-justified!) primary battles? I mean, saying that we'll just take each individual primary challenge on its merits sort of assumes that there's no cost to running the challenges in the first place, no?

In any case, I definitely agree with both you and Paul say here. And, following your lead, Tom, I'm ready to abandon this thread if you guys are. :)

Paul said...

I mean, you're kind of begging the question. I'd vote for Lamont, and I'd rather see Lamont in the Senate. Seems like a worthwhile endeavor to have a contested primary to me. Kos certainly thinks the whole thing is well-justified. I didn't realize that was because Kos and I were "suspicious" of Lieberman. I think it's because we object to the substance of his actions (though maybe different actions for our respective cases.)

Paul said...

Oh, and I wanted to add that I think there's a slightly different standard for "justified" in the case of political contests such that you can't say as easily that somebody is unjustified in wanting to contest a race just in virtue of the fact that you disagree with them.

Paul said...

Or maybe it's just a weaker sort of "unjustified"? Hell, I don't know.

Aaron said...

Okay, so what are the major rationales for wanting to oust Lieberman?

Aaron said...

I'll get you guys started. Here are the top three proposed reasons that I've heard:

1. Lieberman has a recent history of undermining the Democratic party in the way that he cozies up to Bush.

2. Lieberman is out of the Connecticut Democratic mainstream on specific issues like the Iraq War and Social Security.

3. Lieberman is too in bed with the DLC and Washington insiders and the general culture of appeasing single-issue groups.

Are there others that I'm missing?

Paul said...

I wouldn't frame the problem in #2 as his being outside the mainstream, I'd frame it as him being wrong on the merits.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I would consider being "in bed with the DLC" to be a problem. Plenty of good people work for the DLC even if some really bad people do too. Lieberman should be taken to task for being wrong on the merits of several major issues (including Iraq! *the* issue of our time). We shouldn't be ostracizing people for just associating with the wrong group of Democrats.

Granted, you can find other Dems with similar faults, but it would be hard to find one that had them all, and finding one representing a state as true-blue as Connecticut would be impossible.

Aaron said...

So... you don't accept #3 as a valid criticism? And am I missing any other ones?

Also, I feel compelled to split one important hair: the mandate for removing Lieberman on #2 presumably derives from the popular will of Connecticut Democrats, no? "Rightness" or "wrongness" on these issues strikes me as an awfully subjective call and a point of real debate in any case.

Again, even though we might all (hopefully) disagree with Lieberman's inane moralizing about popular media, it's not the fact that he's "wrong" about this issue that is used in part to justify the primary against him, but rather the fact that he's out of step with regular Democratic Connecticut voters on the issue, no? Otherwise you open a whole can of worms about who gets to determine "right" and "wrong" on the issues, etc.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Well the "rightness" or "wrongness" don't seem objective to me. I have objective independant views on those issues. I think certain views are objectivly correct and others aren't. You are right though, the opinions of conetticut voter's do matter. This is a point Kos and pro-Lamont people have been making pretty well: leiberman is a speical case for being so out of step.

Aaron said...

I assume that you mean to say that they don't seem subjective to you?

Operating in that frame actually weakens the case for ousting Lieberman, I would think: i.e. it begs the question where do you, Tommaso, derive the authority to say what is "right" or "wrong" and it therefore makes the decision to go after JL using the primary process appear to be more, rather than less, arbitrary. That's why Kos and MyDD have been really vigilant about saying that this is about Lieberman's failures to the Connecticut voters.

Aaron said...

Another way to think about it is: if it's strictly a matter of being "right" or "wrong" about Iraq, what's the reason for not going after other Democrats on the issue in the current election cycle? Or supporting Warner?

I'm trying to strengthen your case on this, by the way, because I don't want to respond to straw men; this business of going after people for being "wrong" seems way too easy to take apart.

Paul said...

No, I'm serious about the being wrong thing. I think people should be voted out of office when they make poor policy decisions. The fact that we might disagree about what constitutes good policy is irrelevant - we've got to make decisions about how to vote somehow.

If you think the Iraq war was a mistake, that's a perfectly justifiable reason to vote for Lamont over Lieberman.

As a pragmatic issue, there might be reasons not to bother trying to improve - that is, make more to your liking - the current batch of Democratic candidates. But Lieberman seems vulnerable, so if you can get a more preferrable candidate in there, why not?

Aaron said...

so do you want me to add these to the list?:

4. His position on Iraq is wrong.

5. Because we can.

I warn you two, they'll be incredibly easy arguments to demolish. Frankly, I've been spending my time thinking about how to best respond to #2.

Aaron said...

Another thing to keep in mind, by the way, is that we're trying to brainstorm reasons to run a primary challenge against a fellow Democrat -- not to justify a vote for his/her opponent, which is an argument that doesn't even need to be made.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

No. I can't agree with #4 as you wrote it. It's not enough for a candidate to be wrong. There are plenty of Dems who are objectively wrong on important issues (in my view). None of them can be replaced as safely or easily as Lieberman. This is due to many factors but the most prominent is that the voters of Connecticut *agree* with me. This is a stipulation that's been clear fromthe begining and I don't think reiterating it one more time is going to help anything. Let's move on to another thread, ok?

Paul said...

Not just stipulated from the beginning - I reiterated it only 4 comments earlier - "As a pragmatic issue, there might be reasons not to bother trying to improve - that is, make more to your liking - the current batch of Democratic candidates. But Lieberman seems vulnerable, so if you can get a more preferrable candidate in there, why not?"

But Tom's right - the balance of considerations have to lend themselves to justifying a primary challenge.

Aaron said...

???? Then why was there any controversy over #2 as I wrote it? In any case, I had a brainstorm and will post something on TPL about this in a few minutes.