The netroots are becoming a power in the Democratic Party, but they aren’t under the control of any one person or clique. And while many netroots bloggers describe themselves as progressive, they are generally not leftists in the conventional sense. Certainly they aren’t committed to any program of fundamental political and economic reform. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells and Bill McKibben have both documented, the netroots aren’t complaining that the Democratic Party isn’t radical enough; they’re complaining that it’s losing elections. Netroots bloggers don’t share a common ideology. If they are united by anything, it is their harsh criticism of the Republican Party, their shared anger at the Democratic Party’s failures, and their rough analysis of how it could do better.There is more, but in my experience this is a lot more accurate than anything described by David Broder or David Brooks.
Although the netroots don’t necessarily subscribe to left-wing views, they do have the potential to reshape the terrain of American democracy. For the last 20 years, intellectuals have been bemoaning the American public’s lack of engagement with political life. They have advocated different forms of direct engagement and public deliberation as means to revitalize democracy.
Netroots bloggers and blog readers don’t look much like the idealized citizens that some democratic theorists have been hoping for. They’re unruly; while they certainly engage in vigorous argument, it bears little resemblance to disinterested Habermasian debate, in which the only operative force is the force of the better argument. They are attentive to power as well as reason, and their response to perceived enemies, Republican or Democratic, is far from genteel—someone pilloried by a prominent netroots blog can expect to get hundreds of vitriolic e-mails or comments from the blog’s readers. David Brooks’s complaints likely stem from his own experience being called out by left-wing bloggers and the vituperative messages that have filled his in-box as a result. There are real problems of groupthink among netroots blogs (as there are among blogs more generally, and indeed among opinion journalists, political reporters, political scientists, and virtually every well-connected social group).
But if there is a fault it lies less with the bloggers than with our notions of what a politically engaged public will look like in real life. Theorists of the public sphere who hark back to the idealized coffeehouses of the Enlightenment tend to forget or pass over the spleen, vulgarity, and vigor of 18th-century political debate. Political engagement goes hand in hand with viewpoints that are strongly held and trenchantly expressed.
The current back-and-forth over the netroots obscures what they actually mean for the Democratic Party and for American politics more generally. If they are not simply a philosophy seminar, they are also not simply an interest group or a social movement in the usual senses of those terms. Their goals have more to do with electoral strategies than substantive issues. Nor are they a traditional form of mass populism—as currently constituted, they are a not especially representative minority of the American public (there is an over-representation of white, well-educated, middle-class men, as there is among political bloggers more generally).
What they are is an example of how the Internet can foster new ways of conducting argument and building social cooperation among diverse groups and individuals. In other words, they are the harbinger of structural changes in the relationship between technology and politics. Contrary to the predictions of social scientists like Robert Putnam, the Internet is making people more likely to be politically and socially engaged, not less. As Yochai Benkler has argued, information technology has made it radically easier and cheaper to engage in certain kinds of cooperation.
This has important implications for political parties in general and for the Democratic Party in particular. In the past, much of the political agenda has been set by elites—senior party officials, elected representatives, and a congeries of policy wonks and public intellectuals stationed in think tanks, universities, issue groups, and political journals. While activists have played an important role in politics, especially in the Republican Party, they have usually taken their cues from well-connected leaders such as Grover Norquist and (before recent scandals) Ralph Reed. This is changing. Elites are losing some of their agenda-setting power as a much wider set of actors begins to influence the terms of public argument. A sea change is taking place in American politics. Debates that used to be the preserve of a small, self-perpetuating group of pundits, pollsters, and policymakers are now being opened up to a much wider group.
The netroots are also important in their own right, even if their role in winning or losing elections is sometimes exaggerated. The availability of Internet-based communications and community-building technologies has allowed people from quite different ideological backgrounds to come together, to identify points of common interest, and to build a community of action.
One thing I especially agree with is that Sen. Joe Lieberman is now a Senator because he likes the office, and he will deal with anyone, say anything, and attack anyone to keep his job. But he does so for no better reason than that he has already had the job for 18 years and expects to keep it. He also is one of the major practitioners of the "Democrats who attack Democrats and give cover to Republicans just so that they can continue to be reelected as Democratic politicians. I can't vote in Connecticut, but I sure hope the Connecticut voters recognize that he does not represent them well.
Joes tactics of running as an independent after losing the Democrats tells everything you need to know. Without that action, the Democrats stood a good chance of picking up all three contested Republican House seats in Connecticut. Because of Joe's self-centered duplicity, the Republicans are very likely to keep at least one and maybe two of those seatc.
Anyone who beleives that Joe can be expected to keep his word and caucus with the Democrats if he is the single Senate vote that determines whether the Senate is controlled by Democrats or Republicans is a fool. Joe will go with the guys who are paing for his reelection - the Republicans.
So does that tell you why I like this description of the netroots? That's how a lot of us see it.