Today, the Omaha World-Herald launches "Parties '08," an occasional op-ed series assessing the state of the two main parties throughout the '07-'08 political season. The initial package includes my own contribution analyzing the relationship between the Democratic Party and the netroots, which follows below.
Bloggers Promote Fresh Ideas, Help Democrats Spread Message
by Bill Scher
In 2005, New York Times' David Brooks dismissed liberal bloggers as part of a "university-town elite" who would lead Democrats to only "carry Berkeley for decades to come." Yet in the 2006 elections, with blogs playing a significant role, voters from all kinds of towns chose Democrats to run Congress. Brooks acknowledged no misjudgment, writing, "If Democrats are going to take advantage of their victory, they ... have to show they have not been taken over by their bloggers...."
This week, Democrats will ignore Brooks again. YearlyKos, the largest gathering of the liberal "netroots," comes to Chicago, featuring all major Democratic presidential candidates along with the heads of the House and Senate.
Why are Democrats embracing a community that the Washington Post's David Broder finds "vituperative" and "foul-mouthed," and Time's Joe Klein largely considers "bullying" and "witless."
Because Democrats need their messages to reach voters. And liberal bloggers have shown they can help by countering misinformation, spotlighting underreported news, and pushing parameters of national debate narrowed by pundits and political consultants. For example:
- In 2005, when President Bush proposed privatizing Social Security, many bloggers effectively argued that the program was not in crisis, rendering drastic changes unnecessary. Until then, much of Washington only treated harsh reforms as respectable options. Public opinion rejected privatization, giving Democrats firm footing to scuttle it.
- In 2006, word leaked that ABC was about to air a factually inaccurate docudrama maligning the Clinton Administration as inert while Al Qaeda loomed. Perpetuating that myth would harm Democrats' ability to earn public trust on national security. Several bloggers were able to debunk key scenes, forcing ABC to make edits and the New York Times to run a correction of its review.
- When evidence indicated the Bush Administration was behind a political purge of US Attorneys, bloggers took it more seriously than many media professionals. Once evidence became stark, Time's Jay Carney expressed contrition for initially downplaying the scandal conceding that "the blogosphere was the engine on this story." The increased attention made it easier for Democrats to investigate and withstand charges of a "fishing expedition."
If bloggers have proven able to make positive contributions, why marginalize them as dangerous for Democrats and harmful to our discourse?
There are two dominant criticisms. One is that some popular bloggers use, shall we say, colorful language. True! But it begs the question: so what?
Is the occasional bad word by a blogger, who otherwise increases citizen involvement, all that damaging? Both Bush and Vice-President Cheney have used foul language in dignified settings. But their misleading assertions - too often unchallenged by national media outlets - are what is toxic to the discourse and, in turn, our ability to make informed decisions.
The second is the notion, described in The New Republic, that the "netroots' dream" is "a liberal army ... marching more or less in lockstep." Broder claims bloggers are "pummeling" politicians to enforce "ideological purity." Klein complains that anyone not "in lockstep with the most extreme [bloggers] is savaged," pressuring Democrats to move left and jeopardize their election prospects.
The hyperbole is unwarranted. Citizens urging representatives to follow their wishes - via mail, phone or blog - is not savagery. It's democracy.
Furthermore, those bloggers striving for rhetorical unity do not envision a landscape barren of fresh ideas and vibrant discussion. There is open debate in the liberal blogosphere every day. They merely crave coordination when presenting liberal ideas to the broader public.
Liberal bloggers grasp what conservatives have long understood: Unless an army of people makes synchronized arguments across the cluttered media spectrum, their ideas won't reach America's 200 million eligible voters, and will be vulnerable to distortion by opponents.
Their goal is for unity after the time for internal debate is over, and it is time to win the debate among the electorate. The desire is not to have discourse for discourse's sake, but to have productive debate with a clear result compelling our government to heed the public will.
That is not a strategy to shove Democrats left and lose the center. It is a strategy that sees Americans - not pundits or political consultants - as defining where the political center lies.
Blogging is a two-way medium, and that is its strength. It allows individuals to quickly exchange ideas with others nationwide. It helps connect politicians who exercise power with citizens who hold ultimate power -- more fluidly than a poll, and more frequently than a town meeting.
Democrats may come to YearlyKos so bloggers will help disseminate their messages. But bloggers will be communicating their own ideas, and expect the substance-to-profanity ratio to be high. Those who have scoffed may find the hearty discourse that they cherish.