Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ian Welsh and Others Ruminate On the Past, Cogitate On the Future and (Hopefully) Push For Something Better

Ian Welsh has been doing a bang-up job over at his place lately putting forth some fairly extensive notions about where we are, what went wrong with the "Progressive Blog Movement" (aka Netroots), and what we need to think about doing and where we need to think about being in the future.

Ian tends toward glumness, partly I'm sure because he lives in one of those winter-cold and winter-dark countries known as Canada, but there are other reasons and factors as well, including his own sometimes bitter experience with the human species on and off the intertubes. He's never been as dour and hopeless as Arthur Silber, but he's been pretty negative all in all just the same.

The parts of the recent series I've been most closely following are those that deal with the Failure of the Netroots Movement. Ian seems to focus on 2008 and the election of Obama, which occurred  without the Netroots by sidestepping it, ignoring it, paralleling it with an Obama roots political machine. That's as may be, but I pointed out that the problem goes back to the Dean campaign and what came after it, starting in 2002 and 2003; in other words, the problem was there at the beginning of the Netroots "movement."

The problem was, it wasn't a "movement" in more than the abstract sense, or at best, it was a "movement" of the very, very few "players" -- quite distinct and separate from a ground-level movement -- on behalf of a muddle of interests and candidates. Which, to the extent it still exists, it still is.

Jerome Armstrong goes into quite a lot of detail in his comments on the topic, detail I'm glad to see, but which really demonstrates the ground truth of my argument: there was no large grass/netroots "progressive movement." Instead, it was largely a marketing campaign -- to the extent there was any substance at all -- focused on electing Democratic candidates to office who would -- it was hoped and believed among the faithful -- introduce and when there were sufficient numbers of them, enact "progressive" legislation. This is somewhat more than the "crashing the gates" that Jerome and Markos and others had put together as a strategy, but it was a far larger goal than anybody at the time understood.

I was witness to all this and more at the time. I'd been a member of the dKos community since very early on in its existence, since 2002 sometime, and I had been commenting online at various sites and been a progressive activist (at least in my humble estimation) since long before that. I was somewhat limited in what I could do, however, due to my work which had to be strictly non-partisan. In other words, I could not publicly participate in political endeavors without running into restrictions.

But in 2003, I was outside the California Democratic Convention in Sacramento, marching and carrying a sign against the War on Iraq, which had just started -- a war forced on the American People with heavy Democratic complicity and support. Some of my friends and colleagues were inside, and I remember very distinctly, one came out and said to me: "I have just seen the most amazing thing in my life. Howard Dean tore this place apart. 'I want my country back!' I've never seen or heard anything like it. It was wonderful! This man will be our next president."

Well, it was news to me. I didn't think Dean much had a chance, given his -- until then -- relatively low profile and lack of Party Big Wig backing and support. But soon enough, Dean's "I want my country back!" speech at the California Democratic Convention in 2003 became the stuff of legend. Videos surfaced quickly, and in truth, the speech was a barnburner:

Much of it seems strikingly advanced as I watch it more than ten years later. The interim period has been hideous, disastrous compared to the vision Dean proclaimed at the convention and which he adhered to throughout his campaign.

What happened?

Well, that's the question at issue, isn't it?

 What happened? What caused the failure?

I campaigned for Howard Dean in California and New Mexico, in 2003 and 2004, and in New Mexico I was a poll watcher where I learned a really, really hard lesson about politics and movements. Dean, who thought he was going to win or at least place very strongly in New Mexico, could barely break double digits in the primary election; he was beaten by both Clark and Kerry. The support for Dean's campaign within the Netroots was nearly universal, although Clark was gaining against him. But for the voters of New Mexico, and we learned very quickly for the voters nearly everywhere else except Vermont, he was nearly non-existent.

"Movement?" What movement?

There wasn't one.

To me that's the key to understanding what happened and why the Progressive Netroots Movement failed; it was never a movement in the first place.

It was a marketing campaign. Marketing will only get you so far if the customers aren't buying -- or they prefer a different brand, which is what happened.

 The hard part to deal with is that like many other marketing and political campaigns, there was an element of fraud in the Dean campaign (and its Netroots support) that was perhaps fundamental:

Despite all of Dean's claims to represent "the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party" many of Dean's fiscal policy proposals and some of his social ones, too, were straight-out Rockefeller Republican, which is how he'd been raised in considerable comfort and privilege, if not outright wealth, on Park Avenue in New York. He was no Working Class Hero, far from it. Howard Dean was an outspoken rich kid who'd done well and who did even better when he moved to Vermont where he was repeatedly elected governor on a basically Rockefeller Republican platform.

OK, then. He was no left-winger, in other words, and his progressivism, which was genuine enough, was the Old Line Progressivism of the early 20th Century, a progressivism that came out of the Republican, not the Democratic, Party. Think TR, not FDR (but that's a whole other issue and question, so we won't cover it here.)

Yet Dean could barely break 10% in the Democratic Primary of 2004, despite all his apparent support. I argue his support (which was manifest in the ability to raise a lot of money online from a lot of people in small donations) never amounted to a lot of voters (as was manifested in the very poor turn out for him in primary elections and caucuses.) The marketing worked well enough, it seemed, to a very small community of online enthusiasts -- it sure raised a lot of money! -- but the marketing never translated to popular votes. This indicated to me that the Netroots was really very small, a tiny fraction of the electorate, and that its influence would self-limit because it was so tiny.

How interesting if true. After the debacle however, there really weren't any serious post-mortems I was aware of; the campaign moved on to electing Dean chair of the Democratic National Committee, a campaign I also participated in, and this one -- surprisingly enough -- succeeded. Remarkably, it seemed to me, except those who could vote for chair of the DNC, party leaders from around the country, constituted a very small, select club. I believe there were only a few thousand nationwide, enough of whom were Dean enthusiasts to put him in the chairmanship.

The Netroots "movement" -- such as it was --  wasn't much bigger.

This "movement" -- which never was much more than a marketing campaign in my estimation -- then became an adjunct to the Democratic Party, one that was primarily in business to sell Democratic Party policies as they would be determined by the honchos of the Party.

Not surprisingly, that caused friction, plenty of it.

But that's another question and issue for another time. For the time being, I highly recommend Ian's posts -- that he's been churning out for the last few weeks at a furious pace for him -- and I especially recommend the comments to those posts.

Start with his Baseline Predictions -- which I don't necessarily agree with -- thence Towards A New Ideology (again, I question some of his premises), and onward to How to Create a Viable Ideology, which seems to me to be pretty solid. His next post was what I call his 44 Theses (nailed to the church door, if you want) which have helped catalyse a great deal of what is to come. His follow-ups include Notes on Why the Progressive Blog Movement Failed (together with its now 124 comments), Jerome Armstrong's comment elevated to an independent post, Pachacutec's commentary on the problem, Netroots Failure (Part 2),
then How You Get a Revolution -- or perhaps what it will look like if you get one. There is then another comment by Jerome that's been made an independent post. All of this may seem like mental masturbation to some, but to others (well, me for one) it's an illuminating colloquy that needed to be done years ago and wasn't. Now it may be too late, but it may also have some significant results.

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