Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Pushing Back

Recently, there's been an ongoing meta-war over the appropriate role of the "left" at dKos, a site I visit every day, and one of the early online communities I became part of.

My participation at dKos originally grew out of my interest and then involvement in the Howard Dean campaign, which came to prominence when Dean made his stemwinding "What I want to know!" speech at the California Democratic Convention in Sacramento in March of 2003. Markos became one of the Dean campaign's chief online supporters, and quite a few of the early front-page writers were Dean campaign consultants, operatives or other major supporters.

The whole point of the Dean campaign, after all, was that it was a grass-and-net roots insurgency against the accommodationist,  "Republican-lite" and essentially worthless Democratic Party, ossified into irrelevance and scared to death of being called names and having its lunch money taken away by the Big Bad Bushevik Bullies. The fact that Dean and the Dean campaign and its supporters took on the petrified Democratic establishment, and that Daily Kos was a primary online hangout for Deaniacs, some of whom were strategizing political activism well beyond the campaign, was exciting and energizing.

The Dean campaign failed in the primaries. It failed badly. Outside of Vermont, he barely broke double digits, which was a truly shocking, almost incomprehensible result for those of us who were so committed and had worked so hard and were so convinced (albeit by our own mythos) that Dean would win the primaries, the nomination, and the election.

What had gone wrong? We still really don't know. There was no public post mortem, though many of us did our own assessments. Inappropriate Blogger Triumphalism was clearly a part of the problem. There were many other aspects to the failure of the Dean campaign, but one that continues to haunt, perhaps, is the arrogance of an online community that was actually very small and which had failed to connect with the public at large, indeed, it hadn't even tried.

After the nomination the Dean campaign shifted gears almost immediately into general election support-for-Kerry mode, and then, once Kerry lost in the general election, the Dean campaign shifted to getting him elected chair of the DNC. That one, he/we won, though at considerable cost and against a great deal of Old Guard resistance. That resistance never ceased, and Dean was constantly fighting off the Old Guard's carping and subversion of what he was trying to do: run Dems everywhere and get Dems elected everywhere. The Old Guard didn't want things done this way, and they still don't.

Nevertheless, during the four years that Dean chaired the Democratic National Committee and instituted a model 50 State Strategy for electing Dems, there was an astonishing rebound of Dem fortunes, including the 2006 election which returned control of the House and Senate to Democrats, and resulted in the election of dozens of Democratic state governors and legislatures as well as hundreds of Democrats to local office. The 2008 election was a spectacular success for Democrats, too. Dems not only won the White House, but both houses of Congress increased their Dem majorities to the point where they were almost veto and filibuster-proof. The number of statehouses in Dem control increased as well.

Immediately after Obama's election, Dean was dismissed from the DNC chair, and the 50 State Strategy was dismantled. The Old Guard returned, unchastened, to its accustomed role. The 2010 election results were disastrous for Dems, especially at the state level, where all the gains of the past four and six years were lost and then some, resulting in some of the most egregious gerrymandering of congressional districts in history, gerrymandering that will ensure Republican control of the House of Representatives at least until 2020. 2012 saw the re-election of the president, but he had no coat-tails, and the dire situation for Dems in the majority of statehouses and in congress continued unabated.

From an observer's standpoint, the Dems had blown it, bad. It was partly due to awful policy decisions by the administration, and partly due to the elimination of a Party infrastructure that could elect Dems to office at the local and state level. The infrastructure for Party success at the polls was what Dean had put in place and what the Old Guard DNC under the leadership of Obama had dismantled.  No wonder the Party failed time after time. Instead of seeing a holistic picture of being a dominant party built from the ground up, the Old Guard insisted on a top down model operating on a limited candidate-by-candidate basis.

It works for some campaigns some of the time, but it doesn't work for the Party or the people as a whole, and it's not intended to. It's intended solely to advance the interests of selected politicians -- and some selected political consultants.

This is all obvious as sin. It's a model that's been criticized extensively online and elsewhere.  Daily Kos shifted gears and became primarily a fundraising and promotion outlet for selected Democratic candidates and policies -- when it had any political function at all. Alternatively, it became an "all Republicans, all the time" one stop and headquarters for taunts and ridicule of same. Mockery of Sarah Palin became an dKos specialty product, but to what object was never entirely clear. In addition, DKos has fluffed tirelessly for the widely unpopular ACA.

There has been a shit-ton of criticism of the Obama administration from the "left." I use scare quotes when referring to the "left" in American politics because there really hasn't been a genuine left in the American political system for decades if not generations. It withered away during the Reagan and post-Reagan years.

Howard Dean, for example, was running on the farthest "left" edge of the Democratic Party -- which was a factor in his loss -- but his policies were basically those of a Rockefeller Republican. This was not any recognizable form of leftism at all; it was a form of pragmatic Republican progressivism that, perish the thought, is driven by a sense of noblesse oblige. That was the farthest "left" the politics of the time could accommodate. And it didn't accommodate it very well, as we found out when the primary results came in.

The Dean campaign pushed the envelope, but not very far. The failure of the Dean campaign demonstrated how far, far right American politics had drifted since the Reagan era.

Lacking any particular political function, but still acting as if it had one, dKos attracted a considerable number of critics of the Democratic Party and the Obama administration, some of whom may have been operatives from the R camp, but most of whom seemed to be genuine and sincere critics from the "left" -- that is to say, genuinely disappointed and in many cases outraged Democrats and independents who honestly felt betrayed by the White House and the Democratic Party and that the policies being instituted and implemented by the Obama administration were too often -- and too obviously -- either newly minted rightist policies or were continuations of Bush-era policies with or without a "kinder-gentler" face.

These critics seemed to grow in number and popularity, and they got a lot of push-back from administration apologists who by and large were angry and upset with any criticism of Obama or his policies. To my eye, the situation was one of dynamic tension. It wasn't always cordial by any means, but at least it showed some signs of strength and weakness on both sides.

Some of the critical posters became more and more provocative. One, for example, consistently challenged the corporatist nature of the President and the Party. Another posted about the "true nature" of a volunteer military -- declaring the soldiers "murderers" by the very fact that they volunteered to go kill people who were in the way of or resisted the march of corporate imperial interests. That one was written by a vet, and he was quite stark in his description of what the modern volunteer military is all about. He raised a good deal of anger and ire among other vets who deeply resented being called "murderers."

These kinds of posts, mostly criticizing and challenging the corporatism and imperialism that had become so ingrained in the Democratic Party and the White House, were fairly frequent and they often raised important issues. There was no way to resolve them, of course, but discussion was valuable.

At one point, Markos intervened with a condemnation of one of the more frequent and popular critics for being "paranoid." This intervention set off a mini-firestorm because it seemed to many that it was inappropriate, wrong-headed and even dishonest. The poster who was criticized by Markos attempted to revise his approach to more adequately meet Markos's objections, but because Markos didn't really say what he was objecting to, he only hinted, it was a nearly impossible task.

The vet who wrote the military "murderer" post was challenged and chastised in his own post, and he seemed to take it well, understanding the objections and alternative points of view. He respected other points of view but strenuously disagreed and said why.

As far as I know, Markos said nothing about it.

And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the shitstorm hit.

The war began with an intemperate, barely coherent, antagonistic, hurtful and deeply divisive self-described rant by one of the site's front-pagers. She questioned why anyone who "hates the troops" or despises this or that corporatist and corrupt aspect of the Democratic Party and its candidates and policy choices would continue to be at dKos. It was a frank invitation those people to leave. And not come back until they got their minds right.

After triggering this war, she flounced off to her professorship at SUNY New Paltz, ("busy busy busy") and has not to this day responded directly to her critics and questioners. But she has continued to denounce and disparage them from the comfort of her community of friends and colleagues online who rallied to her defense and acted as surrogates to "blaxsplain" what she meant. They haven't helped.They caused even more turmoil and upset.

Then Markos himself got involved by declaring his "100%" agreement and support of her rant, and that triggered yet another round of meta shitstorms.

These wars are nothing new there; they happen with some frequency, and they are often the prelude to a Purge of dissenters and non-conformists. It's all on behalf, they say, of Democratic Party Unity as election season approaches once again. Of course, what it's done is create an echo chamber in which only the party line is permitted, and those with contrary views or questions are not allowed.

Markos issued a passive-aggressive challenge to those who didn't toe the line, to either get on board or get lost, and the push-back was greater than I think I have ever seen there. He was hammered long and hard by highly articulate and increasingly irate participants who saw him as someone who was working against the best interests of the People, the Party, and ironically, the best interests of his own site. He was asked directly if what he wanted was an "echo-chamber" -- and if so, why. He didn't answer. He was challenged to "get out more" and actually see what's going on outside his "inside the gates" bubble. He was routinely accused of being a "gatekeeper" and "gate polisher" who was really only in this game for the money (with quotes from himself to demonstrate the fact) and who had no interest in anything beyond his selfish desires. It got harsh, very harsh. People, many of them long-time participants, were hurt and angry and his behavior was compounding the problem. He was challenged to describe how what he was doing was in any way supportive of building a broad-based and successful Party coalition. He had no answer.

I didn't stick around for the entire episode. It was clear where it was headed. People were sick and tired of the bullshit Markos and a number of other front pagers were selling, and they were not going take it any more. Markos just wanted to be told how much he was beloved, and he wasn't getting much of it.

Interestingly, though, there was a marked change in the front page within a day. It went from being almost nothing but ACA fluff and ridiculing Republican antics to serious posts on Democratic candidates and policies, including an almost unprecedented front page post on the Progressive Caucus's alternative budget. All of a sudden the front page became substantive instead of stupid.

The attacks on the "left" ceased, or at least were put on "pause," and more and more posts were put up encouraging dialog, accommodation, and community.

All this was clearly a response to the intensity of the push-back against the hostility and harm instigated the meta-war. Even HoHo himself (well, whoever posts for him) put in a brief appearance -- to say Look How Much We've Accomplished! Yay Us!

Whether the Powers That Be over there actually recognize how badly off the rails the site had gone in its effort to cleanse itself of the "leftist" taint, or whether they're using a strategy to mollify critics while changing nothing substantively remains to be seen -- though having been through this a few times, I pretty much know the answer.

There is likely to be a purge of malcontents and others who are in the way. Markos passive-aggressively threatened as much. He said there had been three purges already, and if he alone determined it was needed, there would be a fourth. So far, he didn't see the need, but that could change. Rapidly.

At least for the moment -- or the day, yesterday -- there was a pause, and for a little while, the critics got part of their way. Whether it will last is hard to say. I'd be surprised if it does.

In the meantime, the fact that there was so much insistent and forceful push-back to the crap that had been unleashed from On High over there was notable.

Struggles between Old Guards and Insurgents go on all the time, of course. It's a fundamental part of American politics given our anachronistic two party system that sustains itself through the constant interplay between insurgency and stability.

In a sense it's a perpetual virtual war between factions. It means that bloody civil war is relatively rare, but it also means that neither of the two dominant political parties actually represents the people and their interests at all.

The insurgency at dKos is characterized as "from the left" -- which some of it is -- but it is essentially an effort to curb or oust the Old Guard, meaning Markos himself and those he is aligning himself with, and substitute something more... relevant and contemporary, regardless of flavor.

Given the nature of online propertarianism, that is unlikely to succeed, but the effort will no doubt be instructive.

Stay tuned.
NOTE: the "pause" lasted literally a few hours, and then it was right back to non-stop ACA fluffing and Sarah Palin ridicule.

Why am I not surprised?

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