Several days late and dollars short, my response to Jonathan Chait’s essay on the Netroots. It’s taken me a while to write something, because his underlying thesis is expressed a little circuitously, and I’ve wanted to be sure that I understood exactly what he was saying. Short version – there’s a serious argument in there. But it’s wrong, or at the least badly exaggerated.
Chait’s major claim seems to be something along the following lines: that the netroots (which he identifies pretty much entirely with prominent netroots bloggers such as Kos, Atrios etc) are politically helpful but intellectually dangerous. Politically helpful because they are providing a badly-needed counter-agent to the right wing message machine. Intellectually dangerous because they are copying the right wing message machine much too closely, and tossing any notions of honesty and fairness out the window in the pursuit of political effectiveness.
The first part of that argument seems to me to be on target, but somewhat overstated. The netroots are an exciting and important development in US politics, but they’re nowhere near to equalling the conservative movement of the 1960s in depth, numbers or political clout. Netroots bloggers had some role in the successful effort to deny Joe Lieberman the Democratic nomination in the Connecticut primaries, but their major effect wasn’t on the race itself, but instead on the way that the race was framed in national media (I talk about this more in my Boston Review piece which Chait, in fairness to him, cites even-handedly despite some rude comments I made about him in the opening paragraphs). WhenMarkos Moulitsas Zuniga was made his famous TV ad for Ned Lamont, most of the local activists featured in the spot didn’t know who the hell he was. If you broaden the definition of the ‘netroots’ to include people who subscribe to MoveOn’s emails, you include more of the relevant population of left activists but by no means all of it. The point is that the ‘netroots’ that Chait identifies isn’t a mass movement or anything like it. Nor, except in isolated instances is it taking over local party machinery in the same way that 1960s conservatives did. It’s friendly to local activists who in some cases are doing just that, but these activists aren’t part of the netroots, nor even in many cases fellow-travellers.
This is an empirical question – what’s more worrying to me is his account of the intellectual problems of the netroots. He’s effectively claiming that they have drunk Grover Norquist’s Kool-Aid, and are prepared to bend and batter the truth in every way necessary to win and to maintain power. Some quotes:
The netroots will forgive Democrats in conservative districts for moving as far to the right as necessary to win elections. But they do everything within their power to eliminate from liberal states or districts moderates like Joe Lieberman or Jane Harman, whose stances are born of conviction rather than necessity.
The party-line sensibility that pervades the netroots is not some artificial, Stalinist imposition. The close ties that exist among the netroots and its allies grow out of the technology they use so naturally.
Even Matthew Yglesias, who writes one of the most independent-minded liberal blogs, confessed in March that he had soft-pedaled his opposition to gun control. “I don’t write about this issue much because, hey, I don’t want to be a wanker,” he wrote.
In replicating the form and structure of the conservative movement, inevitably the netroots have replicated its intellectual style as well.
Political punditry, in their view, is not a form of intellectual discourse but of political battle.
The notion that political punditry ought to, or even can, be constrained by intellectual honesty is deeply alien to the netroots. They have absorbed essentially the same critique of the intelligentsia that the right has been making for decades. In the conservative imagination, journalists, academics, and technocrats are liberal ideologues masquerading as dispassionate professionals. Those who claim to be detached from the political struggle are unaware of their biases, or hiding them.
This is more or less the same view of the netroots. They attack liberals who, in their fervor to be seen as fair-minded, bend over backward so far that they do violence to truth. And they are quite right to do so. But the netroots critique is not that the liberal intelligentsia has stretched the conception of fairness too far; it is that the conception of fairness itself is folly.
There is a term for this sort of political discourse: propaganda. The word has a bad odor, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. Propaganda is often true, and it can be deployed on behalf of a worthy cause (say, the fight against Nazism in World War II).
A war of ideas, though, is not an intellectual process; it is a political process. As my colleague Leon Wieseltier has written, “[I]f you are chiefly interested in the consequences, then you are not chiefly interested in the ideas.” The netroots, like most of the conservative movement, is interested in the consequences, not the ideas. The battle is being joined at last.
There are three strands to this argument that should be disentangled. First is a claim that the netroots, good Rick Perlstein readers that they are, have decided to copy the conservatives and abandon intellectual honesty in order to fight the good fight. Second, that the netroots’ attacks on ‘fairness,’ ‘moderation’ and so on in politics are a product of their willingness to pursue power at the expense of honesty. Third, while this is politically useful (and perhaps even necessary), it is likely to have grave and harmful consequences for intellectual debate (even poor Matt Yglesias, good guy that he is, is being pulled over to the dark side because he doesn’t want to displease the Kossacks). Those who are interested in ideas for their own sake rather than their political usefulness (i.e. Chait and his friends) need to rally around the banner and fight back.
Each of these rests on a misunderstanding. It’s for sure that prominent figures in the netroots want to emulate the organizational success of conservatives in the 1960s. But this doesn’t at all mean that they find intellectual honesty an alien concept. As the aforementioned Rick Perlstein has pointed out, the conservative movement that they expressly want to emulate started out as a group of people who publicly prized principle above political expediency. This became corrupted during the Nixon years; but if there are any netroots folks out there who say we should be emulating the dishonesty of the Nixon administration, I’m not aware of ‘em. More to the point – what conversations I’ve had with prominent netroots people gives me no reason to believe that they don’t prize intellectual honesty. Their beef is more limited and historically bounded – that over the last couple of decades Democrats and liberals have ceded vital ground by not recognizing that they are engaged in a political battle, and fighting bluntly and uncompromisingly for their principles. I don’t know of any substantial evidence that prominent netroots bloggers have been systematically dishonest or unfair in doing this, and certainly Chait doesn’t provide any. The closest he comes is to suggest that the netroots’ “veneration” of Cindy Sheehan was intellectually shabby, and in some unspecified sense equivalent to the flat out lies of the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. As other bloggers point out, this purported equivalence doesn’t pass the giggle test.
As for the claim that netroots bloggers’ attacks on “fairness,” “moderation” etc are motivated by their fundamental distaste for compromise and honest intellectual debate – it’s nonsense. Again, netroots’ criticisms of ‘moderation,’ ‘bipartisanship’ and so on are historically limited. I had one discussion with a prominent netroots blogger about bipartisanship which is worth quoting.
Bipartisanship isn’t necessarily bad. Bipartisanship in the current political atmosphere, where only one side is being bipartisan, is bad. In the six years that Bush has been in power, when has he compromised? … There is nothing inherently bad in bipartisanship. There is something inherently bad in bipartisanship with this crowd.
This isn’t a statement that compromise and moderation are evil in any absolute sense. It’s a specific argument that in our current circumstances (or more particularly, the circumstances before the mid-terms, when I had this discussion) compromise is a bad idea. It’s furthermore an argument based on a real and substantial analysis, which I think is mostly right, and which for me is the single most valuable thing that the netroots have come up with. The short version of the netroots argument, as I understand it, is this. The ground rules of American political debate have been set in ways that disadvantage those on the left side of the spectrum. Prominent pundits repeatedly call for “moderation” and for “bipartisan solutions” which tend to favour both Republican interests and the interests of those on the right of the Democratic party at the expense of left and center Democrats, because the supposed center of American political debate has been shifted considerably to the right by a concerted effort on the part of conservative opinion makers. Even more to the point – this shifting of the center allows ‘moderate’ Democrats to score political brownie points at the expense of their party by repeatedly seeking to distance themselves from it, undermining in the process any possibility that the Democrats could bring through real political change.
Bloggers’ objections to Joe Lieberman aren’t so much to his substantive political arguments, as Chait charges – they are to his repeated habit of trying to win political kudos and capital by publicly deploring his colleagues on Sunday talk shows. These ain’t displays of principle – they’re examples of an apparently deliberate political strategy that increases Lieberman’s political clout (albeit not so much as they did) at the expense of his supposed colleagues. It seems to me that Chait’s critique only holds if you believe that moderation, bipartisanship etc as they are presented in political discussion are genuinely neutral terms. It also seems to me that they are inarguably anything but neutral, as they are currently deployed by Broder and others.
Finally, we come to the question of whether or not this has the potential to replace open intellectual debate with trench warfare between duelling propaganda machines, as Chait seems to fear. Matt Yglesias says that Chait uses language which suggests a “conspiratorial” relationship which is liable to undermine the intellectual independence of left pundits in the wonkosphere (a term which I seem to have invented, and for which I apologize). I think he’s right – the very strong impression that Chait’s essay gives is of a unified movement based on the conservative model in which dissenters are liable to find themselves unpersons if they don’t toe the party line. Chait himself, in a follow-up essay says that he means nothing of the sort, and is only saying that the two groups are allied with each other. Regardless, he seems to be claiming that lefty intellectuals are deliberately soft-pedalling their criticisms of the netroots, whether because they live in fear of being blacklisted by Townhouse, or because they simply want to make nice.
As other commenters, Matt included, have pointed out, this is a badly overblown argument. Again, there isn’t any good evidence of a trahison de clercs in the wonkosphere, and Chait doesn’t present any, apart from two comments by Matt that don’t really support his argument. The clear implication of his original essay is that left-wonk bloggers are watching what they say in order to avoid censure from the netroots. His reply essay shifts this to the rather different claim that left-wonk bloggers are paying attention to the political impact of what they do and say instead of simply saying what they think and ignoring the political consequences. The first version of the claim, if true, would certainly be fishy, at least if the compromises involved major issues of principle. The second doesn’t sound fishy to me at all – if, like Matt, you made your mark writing for a political publication such as The American Prospect, then of course you’re going to pay attention to the political impact of what you say and how you say it; if you don’t, you’re not doing your job properly. But even if you subscribe to the goals of a broader community, you don’t have to be intellectually dishonest, and can be a critic from within (Michael Walzer’s The Company of Critics is the best account I know of what’s involved in this). I don’t know of any reason whatsoever to suggest that Matt and others aren’t being honest in this way, and plenty of reason to suggest that they are.
All this said, Chait is right in pointing to the tensions between movement building and the pursuit of ideas and arguments for their own sake. But this is not only a pretty standard problem; it’s a much less grave one in practice than he suggests. I don’t see much evidence of lefty thinkers in the blogosphere keeping quiet for the Good of the Movement, and I think that there’s a reason why there isn’t such evidence. Where there is potentially a real problem is in the echo-chamber effect – people in the netroots and in the wonkosphere do sometimes sing too loudly from the same hymn book, not because of intellectual dishonesty, but because of the various pressures towards conformity that Cass Sunstein and others point to. This is probably a necessary part of movement building – but is also worrying from the point of view of thriving intellectual debate.
However, again, this isn’t especially a problem of the netroots or indeed of the blogosphere. The most egregious example of the echo chamber that I’ve seen in recent history, was the near-universal agreement among chinwagging journalistic commentators of left and right, Chait included, that the Iraq War was Vitally Necessary to Our Security Interests, and that anyone who disagreed was Deeply Unserious. Pundits like Joe Klein who apparently dissented from this consensus in their hearts of hearts for some reason only felt able to voice their dissent in teeny-tiny little voices. Even now, to the extent that Chait is prepared to say that he and others were wrong, he’s blaming it on the anti-war people for not being right about the first Gulf War. As John Quiggin said a few months ago, this excuse doesn’t fly. Perhaps Chait (who I do think is a pretty good journalist most of the time) can write a follow-up article, talking about the pressures, groupthink, informal sanctions and so on which lead so many people who considered themselves to be foreign policy intellectuals to make such a horrible mistake. I suspect that the forces responsible weren’t all that different from the ones that shape argument in the blogosphere; I’d like to see this confirmed or disconfirmed by someone who was actually part of this.
Update: As Rick Perlstein points out to me via email, I got his thesis about the 1960s conservatives wrong (my misreading is thanks to poor memory and overly quick skimming). His actual point is that they saw themselves as pursuing a higher morality and saving a decadent West by all means necessary – in pursuit of a higher morality, the ends justify the means. Thus, I need to modify my argument a bit – what I’d say now is that even if Kos etc view the 1960s conservative movement as a role model, it’s because of conservatives’ willingness to take on a decadent party establishment and remake conventional wisdom, not because of the dubious tactics they employed in so doing.