Chait on the netroots

by Henry on May 4, 2007

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.

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Crooked Timber » » The two-party system
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05.07.07 at 6:36 am



Seth Finkelstein 05.04.07 at 9:10 pm

Henry, I’m not going to plow through the column-yards of back-and-forth, but let me just state what I see as the problem, whether or not Chait or you is phrasing it this way: When there is a large ranting attention-machine, intellectually-honest pundits face a choice: If they say things the ranters like, they’ll get attention from the owners of the noise machine. If they don’t … they won’t. At best. At worst, the noise-machine will be turned on the pundit.

This isn’t a great thing if you’re interested in intellectually-honest punditry. Now, I think having a left-wing noise-machine opposing a right-wing noise-machine may be far, far, better overall for the country than just having a right-wing noise-machine. But to lefty pundits too obscure to be serious targets of the wingnut brigades, it may seem that all they are getting out of that change is a new source of potential attackers.


David 05.04.07 at 9:12 pm

Certainly groupthink and bad intellectual habits are widely distributed [in academe as well, of course]. But I’m not convinced the the left blogosphere can get off so easy. I’ve seen far too much of what can only be termed virtual mob behavior. The common flinging of obscenities is a case in point. The typical response of the blogosphere is to ridicule concern with language as dainty–but that dodges the point, which is that such language is used primarily to intimidate; the word “wanker” is, after all, not used descriptively, but rather with the intent of sexually humiliating its target. We know from recent reports that the blogosphere is nasty towards women; but more broadly it punishes people of tender sensibilities, and, when called on it, dismisses such people as unworthy to be in the arena. Some of us find this deeply disturbing.

There are other bad habits that clearly flow from the premium placed on partisanship. Lord knows how many times I’ve seen it stated that x criticism of the Democratic Party is illegitimate because it “rehashes Republican talking points.” Well, maybe so, but, first, intellectually honest people evaluate ideas without reference to who might think them [I think to do otherwise is called ad hominem argumentation?]. Second, from a purely tactical point of view, Republicans may say these things because it wins them support, and a blogosphere that really wants to see the Democrats regain power [not yet a done deal, recent triumphalism notwithstanding] might at least consider that up until recently the Enemy seems to have been doing stuff right.

Finally, I’m not as convinced as you seem to be that leading left bloggers really, deep down in their hearts, value bipartisanship, but have simply set it aside for the duration of the Emergency. Intrinsic to their partisanship is the same belief that we can see in the Kiddie Korps that Gonzales and Co. moved into DOJ–a notion that “disinterest” is but a mask for establishment privilege, and that one of the most important uses of political power is to uproot that privilege and its pretenses to be the arbiter of How Things Ought to be Done. If anything, the current liberal allegiance to “objectivity” and “the facts” looks an awful lot like tactically convenient lip service. Not too long ago, I recall, the university left was in thrall to the notion that evocations of “objectivity” were tools by which dominant elites maintained their hegemony, and the latter-day left conversion to belief in “absolute truth” seems motivated primarily by its discovery that those ideas were not its exclusive property. Chait is a bit over the top in some of his pronouncements, but I think he’s on to something in his concern with instrumentalism. Disinterest, as you well know, is a hard discipline; brandishing words as weapons is a lot more fun, but in the long run it can lead to the same disastrous cul-de-sac that it’s led Rick Perlstein’s conservatives–a point that the many left admirers of that Movement should bear in mind.


Rich Puchalsky 05.04.07 at 9:26 pm

Chait’s article was an exercise in 1) flattery, which predictably worked as the netroots can never resist anything written about it, 2) historical summary and subcultural overview (wrong in detail, “wanker” to the netroots is *not* the equivalent of “squish” to the right), 3) unsubtle framing that the netroots are Girondists Gone Wild, 4) the New Moderation, in which the existance of the right-wing noise machine is finally admitted so that the a left-wing one can be proposed as the natural, ecological balance that keep everything in beloved stasis and allow pundits to live in their niches, untroubled.

But the netroots is not a noise machine and it isn’t going to go away if the right-wing one collapses.


Barry 05.04.07 at 9:26 pm

The underlying problem with Chait’s essay is that he’s got to paint in huge arcs, to get around the ‘elephant in the room’ that is his failure to get things right in the past six years, and the fact that he’s been in bed with TNR, the neoconmen, every ‘democrat’ who feels that he/she advances by trashing other democrats for the GOP, a vile racist Peretz, and a total whore named Lieberman. His accusations of ideology over truth are perfect descriptions of his side’s behavior.

Again, the best description of the behavior of the right in the USA is freudian projection.


homais 05.04.07 at 9:54 pm

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.

I think there’s a missing distinction here. I don’t think the ‘netroots’, or the ‘right-wing’ noise machine, or much of anyone actually advocate dishonesty. Dishonesty and overt malfeasance are not the problem. In fact, the netroots can be, as you say, almost singlemindedly devoted to sticking principle (when Kos isn’t going on about doing whatever it takes to win).

The problem is that they, like many, already know what the truth is . They don’t have to be dishonest, because intricate and half-acknowledged ideological frameworks allow them to parse problems in such a way as to conclude that, conveniently enough, whatever it is they already believed is right. It’s not that they’re being willful liars, but dishonesty is what happens in the end anyway. This is hardly a problem unique to the netroots or the conservative movement. Anyone who’s tried to think seriously about any non-trivial problem knows how hard it is to avoid an idealist’s will to power. But the style of the netroots, like the conservative style that influenced it, seem more totalizing and vulnerable to ideological information-parsing than I’m comfortable with.


OHenry 05.04.07 at 9:58 pm

And the dangers of not spellchecking, well, really grammar checking…

Henry, find all instances of principal in your post and replace with principle.


rootless2 05.04.07 at 11:03 pm

Barry hits the key point. Chait was totally, tragically, and offensively wrong about Iraq and about his snide dismissal of the people who were right.

But more than that, Chait’s stupid pride that he does not consider himself on a side is typical shallow and dangerous DC elite prejudice. Everyone is on a side. You can be on the side of truth and justice and freedom or on the side of Norquistism or on the side of the passersby who don’t want to be involved. But there is no olympian detachment from the political struggle, only a elitist delusion of being above the battle – because you are well off enough to be insulated from the effects.


Disturbance 05.04.07 at 11:03 pm

Which is all a really complicated way of saying that the netroots don’t like backstabbing weasels — and Chait’s analysis of the netroots is a perfect example of the backstabbing weasel in action.

The netroots bloggers are very honest. They make great arguments that get people like Chait’s panties all in a bunch because wankers like Chait are used to stabbing liberals in the back with impunity and now all of a sudden they find that they get exposed by bloggers, who not only argue circles around punks like Chait but call him a wanker in the process.


superfly 05.04.07 at 11:08 pm

“…whether because they live in fear of being blacklisted by Townhall, or because they simply want to make nice.”

Isn’t it “Townhouse?”

Good take, Chait strikes me as someone who still has had very little, if any, contact with those he writes about in the piece.


Jim Harrison 05.04.07 at 11:10 pm

There are certainly exceptions, but netroot bloggers I read are down right fussy when it comes to checking facts and very willing to admit and correct errors. If you don’t want to give them credit for being better human beings than their right wing counterparts, I guess you could account for their scrupulousness as a natural polemical tactic in debates where the facts favor their side. The cynical bastards realize that it works to their advantage not to cheat.


porgy tirebiter 05.04.07 at 11:15 pm

Next time the question of the meaning of “wanker” comes up, I’m going to provide to the questioner a link to david’s comment (2). It’s perfect.


Mark 05.04.07 at 11:15 pm

Uhh, Kos has repeatedly said himself that he’s not especially keen on gun control. All of Kos’ posterpoliticians for Libertarians Democrats are essentially united by the common trait of being “pro-gun.” Chait’s argument is facially self-contradictory and wrong, and anyone with a passing familiarity with the netroots knows that. As far as Lieberman goes, the blue-red distinction has basically nothing to do with it. It was sort of pre-dkos, but the roto-netroots all hated Zell Miller from the jump for the same reason–he was self-aggrandizing at the expense of his supposed allies in his party. If Mary Landrieu or Ben Nelson was on TV every Sunday morning tearing down the Dem brand, we’d hate them too.


jonas 05.04.07 at 11:25 pm

This post is by far the best I’ve seen on Chait’s piece. Smart, reasonable, and devastating in its critique of all the lame premises and blind-spots underlying Chait’s article. I hope Chait reads it.


Henry 05.04.07 at 11:58 pm

ohenry and superfly – thanks for pointing out the typoes, which are now corrected. More substantive response to some of this soon …


lambert strether 05.05.07 at 12:03 am

Henry explains (and I agree):

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.

This concept has a name. It’s called The Overton Window.

Shystee has a diagram and an explanation of the Overton Window.

In short form, what we need to do is shove the Overton window left, and the extremes are a necessary part of this (inverting the conventional wisdom among Beltway Dem consultants, to whom the yellow stripe down the middle of the road is everything. But then their bread is buttered only when elections are close and they can deliver the margin of victory, so why should we listen to them? They have no interest in building a majority that is anything other than marginal).

The Overton Window: Name it and claim it…


pbg 05.05.07 at 12:12 am

Intellectual dishonesty?
The anger and vocality of the progressive blogosphere isn’t generated by ideology, and differences in theoretical positions are not minimized or excluded. The blogosphere filled up because of two concrete occurrences: the hijacking of the government by the radical right, and the subsequent atrocities it has perpetrated; and the complicity of the mainstream media.
The truth, IMHO, is that there is little intellectual discussion in the blogosphere. But neither is there intellectual discussion in the pundit-press. The disagreement on the Iraq war was not about differing conceptions of the USA’s place in the world or the place of warfare in the modern world–but that the administration was lying repeatedly about the case for war, and the mainstream media was wholeheartedly supporting them.

What ideas were brought forth were such that the 20th Century me would find it hard to credit that there’s another side that deserves intellectual respect: the use of torture, the suspension of habeas corpus, the utter evilness of Islam, and the theory that secular progressives have destroyed the Christian Nation of America.

No, the fight the ‘left’ blogosphere has been waging is not one of differing ideas. It has been a fight for facts, for the truth to be told about what was and is happening. There is very little ‘leftist’ about this. the ‘left’ blogosphere is not saying that the only solution is the revolt of the proletariat and the workers controlling the means of production, or that national governments should be abolished–which is what characterized leftist arguments in my youth.

There’s not a dime’s bit of difference between Joe Klein’s theoretical intellectual positions , I suspect, and mine. We would probably agree on most intellectual points. What I find repulsive is not his ideas, but the people he supports and the people he attacks (mainly, us)–and the things he states that are demonstrably untrue.

We don’t object to George W. Bush as a conservative ideologue: we object to him as a liar and a war criminal. There’s a real difference.

And it’s convenient for the MSM who supported these criminals to believe that we’re ‘hard left’, to use Bill O’Reilly’s charming phrase. The truth is more uncomfortable: we are no more to the left than they are. We share the same beliefs, the same intellectual positions, the same principles.

One group sold out those principles. Plain and simple.


Urban Sombrero 05.05.07 at 12:56 am

I surf the Internet to get facts, and to find context. With facts in context I can arrive at a well informed opinion. I also look for well crafted arguments and analysis based on facts and context. Since many “netroot” sites meet this criteria, they are valuable to me.

On the other hand, if I detect dishonesty or a lack of fairness from a website, it becomes useless to me which is why so many conservative and big media websites are useless to me — it’s just propaganda.

It’s that simple.


Josh Koenig 05.05.07 at 1:00 am

I tend to think it’s more than a little early to try and make any definitive pronouncements about what the netroots are and are not. It seems to me that the clear trend is towards a wider circle of participation, and perhaps more specifically a _decentralization_ in the production of political ideas.

What this has to do with the “pursuit of ideas for their own sake” is murky to me, as I don’t really believe that anyone with two neurons to rub together pursues ideas in a vacuum. One engages in inquiry for the sake of deeper understanding and ultimately results.

However, while tensions do exist between movement-building and lively intellectual inquiry, I think it’s rather preposterous that any system of control or coercion is emerging. If the wonkosphere is pulling its punches because they’re afraid of getting hit by the Great Orange Satan, they need to toughen up. Lively debate means being able to throw/take an elbow, g.

The bottom line for me is that the format we’re laying all this down on is inherently low-barrier-to-entry, decentralized, and participatory. This stands in huge contrast to political movements of the past, and the 60s-vintage conservative movement in particular.

External forces — crisis leading to lockdown — could still shape things into an ugly form, but I think it’s unlikely to happen that way, and that this is really still a period of transition and growth. Remember, it was only five years ago that the whole beat of the Shrill was the exclusive domain of one Paul Krugman. We’ve come a long way, baby, but this is only the beginning.


Bloix 05.05.07 at 1:10 am

We are witnesses to a plot by fascistic forces to co-opt the criminal justice system and subject it to the control of party operatives, for the purpose of using it to prosecute and imprison political adversaries who are innocent of any crime, to disenfranchise voters, and to protect actual criminals from prosecution. This plot to subvert democracy and turn the United States into a one-party system where there is no distinction between government and party has been supported and is still being supported by the dominant media empires that control the public discourse of the country. The major media comfortably contemplate prison camps like Guantanamo and debate in their pages whether the US needs a military coup. The give air time to people like Ann Coulter who say that the way to deal with liberals is to beat them to death.

And to Jon Chait the big problem is that a half a dozen guys with computers don’t live up to his definition of intellectual honesty.

Chait still doesn’t get it. These people are evil. If they are not defeated we – I mean this literally – we will end our lives in concentration camps.


Jim Harrison 05.05.07 at 1:36 am

Since the Democrats began their comeback, various journalistic weathervanes have decided to change sides; and many of these trimmers and operators indeed merit criticism for acting like rightwingers with the signs reversed. I’d have no complaint if Chait wanted to criticize somebody like Ariana Huffington, for example, since her website routinely features misleading headlines, cherry-picked quotations, and irrelevant personal attacks, the usual gambits of political operators and, indeed, the same methods she formerly used herself against Diane Feinstein when she was running her husband for the senate out here in California. I just haven’t noticed the same sort of behavior in that older cohort of left and centrist bloggers commonly called the netroots.


Ben Alpers 05.05.07 at 1:57 am

Those who’ve said the 800-lb. gorilla in the room is Iraq are 100% correct. What unites Chait with all his supposed victims of the netroots wrath–Lieberman, Harman, even Yglesias–is that they all supported the Iraq War and treated those who didn’t with real contempt. And at least Chait, Lieberman, and Harman essentially want get-out-of-jail-free cards; they expect to be taken seriously without in any sense coming to grips with what they did. And Chait wants to accuse those who now won’t take them seriously of being inflexible propagandists. Sorry, that dog won’t hunt. These folks cheerled the biggest foreign policy blunder in US history. Until they show some sign of realizing what they did, I wouldn’t trust ’em on anything.

In fact, the real inflexibility of the netroots involves not ideology, but strategy and tactics. The answer to everything is electing more Democrats. Any suggestion that that might not always be the solution to every problem is the surest way to provoke an irrational negative response on dKos.


MikeB 05.05.07 at 2:49 am

“Misunderstanding” is charitable. Anyone who has ever been involved in a movement seeking power and influence is familiar with the Chait type. They always want to talk and the closer you get to any center of power, to really having an influence, the more nervous they get. Not stupid and not necessarily a big problem. Downright helpful on occasion -– hell, someone has to write the mission statement. No successful movement listens to them or gives them much scope. Given half a chance, they will stop you cold. You just have to know when to tell them to STFU and leave the room. Jon, STFU.


Russell L. Carter 05.05.07 at 3:37 am

I am so heartened by what I read here. Earlier the substantive comments were #1 and #2, and the the followons not addressing the obfuscating concern trolls. Sorry Seth.

I wrote up something that had a similar take to one of the commenters above: yourside shitstorm? Put on Pith Hat. Grow some courage. Then I shitcanned it.

And I come back to see, blessed beauty. #15-22 are my heart writing. I never in all my life expected to see such a number of eloquent people expressing what I think. I suppose we’re all Stalinists now.
Back to Furst I go.


Walt 05.05.07 at 3:43 am

The very premise of Chait’s article is off-base. Politics is not about ideas. Politics is about the exercise of power, for good or for ill. If you are against the war, then you are not against Joe Lieberman because of his ideas. You are against Joe Lieberman because he’s a US Senator who’s policies are killing people.


Jillian 05.05.07 at 3:56 am

My read of Chait agrees with yours, mostly. But I think his problem with the ‘netroots’ is more specific than it being ‘intellectually dangerous’.

If I understand his lengthy critique properly, there’s a conceit within it that I saw in Joe Klein’s early Swampland posts, which on the evidence I suspect Joe Lieberman, Jane Harman, and Marty Peretz largely share. This is the definition of (American) ‘liberalism’ as essentially identical with consensus New York Jewish liberalism of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. The problem with that definition is that it contains a right wing pro-Israel position, which (if/when sustained) leads into the pro-war position on Iraq and other illiberalisms. Voilá, the TNR ‘liberalism’ of the Peretz era.

The ‘netroots’, in Chait’s imagined version of it, takes on an imaginary Stalinism and the anti-Semitic tinge associated with that and the Industrial Age Left. Sure, he doesn’t make the identification overtly. And he certainly avoids mentioning Likudnik Israel or Iraq, or the real political problem and corruption/lack/annulment of principle that Lieberman in particular represents within the Democratic Party now.

This article represents, IMHO, mostly another volley in the fight for the Party. The ‘netroots’, while taking most of its present strength from supportive liberals, is the ascent of a renewed classical Left and the Left-center of the future. Chait and TNR represent a small but powerful faction whose right wingish pro-Israel stance now defines it, and it is the last powerful right wing element within the Party now that the Southern Right wing is nearly gone.


Russell L. Carter 05.05.07 at 3:59 am

I want to add that I do agree with Henry’s narrative above, and his update especially. If I’m parsing it correctly: complex analogies don’t have to mapped identically onto new situations in order to be useful. In particular one can elide the illegal parts.


rilkefan 05.05.07 at 4:43 am

“In fact, the real inflexibility of the netroots involves not ideology, but strategy and tactics. The answer to everything is electing more Democrats. Any suggestion that that might not always be the solution to every problem is the surest way to provoke an irrational negative response on dKos.”

Yes, if you say on dKos that the cure for the Yankees’ pitching struggles or the foul taste of Jaegermeister or such wankerish paragraphs as the above is to elect more Democrats, you’ll provoke an irrational negative reaction.


Jim E-H 05.05.07 at 6:05 am

One thing that rankles for me about Chait’s essay is his equating of pundits with “the intelligentsia” to attempt to equate right-wing anti-intellectualism with netroots critique. From what I have seen, the netroots engage academics on the level of ideas, not by accusing them of political motivations, and the netroots critique of journalists is largely that too many of them are suckups to power and under the influence of inherently Republican-friendly media congolmerates, not that they have an ideological motivation.

But it’s particularly dishonest to lump pundits and politicians into “the intelligentsia” in this way because they are inherently political, so it’s hardly anti-intellectual to criticize their political motivations.


Matt Weiner 05.05.07 at 1:23 pm

the cure for the Yankees’ pitching struggles

Thought we were talking about problems?


DavidNYC 05.05.07 at 7:26 pm

Quite interesting. Yglesias says he doesn’t write about his anti-gun control views because he “doesn’t want to be a wanker.” Chait’s interpretation of this remark is that Matt doesn’t want to be seen as out-of-step with his fellow travelers.

I find this amusing because I have seen diary after diary after diary on DailyKos from anti-gun control folks, who announce themselves as the future of the party, and tell us how bad and silly an issue gun control is, and insist that Democrats are much better off, especially in red and rural areas, when they keep their traps shut on this one. (This last point is almost certainly true.) I believe this is a core defining principle for self-styled “libertarian Democrats.”

Indeed, I feel like the “in” thing to do in the liberal netroots is for PRO-gun control folks to shut up. But my remark has nothing to do with the merits of the gun control debate – I just want to point out that I think Chait’s slim piece of evidence is exactly backwards. (Or, perhaps, that Matt need not feel like he’d be branded a “wanker” for speaking out against gun control.)

To put this in a more meta context, issues like this are not widely discussed in the blogosphere because we prefer to work outward from common ground. There are so many huge issues on which there is broad consensus among the lefty netroots – universal healthcare, environmental protection, reproductive freedom, etc. – that it’s a total time-waster to get caught up in the details of issues where you’re just going to fight and not advance the ball.

All this high-falutin’ thinking is hurting my head, though. Time to go back to being a hack.


Katherine 05.05.07 at 8:12 pm

“Thinking about the political impact what you write” can mean a lot of different things. It can mean you don’t write anything bad about your allies because you’re on the same side–it can also mean that you focus intensely on a certain topic right before a key Congressional vote on it; or that you don’t find snide stories about political candidates’ haircuts harmless; or that you don’t bother posting on relatively trivial disagreements you have with other lefty bloggers.


Henry 05.05.07 at 8:21 pm

Some quick responses:

Seth – there is something in what you say. But I think it is also liable to exaggeration. To put it this way – most of the stuff that we talk about here, or on BdL, or wherever is likely not to be very interesting to more activist types (or only accidentally interesting, to the extent that a particular activist’s interests and our non-political interests coincide). I don’t see much at all in the way of a change in the wonkosphere blogs to make themselves more interesting to the netroots. In fact, as I’ve argued before, I think that the opposite is true, and that there should be more dialogue.

David – I’m not too upset at the use of rude and vigorous language (sometimes it is not only appropriate, but necessary). Like Belle, however, I am however pissed off by the tendency by many blog commenters to describe people like Michelle Malkin in racist and sexist terms. Race-baiting sexist bullshit is race-baiting sexist bullshit, however you cut it. Reprehensible people should be attacked for their reprehensibleness, not for their skin colour or sex.

homais – there may be something to what you say – certainly all of us have a strong predilection to believe that what is ideologically convenient is also true. But I don’t see (perhaps I’m missing it) any evidence that the netroots are worse than any other strongly motivated group of people that you would care to mention. Certainly, they aren’t guilty of some of the stuff that their right wing confreres were and are guilty of in terms of out-and-out dirty tricks (read that Rick Perlstein piece I link to above). Also, I think that your criticism is very different from the “don’t understand what the term intellectual honesty means” shtick that the Chait piece presents.

Josh – I had a similar experience to yours. I can remember when Bush got elected the first time (I wasn’t in the US then) being pretty pissed off about the way it had happened, but not too worried about Bush himself as a president – I expected a few years of mediocre Republican rule (which I thought would even have some upside; there’s a reason why we need alternation of power between political parties in office). I was very badly wrong. I then looked on horrified over the months following Sep 11, and didn’t see anyone important in the mainstream media, apart from Paul Krugman, who seemed willing to articulate an alternative account of what was happening that matched with what I was hearing from my friends in foreign policy and economics circles. I think the country owes him a hell of a lot.

jillian – I don’t see any evidence whatsoever that Chait’s take on the netroots is motivated by his take on Israel, and in the absence of such evidence I think it’s irresponsible to throw around the kind of accusations you’re making.

Various – when I say that I think that Chait is a pretty good journalist, I’m not doing it just to hide the shiv. It’s true. He’s done some damn good work. Obviously, I don’t think that his work on the netroots is his finest hour. Nor his stuff on Iraq. But I’m still hopeful that either he or George Packer (the two journalist/intellectuals on the pro-war side who seemed to me to be the smartest and most thoughtful) will do a piece one day talking about what actually went wrong, and why they all drank the Kool Aid). I’ll go further – given the specific intellectual role that he wants to carve out for himself – I think that it’s probably _necessary_ for him to do this at some point, and the sooner the better, if he wants to be true to his vocation.


politus 05.05.07 at 9:04 pm

Henry, as your argument wandered along the FIRST example you grasped at was Joe Lieberman, but the Lieberman debacle is emblematic of the Netroots weakness and mendacity, not its strength. Let me explain:

It was apparent to every serious political observer that Joe was unbeatable in CT; even if he lost the primary the peculiar election laws in his state would allow him to easily remain in the Senate…. But not as a Democrat. I saw it, Harry Reid saw it; everybody except the Netroots. Challenging Joe put the emerging Democratic majority in the Senate at real risk.

Had the Netroots been truly interested in success for the Democratic Party they could have found a way to abide a conservative Democrat in CT. Pragmatism is the lifeblood of politics. But instead they focused their efforts on the largest mobilization yet of Netroots power, and they failed. As all astute observers predicted, Joe is back in the Senate in spite of them.

After the Primary election the Netroots dumped Ned Lamont like yesterday’s news. Contributions dried up, resulting in Lamont needing to put nearly $20 million of his own cash into the losing campaign. The goal of the Netroots was not really to elect Lamont, but to embarrass Lieberman. Indeed, I read several commenters at DailyKos who were willing to forego control of the Senate if it meant defeating Joe Lieberman. That is not wisdom or courage or activism; that is stupid.

There are many other Senators who cast the same votes for which the Netroots vilify Lieberman, yet they give the others a pass. It was not really about Joe’s politics, it was about Joe’s mocking tone toward Howard Dean back in 2003. It was vengeance against an enemy who Ralph Nader said was venal.

The Netroots failed utterly in its first mission; to elect Howard Dean, and it failed again in its second, to drive Lieberman from the Senate. It seems more driven to justify and flex its own power than to advance any coherent set of strategies or policies that will benefit the Democratic Party and the Progressive cause. When the Netroots finally loses some of its gee-whiz narcissism, it might do some good.


EriktheRed 05.05.07 at 10:05 pm


the netroots were also championing Sens. Webb and Tester’s campaigns, not to mention a few others. Some were successful, some not. As significant as the two examples you cite are, they’re not the whole story by a long shot.

Nor is it fair to just say, “It seems more driven to justify and flex its own power than to advance any coherent set of strategies or policies that will benefit the Democratic Party and the Progressive cause” because the debate going on within it working towards just that.


BushYouth 05.05.07 at 11:14 pm

david, I mean Joe Lieberman, is that you?


Tim Larson 05.05.07 at 11:29 pm

I would like to bring attention back to an important point that Josh Koenig makes: the GOP is centralized, whereas the netroots is inherently decentralized.

The leaders of the GOP mandate ideology, and everyone has to hop on board. So long as they satisfy certain constraints mandated by their base (lower taxes and anti-abortion) they can get away with pretty much anything. The blogosphere OTOH is inherently bottom-up.

Discussion about the Rightwing Noise Machine (RNM) and the Leftwing Noise Machine (LNM) should acknowledge this difference. The RNM is centrally controlled and relies on traditional media outlets, while the LNM depends more on the internet and “new media”. While it is important to worry about demagogues and the power of the majority to suppress minority opinions, the nature of new media makes it far easier for those in the minority to voice their opinion without fear that they will be “silenced”. How can you silence a blog?


DavidNYC 05.06.07 at 3:34 am

Oh my god, you can’t be serious about trying to engage “politus”, can you? The man is pure vitriol, who has hated the netroots and Markos since before they were born. Go check out his unhinged blog if you don’t believe me.


Joe Klein's conscience 05.06.07 at 4:44 pm

You don’t believe the tripe you right, do you? Lieberman is no longer a Democrart. You do know where he got most of his campaign money from this past election, right? If it weren’t for the Republiscum in CT, Lamont would be the junior Senator from CT. You just want to forget facts that don’t fit your argument.


politus 05.06.07 at 5:55 pm


The Netroots tends to take credit for nearly any Dem who wins, so long as the candidate’s name crossed the front page of DailyKos at some point. They are cocks convinced their crow caused the sun to rise.

The Netroots went all in for Dean and Lamont; no question about it. Both failed in a big way. And both efforts were insurgencies against the Democratic party. If the Netroots ever concentrated that much energy WITH Democrats AGAINST Republicans, it may become a meaningful enterprise.


Cranky Observer 05.06.07 at 7:19 pm

> Challenging Joe put the emerging Democratic
> majority in the Senate at real risk.

Challenging (and defeating, IIRC) Lieberman allowed many other _Democrats_ throughout the United States to start talking openly and honestly about Iraq – something which had been prohibited by both party and media before the primaries ran their course.

I believe CT is now changing the law that allows a person to run twice in the same election, also, so that is a good thing as well.



politus 05.06.07 at 9:49 pm


Yes, Republicans were allowed to vote for whomever they wanted in the general election in CT. What about this surprises and confounds you? Anbody with an IQ over room temperature recognized Joe was popular among repugs, and they would elect him given the chance. The Netroots seem clueless about this.


I thought you Netroots people said it was Howard Dean who taught us to challenge Bush! Now it’s Lamont? So it wasn’t Dean after all?

Rubbish! It was neither. Dems have been the party of peace and stability — who challenged Republican orthodoxy about war — for more than 100 years. Neither Dean nor Lamont invented anti-war activism. Both glommed on to the anti-war angle only after it became apparent it was a good political move for them.

In fact, in January of 2003 Howard Dean said, “I would be surprised if Saddam Hussein didn’t have chemicals and biological weapons.” When asked about this later, Dean said, “Oh, well, I tend to believe the president. I think most Americans tend to believe the president.”

Where was Ned Lamont when Bush was ramming this contry into a war of aggression in Iraq? He was nowhere to be seen or heard.

The Netroots and their odd little candidates did not teach the rest of us to challenge the war. They did, however, show that some politicians will exploit it, even some Dems.


Northern Observer 05.07.07 at 9:20 pm

It was apparent to every serious political observer that Joe was unbeatable in CT; even if he lost the primary the peculiar election laws in his state would allow him to easily remain in the Senate….

No. This is not true. We thought highly enough of Joe L that he would take it like a man and not run as an independent. Second, the weakness of the Republican Candidte was unpresidented and frankly a bit of good luck for Joe. Third, no one could foresee how easily Joe would be able to tap into Rove’s machine through his friendship with Cheney and an independent donor base whose main concern was keeping a Israeli Hawk in the Senate.

The numbers of registered Democrats in Connecticut conpared to the number of registered Republicans indicated that this blue state should be a lock for the official Dem nominee.

Had the Netroots been truly interested in success for the Democratic Party they could have found a way to abide a conservative Democrat in CT. … I read several commenters at DailyKos who were willing to forego control of the Senate if it meant defeating Joe Lieberman. That is not wisdom or courage or activism; that is stupid.
Joe Lieberman is not that conservative. It has never been his “conservatism” that made him a target. It was his constant disloyalty to the Democratic Party that made him a target. They guy could not open his mouth on television without slagging the Party. How does it make political sense to keep a man like that? Nelson does not do that. Byron Dorgan does not do that. Mary Landrieu does not do that. Only Joe did that. Only Joe went on Hannity and Meet the Press to build himself up as the great bi partizan Pooh Bah, by tearing down his own party’s image. Not acceptable or politically efficient.

The Netroots failed utterly in its first mission; to elect Howard Dean, and it failed again in its second, to drive Lieberman from the Senate.

Some Utterly. Some Failure. Give us many more failures like this and the Democrats will have an electoral lock on America for the forseable future. It is a measure of the man the after having his character assisinated in the media he chose to continue to serve. Dean is a DNC chairman like no other. He has made Democrats competitive in every state of the union and destroyed the RNCs ability to concentrate their ressources in a few races.
As for Lieberman his behavior since returning to the Senate vindicates the judgement of those that wanted him out; he covers the Bush administrations ass as part of his electoral devils bargain while the county cries out for oversight; shame on him.
In 2008 the Dems will have a plurality in the Senate and we will finally be able to remove this thorn from the Democratic Party’s Paw.


tired 05.09.07 at 1:16 pm

No. This is not true. We thought highly enough of Joe L that he would take it like a man and not run as an independent.

But since he didn’t “take it like a man” he took it like what, exactly?

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