Blogs and progressive politics

by Henry Farrell on February 18, 2006

“Lakshmi Chaudry”: has an interesting piece in _In These Times_ on whether or not blogs can revolutionize progressive politics. Interesting – but, I think, based on a flawed premise. Chaudry’s argument, as I understand it, is that blogs aren’t going to be able to fulfil their promise of creating a vital new progressive movement, based on the netroots, unless it becomes more internally diverse, embracing women, minorities and (something which not many people focus on) people from the working class. Lakshmi seems to buy in, at least in part, to the argument that blogs can be an

bq. inherently democratic, interactive and communal medium, with the potential to instantaneously tap into the collective intellectual, political and financial resources of tens of millions of fellow Americans to create a juggernaut for social change.

Where she disagrees with lefty blog evangelists is in her belief that:

bq. any such strategy is unlikely to work if those in charge of crafting it—be they bloggers, politicians or so-called netizens—show little interest in expanding the reach of the progressive blogosphere to include the largest, most diverse audience possible. If the blogs are unable to bridge the class divide online, there is no reason to think they can create a grassroots movement that can do so in the real world.

This seems to me to be based on the flawed premise that blogs can be the heart of a genuine mass-movement, with appeal to working class voters as well as politics geeks. Blogs are still an elite phenomenon, with a relatively low readership among non-elites. There are a lot of inflated numbers being thrown around – the most “convincing estimate”: that I’ve seen suggests that the biggest political blog around, the Daily Kos, had less than 1% of the readership of the New York Times in the middle of last year (it has probably grown since). Blogs are politically important, not because they are the nucleus of a mass movement, or a new form of radical democracy, but because they are read by journalists, federal law clerks, political activists and others who may then be influenced by them. While Chaudry is right that the blogosphere needs more diversity, this isn’t because a greater diversity of voices among bloggers is likely to make blogs more appealing, say, to working class voters. It’s because blogs do sometimes frame political questions for the media, and to the extent that they’re mostly written by white college educated males who are interested in technology, they’re liable to skew politics a but in favour of the interests of aforesaid college educated males, and against the interests of other groups with different priorities. It seems to me that political blogs are a little better than print media or TV at, say, taking trade unions seriously, but not so much that we should be patting ourselves on the back or anything.



Raw Data 02.18.06 at 7:46 pm

“…flawed premise that blogs can be the heart of a genuine mass-movement, with appeal to working class voters as well as politics geeks.”

Flawed premise indeed and a great straw-person.


schwa 02.18.06 at 8:39 pm

It’s good to see someone making this point; unreflective acceptance of the idea that blogs are this marvellous new democratic medium is far too rampant.

If I were less philosophically committed to free speech, the first kind I’d outlaw would be all use of the idiotic term “netroots”. Its utter absurdity is demonstrated by the fact that the people who use it have a better than three-in-four chance of being white, affluent, professional men aged between twenty and forty.

The notion that blogs can somehow be the centre of “a vital new progressive movement” is one of the worst political ideas to emerge so far this decade. So far its gift to us has been an arrogant, ignorant, fratricidal echo chamber for people whose attitude to public policy (let alone the art and science of winning elections) is exactly equivalent to the Christian Right’s attitude to evolution.

(And I say all of this as a more-or-less unrepentant Howard Dean supporter.)


schwa 02.18.06 at 8:40 pm

And here’s a passing thought: Remember when blogosphere triumphalism was a righty phenomenon? Back in the days when even people who didn’t agree with him politically felt obliged to care what Glenn Reynolds thought?

Plus ça change…


John Quiggin 02.18.06 at 8:49 pm

I’d never heard the word ‘netroots’ before, schwa, but I endorse your call for a ban/moratorium.

While I agree with you, Henry, I think the NYT/Atrios comparison is misleading. There are lots of blogs, but not many competitors for the space occupied by NYT. The main point, I think, is that left/liberal blogs are competing for the space occupied by NYT, and NYT does not have a large working-class readership, particularly outside NYC itself.


Seth Finkelstein 02.18.06 at 9:14 pm

“Raw Data”/#1 – Let me assure you that e.g. during the Howard Dean campaign, probably every inflated political claim that could be made about blogs and politics, was seriously made by some hypester trying to “sell” blogs.

A basic political problem is that the left needs to better connect with non-wonks, and blogging is essentially for wonks.


Raw Data 02.18.06 at 9:52 pm

Just an aside, Seth,
Is there a “Left” in the USA? I have my doubts.

What passes for the Left — Hillary Clinton? — is so lacking in imagination that it doesn’t have sense enough to recognize a great Republican phrase (e.g. “the ownership society”) and run with it and explain that the Republicans don’t know what to do with it. That particular phrase was such an opportunity and the Democrats just let it slip by.

Politics is an elite business and there is no way the masses can take part except as individuals in that mass may excel and hence leave it. Only individuals have any effect on the world. “Masses” do nothing.

OK, back to the main theme.


Michael Dietz 02.18.06 at 9:57 pm

I can’t think of anything that gets more in the way of a clear understanding of what blogs are, or can be, politically, than the by-now-hoary blogs v. media story—whether you think blogs are somehow meant to be competing in the same space as major media, or you imagine them to be a kind of outsourced major-media frame-shop.

Blogs are, and are going to remain, an elite phenomenon. That’s only a problem if you think that the action in this space is about blogs needing to garner or represent a mass readership.

Blogs have no business trying to compete with big media, as even the triumphalists seem to be forced lately to acknowledge: and while they’ve been good so far at addressing big media, that I suspect is only an artifact of the moment. What will remain, though, is the extraordinary capacity of blogs to coordinate opinion among the elites who read them regularly. That’s no small thing, politically, and I think it’s turning out to be really what blogs are for.

There are, of course, vastly different styles of coordination on the right and the left, but that’s not particularly consequential here. As far as mass political action goes: no mass movement is spontaneously self-generating, or self-organizing. Mass politics requires the conscious direction of various cadres of political intellectuals—and those intellectuals need a space within which they can form their opinions, create consensus and coordinate action. It will be obvious where I’m going with this.

Contra schwa, I think there’s a case to be made that progressive blogs (like, for all my irritation with it, Daily Kos) are very well positioned to be at the center of a significant movement of progressive politics. (Whether that’ll actually happen is another matter entirely–there remains the significant problem of the progressive elites finding their masses, a problem MoveOn seems to be groping towards answering.) And they’re positioned that way, not in spite of the fact that they’re an elite phenomenon, but precisely because of it. Of course it should go without saying that, within that elite, there’s always room for greater diversity. But if there’s a more effective place than blogs for progressive intellectuals to coordinate themeselves as a political force, I’d like to know where it is. The union halls aren’t exactly beehives in these lattter days.


Simstim 02.19.06 at 8:10 am

Are we talking about blogs here or just political blogs that link to each other? What of the millions of LiveJournal and MySpace accounts?


garymar 02.19.06 at 1:26 pm

The blog is a good gateway into the world of feminist blogs. Dailykos itself has 6 front-page posters besides kos himself, and this year 3 of them are female. Majikthise does analytical philosophy and left-wing blogging, and she’s a she.

kos is a Latino, and Steve Gilliard is a well-known blogger who happens to be black.

The right-wing blogs, I’m sure, are highly skewed toward technophile white males, some of whom are complete assholes in spite of their expensive educations. But if some people think the left blogging community is a preserve of white maleness, this is their fault, not the fault of the community. They’re just not looking.

In dailykos, Jerome a Paris had a good diary (it’s down now, and I can’t find it) about the two-layered nature of the site: an inner core of activists who post constantly and maintain relations within the kos community, and an outer core of occasional readers who don’t usually post. I myself am in the outer core, ‘cause I don’t understand how these diaries get ‘rated’.

Calling these inner-core activists ‘elite’ is a misnomer. ‘Elite’ to me implies holders of economic and political power, and most of these activists are obviously of modest means. The working class is already there.


Henry 02.19.06 at 2:58 pm

garymar, I wish this was true, but it isn’t. Laura McKenna and Toni Pole have done some real research on this, and white male upper middle classness spreads up and down the blogosphere – not just on the right. There are important exceptions like the ones you mention – but the overall statistical trend is unmistakable.

Michael, I’m half prepared to be convinced by your argument, but only half prepared. What’s missing among the Kos types to my eyes is (a) a coherent set of ideas about what they would do if they got into power, and (b) an organized program to do so by taking over the Democratic party. If you look at the last real case of a successful takeover – the conservative takeover of the Republican party – they had both. Rick Perlstein’s book on Goldwater (and, I expect, his forthcoming book on the Nixon years) is very good on this. I think that the Kos types could do some interesting things – but I really think that they would need to get organized in a very different way to do it properly.


Brendan 02.19.06 at 3:18 pm

Henry seems to hit the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned. One of the most annoying things about the left (even Daily Kos) is the relentlessly negative tone of so much of it. It’s all about the (undoubted) horrors of Bush, Blair, Iraq, Iran (soon) etc. etc. etc. Now all this is very worthy and has to be said. But it does beg the question: ‘what would you do if you were in power that would be so different?’ The current Democratic Party leadership have already answered that question (‘nothing’), but the radical alternatives seem to be divided amonst variations on old style Leninism (cos, after all, the USSR turned out to be such a triumphant success didn’t it?), wildly Utopian ideas that have no chance of being realised, or else just a hotchpotch of local initiatives, some of which are good, but which have no ‘guiding’ or ‘overarching’ philosophy to unite them.

What the Left needs, surely, is a coherent philosophy that can lead to a coherent series of pragmatic actions that people might actually want to vote for. Or am I wrong (as I usually am)?


Steve 02.19.06 at 3:43 pm

“Flawed premise indeed and a great straw-person.”




soru 02.19.06 at 4:37 pm

What the Left needs, surely, is a coherent philosophy that can lead to a coherent series of pragmatic actions that people might actually want to vote for. Or am I wrong (as I usually am)?

The slightly wierd thing is that the one time you doubt yourself is the one time I agree with you.



Doug 02.19.06 at 4:53 pm

Henry, this post at Kos claims 500K daily visitors. If Kos is drawing 1% of NY Times, that would put NY Times readership in the neighborhood of 50M daily readers, which I think unlikely. Not sure of the metric the poster used to get the Kos number, but then again, I spent less than five minutes finding the figure. I bet they’d fill you in, if you asked.

The ethos at Kos, as near as I can tell from being a regular reader, is to elect Democrats who are proud to be Democrats. Unless and until more Democrats win in federal elections, anything else is a luxury that the party can ill afford.

Didn’t Perlstein go to the conservatives and basically tell them they had no principles after all, just a program to gain power? I think I first ran across that message at Brad DeLong’s blog, here.

Finally, I think that how Democrats re-take power will be enormously important. I take that to be one of the generalizable lessons of 1989, that the way you topple those you oppose will shape what you do in power in more ways than can be imagined on the way in. But that’s a thought that probably needs a bit more baking.


Michael Dietz 02.19.06 at 5:03 pm

Henry, yes, I’m decidedly hedging my bets about the Kossites. I’m not enough within that space to know how things stand there lately—from an outsider’s perspective, there seems a real likelihood that the ultimate effect of the Great dKos Experiment will be nothing more than a changing of the guard within the Democratic consultantocracy, rather than any progressive takeover of the party. Much of my concern about that comes from what I know of Kos’s own politics, which seem anti-populist and indicative of a centrist distaste for mass action.

On the other hand, the current effort to punish Bush-kisser Henry Cuellar—as well as the effort to get things going for Joe Lieberman’s primary challenger in CT—is encouraging: one thing the left blogosphere has to start doing is punishing Democrats who stay outside the progressive fold, regardless the short-term gains and losses.

Can’t wait for Perlstein on the Nixon years.


J Thomas 02.20.06 at 2:53 am

Compare blogging to BBSes and newsgroups. What’s the difference?

BBSes tended to be local because people didn’t want to pay long distance charges.

Newsgroups tended to be limited — if your newsgroup got hundreds of people who disagreed with you who wrote thousands of posts a day disagreeing with you, it was difficult and tedious to start a new moderated newsgroup.

Anybody can set up a blog and run it how they want, within the limits of the canned programming.

But beyond that, isn’t it mostly just the same old thing? I used to look at some loal BBSes. They’d get rollicking arguments about whether seat belts were really necessary, or about abortion, or about football, or whatever. People would argue and they’d feel like they were making great points that demolished their opponents. Then it would all scroll off, ready for them to do it again.

Of course it tended to be upper middle class males. Tell somebody who doesn’t have a lot of spare time about it, and see if they want to do it. “So you mean these guys just argue back and forth until they get bored, and then they change the subject and argue about something else?”

Tell a woman with three children about it, see how thrilled she is to join in.

Mostly, nobody looks at the old archives, right? So people argue the same old points over and over. As long as it’s fun who should complain…. But it’s hardly productive.

What the Left needs, surely, is a coherent philosophy that can lead to a coherent series of pragmatic actions that people might actually want to vote for.

I doubt it. If you can put together a coherent philosophy then you have the makings of a splinter group.

If you want to put together a political party, you need a set of glowing ideals that people can generally agree with, and fuzz out the pragmatic actions.

After all, for each action you propose there will be a bunch of lobbyinsts opposing it — and they’ll oppose you. People are far more fanatical at opposing actions that break their own rice bowls than they are at supporting actions that they think are good for the nation.

So as a minor example — suppose you propose normalising relations with cuba. Cuba is not a communist threat to the USA. They have an economy that’s strangled by communist bureaucrats. But they can blame their failures on us because we oppose them so strongly. Let them fail on their own merits and they’re likely to get reformed. And if we bought cuban sugar at world market prices, that would be cheaper for us.

Coherent, pragmatic, but it’s likely to lose you Miami, and the rich american sugar industry will contribute heavily to your opponents and possibly have some of your supporters murdered. When it’s tremendous amounts of money involved, they play for keeps. It will of course lose you anybody who’s still stuck in the Cold War. So you make fervent enemies. And friends? Various people will think ‘yes, that’s pragmatic. Part of a coherent pattern. But kind of radical. We don’t want *too* much change too fast.’

A long time ago I read a book about negotiation. I’ve forgotten the title and author now. They quoted a politician who had hired an academic as an aide. The politician explained that academic instincts were all wrong for politics. He said if you’re an academic and you’re discussing something, and you agree with the other guy 99%, then you argue about the 1%.


J Thomas 02.20.06 at 3:21 am


But in politics, if you disagree 90% you want to concentrate on the 10% area of agreement. Don’t emphasise the disagreements, emphasise the area of agreement. It isn’t about proving you’re right and the other guy is wrong, it’s about getting as much support as you can. That 10% agreement, or even 1% agreement, might make all the difference when it comes down to a particular bill in the legislature.

A whole lot of the time, the main thing blogs are good for is glory.

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

If you want something other than a nice knock-down argument, the blog structure is lacking. At a minimum, there should be some easy way to recycle old arguments. Don’t write out your argument fresh, just link to the old copy. Some easy way to keep a database of old arguments — both yours and others — that you’d like to recycle.

And it should be easy to link to various other posts. Easy to make a framework that lets you put together a lot of posts into a coherent philosophy. You can look at the other guy’s and see where he’s coming from, you can show him yours. He might not want to look but it isn’t just short-attention-span arguing until the topic scrolls off the front page.


james 02.20.06 at 10:56 am

The power of the blogs is the ability to force a framing of the issue on the mass media. Its a reference source.

Comments on this entry are closed.