Origins of the netroots

by Henry Farrell on July 11, 2008

I have a Bloggingheads dialogue with Eric Posner up, where among other things, we talk about the “origins of the netroots”: The (not very original, I suspect) theory that I put forward in the dialogue is that this wasn’t the result of any necessary affinity between the left and the Internet, but instead a historical accident, resulting from the emergence of a new medium at a moment when US progressives were (a) extraordinarily frustrated with the Iraq war, and (b) deeply disenchanted with the traditional means through which they might have found expression of their views in happier times (TV and purportedly ‘left’ newspapers like the _New York Times_; the Democratic party). This is less a political science judgement than a semi-journalistic one – I haven’t done enough specific research to really do more than articulate my best guess as to what happened. I am interested in working more on this in a more serious way at some stage though, and would love to both people’s views (preferably good disagreements with my argument) and any evidence for or against that they can think of. More generally, there is a lot of work to be done updating the social movement literature to deal with these new Internet mediated movements – at the very least, there are a few dissertations in it.



Carnival of Politics 07.11.08 at 3:09 am

I’m sure if you did a correlation between broadband access and democratic voting, you’d see that there is more access in “blue” areas. More people in cities are democrats and more people in cities have broadband. Conversely, more people in the middle of nowhere are republican and either have dialup (explaining the relative popularity of email forwards among republicans) or no access.


Martin Wisse 07.11.08 at 7:02 am

Certainly any historical affinity betweeen the left and the internet wasn’t visible in 2001/2002, when it was the rightwingers and pseudoliberals that had the biggest blogs. The right was the first to get into blogs in a big way, to not just have frustrated individuals getting rid of their aggression, but to organise themselves. For the left this only started to happen in 2003/04 in any big way.


Bruce Baugh 07.11.08 at 7:33 am

Picking up on Martin’s comment, I think that the rise of the netroots is (among other things) very much a reaction to right-wing uses of the net in 2001-3. There was a “we’re all in this together” sense, more or less, for a while, but it fell apart as the push for war ramped up. War enthusiasm and the need to respond to it brought out new voices (like Duncan Black’s) and gave fresh energy to older ones (like Avedon Carol’s).

The other thing is that if there were Democratic leadership opposed to the war and with a backbone, I don’t think we’d have the netroots. They’ve emerged step by fumbling step in response to institutional failures, and collectively we only find out just how bad the failures are by probing as we go. I think that the sense of “the netroots” as a community of sorts didn’t really solidify until the Democratic leadership sold us out on their 2006 campaign promises. Now there’s a group of folks willing to put money and time into politics whose default response to Democratic claims is distrust. It will take a long time , I suspect, to break down that skepticism, and for sure the party isn’t yet started on the effort.


nick s 07.11.08 at 8:30 am

Certainly any historical affinity betweeen the left and the internet wasn’t visible in 2001/2002, when it was the rightwingers and pseudoliberals that had the biggest blogs.

True, but there were left-wing outlets: Bushwatch, Buzzflash, Bartcop, Media Whores Online, the Daily Howler (which goes back to 1998). Some of their participants came out of Salon’s Table Talk or Slate’s ‘The Fray’, preceding the war/terror/Iraq sequence. The media critique has been there since the Clinton impeachment.

By late 2002 came the early, crude response to the warblogger phenomenon (Warblogger Watch), things like Roy Edroso’s Crank Watch, etc.

What made a difference by 2003/4 (Dean campaign, money making a difference in elections)? Better search engines, BlogAds, the capacity to donate money en bloc.

And yeah, there was room to supplant the crappy, outdated Dem institutional structures. That’s why I think the right-wing blogosphere has had something of a stagnation over recent years: the right has well-greased welfare organs, and Pajamas Media isn’t going to take the place of National Review and Media Research Center.


Ben Alpers 07.11.08 at 11:47 am

I think that the sense of “the netroots” as a community of sorts didn’t really solidify until the Democratic leadership sold us out on their 2006 campaign promises. Now there’s a group of folks willing to put money and time into politics whose default response to Democratic claims is distrust. It will take a long time , I suspect, to break down that skepticism, and for sure the party isn’t yet started on the effort.

I actually disagree with both this history and this understanding of where the netroots stand today.

I think the netroots really began to solidify in the run-up to 2004 (the Dean campaign was a huge catalyst) and that they are, first and foremost, defined by a partisan commitment to the Democratic Party. Despite occasional outbursts at the endless string of Democratic betrayals of “principle” (taking impeachment off the table, supporting the escalation of the war on Iraq, backing FISA expansion, and so forth), the netroots are overwhelmingly tied to the party and its candidates as such.

In addition to their ties to the Democratic Party, the netroots are much more defined by their commitment to a certain political style than to any particular ideology. And to the extent that there is a dominant ideology among the netroots, it is much more liberal (or “progressive”) than left. There is of course an actual, though much smaller, left presence online, but it is rather distinct from the world of the netroots.


JJ 07.11.08 at 12:20 pm

David Brooks had an interesting column a while back (it happens from time to time) about the rise of knowledge workers, and the attitude they tend to bring to the political conversation. It’s filled with generalizations (as Brooks columns tend to be) but there’s also a strong element of truth to it.

This earlier Brooks column about the Obama campaign was also pretty interesting. Compare the culture that the Obama campaign came out of with the culture that Michael Lind describes Bush coming out of.


laura 07.11.08 at 2:14 pm

I respond here.


Seth Finkelstein 07.11.08 at 3:42 pm

I would say it was a combination of the marginalization of liberals from mainstream media, combined with the ability to build sites devoted to particular interests and then to use those sites as fundraising tools. When you talk of “deeply disenchanted with the traditional means”, that’s not wrong, but I’d argue it’s missing the fact that there’s very little unabashed liberalism there, in the same way as right-wing talk-radio and FOX news. Note, outside the echo chamber of Internet chatter, the “netroots” is pretty small stuff. It’s an interest group. Which is not bad, but it’s important to apply some reality-checking to the promotion of the people who benefit from peddling their supposed political clout.


Righteous Bubba 07.11.08 at 3:54 pm

Note, outside the echo chamber of Internet chatter, the “netroots” is pretty small stuff.

I agree in terms of opinion-shaping, but there’s money there too.


Doug 07.11.08 at 4:15 pm

Josh Marshall goes back to the Florida recount fight. He chose his title because he was writing essentially open letters to Democratic leaders and operatives, saying what he hoped they would make issues of. (I wish he would write more, since that’s what originally kept me reading his site.) But there’s a similar dynamic: commitment to Democratic ideals and to the party (rather than chasing third-party chimeras); frustration with both established party structures/leaders and mainstream media; discovery of a larger-than-expected group of people; and an emphasis on fighting back against Republican dominance.

I’d be interested in how the left-right dominance actually works out. See also Powerline, Drudge, Instapundit and more.


jj 07.11.08 at 4:34 pm

Before the 2000 recount, you can’t ignore the Clinton impeachment fight. Kevin Drum pointed to this in reply to Joe Klein when Klein was attacking the Netroots.

The impeachment hearings and its associated scandal-mongering produced Moveon, which was the first indication of the money-raising and organizing power of the Internet. The late 90’s scandals also produced David Brock (founder of Media Matters), who I believe was one of the first to address that something was going wacky with the right and the political media.

Also, not particularly political, but perhaps laying the groundwork for political discussion communities like the Daily Kos, was Usenet and email listservs, etc., which as David Brooks hints, helped develop the style of discourse that fed into the Netroots.


clay 07.11.08 at 4:39 pm

I don’t think this is a subject that requires this sort of explanation, precisely because what is being explained is the *second* such event.

In 2003, I remember agonized conversation on the left about why the blogosphere seemed to favor the right, with the warbloggers and Republican libertarians dominating both the audience lists and the political conversation.

In retrospect, though, the presumed affinity between the net and the right wing turned out to be fictitious. Right-wing opinion was ascendant *everywhere* in 2003, but with TV news and newspapers, we had media that were old enough to recognize that these things go in phases.

So with the blogosphere — as people became more willing to listen to voices on the left, the question of whether the net was inherently a warblogger playground vanished.

Enough people have tuned in in the 5 years since the dominance of right-wing voices that many of the people now talking about the netroots forget that we ever asked ourselves the opposite question at all, but the question about both the warbloggers and the netroots have the same answer: the feedback loop between blogs and culture always rewards more opinionated versions of popular views.


jj 07.11.08 at 4:46 pm

Note, outside the echo chamber of Internet chatter, the “netroots” is pretty small stuff.

I agree in terms of opinion-shaping, but there’s money there too.

You don’t want to overestimate, but there is some opinion shaping power. Here’s David Frum:

Just as the post-1968 Democratic Party came to look more like Eugene McCarthy’s movement than Hubert Humphrey’s coalition, so today’s liberal FPC is gradually adopting not only many of the actual views, but much of the tone, style and manner of the left blogosphere….

THE BLOGOSPHERE exerts its influence in two ways—one as hard as cash, the other as whispery as a mirage.

In two consecutive presidential election cycles, the Internet has proven itself the most effective fundraising technology since the advent of direct mail. The last cycle’s Internet darling, Howard Dean, raised money at the fastest pace ever seen: a million dollars a week, almost all of it in very small gifts, in the second two quarters of 2003. In the first quarter of 2007, Barack Obama matched Hillary Clinton’s astonishing fundraising totals by tapping almost twice as many donors: 100,000 against her 50,000. On November 5, 2007, Ron Paul used the Internet to raise the largest one-day total in the history of political fundraising, $4.5 million.

Any medium that lucrative is bound to hold the attention of politicians. And bloggers look very much like the custodians of the political Internet.

The more whispery power comes from the strange echo-chamber effect of the Internet. The blogosphere links people all over the planet. It can generate volumes of comments and email that feel like a tidal wave to those accustomed to the milder responsiveness of the print medium. When I worked on the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal, then the largest circulation newspaper in America, a very provocative article might have elicited as many as a hundred letters to the editor. Today, an exciting post on a major blog can generate thousands of posted comments and emails. Few people possess the internal fortitude to stand up to a seeming barrage like this. (Joe Klein, whom I cited above as a special target of the left blogosphere, has retreated under pressure into something very like the party-line liberalism he once disdained.)


jj 07.11.08 at 4:48 pm

Sorry, that’s supposed to be one long block quote.


Seth Finkelstein 07.11.08 at 5:31 pm

jj – Despite the attempts of many self-interested parties to conflate the two, “Internet fundraising” != “Netroots”. The former fuels the latter, of course, but Obama is showing right now via his annoying of net.activists that the two aren’t identical by far. Also, it’s a common pundit trope to write about those-scary-extremists, which doesn’t mean anything except having reached the status of bogeyman (that about how much realistic effect Jane Fonda had to influence foreign policy for an obvious example of the mismatch between punditry generated and power).


jj 07.11.08 at 5:57 pm

“Internet fundraising” != “Netroots”.

I absolutely agree.

I also agree that Frum may be just motivating his base with the latest boogeyman. But that indicates attention, anyway, to some voices that weren’t represented before…

On Obama, it will be interesting if he ends up picking Dodd as his running mate. (It could just be theater, of course. It will be interesting to see.)


Seth Finkelstein 07.11.08 at 6:24 pm

Regarding “indicates attention, anyway, to some voices that weren’t represented before …”

I’d say the exact opposite. I’d claim it’s a very sad commentary on how far the idea of “extreme left” has been moved to the right. That is, it does not indicate they weren’t represented before – it indicates they’re what is now considered lunatic fringe (by those pundits).

As in, a few decades ago, bona-fide leftists were marginalized and driven out of the media (sigh, there’s exceptions, please, this is a very brief comment, not a Ph.D. thesis). Now, relatively moderate liberalism is driven to the edges. That’s not a rah-rah story :-(.


jj 07.11.08 at 6:24 pm

OK, here’s another passage to chew on, this one from Dissent:

In one of the lesser-known rituals of the literary world, every five years or so I interview for the position of book review editor of the Nation… This last time, about a year ago, I still wanted to import Dissent people [into The Nation’s stable], but it occurred to me that there was a whole new crew of writers whom I thought would improve the Nation, and thinking about them, I realized how deeply the intellectual landscape on the left has changed over the last few years, and how deeply it has changed for the better.

I’m talking about a new breed of liberal writers who have emerged on the web—a network of writers who are bringing together reformism and idealism in a way we haven’t seen in many years. I’m thinking of people like Joshua Micah Marshall (the man behind Talking Points Memo); Eric Alterman, the Nation columnist, author of many books, and blogger for Media Matters for America; Ezra Klein (The American Prospect); Kevin Drum (the Washington Monthly); Glenn Greenwald (Salon); Matthew Yglesias (the Atlantic); Bob Somerby (the Daily Howler); Rick Perlstein (the Campaign for America’s Future); and the writer who goes by the name of Digby who blogs for her own website, digbysblog. I think of Paul Krugman and Harold Meyerson as two of the spiritual godfathers of this kind of politics. Meyerson has edited some of these writers at the American Prospect; and Krugman makes frequent reference to their work in his columns and on his New York Times blog.

These writers are exciting because they’re unapologetically, un-defensively liberal, and because their liberalism isn’t the cautious, hesitant, scared-of-its-own-shadow, skim-milk liberalism that we’ve all gotten used to. It’s a militant liberalism, of a kind we haven’t seen in decades.

Their liberalism is both practical and ambitious. By saying it’s practical, I mean it’s interested in results. None of these writers is tempted by Naderite fantasies. They get things done. Josh Marshall, for example, did more than anyone to expose the Karl Rove-orchestrated firings of U.S. attorneys who weren’t doing the administration’s bidding and to bring the details of Jack Abramoff’s “K Street Project” to light. In addition, although these writers can be scaldingly critical of the Democrats, all of them are working for a Democratic victory in 2008.

That the “the intellectual landscape on the left has changed… deeply”–doesn’t sound to me like their influence is negligible.


jj 07.11.08 at 6:25 pm

Argh. Blockquotes only work on one paragraph.


jj 07.11.08 at 7:07 pm

That’s not a rah-rah story

I didn’t say it was. But those moderate opinions were marginalized several years ago when the Internet and the netroots didn’t exist. The question is how to put those moderate views back on the table. And once they’re on the table, the question is how did they got demonized in the first place, which is an interesting thing to inquire about.


jj 07.11.08 at 7:12 pm

Sorry, typo: “…how they got demonized…” There are a number of theories


Seth Finkelstein 07.11.08 at 7:20 pm

Everything ebbs and flows. Indeed, I’d agree there’s been a resurgence of liberalism – but not from The Internet per se, but rather because of a backlash against right-wing destruction. But it’s like a bunch of expatriates finding themselves in Paris during a war, forming alliances, waiting in the wings, and coming back into some respectability after several years. And the Paris tourism board then keeps on writing and writing “Paris! Oh my god, PARIS! It is the city of revolution, a New Era. Come to Paris for the special magic it brings, read the book “Here Comes The Parisians! Attend the seminar “What does the Paris Effect mean to you“, blah blah blah”.

And very significantly, if you’re not part of the tiny elite in the power class, moving to Paris is not going to help. The only thing that’ll happen is all the people who work in the Paris industry will fleece you.


jj 07.11.08 at 7:21 pm

Dang. “Several years ago” Internet existed, Netroots didn’t. (Now that I’ve muddied up the thread…)


Ben Alpers 07.11.08 at 7:36 pm

But those moderate opinions were marginalized several years ago when the Internet and the netroots didn’t exist. The question is how to put those moderate views back on the table. And once they’re on the table, the question is how did they got demonized in the first place, which is an interesting thing to inquire about.

It is interesting…and perhaps even politically important. But can we not call these opinions “the left”?

There’s nothing remotely leftist about most of the names on the list from Brian Morton’s Dissent piece quoted by jj above, some of whom were even enthusiastic supporters of the war on Iraq in 2002-2003. What unites them isn’t “the left” but rather a partisan commitment to the Democratic Party.

As Eyal Press notes in a perceptive recent London Review of Books essay on his The Conscience of a Liberal (unfortunately behind a pay wall), Paul Krugman, whom Morton identifies correctly as a “spiritual godfather” of this new “left” politics, sees a fantasy version of the U.S. in the 1950s (in which racial segregation is somehow forgotten) as his economic ideal.

This isn’t leftism. It’s Eisenhower Republicanism (as Bill Clinton himself is said to have labeled his own economic position early in his first term). That’s certainly a different politics from the reactionary supply-side fundamentalism of today’s Republican Party. And it’s a good thing that it can no longer be entirely liberal-baited out of the public conversation. But it is not remotely leftist, or even particularly liberal.


jj 07.11.08 at 8:13 pm

The Netroots are to the left of Bill Clinton, but I’d agree that it’s not by much. Bill Clinton and his cohort were seen as too easily caving in on things like Welfare Reform and “Reagan lite” market-based solutions that would be better handled by government.

As for a partisan commitment to the Democratic Party, I’d say that that’s true, but they aren’t satisfied with it as it exists now. “More and better Democrats” (as they say at Daily Kos) means that they want more Democrats elected, but also want Democrats who more solidly support left-leaning policies on things like health care and climate change. (At least left-leaning in terms of US politics…)


Ben Alpers 07.11.08 at 9:04 pm

I agree that the Netroots stand to the left (if only just) of the still-dominant “New Democrat” wing of the Democratic Party.

The slogan “More and better Democrats” is interesting, both because it prioritizes “more” (which in practice simply further empowers the Steny Hoyers and Harry Reids who currently lead the party in Congress), and because “better” is an extraordinarily vague word, wide open to many conflicting interpretations, not all of them even ideological, let alone to the left. Though there are certainly plenty among the Netroots who mean “more liberal” when they say “better,” I think an even more common meaning is simply “more partisan.” The ultimate Democratic sin is not conservatism or centrism but “caving” to the GOP.

It’s interesting to note that the one candidate from the left wing of the Democratic Party to run for president this year, Dennis Kucinich, was nearly as unpopular among the Netroots as he was among the general voting population. Indeed, Markos Moulitsas, owner and operator of Daily Kos, the Vatican of the Netroots as it were, mercilessly mocked Kucinich on a regular basis.


Bruce Baugh 07.12.08 at 12:14 am

Ben Alpers: Since Krugman explicitly points to the demands of racists within the New Deal coalition as responsible for starting its destruction and for earlier having imposed limits on how much the coalition could do in its heyday, I don’t think he’s much ignoring racism. In fact, he says in just about so many words that he sees the starting point for a new version of such a coalition as finding the strength to enable it to tell the racist bloc to go to hell.


Phill Hallam-Baker 07.12.08 at 2:20 am

As one of the people who worked on the early design of the Web, and in particular worked to get the Web into the White House starting in 1992, some points you might consider relevant:

* We were all very aware of the wider political potential of the Web at a very early stage.

* CERN was and is a multi-national, multi-cultural organization. The site stradles an international border. The UN is down the road.

* At the time there was a war taking place less than a days drive away. We were talking to people who were running a Web server inside Sarajevo during the siege.

* Some of us were very active politically.

* Some of us were already aware of the use of the Internet and Web by far right political groups and by criminals.

* Long before the Web consortium was started, MIT people were involved in the Web. In particular people like Roger Hurwiz, John Mallery, Marc Bonchek who had ties to the MIT political science department and in particular Ithiel de Sola Pool.

* Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper was able to credibly claim that it had won the 1992 election for the Tories. This is not a good thing if you regard yourself as a British patriot as Murdoch is an Australian and clearly has no loyalty to or interest in the welfare of any other country (including the US).

Technology is not left wing or right wing per-se, but that does not mean it is neutral. The Web improves the flow of information. It is thus anti-authoritarian and pro-accountability.

Pool’s influence on the early design of the Internet is generally under appreciated. The basic blueprint for the Internet is set out in his book ‘technologies of freedom’ which can be read as saying, if you wish to make a communications technology censorship proof, here is how to do it.

The Web was to go a step further. A key concept was disintermediation, we were using the term in ’92 during the design of the Web. While the MIT folk were talking about replacing the mainstream media, my objective was to introduce a control loop so that when the Murdoch press lied there would be consequences. Today I would frame the argument in terms of accountability: the establishment media lies, the consequence is fewer people believe them.


Phill Hallam-Baker 07.12.08 at 2:45 am

On the topic of the net.roots themselves: yes, the US blogosphere is very different from other countries. I don’t think there is any other country where the establishment media has fallen so far and fast. The BBC is still an authoritative voice as far as the typical British 20-something is concerned. But ABC, NBC and CBS are irrelevant as far as most of the under 35 demographic is concerned.

But it isn’t just the blogosphere. More Americans under 35 trust Jon Stewart than any establishment media news source.

I would suggest that the reason that the US blogosphere has gone so liberal is entirely due to the reaction of the establishment media to 9/11. Believing that the country had shifted massively to the right the establishment media attempted to follow.

Liberal voices were quickly removed from the airwaves. Instead of pointing out that Bush’s response had been paralysis (my pet goat) followed by cowardice (Air Force one) they made Bush into a hero.

That might have been acceptable given the situation. What followed was not. Mere criticism of Bush was presented as being tantamount to treason.

The war sealed the deal. The establishment media decided that it would support the war uncritically and brand any opponent a traitor. They considered the war to be an absolute certain bet. Once the war began to unravel they were stuck.

At this point the US establishment media appears to have effectively written off the under 35 demographic as far as news is concerned. They consider it simply too much work to have to recover them.

That is why the AP has declared that McCain is going to continue to receive coverage with sprinkles from them.

Accountability is a bitch sometimes.


Phill Hallam-Baker 07.12.08 at 3:15 am

As for where we go from here, the most important determining factor is not the rise of the net.roots, it is the collapse of the Republican party.

The Tom DeLay Republicans openly sold government favors in return for campaign contributions. In many cases the approach was unsubtle extortion.

2010 is going to be a ‘rebuilding’ year for the GOP. They are not going to be expecting to return to power immediately. Their near term goal will be to make inroads in the house and Senate and hope to be competitive in the WH race in 2012.

A Rovian wedge issue strategy only makes sense if you have a chance of winning. The effectiveness of the wedges declines sharply with age. At this point it is only the over 60s who are likely to remember segregation. Gay bashing is not a winner amongst the under 40s. By 2020, coded racism is going to be a vote loser everywhere and gay bashing is going to require code. Neither is going to be considered a winner at the national level.

Absent a hate plank and a purported external existential threat, it is going to be really hard for the GOP to regroup itself on the old models.

That said, the netroots is going to be the future of the Democrats for the simple reason that nobody who is not already a part of the Democratic establishment is going to make it in there without extensive links to and support from the netroots. The net is the college league of US politics from now on in.


Ben Alpers 07.12.08 at 6:56 am

Bruce Baugh: Eyal Press, to whose review of Krugman I referred, does not accuse Krugman of ignoring racism in general. He accuses Krugman of ignoring it in the context of his very positive portrait of the U.S. economy in the 1950s. But the crux of Press’s argument involves not Krugman’s situational racial blinders, but rather the very limited nature of his economic vision.

Here’s a short excerpt from the Press’s LRB review (again, apologies that I can’t link to it as it’s behind a paywall):

The title of Krugman’s new book is a play on Barry Goldwater’s 1960 manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative. Yet what’s striking are the differences between the books. Where Goldwater’s aims were utopian – roll back the New Deal, eliminate progressive taxation, allow the free market to flourish – Krugman’s are reformist: he wants to turn back the clock to the regulated capitalism of the 1950s, a decade he sees as a ‘paradise lost’, which might come as news to blacks in the South. Despite that, it’s true that millions of Americans might find some aspects of the 1950s quite appealing. A third of the private sector workforce was unionised in that decade – roughly three times the proportion today. The tax rate for those in the highest income bracket was 91 per cent, compared to 35 per cent now. The US was a prosperous, middle-class society, Krugman claims, without the stark income disparities the Bush administration has worked so hard to widen….But if they are to achieve a lasting political realignment, liberals will have to put forward a bolder vision than Krugman’s dream of a return to an airbrushed version of the 1950s, with a less hourglass-shaped distribution of wealth.


John Bragg 07.15.08 at 1:44 am

The left and the netroots dominate the blogosphere because when the forum came to maturity, the energy and interest was on the antiwar left.

Jon Stewart isn’t necessarily funnier than Dennis Miller ceterus paribus, but attacking is funnier than defending.

Similarly, talk radio is dominated by Reaganite conservatives largely because, when the Fairness Doctrine was repealed allowing political talk shows, the energy and talent was on the right.

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