Chris Bowers has a truly fascinating post up over at MyDD, ostensibly about Hillary Clinton’s lack of popularity in the progressive blogosphere, but really encompassing a sort of political sociology of the the world of “progressive activists.”He begins by stipulating a few important points about the “netroots:” they are by no means co-extensive with or even representative of the Democratic “base;” but nor are they “tinfoil hats” or people marginal to the regular political process. They are, in fact, a segment, and a growing segment, of the small but influential universe of “progressive activists.”Chris then goes on to argue that while the “netroots” should not be confused with the actual party base, they are the “base” among progressive activists: i.e., despite their relative wealth and educational attainments, they are (or just as importantly, perceive themselves as being) engaged in a sort of inside-the-upper-crust class warfare against the “elite” progressive activists who dominate Washington, the major political institutions, and many national campaigns. It’s this warfare that animates netroots hostility to HRC, suggests Bowers, because she is perceived as the perfect vehicle for those “elite” activists.I do think Chris is accurately capturing the predominant netroots view of the supposed struggle for the Democratic Party. His careful focus on netroots perceptions keeps him from having to definitively identify himself with the belief that Washington’s Democratic activists are a single tribe that regularly gathers in Georgetown salons to share twelve-dollar martinis and biting comments about bloggers, and plot the next Establishment campaign (a belief as remote from reality, IMO, as the “tinfoil hat” view of the netroots).Interesting and valuable as it is, Chris’ analysis doesn’t quite come to grips with two issues.The first issue is that there is another class of “progressive activist” out there that’s not necessarily part of the netroots or of the “elite” DC establishment: state and local elected officials and party personnel and volunteers, union political organizers, racial and ethnic group activists, single-issue devotees, and hyper-engaged plain citizens. Sure, some of them read or contribute to blogs, and some of them are affiliated with Establishment institutions as well. But many of them (especially in red states) don’t particularly trust either of Chris’ two categories of “progressive activists,” and as a whole, they are probably closer in views and lifestyles to the actual “party base” than either one. And overall, I suspect this third class of activists tends to like HRC a lot more than the netizens do, and that matters.The second issue is the bigger one: the question of exactly how much impact any activists have on rank-and-file opinion, especially in a widely contested presidential nominating process like the one we’ll probably see in 2008.We already know Washington Elite Activists have never had the power to simply impose their will on the Democratic electorate, long before there was any netroots. Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Ed Muskie in 1972, a whole host of candidates in 1976, Ted Kennedy in 1980–these were all “DC elite activist” candidates who crashed and burned. And by the same token, Democratic nominees George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton had limited support from those quarters when they first ran for president.The “netroots” activists are too new to have that kind of humiliating track record, but the fate of their two favorite 2004 candidates, Howard Dean and Wes Clark, cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant. This is by now an ancient argument, but I’m struck by the unwillingness of many Dean veterans (more now, oddly enough, than at the time it was happening) to worry about the fact that the campaign peaked before a single actual Democratic voter had a chance to say anything about it. Yes, there were many factors that contributed to Dean’s demise, with media obsession about “the scream” being one of them, but the widespread assumption in the netroots that Dean was “taken down” by Washington Democrats unfortunately avoids reflection on the possibility that all the cash and energy and excitement simply were not communicable to actual voters.In other words, activists of every class and every stripe are important to what happens in 2008, and perhaps netroots hostility to Hillary Clinton is a leading indicator of an attitude that could eventually engulf an HRC campaign (if she actually runs, which I for one am not that sure about). But in the end, it truly is about the party rank-and-file, and even the independent voters who participate in many key stages of the nominating process. All of us activists need to remember that, and regularly balance our self-regard with a slice of humble pie.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
I ran across a story on faulty focus group memories of Trump, and I wrote about the implications at New York.
As an unpopular president facing a sour electorate, Joe Biden really needs to make 2024 a comparative election rather than a straight referendum on his presidency. Luckily for him, his likely general-election opponent, Donald Trump, is equally unpopular for reasons that are quite vivid. He’s as well known as Biden, and he works very hard to reinforce the traits that might make an undecided voter (even one unhappy with Biden) reluctant to put him back in the White House. So half of Biden’s work in drawing contrasts is done for him, and part of the other half is made easy for him by Trump’s strongest supporters, the “deplorables” (to use the Hillary Clinton term that has become a MAGA badge of honor) who enjoy shocking the world by advertising their hero’s most questionable characteristics.
It is becoming apparent, however, that Trump’s potential coalition is being augmented by low-information voters with a hazy understanding of the Trumpier features of the 45th president’s record, character, and agenda. By that I do not mean the non-college-educated voters who make up so large a part of the Trump base. Many if not most of them are pretty educated about their candidate. But there’s evidence that disengaged and/or deeply alienated folks who may nonetheless vote in a presidential election (if not any others) don’t know as much about Trump as you might assume, as the New York Times’ Patrick Healey has observed:
“Our latest Times Opinion focus group discussion with 13 undecided independent voters included a striking result: 11 of the 13 said they would vote for Donald Trump if the election were held now, and only two said they would vote for President Biden. The reason: overwhelming concern about the economy.
“But I was less surprised by the big vote for Trump than by this: The group didn’t blame Trump for things he was responsible or accountable for.
“For instance, several people linked their economic troubles to COVID, but they didn’t put any blame on Trump for that. Some were upset with the end of abortion rights nationally, but they didn’t tie that to Trump’s Supreme Court appointments. Several wanted bipartisanship, but they didn’t blame Trump for his hand in sinking the recent bipartisan border deal. One person, a Latina, blamed Trump for worsening racism in the country and recounted a searing incident that happened to her — but she was among the 11 who would vote for him anyway.”
Healey concludes that “a lot of our focus-group participants — and many voters — see Trump as an acceptable option in November, yet they don’t know or remember a lot about him.” This makes them, of course, highly susceptible to Trump campaign messaging asserting that the economy during his presidency was the greatest ever; that he’s a natural peacemaker who inspired respect for the United States everywhere; and that he’s a decent, law-abiding businessman (and family man!) whose near-constant forced court appearances are uniformly the product of his persecution by the other party.
Democrats, of course, will have opportunities (and increasingly, an obligation) to set the record straight about Trump and his presidency. But the difficult thing is that low-information voters also tend to be low-trust voters, which means they don’t tend to believe traditional arbiters of objective reality like the mainstream news media, and may not grant more truthful politicians superior credibility. Further distorting understanding of the Trump administration (and thus its possible return) is the huge trauma associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which gives everything that immediately preceded the disaster an undeserved glow, while immolating memories of less powerful traumas associated with the former president’s tenure.
In other words, low-information voters who dislike politics so much that they are not inclined to dig into facts and evidence touching on political topics are highly vulnerable to the kind of disinformation that benefits Donald Trump. And if they are in a bad mood in November, they could help turn the election into a negative referendum on Joe Biden even if they are inviting something — and someone — far worse. Democrats will have to work hard to break through with the truth.