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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Once More on the Netroots

by Scott Winship
Debate-by-blog definitely has its downsides and pitfalls. All too often it is all too easy for debates between faceless strangers hundreds of miles from each other to turn ugly. This tendency is really a shame, because blogs are in many ways conducive to debating issues efficiently compared with other media.
Yesterday, Chris Bowers of MyDD.com calmly responded to the last of my posts on the netroots by citing some evidence from a poll he conducted – which I mentioned in passing – that contradicts the conclusions I made about the pragmatism of the netroots. I’m going to follow his lead and work to keep this elevated debate going a bit longer. He and I ultimately both want accurate conclusions about the netroots, so it’s worth seeing where we agree, where consensus breaks down, and why.
First, the areas of agreement. We both agree that the data says the netroots are frustrated, though as Chris notes, that’s not exactly a news flash. We also agree that the community is liberal. This claim is sometimes contested by the occasional defensive blogger, but most wouldn’t dispute this characterization.
Where we disagree is on the question of the netroots’ pragmatism. I argued that the Pew data on the “Dean netroots”, as I called them, implied that the netroots believes its views are shared by enough voters to constitute a majority. Therefore they see no need for pragmatism – their ideals should be voiced loudly and proudly by Democrats, and those who insist on making craven moves to the center hurt themselves once on an ideological level and again on a character level.
Chris argues that the netroots prefers candidates that can clearly and passionately articulate their views (even if they are moderate on some issues) over candidates that are down-the-line liberals. They see the need for pragmatism in red states, and the politicians they favor nearly span the ideological spectrum of the Democratic Party, having in common only the extent to which they inspire people.
In what follows, I’ll treat the Blogpac survey as one that represents the netroots accurately, though as I noted in an earlier post, with a 7 percent response rate, that is to some extent a leap of faith. (The Dean survey had a low response rate too, but Pew did some checks to see how biased their results might be.) In particular, given Chris’s (not inappropriate) advocacy of a more complex view of the netroots, I’d also be concerned that this could have affected the kinds of people who responded to his request to participate.
We’re also using different definitions of “the netroots”, with Chris using a sample of MoveOn.org members and me using a sample of Democracy for America activists who regularly relied on blogs for news. Note that one need not have much interaction with the blogging world to be included in Chris’s MoveOn.org sample. In fact, according to the figures on his “50-State Strategy” chart, those who “regularly” read “blogs such as Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, or MyDD” amount to just 19 percent of the sample. Nearly 4 in 10 said they never read blogs. So my preference might be to restrict Chris’s sample and have a more apples-to-apples comparison.
I’d like to frame my argument around the Iraq war, clearly the most important issue that has driven the netroots. As I noted in my last post, 80 percent of the netroots believed that Democratic leaders in Congress supported the war not because they “thought it was the right thing to do”, but because they “were afraid to stand up and oppose the president.” Unpack that and it says that the vast majority of the netroots believes that “most of the Democratic leaders in Congress” were against the war but voted for the congressional resolution anyway.
But this may be too convenient a position to take. At the time, two-thirds of Americans – and two-thirds of Independents – approved of going to war [p. 25]. Add up the number of Democrats (roughly one-third of the country) and one-third of the one-third of Americans who identify as Independent, and that gets you to 44 percent – not nearly a majority. Nor were key states on the side of progressives. Consider how the two senators from “purple states” who were facing a tough reelection challenge voted. Presumably, these votes strongly reflected the preference of constituents. Democrat Tom Harkin (IA) voted for the resolution (as did Iowa’s other senator, Charles Grassley). Republican Wayne Allard (CO) also voted for the resolution, and Colorado’s other senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell did too. All six red-state Democratic senators up for re-election (Mary Landrieu, Max Baucus, Max Cleland, Tim Johnson, Jean Carnahan, and Jay Rockefeller) voted for the resolution. All of the senators listed here except Cleland and Carnahan won.
The point is that any Democratic senator with presidential aspirations – indeed, any Democratic voter who wanted to see the Party retain control of the Senate in 2002 or see Bush defeated in 2004 – had to contend with the consequences of a vote against the resolution. Of course, casually voting to send American sons and daughters into war on the basis of selfish concerns about reelection or presidential aspirations would be unforgivable. But Democrats needed to also think about what would happen if they lost their (as it turns out brief) majority or if their own individual seat was filled by a hawkish Republican. Even a selfless progressive Democrat could very well have reasonably concluded at the time that the least worst option for the country and for one’s constituents was to vote for the resolution. In retrospect, that conclusion seems obviously wrong, but at the time, no one really knew.
If one accepts the netroots’ disenchanted view of Democratic leaders’ motives on the vote then one has to conclude either that ideology was more important in this case than pragmatism or inspiration, that the netroots believed that a majority of the country was with them on the Iraq vote (i.e., that a majority was as liberal as they were), or that it believed the country could be brought around by an inspirational Democratic leader. I think a case could be made for the first interpretation, beginning with the fact that many more of the Dean netroots said they were liberal than said they were Democrats and proceeding through the evidence in my last piece. The second interpretation, if true, would be a problem because the evidence indicates that the country – and swing voters – lies to the right of the netroots.
The problem with the third interpretation is that what is inspirational to the netroots generally elicits their liberalism or populism (see Governor Schweitzer), and it is assumed that these liberal positions or populist attitudes will inspire other voters. Heterodox views are often difficult to explain to voters, and moderate views are not as exciting as extreme ones (or appear disingenuous), making it less likely that a politician will inspire. So while it may be, as Chris’s poll finds, that in the abstract the netroots prefers inspiration to (uniformly) liberal positions, in practice it is not likely to find inspirational candidates who do not meet most of its litmus tests.
It seems fair to say that all of the politicians for which the Blogpac survey requested favorability ratings met most relevant litmus tests. Chris notes that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Barack Obama are moderates and have high favorability ratings, but what is likely more relevant is that they don’t have Iraq resolution votes. Of the top six politicians – going by the number rating them “very” favorably – none voted for the Iraq resolution. Furthermore I think the two most relevant findings are that the unelectable Russ Feingold leads all potential presidential candidates except Gore and Obama in the number of people giving him a “very favorable” rating (and Jack Murtha and Barbara Boxer out-poll him), and that less than four in ten of the people in Chris’s sample gave very favorable ratings to any candidate, save Gore and Obama.
As further evidence of the netroots’ pragmatism, Chris and others point to the netroots’ willingness to give red-state Democrats a pass or to accept moderate candidates when the situation calls for it. I would speculate instead that the netroots is relatively unfamiliar with red America and so defers to conventional wisdom about politics in those places. In the Pew survey I cited here, for instance, just 10 percent of adults who regularly get their news from blogs were from rural areas. On the other hand, because of the closeness of recent presidential elections and relative parity in Congress between the parties, the netroots feels that at the national level liberals and conservatives are essentially at parity. Netroots activists ultimately tried pragmatism in 2004 when the stakes could not be higher, but their dislike of Hillary Clinton and embrace of Russ Feingold shows an increasing skepticism of this strategy.
In the end, I am arguing, it’s not so much that netroots activists reject pragmatism, it’s that they see less of a need for it in presidential elections because they believe that the country “looks like them”, that skeptical swing voters can be won over by the people who win the netroots’ hearts, or both. They will take what they can get in red states, but because of their perceptions of the electorate, they will lead with their liberalism elsewhere rather than worrying about pragmatic considerations. Furthermore, with the growing popularity of the fifty-state strategy, I predict that pragmatic willingness to give red-state politicians a pass is going to decline as local activism increases and expectations rise.
And all this might be OK. But it might not.

One comment on “Once More on the Netroots

  1. Terry Sullivan on

    I haven’t been following this debate but will read back and catch up. It looks important to me as someone who is trying to activate a netroots presence in Kansas. Rural Red Staters do not get the internet generally. It is really tough to even get the Democratic Central comittee members to use a website that they requested be put up in my N.E. Kansas county.

    Reply

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