Midway through reading Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine profile of Mark Warner in March of 2006 (the one accompanied by the famously unflattering cover photo of the Virginian), I opened an instant message from a friend who said, “Matt Bai is great at writing about conventional wisdom a couple hours after it becomes conventional wisdom.”
But in The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, Bai has penned an unconventional and fascinating account of the various elements of the recent insurgency movement inside the Democratic Party, based on three years of close personal observation.
He was one of the first journalists in Washington to see the now famous Rob Stein PowerPoint presentation charting the rise of the “Right Wing Message Matrix.” He was the only writer in the room when some of the richest donors in progressive politics committed to build the Democracy Alliance. He was the first reporter to book a seat at the inaugural YearlyKos convention. And when Markos Moulitsas Zúniga and Jerome Armstrong went on a tour to promote their book, Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, Bai rented a car and drove them the length of California.
All of which is to say that Bai was way ahead of the collective wisdom on this one. The mainstream media recognized something was up, but from top to bottom, everyone was slow to grasp that the new activists in the Democratic party weren’t like the old constituent groups. They weren’t content to raise money for a little access. They weren’t patient with authority. And whether they liked to admit it or not, they weren’t happy with the Clinton legacy.
Bai captures all of that artfully. Armstrong and Kos emerge from the book as complex individuals, not as representatives of an “angry blogger” stereotype. Important figures unused to the profile treatment, like Gina Cooper (the woman who organized the first YearlyKos) and Rob Stein (the man who convinced some of the wealthiest people in the country to commit millions of dollars to the Democracy Alliance), are rendered candidly and sympathetically. And the scene where Bill Clinton finds himself in a heated disagreement with one of the donors from the Democracy Alliance smolders with significance.
Though I’ve heard some of the stories he describes before, all of this feels fresh — perhaps because, with the exception of Crashing the Gate, The Argument is the first thing I’ve read to give book-length treatment to this whole phenomenon. That said, you expect all this from a writer as talented as Bai. What you don’t expect are the insights all these details provide.
After observing the first meeting of the Democracy Alliance, Bai writes, “Just as GM couldn’t begin to consider a world without Pontiacs, neither could Washington Democrats and their interest groups envision a world where every single liberal provision of the last 70 years didn’t exist intact. This made real innovation — the kind of innovation that had launched the modern Democratic Party in the first place — all but impossible. There were all kinds of specific new policy proposals on the Democratic shelf, just as there were always new models of Buicks and Pontiacs on the drawing boards. But there was nothing approaching a plan to restructure the modern social contract for an age when Wal-Mart, and not GM, employed the most Americans, in the same imaginative way that the New Dealers had dreamed up a compact to meet the challenge of an earlier day.”
Bai doesn’t have much faith in either the bloggers or the donors (and by extension the groups supported by their billions) to move the party beyond that mentality. But then again, new ideas and real innovation aren’t necessarily what interests them. Bai describes meetings where both everyday folks brought together by MoveOn.org and the most well-connected of Democratic insiders gather to discuss a progressive agenda. And in all these occasions, the participants can’t help but focus on the machinations of politics and branding.
That’s because the energy for this nascent insurgency is derived, in no small part, from a hatred of George W. Bush and a wrenching, visceral desire to end the war in Iraq. Though nearly all of his portraits are sympathetic (except for that of Hollywood director Rob Reiner, who comes off as self-important blowhard), Bai doesn’t adequately describe the real impact that the war has on these new activists. While continuing to fixate on Bush as we approach 2008 isn’t healthy or productive (he will never, ever run for any office, anywhere, ever again), the Iraq war and its disastrous consequences are huge, gaping problems which any new progressive agenda for the future must address. The passions and frustrations these bloggers and donors wear on their sleeves are understandable even if their demands that all Democrats support immediate withdrawal of all forces from Iraq are sometimes unreasonable.
It is worth spending some time considering the treatment of Bill Clinton in particular and Clintonism in general. When progressives complain about centrism and Third Way politics, they’re issuing a rebuke of the philosophy upon which Clinton campaigned and governed. When Howard Dean roars that he represents the “Democratic wing of the Democratic party” and these new activists cheer him on in 2004, it’s a repudiation of the other wing of the Democratic party — Clinton’s wing. In their discussion of him and his legacy, I’m reminded of the way some Christians say they view homosexuality — love the sinner, hate the sin. There’s no doubt that Bill Clinton is a rock star to Democrats from across all the political spectrum, but in each of the occasions where Bai directly observes the former president in this book, Clinton feels the need to launch into a defense of his accomplishments. Both the bloggers and the billionaires leap at a chance to get a meeting with Bill, but in many cases, they are outspoken critics of his policies on trade, welfare reform, and his wife’s position on Iraq. Love the President, hate his presidency.
On a fundamental level, the thing that most separates the Democratic party from the GOP is the size of their tents. Since the Civil Rights movement, Democrats have been those concerned with the welfare of even those on society’s margins, while Republicans have not. That is a spiritual difference much more significant than any specific policy position.
The danger that Democrats face in the wake of the end of the Bush presidency isn’t a lack of ideas. The shelves of progressive organizations are buckling under the weight of books, critiques, and blueprints by scholars. The presidential campaigns have released detailed, substantive plans to meet the challenges of everything from global warming to rural poverty to universal health care.
The problem is finding a vision for the future that somehow manages to unite all the disparate clans in the Democratic party. As things stand now, with the new activists (and the bloggers in particular), the war in Iraq is a litmus test — those who don’t support immediate, complete withdrawal aren’t just wrong, they are part of the problem. But again, the focus is on politics, rather than policy — to the progressive insurgents, the rhetoric is what’s important. To keep tapping the energy of these new partisans, the vision has to be about more than just policy prescriptions — it must address the conservative vision that has held the American Dream in thrall for seven long years. And it can’t be a laundry list of new programs either — that will satisfy no one but politicians looking to avoid hard thinking.
The real argument that Democrats must have is how to develop a new set of policies for the 21st century that stays true to the fundamental open nature of the party. FDR built a coalition for governing that included white Southerners, lower-income ethnic voters, and an educated middle class but still created a bold, far-reaching set of national social programs, ended the Great Depression, and won the Second World War. The size of the party isn’t the problem. Globalization and the issues it has birthed (terrorism, the destabilization of the working class, and global warming chief among them) are the biggest challenge we have faced since FDR, and the Republicans have shown that they are clearly not up to the task. Between now and the inauguration of the next president, all the different wings of the Democratic party owe it to themselves to devote some part of their energy to developing a fresh social contract for this new future.