Netrooting in the Grass(Roots)

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga
Author of Review
Aaron Barlow

Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics
by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006)

While Cindy Sheehan stood outside of George Bush's `ranch' in Crawford, Texas last August waiting for him to answer to her question "What `noble cause' did my son die for?" I showed my support by attending a rally in New York City's Union Square. The crowd, though small, listened politely to an array of speakers. I tried to listen too, but anger soon got the better of me: One after another, the speakers were trotting out pet causes, from support for Palestine to environmentalism, each seeing the rally as a platform for promoting "their" issues. I had to leave.

"This isn't the way," I'd wanted to shout. "Stop perpetuating failure!" My unformed thoughts, unfortunately, didn't go beyond that — and I simply went away — much as many Democratic voters have over the past few years. I didn't have a solution for the disarray I was seeing or even a clear understanding of the extent of the problem. All I could do was depart.

When Crashing the Gate appeared in my mailbox five months later, I still had not moved beyond my feelings of frustration. And I did not expect that any contemporary political book would move me to positive feelings toward the progressive movement and certainly not back to the Democratic Party. Certainly not this book. Armstrong and Moulitsas, after all, are savvy bloggers (Armstrong created and Moulitsas who seemingly have turned their online activities into lucrative careers that include consulting for progressive organizations and candidates interested in taking full advantage of web possibilities. Their high profiles led the right wing to accuse them of taking money surreptitiously to promote Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid (see for details). The right-wing`s accusation was clearly an attempt to establish some sort of a `moral equivalency' between the pay-offs to media personalities such as Armstrong Williams and others by the government to promote its policies. Still, given their notoriety, I was worried that Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas were simply `cashing in' at the gate, not crashing it.

Indeed, as I started reading, I began to fear that all I was seeing was another rehash of what we all know about the right-wing movement dominating American politics. The first chapter is primarily descriptive, with sections on "The Corporate Cons," "The Theocons," "The Neocons," etc. It doesn't tell anything new or all that surprising.

As I read on, however, that sinking feeling in my stomach began to turn to interest. That interest grew stronger with each new page. It grew, finally, to the point where I found that I had finished the entire 180 pages of text in one sitting, unable to stop as I flew from point to point, my head nodding in constant agreement.

Boiled down to its essence, the book presents four key observations about the state of contemporary political affairs vis-à-vis the Democratic Party:

  • Democrats almost always govern better than Republicans. The comparative track records are clear at all levels. So, Democrats, whatever the details of their individual beliefs, need to be supported over Republicans — if we are to have effective government. Issue allegiance must take second place.
  • The old Democratic strategy of developing a coalition of interest groups only worked when the Democrats were a consistent majority in Congress and state legislatures and therefore could afford some splintering. Such a coalition is extremely fragile, easily broken apart by `litmus test' adherents to particular causes (the siphoning off of Democratic votes to Ralph Nader in 2000 is the best case in point). Major elections will continue to be lost if another organizing model is not developed; it's way too easy for opponents to fracture such coalitions.
  • The Democratic Party, dominated by inside-the-beltway consultants, does not succeed today in part because it has difficulty recognizing that its decision-making process needs to stem from the grassroots, from the bottom up, not the top down (as has been the case for the last twenty years, at least). Out of touch with the electorate, the consultants do more harm than good.
  • The Democratic Party has failed to protect its own future by neglecting to nurture up-coming young activists and overlooking the need to develop think tanks where strategies and plans can be devised and discussed. Instead, the Democratic Party focuses its financial rewards on those at the top, not the ones with the potential of coming to the top tomorrow with new ideas and enthusiasms. As a result, the party stagnates.

That's an eye opener: Moulitsas and Armstrong believe that Democrats govern better than Republicans? One of the most frequent progressive complaints is that there is no difference between the two, that both parties are in the pockets of big business. Yet as the authors of Crashing the Gate point out, from a progressive point of view, there are glaring differences, especially these days.

The lack of confidence in government agencies has led to a gutting of those agencies' effectiveness. The agencies' leadership positions are used as nothing more than political plums — witness the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina. Witness also the gutting of `safety-net' programs that have been the underpinnings of our governmental (not to mention national) success since the 1930s. And witness the recent building up of huge national deficits by Republicans while they provide tax cuts that benefit only a very small percentage of Americans. In the minds of Armstrong and Moulitsas, the gutting, the cronyism, the creation of a deficit clearly demonstrate the lack of good governance. It isn't that the Democrats do a perfect job of governing, but that, everything taken into consideration, they do it better than Republicans.

As bloggers and throwbacks to the Jacksonian era's populist press, Armstrong and Moulitsas make no bones about their political feelings, providing no pretense of impartiality or neutrality. They see "purported neutrality" as a stand. Their feelings are akin to those expressed by the U.S. Telegraph in Washington on October 7, 1828, which, in the words of Gerald Baldasty,

condemned a purportedly neutral Baltimore paper, noting that the neutrality was probably indicative of a complete lack of principle and an abundance of opportunism (The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1992, p. 25).

Armstrong and Moulitsas are not activists who take issues and positions lightly. In fact, they wear their opinions proudly on their sleeves and respect those who do the same. Yet they recognize that no particular issue can take precedence over all others when it is governance as a whole that is at stake.

Others in the Democratic Party have long recognized the need for Democratic solidarity (note that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell picked Bob Casey, Jr. to run for the Senate against Rick Santorum — even though Rendell and Casey disagree on abortion), but they have rarely been able to explain why it is important. They have not been able to convince their constituents that, over all, Democrats govern better and need each other, even if they disagree on some issues, if they are going to have any effectiveness in government at all. Instead, they have let it appear that they have a `win at any cost' attitude without explaining why it is important that Democrats (as a group) win. Patiently and clearly, Armstrong and Moulitsas make the explanation for them.

We have all heard some variation on the statement: "I cannot support someone who does not believe in a woman's right to choose." This statement sounds great in principle but in practice, it has led to the appointment of Federal judges hell-bent on destroying that right. Why? Because it weakens Democratic candidates who might otherwise have the best chance of beating their Republican opponents. Generally, these litmus test failing Democrats would have opposed those same judges, though on issues other than choice. Instead, we have given Republicans the power to insure that these judges, with their panoply of right-wing attitudes, are confirmed in office. So that statement, "I cannot support someone who does not believe in a woman's right to choose." rather than being seen as exemplary, should, in Armstrong and Moulitsas's view, be considered self-defeating. The Democrats as a whole are better, they argue, and so should be supported as a whole. The Democrats as a whole would not sit such judges on the bench.

The third point that Armstrong and Moulitsas make is that the Washington insiders hinder rather than assist. Through examination of a number of recent Democratic defeats as well as discussions with some of the candidates, the authors show that aid from the Washington-based party structure, today, can be more damaging to a candidate's chances than helpful — for the money from Washington often comes with strings attached, those strings generally being the beltway consultants who have become party insiders. They often know little about local conditions or issues and, again as these writers show, have an abysmal track record. Where Democrats have won recently in Bush-supporting states (Colorado and Montana are the examples cited), they have won by developing strategies actually at odds with those of the national party and by avoiding single-issue identification.

Finally, Armstrong and Moulitsas examine how the Democratic Party has failed to nurture the young for its own future. For some reason, Democrats have long believed that, at the lower level, involvement in party politics should be for love, not money. This attitude has allowed for continued criticism of both Armstrong and Moulitsas, for example, who make their livings as populist advocates, some people sneering at them for having "sold out." Given the old leftist predilections of much of the Democratic Party, it is hard to avoid suspicions of people who do things for money — and I must admit to having fallen for those concerning this book. In Crashing the Gate, however, Armstrong and Moulitsas make the case quite well that this attitude, like so many others held by many Democrats, is counterproductive. If, for example, interns are not paid (or are paid minimally), then only the rich can afford to be interns, effectively keeping the Democratic Party's base from the initial involvement from which party leaders are often drawn. This lack of funding leads to a top-down leadership, for the base is unable to provide its real representatives with the experience and financial security necessary for effective involvement on a national level.

Similarly, the Democrats do not nurture the scholars who can eventually provide the party with concrete proposals addressing issues of the day and the strategies for implementing them — certainly not at the rate the Republicans do. The Democratic Party expects people to help it out on their own dimes, rarely providing the sort of support for research and publication that has become commonplace on the right.

Surprisingly, this book does not concentrate on a specific agenda, on what should be done to change the Democratic Party — and that's to its credit. The authors apparently realize that they, too, would be guilty of top-down leadership were they to lay out a blueprint for others to follow. Nor do they concentrate overly on the impact of the Internet on politics and political fundraising, though the issue certainly is covered in the book. They see the "netroots" (to use Armstrong's phrase) as part of a real grassroots, and believe that both should be nurtured and listened to by the national party. Though they certainly do respect the power of the web, the online world is only a part of their discussion.

Armstrong and Moulitsas hint at an agenda that is inherent in their descriptions of the problems the Democratic Party faces from within. The solutions, they believe, will come from recognition of these problems. Too few reasons to support the party as a whole? Then look at the governance, side by side, of Republicans and Democrats: The differences are clear. Too much issue advocacy breaking apart the party? Then find ways for people to contribute without feeling they are supporting those whose views are too different — as was done successfully in Colorado. Too much control from Washington? Then refuse the largess of the national party. Too few young people rising from the grassroots to positions of party power? Then develop a means of funding them as they grow in experience.

Armstrong and Moulitsas believe that the movement to solve the problems of the party by instituting these solutions is already well under way, sparked by progressive activists all over the country, on the web and off. As they say at the end of the book, this is a "leaderless" movement, one that they are simply describing. And they demur from taking on strategic leadership positions themselves, fearing that might endanger the very movement they are recognizing with the writing of this book.

So this isn't a book that tells people what to do, but one that points out problems and describes what is actually being done to solve them. There is little new here, little that many of us haven't been feeling and seeing for quite some time now. But this is a book of clarity, unclouding the muddied thoughts that keep people like me from speaking forcefully to the people hijacking things like that `Support Cindy' rally for their own agendas. It may be "by" Armstrong and Moulitsas, but this is "about" all of us in the contemporary progressive movement, presenting what many of us are already doing in plain, unvarnished language and offering itself as a platform for further discussion and greater, more effective activism.

As such a nexus, this "simple" book may be one of the most important that has come out of the progressive movement in over a decade.

I hope it will prove to be so.

ePluribus Contributors: standingup, stoy, Cho, BeverlyinNH, JeninRI and reddan