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For Online Left, Leadership Vacuum Looks a Lot Like an Opening

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, March 1 2010

Credit: Photo by quinnums showing PCCC activists in the process of delivering an "Honor Kennedy" petition to the Massachusetts legislature

The Nation's Chris Hayes does a short summary of the efforts of the online (and, of course, offline) left to reinsert a public health care option back into the public debate long after official Washington had passed the policy through its internal mechanisms and deemed it unworthy, a provocative topic we've hit on in the past. Here's Hayes:

In the wake of Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts and the chaotic, shellshocked response from Democrats, PCCC [Progressive Change Campaign Committee] saw a vacuum and moved to fill it. "People didn't know what to do," says PCCC's Stephanie Taylor, "so we showed them through polls, which is the language they understand." PCCC commissioned polls of Massachusetts Obama voters who had voted for Brown, as well as voters in ten frontline Democratic Congressional districts, and found widespread support for the public option in each. In concert with PCCC and its partners Democracy for America (DFA) and Credo Action, two freshman Democratic House members, Jared Polis and Chellie Pingree, wrote a letter calling on Reid to include the public option.

As Hayes mentions in passing, there's an argument to be made that this episode is far more about process than policy, and that the gains of the online left here shouldn't be dismissed just because of the -- quite likely -- possibility that a public option won't be the outcome of this process anytime soon. Forward-looking progressive activists are learning how to wrangle polling data, as Hayes mentions. They're learning how to effectively whip Congress. They're fundraising online, in amounts that make their efforts worthy of the attention of their allies and adversaries alike. For years now, there hasn't been much in the way of downside to Democratic politicians moving centerward while they're on the floor of the House and Senate, and as much as the growth of the online left has been a growth of a progressive online left, the moment has probably come to see if the "netroots," for lack of a better term, is a new political force with any might.

It's no coincidence that PCCC sounds an awful lot like DCCC, with the "Democratic" label swapped for "progressive." Much of the anger of the online left over the last decade, give or take, has come from the fact that the powers-that-be in the Democratic establishment have gone beyond simply recognizing the different, and often difficult, local contexts that Democratic politicians face in their districts and states to simply letting any old body cut any old deal with any old interest group. Some of the potential power of a group like the PCCC is that they are calling into question establishment entities like the DCCC's raison d'être.

Paired with a growing skill at leveraging the resources opened up by the Internet -- distribution channels, fundraising, phonebanking -- the possibility is that the netroots can compile a real political cost to backing off from progressive values, particularly where on-the-ground political realities don't, objectively speaking, absolutely require it. Whether or not it can work is very much an open question, but it's worth keeping an eye on Arkansas;* the PCCC has announced that it's going to be backing a primary challenge to anti-public option Senator Blanche Lincoln.

Correction: A finger slip led to re-assigning Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln to the great state of Nebraska.

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