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PDF2007: The Rise of the Netroots

BY Matt Stoller | Friday, May 18 2007

[We're going to post text or excerpts from the proceedings of PdF2007 here as fast as we can get them. (And we're also working to get footage from the mainhall sessions up online too, but that will take til tomorrow.) MyDD blogger Matt Stoller gave a great talk explaining the rise of the netroots, which he abridged slightly because time was tight; we're thrilled to publish the full text below. The editors.]

A few years ago, I had what's called a 'crazy uncle' theory of internet politics. I noticed that the figures who did well online all seemed like a crazy uncle saying things that are true but extremely uncomfortable, that power and authority was built on silly illusions. You know, it's like when you're a kid at Thanksgiving and your uncle starts telling you about how much pot your parents smoked, which you had never really known about. It's uncomfortable but kind of awesome.

Jesse Ventura in 1998, John McCain in 2000, and Howard Dean and Wes Clark in 2004. And i'm told Ross Perot in 1992 was doing well on early internet communities, and he certainly fits the bill of 'crazy uncle'.

I think all these candidates at the time they ran had something in common. One, they got people talking to each other. And two, they appealed to voters who felt betrayed by the system. And this, I think, is how to understand the origin of internet politics. The open left is a group of people who came to the web because we felt betrayed by a system we formerly trusted. I say the open left because the left in particular has felt especially betrayed over the past eight years, and that's why we're on the internet trying to seize political power. And what we've found is that, while we first thought we were resisting the right, there are actually a powerful set of ideas animating our activities.

Let's go over the last eight years through the eyes of a typical internet liberal.

It starts with the impeachment, in 1998. That just seemed crazy to a lot of us, and a real betrayal of our democracy. So it's no surprise that a petition passed around asking Congress to just 'Move On' would garner 500,000 signatures. Today, Moveon is fighting a series of fights on media reform, copyright, health care, global warming, and of course, the war in Iraq. It has held Presidential forums and generated tens of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of volunteers. The group started as a response to the impeachment, but it has become an institution, and it is stronger than ever.

This process of institutional creation in response to a betrayal has continued. In 2000, the election and recount saw the creation of the early liberal web, with such sites as Media Whores Online, Bartcop and Talkingpointsmemo popping up to follow the debates and criticize the lazy press coverage of the campaigns. The failure of our leaders in the press and our Democratic leaders to oppose Bush on Iraq in 2002 saw Dean rise and in parallel, the creation of the activist blogosphere, most notably DailyKos and Atrios. During the 2004 election, the Kerry campaign and its insularity led to the creation of Drinking Liberally, Democracy for America, and a huge number of local groups that are still operating, including the so-called 'silent revolution' of liberal activists taking over state parties through grassroots organizing in at least ten states. Local blogs grew in 2006, often in response to an overall frustration with the existing state party. And this is having a dramatic effect; just last week a progressive Mayoral candidate backed by these groups in Philly beat a strong machine candidate and a Bloomberg style self-funded candidate. A key piece of his coalition was the open left groups organized in 2004.

Note that each betrayal led to an institutional innovation. We initially organized to route around a problem, but then that organization turned into an institution that started to do other things. I don't know what's going to happen in 2008 but I think this pattern will continue. The public has woken up, and is outstripping the capacity of any campaign to act as a gatekeeper. So woe to the campaign that tries.

What does this mean?

What many of us noticed, as we organized around the constraints of the old political system, is that there was a method to how we work. The liberal blogosphere started out as a place to swap polling data and bitch about Iraq. Now liberal bloggers do journalism, activism, raise money, run for office, and have vibrant outposts of progressive politics in nearly all fifty states. Though it's immature, what we're talking about is an entirely parallel political structure with its own communication networks, funding streams, talent, and systems for allocating credibility. And as with any vibrant political structure, there are actually a set of ideas behind it.

Civic participation is a key tenet of how we built our media and political apparatus. We are demanding low barriers to entry in the political system, a way for everyone to participate, and more open cultural structures, including business, agriculture, and government. We are demanding a global system. We read foreign media, foreigners read our media, and we recognize terrorism, global warming, and communities of expertise as global in scope. An interconnected and global model of politics is built into our tools, so it's built into our politics. And soon, it's going to be built into our governance. Already, you can see the power of the Presidency declining vis-a-vis Congress and other institutions, and that's going to continue no matter who's elected. The broadcast era is over, and it's back to a decentralized model of politics, what was nicknamed in the late 19th century 'the state of courts and parties.'

The internet is a revolutionary cultural shift, but alone, it was not enough to spark a political movement. What that took was a series of actions by our governing elites that betrayed and threatened millions of liberals. This rise, of the open left, is a major development, as important in a political sense as the growth of the New Right direct mail firms and business coalitions in the 1970s. And like the New Right of the 1970s, we're just the political component of a much more significant change in how our culture is organized. We are an outgrowth of that culture, a kind of mashup between people who feel betrayed by the right and people who feel comfortable with an open internet platform. We're going to keep getting stronger, because openness is immensely compelling. People have had a taste of power, and it's intoxicating. It's almost as if we're beginning to listen to that crazy uncle who comes over for Thanksgiving and tells you your life is built on comfortable illusions. I mean, he was kind of crazy, but he was also usually right.

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