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The Daily Kos: Machine Politics 2.0

BY Brian Reich | Thursday, October 28 2004

“I'm going to refrain from calling him a dirty little troll of a man who wouldn't know a lit drop from a phone bank.”

“He’s a little punk ass jerk with an over-inflated ego.”

It is the rare political insider or activist – either Republican or Democrat – that doesn’t have a few strong words to describe the figure popularly known as Kos.

Kos, of course, is Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the founder and editor of The Daily Kos
(www.dailykos.com), a political blog that attracts more than half a million visitors every day. Kos is the poster-boy for Democratic blogging. He raises money, defines issues, rallies supporters, and brings scandals to light with energy and effectiveness few – online or offline – have matched. And if the Democrats pull off a victory early next month, Kos deserves his share of the credit for helping to energize the Democratic base, focusing resources on previously neglected House and Senate candidates, and nudging the Kerry campaign closer to victory.

“I infinitely prefer Kos to $2,000-a-plate dinners,” one Democratic strategist told me. “There is no comparison in that book. He’s literally engaging thousands of people in a valuable and critical way. Those people are making a critical choice and donating directly to candidates. That is something that has never happened before. And that is great!”

It is clear, since 2002, Kos has helped to redefine how the Internet is used, and viewed, in politics. At the same time, there is fear, frustration, and even anger about how Kos goes about his business. And while what Kos has done is certainly impressive, it’s fair to ask whether he really represents a move from ego-centric politics to net-centric politics.

The Daily Kos is a new kind of political community, supplementing (and in some cases replacing) the traditional political gathering places represented by labor halls or around tables at a dark, smoky restaurant. Log on to the Daily Kos at any time, day or night, and you will find a pulsating forum of ideas, commentary, and analysis. Every post is open to feedback, every opinion able to be questioned. The blog allows for users to branch off from the main page to create their own diaries, or blogs within the main blog. Most important, it invites all visitors to rate each other’s comments. People who earn the title of
‘trusted’ user have the ability to recommend that trolls, or people who spam the site, get kicked off.

The technological platform driving the blog, known as Scoop, is designed for this type of interaction.
Scoop is an open source content management system and blog engine (written in perl, run via mod_perl and Apache, and featuring a MySQL backend) that is designed to put the emphasis on stories, and conversation.

But while the DailyKos is a community site, it is hardly a democracy. Above all, the community is a reflection of Kos’ personality -- highly intelligent, intensely curious, and frenetic. Make no mistake, it is Kos’ world, and his readers and writers are all just playing in it. Kos posts more than anyone, setting the focus and terms of nearly every conversation. And when he’s not posting, because of travel or other commitments, there is a noticeable drop in intensity around the site. Kos not only founded his community, he remains the driving force behind its ideology, energy, and success. And that is exactly how he wants it.

Meet The New Boss?

Historically, political machines were organized to provide social services and jobs, in exchange for votes and support. The machines were run by a boss who commanded an army of precinct captains, ward captains and district captains underneath him. The boss made sure that their followers had what they needed. The followers showed their appreciation in the forms of votes, resulting in power and influence for the boss.

Kos is the boss of a new kind of political machine. What he offers isn’t services or jobs, but attention and access to his virtual audience. And he has built his power out of consensus and teamwork, not muscle (though intimidation may play a role). Kos has an army of loyal bloggers and readers who hungrily devour his every post and comment. They give money to the candidates he chooses and take action where he suggests it is needed. Others within the Daily Kos community can rise to prominence and earn respect within the community by posting on the site as well. The community rewards good ideas, quick responses, fast research and a biting wit. Kos, it seems, is simply better at it than anyone else.

Kos doesn’t think of himself as the top of the political food chain. “I really don’t see myself in the old mold of the Chicago ward boss,” he told me by phone last week. “That was the top-to-bottom approach to politics. I reject that in all its forms. I think what I am doing is based on a community organizer approach. I’m rallying people with like minded interests, getting them working together as a group to make things happen.”

Ben Rahn thinks Kos plays a key role. The founder of ActBlue (www.ActBlue.com), a PAC Kos uses to direct contributions to individual candidates, told me, “The leadership role is essential for community action: there's lots of discussion in the diaries and comments, but when it comes time for everyone to act -- by contributing to a group of candidates, volunteering, etc. -- we want to feel like we're part of a unified effort. I'm not sure the same level of unity and esprit de corps could emerge organically absent a leader to conclusively announce a set of community goals and track progress toward those goals.”

But not everyone thinks so highly of Kos. The Web demands transparency, and some complain that Kos is not open about the work he is paid to do. Early on in his blogging life, Kos included a disclaimer stating that the Dean campaign paid him as a strategic consultant. Today, Kos and his partner, Jerome Armstrong of
MyDD, run a consulting firm that specializes in the use of emergent technologies in political campaigns. They have also launched a PAC that supports candidates with online advertisements. But, there is no longer a disclaimer on his site and there has been no public accounting of who his clients are.

Last summer, Zephyr Teachout, the former Director of Internet organizing for the Dean Campaign
tried to call Kos on this. Writing for The Blogging of the President site prior to the Democratic convention, she said, “I would like to see all credentialed bloggers agree not to write about anyone who is paying them, at least for the duration of the convention. At a minimum, a credentialed blogger, it seems, should not write about someone who is paying them as a consultant. Caveats are not sufficient, at least for me, to build trust.”

This was a direct challenge to Kos.
In response, he wrote “If I'm lucky enough to work for a race I care about, then I will write about it. And people will know about my consulting, and be able to filter what I write accordingly. It's all pretty simple, pretty transparent, and pretty much non-debatable in my book. I'm not about to censor myself on any issue. If I care about something, I write about it. It's the essence of blogging.” As of today, there is still no clear accounting of who Kos works for and how that relates to what he blogs about.

Kos vs the Democratic establishment

Kos has been a vocal critic of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for how it spends its money, complaining that it ignores viable, liberal candidates. He acknowledges, “The DCCC has to make tough choices when deciding where to put its money. There are far more worthy races, and worthy candidates, than there is cash to go around. That's a brutal reality that no amount of wishing could erase,” he
writes. He argues the DCCC’s policy is to “let candidates flail, and the ones that can somehow manage to raise the early money -- those are the ones that we should be supporting.” In protest, he does not list a link to the DCCC among the groups he suggests his readers support with contributions, and he has not been shy about posting critical comments about the organization and its leadership.

Jim Bonham, the Executive Director of the DCCC, has not been shy about responding either. In a guest post on the DCCC’s Stakeholder Blog, Bonham wrote:

We have a responsibility to make critical decisions about major expenditures based on a variety of factors, and fundraising is just one of those factors. We encourage the netroots to support the candidates that are attractive to them. It is precisely that kind of support that helps us make other decisions. But we’re working on a broader canvas, and to win a new Majority it’s not just about the netroots -- or about marginal candidates.

Ultimately, Bonham and Kos’s disagreements came to a much-talked-about head when they degenerated into a yelling-match between the two men at the DCCC’s party for bloggers during the week of the Democratic Convention in Boston.

Hours before that exchange, Kos attended a meeting with DCCC Chairman Rep. Bob Matsui in the bowels of the Fleet Center. I organized the meeting as a way for the bloggers to communicate directly with the DCCC, hoping to avoid some of the back-and-forth that was happening online. For more than an hour, Kos peppered Matsui with questions about why the DCCC didn’t support particular candidates citing polling numbers and fundraising statistics about a variety of specific races. Jim Bonham stood in the back of the room, stewing over what he described as Kos’ lack of understanding. It is very easy to raise money for one race, maybe even a handful, he told me. It is something very different to try and win back the entire House.

Ironically, whether Kos realizes it or not, he faces the same challenge as the DCCC. He can’t support every candidate who wants help, just as the DCCC can’t put all its resources towards races they don’t believe are winnable. The DCCC believes the path to a majority runs straight up the middle, so they lend their support to moderate, dependable, safe candidates. Kos believes that liberal, ambitious, ideologically driven Democrats are more likely to spark interest. Kos does not want the DCCC to change the process by which it chooses candidates to support; he just wants them to pick his candidates instead.

Kos has capitalized on his popularity. His digital empire attracts three million loyal readers a month and commands more than $2,000 per week per ad (a paltry amount compared to traditional online advertising venues, but a king’s ransom in the blog world). He doesn’t take a percentage of the money he raises for other candidates, as many other fundraisers do, but he accepts contributions to help run his site from readers. And very soon, Kos will test his popularity on the best seller list, thanks to two books in the works: one that is described as a history of the ‘NetRoots,’ and the other, a scathing indictment of media consultants.

Mike Krempasky, one of three founders of
www.RedState.org, a conservative community blog that was formed, at least in part, as an opposition to The Daily Kos, says the opportunities that Kos has created will actually benefit others more than Kos’ in the long-term. “Kos has largely pioneered the use of this new medium for political purposes, and it's serving him and his part of the Democratic Party well. But community building and political action on the Internet won't go away, and Kos' pre-eminence will not last forever. Frankly, this is good for conservatives, because what he has done is successfully developed a piece of political technology that anyone can use - if they're willing to work at it. And that leaves open an opportunity for many non-liberals to rally their base in the same way.” RedState has already taken at least one page from Kos’ playbook, powering their community site on Scoop.

Like him or hate him, Kos has a lot of power behind him and opportunity before him. He is helping Democrats all across the country to feel engaged, and have an impact. He is also profiting, promoting his personal beliefs and values, and building an army of followers. For Democrats starved for intelligent opposition to the conservative control of our politics and issues, good, critical analysis of the political scene is like a drug. And, Kos gives us our fix.

But does he represent the future of a community-based, net-centric politics? Kos is always looking forward – he sees the opportunity for self-organizing networks to impact politics. And he has staked out a role for himself in leading the charge. But as long as he operates within the top-down, opaque, unaccountable organizational structure that defines The Daily Kos, he will have chosen to remain firmly planted in the past as well.

Brian is the editor of
Campaign Web Review, a blog examining the use of the Internet by candidates, campaigns and organizations, activists and the media during the 2004 cycle. He was credentialed to blog the Democratic and Republican Conventions as well as the Presidential Debates. He has spent much of his life working with campaigns and political organizations, helping to direct dozens of campaigns across the country. He also served as Vice President Gore's Briefing Director in the White House and during the 2000 campaign. Brian is now a strategic consultant and Director of Boston Operations for Mindshare Interactive Campaigns.