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NYTimes Matt Bai on "Flash Movements" of the Left and Right

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, February 14 2012

According to Matt Bai, the chief political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, the progressive netroots upsurge of the mid-2000s and the rise of the Tea Party from 2009 to present are two variations on a common theme: they are "flash movements" born of online connections, cathartic urges and the devaluation of expertise. And unlike the big social movements of the past, he said both movements were merely oppositional and "ephemeral," unlikely to bring big changes to government.

Speaking at a lunchtime forum here at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School (where I am ensconced for the spring), Bai drew on his experiences writing about the netroots for his book, The Argument, as well as more recent pieces he's done on the Republican right.

[Click here if you want to listen to and read a "pencast" of the talk, plus my live notes.]

"These are virtual, internet-based movements," he said, noting parallels in the rise of activists like DailyKos's Susan Gardner, one of the site's top editors, on the left, and David Kirkham, who is now running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Utah after jumping into local Tea Party organizing three years ago. Both live in rural areas where it would have been hard for them to connect with likeminded partisans before the rise of the net, he noted.

He also pointed out that these new political forces tracked a larger societal shift away from authorities and toward self-empowerment. "You used to go to your doctor for medical advice," he said, "now you go to WebMD." The political parties, he argued, were skating on thinner ice. Parties can't channel this energy, he said, it's too opposed to institutions. And he predicted that someday this would produce an independent president.

"Money and ballot access were both designed to block independents, but the internet took that away," Bai declared. If the two parties continue their game of blaming the other side and propping up their incumbents regardless of their foibles, sooner or later we will get a successful independent candidacy.

That said, Bai drew a clear distinction between these "flash movements" and three great social movements of the 20th century--the progressive movement, the rights movements of the 1960s, and the New Right of the 1980s. These newer movements are "ephemeral," he said, "they're not centered on any constructive vision of how to reform government, they're just oppositional." Asked by a student in the audience about the recent fights over SOPA and the backlash against the Komen Foundation, Bai called these "micro-movements" that were very effective but worried that they also portended even more fragmentation of the national conversation.

That may be, though it's also possible Bai is underestimating the scale of engagement in both the SOPA and Komen episodes. Millions of people took part in the anti-SOPA pushback, and with one out of five American women having at least once in their lives gotten health services from Planned Parenthood, it looks like the Komen fight exposed a much bigger feminist electorate than we've seen on the political playing field in quite some time.

Speaking with me after the session, Bai agreed that the parallel between the netroots and the Tea Party wasn't perfect. The Democratic billionaires who funded independent efforts in support of the John Kerry candidacy of 2004 were far less friendly towards the grassroots as the Republican billionaires now playing footsie with the Tea Party. And while today MSNBC is trying to emulate Fox News in its cheerleading for its side, Bai agreed the Tea Party had benefited much more from Fox's help than the netroots ever had from liberal media.