Posts by Matt Stoller

Democrats and Their Netroots: Needed, A Culture of Trust

January 15, 2005

Matt Stoller

Just before the holidays, a public fight broke out between Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (aka "Kos"), progressive community blog king, and Zack Exley, a Kerry campaign senior staffer and online organizing pioneer. Stripped of its emotions, this foodfight is best understood a symptom of a structural problem among Democrats: our social networks suck, and therefore no one trusts anyone else. People at both the 'top' and the 'bottom' (insiders and outsiders) operate in a low-trust environment with little institutional support, low information flow, and even less opportunity for change from within. Therefore, friendships that should exist don't, contacts that could help each other don't know each other, and the natural lubricant of intraparty communication breaks down, with good faith disagreements over tactics spilling over into nastily corrupted falsely ideological debates. That's what happened here.

To recap, on December 20, Kos launched one of his patented broadsides into a fellow Democrat. "Zack Exley is an idiot," he blogged in response to an article in the Register that purportedly showcased Zack's skepticism towards the Internet as an organizing tool. According to the Register, Exley, speaking at the Berkman Center's "Votes, Bytes and Bits" conference, had little but contempt for the 'netroots':

"The difference between the approach of the left in general, and the Republicans, is that the left was more interested in just putting cool software up. The idea was to put up the tools and let people use them." He derided net evangelists who believed that the answer was 'let's come up with new ways of talking!'

Kos attacked Exley for dropping Meetup and for treating supporters like an ATM, a particularly galling prospect for the online world: "The Kerry campaign had little interest in communicating with supporters, and Zack Exley, regardless his fancy title, was a big part of the reason why."

It turns out, though, that Andrew Orlowski, the journalist responsible for the article, had misquoted Exley. Orlowski has a history of factual inaccuracies, having last year attempted to stir up fights between early organizers of the Dean campaign like Jerome Armstrong of MyDD.com and online evangelists like Dave Weinberger. And it turns out, he did a bad job recounting Exley's words. Two days after Kos posted his broadside, Exley posted a rebuttal on the Kos thread:

[Orlowski] took things I said about the Bush Internet team and had me saying them about my own team; criticisms of the DNC program were reported as criticisms of the Kerry program or of ACT; criticisms of the Kerry/DNC field program were reported as criticisms of the Kerry Internet program; he flat out misquoted me inside of quotation marks and implied worse outside of quotation marks such as the "blog blather" and "goateed chinned web designers" comments.

Exley then defended himself, and offered substantive explanations of what happened on the Kerry campaign. Meetup was dropped because they built a more flexible solution – fundraising emails went out because they needed the money, but they did more than fundraise – online communities are the most meaningful democratic development on the internet. The one point of disagreement centered upon a fuzzy use of email lists versus a lateral discursive framework for campaigns – should a campaign blog and converse with supporters, or use email to direct them? Exley felt that most supporters want to be led, and that campaigns that try to build online communities instead of taking advantage of the extant ones are pursuing a bad strategy. There was some disagreement on campaign tactics, but on the big issue – the Kerry internet strategy – they both agreed that the problem came from the candidates' inability to hold a real dialogue, online or offline. The tone Exley and Kos use to approach the problem is different, of course. Whereas Exley would say that Kerry 'failed to connect with supporters', Kos would express this more colorfully. Regardless, the painful reality is that Kerry and the Democrats failed to engage effectively with supporters, and both Kos and Exley know this is true.

And yet, the bitterness between Kos and Exley remains, even though both would agree that the internal changes within the campaign Exley pushed for – to get Kerry to engage – were the ones Kos wanted. Kos didn’t take back his post. And Exley hasn't engaged online since then. What happened? Why are two pioneering online organizers unable to resolve a disagreement that actually isn't a disagreement? Where is the anger coming from?

One answer seems to be John Kerry and his post-campaign campaign.

A Fish Rots From the Head Down

Look no further than the nearest Newsweek, and this article on Kerry’s chances in 2008.

He never quite came out and said it, but Kerry sounded very much like a man who was running for president again. He has a mailing list with 2.9 million names and an organization in every state. His moneymen have not backed away. By and large, Kerry has not been blamed for the defeat, at least not the way former vice president Al Gore was after the 2000 election. Some of Kerry's followers are already plotting how Kerry can defeat Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses in 2008. The conventional wisdom, already congealing before Bush's second Inaugural, pictures Kerry and Clinton as the early Democratic front runners.

Few are willing and in a position to honestly examine the Kerry campaign, its mistakes and successes. Those supporters who felt ignored during the election season speak of feeling treated like ATMs, sent fundraising email after fundraising email and nothing more; those within the campaign want to speak of the structural obstacles to beating a wartime President. But before these two groups can come together and cooperate on future political battles, they must be able to speak honestly with each other. That they cannot, and that Kerry and his advisors do not feel safe communicating that they learned anything from the campaign to their supporters, drives the enmity online. The recriminations are coming out on the internet, in arguments between people like Kos and Exley (and a million smaller ones), because few inside the Beltway feel that it’s possible for them to make space for honest open discussion and sustain a career.

The failure to connect these two component pieces of the Democratic party in a trusted space means that transparency and honest dialogue within the party is nearly impossible. The Kerry campaign senior staff still can't overcome their fear that if they do speak out they’ll just be blamed even more for the loss, even as the grassroots is pleading for a real post-mortem, a real reconciliation for what happened. That this reconciliation and dialogue could not happen because of a climate of mutual fear leaves the partisan base with indigestion and populist disgust, and the insider class with the impression that a group of moderate passionate partisans are extreme in their left-wing political demands. As Kos's pal Jerome Armstrong put it, "I'm convinced that the mental framework... is that the small donors have merely replaced the previous large-money donors, and that we have no where else to go. What the Democratic Party leadership in DC and these states needs to realize is that the DNC relys upon the small donor as it's netroots ATM, yet the netroots does not rely upon them." And yet, outsiders do rely on party leadership; that's who is representing progressives in government.

During the campaign, Kerry asked for support and the base gave money and time, but did not give patience. The grumbling among grassroots about Kerry's lack of a coherent, consistent message was palpable throughout. From the other side, the campaign did not seem capable of including anyone except a small group of consultants in a conversation about what he as a candidate was about, because there seemed to be no point. In other words, a thick layer of fear prevented and still prevents the grassroots and the Democratic leadership from engaging in a genuine dialogue. There were no Kerry representatives posting officially on Kos or Democratic Underground, though I have been told that there were extremely high level Kerry staffers who posted on these forums anonymously. The base wanted to be a message machine for Kerry, and Kerry wanted such a message machine of millions. But it never happened.

This syndrome is continuing even now, when no one any longer has the excuse of saying that they are too busy and in the middle of a campaign to engage these questions. With his 2.9 million person email list, the post-campaign Kerry campaign recently asked for a cosponsorship of a health care initiative for children. Health care for children is crucial, but the way you do politics is as important as the politics you do. And transparency and a discussion are still not happening in a systematic way.

In another example of a broken conversation, the first public debrief Kerry did on his campaign was an interview with Newsweek. From the perspective of a Democratic politician used to having no actual mechanism to communicate with the grassroots of his party except through the big media, this makes sense. Newsweek talks to millions, so you speak through that megaphone you have. But in the internet world, John Kerry also speaks to millions, and the choice to first speak to media insiders at Newsweek implies that such a magazine is more important than the passion and effort of his most ardent supporters. Coming clean with a mainstream media outlet that prizes commercial interests over democratic ones was a no-brainer, until you realize that we now have an environment in which it is no more expensive to speak to millions than it is to talk to a reporter.

I point at the dysfunctional relationship between Kerry and the Democratic base in this article, but the lack of trust is systemic and unrelated to an individual Senator with an admirable record of heroism and of thinking through terrorism decades before the problem became real. The tension between Kos and Exley is the same tension we see between Moveon.org and blogs – there's no conversation and no trusted environment in which to have one. It's the same tension we see between activists and organizations like Human Rights Campaign, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, the DNC, and other big liberal groups. There is just no conversation, because leaders don't see themselves as being in a dialogue with their supporters, or rather, they feel like the Newsweeks are who they must speak to. They can imagine no other type of conversation, because in their professional experience, there isn't one. Moveon.org is a bit of an exception, but they too have an extremely limited capacity to interact with their supporters, have little presence on blogs, and have little expressed conversational desire.

Time for a Give-and-Take

When Exley did respond to Kos, it had an immensely positive effect. Exley’s comment got rated very highly on DailyKos.com, and activists began to see that there was a human face behind the individual who had been taken to task. His response was noticed, considered, and changed activists' minds. I posted his response on my blog, and the conversation there and on Kos has been lively and instructive. As a corollary, Moveon.org could learn from this and start publicly participating in the give-and-take of the online dialogue. If they did this, there would be netroots campaigns to get the media to stop calling Moveon a 'far left-wing group'. The failure to do this finds someone like Zack flabbergasted that his online activism finds incredible resentment among other online activists. Yet the resentment is there, and it's good it's now in the open.

Right-wing online dominance is at this point fairly clear – the Swift Boat Veterans used the internet exceptionally well to drive their message, and CBS was effectively neutered, possibly for all time, by a campaign launched against Dan Rather on Free Republic.com and propagated through the Instapundit-Drudge-WSJ-Cable News-Mainstream axis. In smaller examples, such as the Daschle-Thune blog where a Thune operative influenced the South Dakota Argus Leader's coverage while posing as an ordinary citizen, the right is increasing their understanding and institutional dominance of the medium of the internet. While the anti-Sinclair Broadcasting boycott was a left-wing success, it was Powerline, and not Atrios, who was Time Magazine's blog of the year (it's also important to point out that Media Matters, which helped lead the Sinclair battle, has bloggers and blogging integrated into its organizational fabric in a way no other liberal or progressive organization currently does).

The reason we don't have more internet success stories on our side is because our institutions don't talk to blogs or anyone else – there is just no conversation and few social networks in which to sustain them. The result is that the grassroots has no way of knowing what's actually going on, and gets frustrated and angry and unrealistic about expectations and abilities. From an organizational perspective, grassroots activists on and offline seem demanding, petulant, self-important, and unrealistic. Bloggers think that liberal organizations just want to steal their links and traffic, not that they care about a dialogue. Ironically, while the media does an awful job covering progressive politicians, many of those same politicians are apparently reluctant to engage people who want to talk about them sympathetically.

The low-trust environment of progressive politics rubs wounds raw rather than allowing for a concerted effort to deal with them. So Markos and Zack fight in the open, communicating angrily about a heartbreaking campaign. But at least there is a conversation emerging, even if it is needlessly bitter; we finally have a way to share war stories more broadly than over a beer in a bar. Still, bridging the low trust environment between establishment political leaders and their supporters is extremely difficult. It entails risk, for which insiders often go unrewarded. It entails getting ahead of conventional wisdom, and the potential of being taken out of context in future political campaigns. And it entails putting aside one’s identifying characteristic of being far left or centrist and possibly having a door slammed in your face as a reward for doing so.

But that's what growing up as a political movement means, and that's my sense of Markos and Zack were attempting here, as clumsy as it might seem. Honest discussions don't change the results of past elections, but they do help us as a community mature into an effective political force, and soften the bitter tones between the people who should be, but aren't, cooperating.

Matt Stoller is a media consultant. He cocreated the Blogging of the President radio show and blog at www.bopnews.com. He has been active in Democratic politics and the 'netroots' since the spring of 2002, and currently works for Simon for Chair. The views expressed here are his alone.

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