No End of Ideology

Tuesday's Connecticut primary race between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont is not about the netroots. The outcome will be a referendum on Lieberman's Iraq stance, his coziness with President Bush, and his attention to his constituents, as well as Lamont's qualifications. But you can bet that if Lieberman loses, both the netroots -- the online activists organized around political blogs -- and their moderate critics will agree that the netroots community is responsible.

That's because neither side has forgotten the bitterness of the 2003 fight over Howard Dean's presidential candidacy or last year's battle over the Democratic National Committee chairmanship. More importantly, both sides anticipate that the netroots will play an influential role in the next presidential election and beyond. The netroots community portrays itself as non-ideological but rabidly partisan pragmatists whose only goal is to put Democrats back in power. To their critics, netroots activists are amateurish ideologues whose across-the-board liberalism will drive the party off a cliff.

Who's right? Data on the netroots is limited, and there is no universally shared definition of the group. I've based my definition on the description Markos Moulitsas, proprietor of blog giant, gave Newsweek last year:

Netroots are the crazy political junkies that hang out in blogs. They're people who use technology to participate in politics. They do a lot offline, but they do their organizing online. The issue of whether you're liberal or conservative is not relevant to us. The issue is: Are you proud to be a Democrat? Are you partisan?

Using data on Dean activists from the Pew Center for the People and the Press, I have designated someone as a member of the netroots if they called themselves either liberal or a Democrat, if they “regularly” got news from “online columns or blogs,” if they participated in one of seven types of political activism during the 2004 primary campaign, and if they were in the Democracy for America (DFA) database as of late 2004. Since the Pew data came from the Dean-affiliated DFA, this last criterion is unavoidable. In some ways, restricting the netroots to Dean activists refines my definition for the better -- I myself would meet the other criteria, but few who know me would call me a member of the netroots.

To begin with, consider the question of how liberal netroots members are. The DFA survey and other data from Pew indicate that while 20 percent of Americans and 30 percent of Democrats identified themselves as liberal, fully 90 percent of the netroots did. On the other hand, just 77 percent of the netroots identified as Democrats. Put another way, about one in four netroots members was liberal but not a Democrat while just one in ten was a Democrat but not liberal.

On the few policy questions available, 90 percent or more of netroots members support immigration, accept homosexuality, and respect conscientious objection to fighting in a war. No more than half of Americans take these positions. Two-thirds of the netroots thought free trade agreements were bad for Americans, while less than half of Americans did.

Reading the major blogs oriented toward the netroots community, it is difficult to discern issue priorities or positions that are shared and emphasized by a strong majority of netroots members, with two important exceptions to which I will return later. In this sense, the netroots really are non-ideological. Moulitsas and others have repeatedly described themselves as primarily concerned with winning and building a majority. Hence, they will generally support relatively moderate candidates in red states. Their only litmus test, they claim, is that Democrats must not shy away from or undermine the party.

When it comes to presidential politics, however, if the netroots were truly non-ideological, we would expect to see signs that they accept that the national party cannot be as liberal as they are. But in the Pew data, fully 70 percent of netroots members wanted the party to become more liberal, and there were as many members who wanted the party to “die off and be replaced” as there were who wanted it to become more centrist.

As noted, while the Pew data indicates that the netroots is almost uniformly liberal, there are few specific issues that serve as ideological litmus tests. However, the more time one spends on the major community-oriented political blogs, the more clearly two shared orientations emerge: opposition to the Iraq War and to the ongoing occupation, and a pervasive populism expressed in both their attitude toward economics and their grassroots, anti-establishment orientation. These two characteristics go a long way toward clarifying the patterns of support and opposition the netroots display toward Democratic politicians and candidates.

These sentiments are what is behind the netroots' long-standing criticism of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which has taken a hawkish stance toward Iraq and receives generous contributions from corporations. (As a disclosure, it also receives a decidedly puny membership fee from me.) From red-staters Brian Schweitzer, James Webb, and Jim Tester to progressive heroes Dean, Barbara Boxer, and Russ Feingold, little unites the Democrats whom the netroots support except some combination of vocal opposition to the Iraq War and occupation and a tough, fight-for-the-little-guy, people-power populism. On the other hand, politicians opposed by the netroots are more often than not insufficiently anti-war or insufficiently populist, meaning that they do not pay enough attention to the netroots themselves or they are perceived to be in the pockets of corporations.

As president, Ronald Reagan famously promoted an 11th Commandment for his party: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” The netroots have adopted their own version of this rule in their demand that Democrats not undermine the party. The problem with the combination of the netroots' 11th Commandment, their rigid position on the Iraq occupation, their populism, and their liberalism is that if the Democrats' current governing philosophy, such as it is, is out of line with public preferences, then it becomes difficult to draw attention to the problem without running afoul of the netroots.

That Lieberman is an outlier, a unique case, has become conventional wisdom among netroots defenders. But excepting a few statements -- such as his suggestion that Democrats should not criticize Bush during wartime -- many of the words and deeds for which Lieberman has come under fire have taken the form of a good-faith New Democrat critique of the Party. This is another sense in which Lieberman is an outlier, for few other prominent New Democrats have made this critique as openly as he has, even if their voting records and issue priorities are in line with the DLC agenda. It is no coincidence that the only other Democratic target of the netroots' ire that inspires as much passion as Lieberman does is the DLC itself. Antipathy to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama also flares when they argue for moderation on issues such as flag-burning or religious sensitivity.

And here, finally, is where the ideological nature of the netroots becomes crucial to understand. The netroots generally believe that down the line, the progressive agenda is fully compatible with winning presidential elections and achieving and maintaining a congressional majority. Indeed, many in the netroots doubt that ideology is important at all, believing that campaign tactics, messaging, and political discipline and backbone count for much more than issue positions. Of course, if that were true, there would be no need to run moderate candidates in red states.

Nevertheless, evidence of this position can be found in the Pew data, where 40 percent of the netroots said that Dean's willingness to take unpopular positions was the most important reason (other than his issue positions themselves) to vote for him. The less fanciful but still dubious position that the public is on board with the netroots' agenda is also well-represented in the data. Forty percent said that John Kerry lost the 2004 election in part because his positions were too conservative. Fully two-thirds of the netroots took one of these two positions. From these perspectives, it logically follows that an ideological critique of the party that takes the form of opposition to down-the-line liberalism is tantamount to undermining the party, reinforcing Republican talking points, advocating a Republican-lite agenda.

The netroots could be right that full-throated liberalism is compatible with Democratic electoral success. There may be no reason to worry that Feingold blew away the competition in the latest Daily Kos presidential straw poll. But netroots members should care about whether they are right or not, and make the case that they are, rather than demonize moderate elements of the party that are every bit as dedicated to building a Democratic majority as they are. If netroots activists' assumptions about electoral viability are wrong, then despite their intentions, they are working against their stated goal. As members of the reality-based community, we all ought to be willing to step back and question our biases. Whether for the sake of the Democratic Party or for the sake of progressivism, we must.

Scott Winship is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, for which he also blogs, and is a doctoral candidate in social policy at Harvard University. The views expressed do not represent the positions of either organization.