Putting Down Netroots

I have to take issue with my friend Scott Winship's article making the case that "the netroots" are about ideology -- lefty ideology -- rather than about pragmatically building the Democratic Party.

I should say, I've been a pretty strong advocate of the alternative view. I think the most remarkable and distinctive thing about the new generation of activists, whether described as readers of liberal websites or strong supporters of, say, Ned Lamont, is that they have a strong sense of the Democratic Party -- what it is, and what it should mean. That's a very big deal. Perhaps it's part of the generational discussion that's been going on recently, but those of us who are, as Matt Stoller generously puts it, "in [our] thirties and above" do remember a time when left ideology was about spitting on the institutional Democratic Party, ignoring it, treating it as a corporate tool, and at best, trying to pressure “the political class” from outside. Those days are gone. Now there is a recognition that only a meaningful, coherent political party -- not a faction or an issue campaign -- can stand up to the ideologically coherent party on the other side.

And part of that actually involves a greater tolerance of non-liberal positions on core interest-group issues where it's necessary to win: Casey on choice, Schweitzer and others on gun control. So even if the netroots are liberals, the fact that they are channeling their liberalism into a vision of what they think the Democratic Party should be is a significant development since the 1990s.

On Scott's particular empirical data: He bases his analysis and definition of "netroots" almost entirely on a survey of Howard Dean campaign activists. Based on the data in that survey, he concludes that netroots activists are more liberal on various dimensions than the median voter. Which is probably true -- but what have we learned? That supporters of a candidate who carried the liberal banner within the Democratic Party in 2004 are more liberal than the general public? Is that news? On what basis does he define "netroots" as "Dean supporters"? What about people in the Democratic netroots who didn't support Dean? (At the risk of being excommunicated from the netroots, I'll admit that my distaste for Dean was such that if the only choice in the 2004 primary was between Dean and Lieberman, I would have hesitated for so long in the voting booth that the polling station ladies would have been yelling at me.)

There was significant netroots support for Wesley Clark and John Edwards as well -- why would Scott exclude those folks from his definition of netroots, except for the lack of readily available data? If Scott had data to show that Democratic netroots activists as a whole were significantly more liberal than Democrats on average, that would support his argument far better than the data limited to Dean supporters does.

Moreover, all of this is almost three years old now. There's tons of activism that has only come online in the last year or so. Many of the most prominent netroots activists of the moment -- Jane Hamsher, Glenn Greenwald, John Amato, John Aravosis -- were not active online (or not that visible) at the peak of the Dean campaign, which occurred in late 2003. If you're trying to understand netroots today, you have to operate in Internet time, in which three years is a century.

My second point responds to Scott's contention that netroots activists overestimate the degree to which the public agrees with them, citing data such as that 40 percent of netroots activists say that John Kerry lost because he was “too conservative.” I think this is a problem of definition, and I don't say that in some namby-pamby “labels don't mean anything” way. The word "conservative" can mean different things. It can mean alliance with the Bush-DeLay agenda, whatever that is. It can also mean “cautious.” Was Kerry too conservative/cautious in his approach to various issues? Absolutely!

For example, I'm sure I'm not the only person who thinks that Kerry would have been better off politically if he had voted against the Iraq War and in favor of the $87 billion appropriation to support the troops, instead of the other way around. Both votes would have required some daring; instead, Kerry read the polls at that moment and made the cautious, short-sighted move. Similarly, in many cases, it is better as a matter of strategy to take a clear position than to hem and haw. Democrats are already getting screwed on gay marriage, so why not come out clearly and say that everyone should have the same rights, rather than engage in the dreary “marriage is between a man and a woman, but we don't need a constitutional amendment” dance? I have no illusion about public opinion on that or other issues, but as I've said before, it's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you. In that sense, why is Scott's point that 40 percent of Dean supporters liked the fact that he took unpopular positions proof of their ultra-liberalism? How is that different from supporters of John McCain who like him for the same reason -- “authenticity”?

I appreciate Scott's digging this deeply into the available data and following the “facts not factions” mandate of The Democratic Strategist. Unfortunately, I think that the data available to really assess what the netroots is all about are too incomplete and too dated to support Scott's conclusions.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a columnist for The American Prospect.

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