Reluctant Radicals

It is conventional wisdom that the new democratic activists of the “netroots” are strong on political tactics but don't have much to contribute to the war of ideas. Matt Bai, writing in The New York Times Magazine, charged disparagingly that “leaders of the netroots … will tell you that Big Ideas are overrated.”

This isn't entirely fair, but let's take the point: The better-known lefty blogs are indeed weighted toward the tactical. They argue that the liberal establishment of think tanks and advocacy groups is built on the assumption that the government wants to do good and is open to their expertise, and not organized for the task of winning back such a government from its enemies.

The no-ideas argument neglects the denizens of another room on the Internet, which hardly lacks ideas: the “wonkosphere,” a term I borrow from Henry Farrell of the gleefully erudite blog Crooked Timber. The leading lights of the wonkosphere include Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo and its spin-off TPMCafe, Kevin Drum at The Washington Monthly, economist Brad DeLong, this magazine's rapidly growing Tapped, the blogs of its writers such as Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias, and a long tail that includes my own nearly defunct blog. According to the report “The Rise of the Progressive Blogosphere,” issued a year ago by the New Politics Institute, these sites together reach more than 2 million readers a week. That's short of the three million reading DailyKos alone every week, but still pretty impressive for blogs that feature sometimes quite technical discussions of questions such as the obsolescence of the employer-based health-care system.

The cultures of the netroots and wonkosphere are quite different. Where netroots bloggers treat most established media with contempt and can't imagine Republicans as anything but the enemy, the wonks tend to be better connected to mainstream media or have our roots in a gentler political era. We agree that the only cause that matters now is winning, but we look back nostalgically and forward longingly to an era when policy might matter. When the two meet, sparks fly. Recently, DeLong waved a big red flag in front of the netroots by responding to Paul Krugman's call for populism with the admission, “My natural home is in the bipartisan center, arguing with center-right reality-based technocrats about whether it is center-left or center-right policies that have the best odds of moving us toward goals that we all share.” For this he was denounced by blogger Duncan Black (Atrios) not with the netroots' gold medal of insults -- “wanker” -- but as a “sensible liberal,” which is not quite as bad.

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That such mutual misunderstanding is not new came to mind when I read David Brown's superb new biography of the historian Richard Hofstadter. Hofstadter was very much a sensible liberal. In one moving chapter, Brown describes Hofstader's baffled confrontation with the New Left rising on Morningside Heights in the late 1960s -- its contemptuous attitude toward mainstream liberalism, its affinity for violence, its dreamy idealism. (The underlying story of liberal breakdown is at least as old as Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons.) And the New Left activists couldn't understand how someone so firmly against the Vietnam War could nonetheless be so deeply invested in the corrupt institutions of the bipartisan center. The political Internet sometimes seems like an electronic version of Morningside Heights in the 1960s.

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The confrontation between the New Left and the old liberals was a deep tragedy, a dialogue of the deaf from which we still have not quite recovered. But its more recent analogue seems much more productive than destructive. The netroots aren't reading Herbert Marcuse or fantasizing about participatory democracy; they want to fix up the Democratic Party! And the wonkosphere has absorbed much of the spirit of the netroots. For example, in recent posts both Drum and Marshall admitted that while their natural inclinations were to be somewhat center-left and a little technocratic, the past six years had made them much fiercer partisans -- reluctant radicals, but radical nonetheless. DeLong, in his controversial post, admitted: “The events of the past decade and a half have convinced [Krugman], I think, that people like me are hopelessly naive, and that the Democratic coalition is the only place where reality-based discourse is possible. … He may well be right.”

The challenge will come when the tone of politics changes and a bipartisan center seems to be or becomes a realistic idea. Then, perhaps, the wonkosphere will go off in pursuit of compromise while the netroots still man the barricades. But for now, the two cultures are dealing with each other a lot better than they did in Morningside Heights 40 years ago.

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