Better and Better Democrats

Judd Legum used to write for ThinkProgress. He’s currently running for state legislature in Maryland and is a prime example of how this young generation of political activists are moving away from advocacy, writing, and organizing and towards seeing public service as an outlet for their commitment to change. Judd really is the first A-List blogger to run for office that I know of, but I hope he’s not the last.

I recently donated to his campaign on ActBlue; I encourage you to do the same.

Who’s Responsible?

Reading Peter Daou’s post at his new project, Consider This News, on the bipartisan repudiation of the left wing of American politics, I caught this line:

I challenge anyone to envision a President Barack Obama without the unrelenting defiance of the netroots during the Bush years.

While I personally agree 100% with Daou’s sentiment that the defiance of proud progressives in the netroots, especially in the period of 2004-2008, lead to the conditions that allowed Obama to win, I think there are many people – especially here in DC – that would disagree with it.  For example, I can imagine any number of campaign operatives I’ve worked with in professional politics who could recast that sentence as such:

I challenge anyone to envision a President Barack Obama without the unrelenting efforts to defeat Republican incumbents with centrist candidates by Chuck Schumer of the DSCC and Rahm Emanuel of the DCCC.

Do I agree with this statement? Certainly not as much as I agree with Daou’s postulation on the importance of the netroots, but it sort of makes clear that looking at politics in absolutes as if in a vacuum is very difficult.

More importantly, while Daou may well be able to issue his challenge, the fact that there would so readily be a cement block of Conventional Wisdom standing in the way of it being accepted proves his point that both Republicans and Democrats have worked efficiently to marginalize voices from the Democratic left in accepted political discourse. Were we in an environment where the massive contributions the online progressive community has made to electing Democrats — often regardless of where they fit on the Democratic political spectrum —  I would expect to see a far greater appreciation of the concerns and critiques of activists online. That appreciation simply doesn’t exist now and as a result the netroots is treated by Democratic politicians at best like a demanding ATM machine and at worst like a group of whack-jobs who should be marginalized to show your friends in DC how Serious you are.

Empowering Enemies or Creating Effective Bogeymen?

Hillary Clinton’s internet guru Peter Daou has a very interesting column on Huffington Post today, asking “Why on Earth Are Democrats Legitimizing and Empowering Rush Limbaugh?” I think evaluating whether or not elevating an ideologue like Limbaugh is valuable. Daou’s posts and the comments and his detailed updates reveal a lot of thought on the issue and I encourage you to read it.

That said, I look at the Limbaugh question in a similar way to how I think about people like Sarah Palin or Bobby Jindal. The Republican Party is hemorraging support now. It lacks ideological direction that appeals to people outside the geographic south, the super rich, or religious conservatives. It is moving quickly towards being a regional political party. They are without a rudder now and that gives Democrats and more specifically liberal bloggers and talking heads the opportunity to define the GOP for the public and for the media. In this case, picking an objectionable character, known for regularly and repeatedly offending vast swaths makes sense. Likewise picking inept liars like Jindal or clueless not ready for primte time players like Palin also makes sense.

Limbaugh is a cipher for how we can define the GOP. Coincidentally he actually is becoming their party’s biggest spokesman. I love a situation where the choice between Democrats and Republicans is between Barack Obama and Rush Limbaugh precisely because Limbaugh cannot play at Obama’s level. Does it give him more profile than he deserves? Yes, I would love to see him marginalized entirely, but I think elevating him in the short run may lead to that in the longer run.

In the mean time, we need to continue to talk about the positive Democratic agenda on the economy, Iraq, the rule of law. Doing this gives us a massive platform to show people what we are doing and when people look at the two, they will continue to choose Democrats over Republicans when Americans go to the polls.

Pressure Politics

What Glenn Greenwald said:

When Obama does things that warrant praise — when he appoints someone like Dawn Johnsen as OLC Chief, or defies Beltway demands by going outside of the intelligence community to find his CIA Director — he should be praised.  When he does things that warrant criticism — such as going on national television to talk about the need for a special process to allow the use of “tainted” evidence against Guantanamo detainees, or when he openly contemplates naming someone as CIA Director who supports rendition and torture, or when he votes in favor of warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty — he should be vigorously criticized.  When he makes statements without any apparent basis — such as Sunday’s assertion that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons — he ought to be made to account for that claim and show evidence for it.  That’s just basic accountability for a political official.

Like all politicians, Obama is not intrinsically good.  Good things don’t happen by virtue of the mere existence of his presidency.  His presidency will be good only and exactly to the extent that he does good things.  Pressure and criticisms make his doing those good things more likely (there is a quote from FDR, which I cannot find but am certain commenters will quickly cite, where FDR privately instructed his supporters to publicly criticize him for not doing X so that he would be able to do X more easily).

Obama is about to become one of the world’s most powerful political leaders, if not the single most powerful.  He begins with sky-high approval ratings, his political party in control of Congress by a large margin, and enjoys reverence so intense from certain quarters that such a loyal following hasn’t been seen since the imperial glow around George Bush circa 2002.  He’s not going to crumble or melt away like the Wicked Witch if he’s pressured or criticized.  The far more substantial danger is that he won’t be pressured or criticized enough by those who are eager to see meaningful changes in Washington, and then — either by desire or necessity — those are the voices he will ignore most easily.

This is something that I think is universally true – politicians respond to pressure. Confrontational politics work, even when — especially when — they are focused on our friends and allies.

Progressive New Year’s Resolution

My friend Josh Bolotsky of Living Liberally asked me what my new year’s resolution as a progressive was for a post on Open Left. Here’s what I said:

The power of the liberal blogosphere is only as great as the willingness of bloggers, commenters, and readers to take action when called upon by our peers. When we work together, we can compel Congress to hear us. In my experience this is best done with direct phone calls and visits to the offices of our Congressional representatives. So here’s my resolution: when I see the bloggers I read and trust make a call to action, asking me to pick up the phone, I’ll do it. Not just on the issues I care the most about, but on the ones that you all care about.  Solidarity means we can get more done and solidarity ensures that our movement can bring more change to our country every day. So I’ll stand in solidarity with all of you in the New Year…I hope you’ll join me.

There are lots of other great progressive resolutions at Open Left. I hope you take a look.

Local Media, State Blogs & State Legislatures

One of the issues that regular takes up untold millions of pixels in the realm of meta blogging is the extent to which statewide local blogs are replacing local news coverage. Local papers have had shrinking staffs for a long time, but it’s become dramatic in recent years. More and more papers are removing their reporters from the pool at state legislatures. As a result, with fewer reporters covering more things, the quality of coverage of state governance drops precipitously. It’s not surprising that local blogs have sought to fill that role, though I don’t know of anyone who would claim that there’s a one to one exchange between a blogger and a journalist in this circumstances, if only for the fact that so few bloggers get to blog full time.

Governing Magazine has a great article this month by Rob Gurwitt about the decline of traditional journalism covering state legislatures, the growth of blogs, and how these changes influence what elected officials are doing to get the word out about their work. Gurwitt’s piece is one of the best I can recall reading in the last five years on the dynamics that have contributed to the rise of local blogs. The article focuses a great deal on Connecticut, so it’s naturally of interest to me. He cites Christine Stewart of CT News Junkie as an example of what happens when an intrepid person seeks to do the work that is no longer being done by the traditional press.

CT. Rep Mike Lawlor is quoted in Gurwitt’s piece. His comments show a great deal of understanding of the changing footing he operates in as an elected official.

Mike Lawlor, a Democrat who chairs the Connecticut House Judiciary Committee, notes that while some legislators mostly complain about not getting their names in the newspaper anymore, “there are also curious, thoughtful, sophisticated people who are trying to accomplish things, and they’re frustrated that their constituents don’t know what’s happening at the Capitol anymore, and they can’t get them to care.” He sees in the rise of the Internet and the loosening grip of newspapers a twin challenge for legislators, because it’s created two distinct groups of constituents: those comfortable online, and those comfortable only with newspapers, radio and television.

“It’s changed how I do advocacy,” he says. “Twenty years ago, if I couldn’t get reporters to write about it, no one knew it had happened. Well, not so much anymore. Now everything is available. So if you want the relatively well-educated, tech-savvy people to know something, you know which blog to send a link to, and you can generate public opinion starting from that.” But he represents a district in East Haven, which is part of the New Haven Register’s circulation area and therefore no longer served by a print capitol reporter, and he sees the direct cost. “People who don’t go online and just read the newspaper, they’re out of the loop,” Lawlor says. “They don’t know what’s going on.”

The irony in all this, as Lawlor suggests, is that for a small coterie of interested parties, now actually is a boom time for state government news. Spurred by the inattention and over-stretched resources of traditional news providers, information about legislatures is bursting online. There are straight-ahead national news efforts such as; the Politicker sites; and the more ideologically slanted sites in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico run by the left-leaning Center for Independent Media.

It’s worth pointing out again how strong the analysis by Gurwitt and his sources are in his piece. It’s not blogging triumphalist bunk. It’s not a column filled with pearl-clutching journalists who bemoan that bloggers will never, ever be able to rise to the hallowed levels of them and their editors. It’s a sober, serious look at the landscape at a time when newspapers are shrinking, blogs are growing, and elected officials are trying to change the way they work so their constituents can remain informed of what’s happening in their government. I highly recommend you read the full piece at

The Butt of A Joke

Per Markos, it’s clear that the joke is and has always been on us.The question remains how we respond to being the butt of a joke before we pick up our marbles and go home.

Just to be clear, here’s the Way Things Work, as listed by kos but previously observed by anyone who has spent upwards of three years blogging:

  1. Republicans ask for the absurd, threaten nuclear/economic armageddon if there’s no action.
  1. Democrats cower in fear.
  1. We try to talk some sense into them.
  1. We get scolded for being unserious, and wanting the terrorists to win/people to lose their jobs.
  1. Democrats promise oversight!
  1. We roll our eyes.
  1. Democrats cave on every single point, but pretend to win anyway.
  1. We wonder what we ever did to deserve this sorry bunch of representatives.
  1. Republicans do whatever the hell they want.
  1. Democrats pretend that no one could’ve ever predicted Republican outrages and express “outrage”. Sometimes, they even write a sternly worded letter!
  1. We make “no one could have foreseen” jokes and wonder what we ever did to deserve this sorry bunch of representatives.
  1. Rinse, lather, repeat.

In all seriousness, one of the online progressive movements greatest risks is that because our hopes rest on timid Democrats who cannot get out of their own way, we are likely to disillusion and burnout the talented people who are fighting for change every day. At a certain point, you can’t help but be cynical about our prospects and the lack of impact our efforts are having on the course of our nation. Continuing in the face of this ongoing joke is hard. Most people still do it, but there will undoubtedly be a point where each individual feels they cannot continue to proceed. I don’t know where that will be for us as a movement, but I don’t doubt that more people will reach it under a Democratic administration than under the previous Republican one.


My former co-blogger Austin Evers sent me this quote from law professor Cass Sunstein.

Conformity is often a sensible course of action; we do our best, by our own lights, if we do what others do.  One reason we conform is that we often lack much information on our own, and the decisions of others provide the best information we can get.  If we aren’t sure what to do, we might as well adopt an easily applied rule of thumb: Follow the crowd.  The problem is that widespread conformity deprives the public of information that it needs to have.  Conformists are often thought to be protective of social interests, keeping quiet for the sake of the group.  By contrast, dissenters tend to be seen as selfish individualists, embarking on projects of their own.  But in an important sense, the opposite is closer to the truth.  Much of the time, dissenters benefit others, while conformists benefit themselves.  If dissenters are punished for expressing nonconforming views, they will fail to disclose what they know and believe, to the detriment of society. [Why Societies Need Dissent, pp. 5-7]

The tagline on our old blog was a riff on a Bernard Henri-Levy line: “Writers, hence dissidents.” Austin and I both viewed the act of blogging about what was happening in the world and engaging in political writing an important act of dissent. I think Sunstein would agree.

Moreover, I think Sunstein’s quote should be used as ammunition against anyone who thinks bloggers should not participate in critiquing the Democratic Party, or more specifically, President-elect Barack Obama. There’s been a fairly heavy pushback around the blogs, primarily from commentors but from bloggers as well, against people who have written critically about Obama’s cabinet and staffing picks. For the Obama administration to be as great and successful as we all want it to be, there must be expressions of nonconforming views and criticism of a popular leader.  Hopefully those that express dissent about Obama will have a welcome place in the Democratic Party’s discourse over the next four to eight years.

Be Nice to Shannyn Moore

Shannyn Moore writes a long note to Keith Olbermann for breaking up with her — to the extent that he’s been bashing Alaska and happily turning his back on Sarah Palin’s constituency. It’s a true homage to Alaska and the fight for progressive values that has gone on there during the state’s history. Here’s a clip:

Alaska is one of the best things about America. We are the last frontier. What once was wild in America still is here. I still catch my breath; the northern lights over Denali can trump a full moon; a phosphorescent glow in the wake of my row boat; bears fishing salmon out of Brooks Falls; glaciers bigger than cruise ships.

It’s wrong to be hard on you for not knowing Alaskans aren’t all Palinbots. After the last week or so, it would be fair to wonder if we suffer from Reality Deficit Disorder when it comes to Ted Stevens and the Rule of Law. It’s easy to want to knock sense into my neighbors who have ignored our history; so rich with strength, true with characters, and patriotism that deserves to be called American.

In my time living in  Alaska, I saw all that Shannyn is writing about on Huffington Post. It is a remarkable state and despite what people may have seen with Sarah Palin, there is a thriving and growing Democratic community, as well as real art, intelligence, and culture. It’s unfortunate that most Americans only know of Alaska through Palin, Ted Stevens, and Don Young. They don’t represent the state well. Hopefully Senator-elect Mark Begich will be just the first person changing peoples’ views in the Lower 48 on Alaska.