The Problem Was Shallow Roots

There was an article over on the Daily Beast about the decline of the netroots. David Freedlander interviewed the usual people in putting this together, and it’s interesting reading.

Now, however, the Netroots, which were once thought to do to the political left what evangelical Christianity was supposed to do to the professional right, are 10 years old. In that time they vaulted Howard Dean to within a scream of the presidency, helped Democrats take both houses of Congress and several statehouses across the country, and gave the party what many in the movement believed to be some much-needed spine.

But with another critical election two weeks away, politicians, political operatives, and even the bloggers themselves say the Netroots are a whisper of what they were only four years ago, a dial-up modem in a high-speed world, and that the brigade of laptop-wielding revolutionaries who stormed the convention castle four years ago have all but disappeared as a force within the Democratic Party.

The people interviewed gave their take on “what went wrong,” which they attribute to a diverse set of causes.  What made it interesting to me was how they – and the reporter – missed the obvious conclusion.

Of course, they have a scapegoat for it.  The President.

Although the Obama campaign raised a record amount of money online, they never quite made common cause with online activists.

“It has been a very testy relationship,” said Peter Daou, a blogger in the early days of the movement and now a political consultant. “He didn’t reach out. That was complained about in 2008, and during his presidency there has been a very bad relationship. They have been dismissive, and you want to look for a reason why the progressive blogosphere has fractured, that is it.”

They point to the later battles over healthcare reform and then try to make the case that they’re still … relevant.  In the early days of this blog, and since even since then, I devoted a lot of time in looking at the netroots, and their “decline” doesn’t surprise me at all.  You see, they have the same problem that Republicans are having:  The inability to do math.

What do I mean looking at the numbers?  If you look at the “progressive” organizations, one of the largest – if not the largest – is MoveOn.org.  It claims some 3 million members.

….sounds like an impressive figure, and it’s not to say that it isn’t one.  But, as a “base” of a party?  Well, that’s something else.  If you look at the registration figures for the Democratic Party in this country, you’d see that there are some 70+ million members.  Which, doing basic math means that MoveOn consists of just over 4% of the Party.

You can do similar math across almost every member of “the Netroots,”  and come up with the same figures.   You can even look at how effectiveor not – they were when it came to funding campaigns and finding candidates.  In short, by every hard math measure, they weren’t that influential.   What they did was to mistake their popularity for influence.  They looked at their blog hits, and thought it translated into the real world … and it didn’t.

It’s seductive to think that your blog’s popularity is a measure of your influence.   You have thousands of people reading you, and many of them will be telling you just how much they agree with you, and how wonderful, insightful, and brilliant you are.   It’s great for your ego,  but translating that into political influence and the ability to push your agenda requires actual worktime, and the development of  face-to-face, personal connections.   It’s easy to sit a keyboard and spout off.  Doing the behind the scenes, day-to-day work of politics is not.  But that is where you develop real political influence.

Which is exactly what they didn’t do.  I said in a post last year that I would listen to them when they did something fairly straightforward:  Do the work.  That’s what they failed to do.  They took their popularity on the Internet, that candidates they backed won – although in most instances they were a minor player – and that for a while politicians paid attention to them to mean they had power and influence.  The problem was that once those same politicians “did the math,” they were shut out.  You see, they never developed “deep roots.”  Their numbers outside of a few “blue” areas weren’t high, and those they did have weren’t interested – or actively disdainful – of working in the local party structure.    They thought they were the new paradigm in political action, and ignored that the old paradigm never went away.  You see, “nothing but net” is only good in basketball.  It doesn’t work in politics.

The opportunity was there, but they missed it.  You see, there actually is an organization that does all those things.  Connects activists via the Internet, works on the local level, raises campaign funding, and turns out voters.  It works with the existing party structure, the bases of the party, and recruits new people.  It’s called “Organizing For America.”   So maybe they’re right about blaming President Obama for their decline.  After all, all he did was to make their idea a reality!

“The Netroots” problem is that they didn’t realize that their “roots” were shallow.   When the winds of change blew through, what happened to them is what happens to trees with shallow roots.

Trees can fall

They fall over.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “The Problem Was Shallow Roots

  1. see above

    I believe the “he didn’t reach out” has been leveled by any number of constituencies who supported in 2008 including the Wall Streeters, the RRR’s in DC, the movers and shakers, Hollywood. I wonder if it ever occurred to any of them that by not showing preference (or should it be deference) he couldn’t be accused of favoring one group over another. This man has had every accusation in the book leveled against him and never pushed the responsibilty off to someone else. Did he and will he do everything this ‘more liberal’ every year citizen wants, no. He is, however, someone who will listen when we push so let’s get to work pushing. He is also head and shoulders above the alternative and a president that in most cases we can be proud of not for thumping his chest but for doing us proud around the world.

    • Part – in fact most – “pushing” should be aimed at Congress. 90% of their complaints were based around the erroneous notion that somehow the President could “do something,” despite the Constitution very clearly stating it was Congress’ responsibility to do it.

      • majiir

        The failure of some on the left and the right to hold Congress responsible for doing its job is something that irks the heck out of me. Most Americans seem to need refresher courses in U.S. History and civics. That they view the position of president as being that of a dictator lets me know that they don’t know how the Founders intended for our government to operate. As for the Netroots and other so-called progressive groups are concerned, if they were really intent upon effecting change in D.C., they’d get off their butts and put more pressure on members of Congress instead of focusing on the president and expecting him to do all of the heavy lifting. It does seem as if some groups have learned something since 2008. Leo Gerard stated on MSNBC earlier this week that a critical mistake the unions made after 2008 was in not providing ongoing support for the president and his policies, and a new organization, The Action, is mobilizing to support the president’s policies this time around. I’ve heard that The Action is an offshoot of OFA.

        • No argument from me! :lol:
          One of the things I noted over at Kos was that after 2008, when politicians did try to engage them, all they received was a torrent of abuse from the chattering idiots. Instead of thoughtful questions or bringing up policy concerns, they got temper tantrums about the non-appearance of unicorns farting fairy dust. :roll: So after a while, politicians stopped appearing very often.

          • Kossacks love to complain about the Texas State Board of Education, but if somebody sane runs for it and posts on Daily Kos, she gets pretty much ignored. They have a few darlings that everybody is supposed to send money to, but everybody else gets discouraged from engaging with them.

          • aquagranny911

            2009-2010 was nearly the end of DK for me. When some of us were working up hill for GOTV too many there were purity trolling & discouraging people. I did hang around a bit after that but the racist purge, imho, of a lot of POC posters was the final nail in the coffin for me. Anyone supporting PBO, trying to discuss racism or arguing strategy for getting Dems in office at all levels, regardless of “purity” got savaged.

            I have nothing but contempt for DK, will not visit there or give them “hits” to that web site.

      • see above

        I guess I fell into the “it’s the presidents fault” trap. I used the old saying “the president proposes and congress disposes” to pass more than one test.
        My letters and calls are always addressed to the Prez, VP, congressional leaders, my senators, and congressman. Sometimes I even add more.

        • It happens. :-D One of the things I do is to try to make sure I’m getting to the right person(s). If I’m writing about a bill in the House, it does me no good to yell at my Senators. I also write “thank you” notes when they vote the way I thought they should. ;-)

          • aquagranny911

            I do this too. I send faxes where I can because it does leave a paper trail and looks like you really are “serious” (Plus, I do have a fax machine & free long distance)

            You did mention one really important thing: Gratitude!

            I watch how people vote & I send them thanks for voting the way I want. I am thinking that so many hear criticism that it is good to hear a simple “Thank You” even if they are just doing their jobs.

  2. They have a few darlings that everybody is supposed to send money to, but everybody else gets discouraged from engaging with them.

    Exactly. Late last year, there was a Democrat, a really progressive one, who was making the rounds with county chairs to run against Chris Gibson. Do you think they were all over him? Nope. Heck, I even pointed him out to them, and it was met with a massive yawn. He ended up losing the primary, and the one he lost to ended up losing the general election.

    Two of the constant refrains I’ve heard from them is “the Party should” or “the Party needs to.” It’s never we should, or we need to. They want someone to do their work for them, and when it doesn’t happen, they complain about it. :roll:

  3. “It has been a very testy relationship,” said Peter Daou, a blogger in the early days of the movement and now a political consultant. “He didn’t reach out. That was complained about in 2008, and during his presidency there has been a very bad relationship. They have been dismissive, and you want to look for a reason why the progressive blogosphere has fractured, that is it.”

    They never saw it coming and to this day the Netroots still don’t see it. PBO built his internet machine completely separate from the Netroots. He built it bigger faster and did something they have never been able to do which is mobilize it into an offline powerhouse. Team Obama tried to engage them but quickly came to the correct conclusion that you cannot take people seriously who sit around and do nothing but complain all the time yet demand a seat at the table. And when they say seat they mean the one at the head.

    ” In that time they vaulted Howard Dean to within a scream of the presidency, helped Democrats take both houses of Congress and several statehouses across the country, and gave the party what many in the movement believed to be some much-needed spine.”

    Dean was in deep deep trouble before he went primal so I don’t buy that he was even close jazz.

    No they didn’t help Dem take Congress. They called Dem reps every name in the book then jumped on the train after it was moving and swore to everybody they were the conductors.

    Spine? That came from PBO and the shellacking Dems took in 2010 after realizing running away fro the President is a very bad idea.

    The jig is up. Either you do the work to get the candidates you want elected or you don’t With the Netroots it’s always been the latter. Say what you want about the Tea Party but at least they did what it takes to make sure their candidates made it to Congress.

    Their hearing the voice of oblivion loud and clear and it scares the daylights out of them

    • Excellent comment! :-D One of the things I noted in several places in the article was the running complaint about not making enough money anymore. ;-)

      One of the key indicators for me was what I called in previous posts “making threats, not promises.” They’re very good at that. I look back at all the “Blue Dogs” they said they were going to primary in 2010, and amazingly (not), almost none of them drew a primary challenger. As you pointed out, the Tea Party was good at that, and if they didn’t get to Congress, they still had a primary challenger.

      The other indicator is their record in primaries, when they’ve jumped on the bandwagon. Primaries are base elections.. If you can’t win in a primary, or at least be close, then all your talk about being “The base” is just trash talk.

      • I remember the Bill Halter fiasco. He couldn’t get the nomination from his base yet we’re supposed to believe he would have done better in the general election. Somehow the Netroots talked labor into pouring 10 million dollars into an essentially anti-union state then got mad when Team Obama said we told you so. Labor learned their lesson. The Netroots? Not so much.

  4. aquagranny911

    President Obama made “common cause” with the majority of the American people despite the fickle whims of the nutroots. We “Obots” stood by him & for him & were not moved. Our roots were true & deep as UU’s say…”while our roots keep us anchored, our wings set us free” We flew to the work while staying rooted in a common cause…re-electing President Barack Obama & as many Dems as possible.

    Thanks, Norbrook! Excellent diary, as always.

  5. 2009-2010 was nearly the end of DK for me. When some of us were working up hill for GOTV too many there were purity trolling & discouraging people.

    As I said last year, I was one of the earlier ones out the door. I saw the writing on the wall when MB was letting slinkerwink and nyceve run wild, while at the same time smacking anyone who did a tenth of what they were getting away with.

    My real “wake up!” call came in the fall of 2009, when I was at a Democratic Party function. In attendance were six county chairs, along with a number of state-wide candidates and hopefuls. You know how many had heard of DK or “the netroots?” None. It turned out that the only person there who was a member of any of those sites was … yours truly. :lol: Having listened to the various posters on DK and elsewhere tout how influential, powerful, “the base of the Party,” etc. they were for over two years, it was a dash of cold water to find out that in a Blue state, that most of the upper echelon of the Democratic Party had no idea they existed. :shock:

  6. “It’s easy to sit a keyboard and spout off. Doing the behind the scenes, day-to-day work of politics is not. But that is where you develop real political influence.”

    Bingo!