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 effective – or 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 work, time, 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.