Friday, April 07, 2006

The Hope of the Web

Volume 53, Number 7 · April 27, 2006

The Hope of the Web

By Bill McKibben
The New York Review of Books
Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics
by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, with a foreword by Simon Rosenberg

Chelsea Green, 216 pp., $25.00


When, less than a decade ago, the Internet emerged as a force in most of our lives, one of the questions people often asked was: Would it prove, like TV, to be a medium mainly for distraction and disengagement? Or would its two-way nature allow it to be a potent instrument for rebuilding connections among people and organizations, possibly even renewing a sense of community? The answer is still not clear— more people use the Web to look at unclothed young women and lose money at poker than for any other purposes. But if you were going to make a case for the Web having an invigorating political effect, you could do worse than point your browser to, which was launched in 2002 by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga.

The site, which draws more than half a million visits each day,[1] has emerged as a meeting place for a great many ordinary people (i.e., not only politicians, journalists, academic experts, issue advocates, or big donors) who want to revive the Democratic Party. Obsessed with developing strategies for defeating Republicans, the site was much involved with the campaign of Howard Dean for the presidential nomination and carrying on his forthright opposition to the Iraq war. Its sophisticated technological structure, assembled by Moulitsas, has allowed its viewers to raise money for favored politicians, rethink and debate issue positions, harass lazy or ideologically biased journalists and commentators, and even help break stories that the mainstream press managed to overlook. In doing so, it has explicitly tried to chart a new future for the Democrats—the subject of the book under review—and implicitly suggested new possibilities for the American political system that might help it break free of the grip of big money. It also raises large questions about the future of journalism. In my view, nothing more interesting has happened in American politics for many years.

The birth of the new movement led by Daily Kos came in 2003 with th unexpected emergence of Howard Dean as a presidential candidate. Since tha campaign provided both the technological and spiritual inspiration of much that cam later, it's important to reconsider what Dean's venture was (and was not) about. It ros in the shadows of the Bush ascendancy in the years following September 11, whe very few people—certainly not presidential candidates with an eye to getting elected—were willing to challenge the White House directly. In that situation, Howar Dean's forthrightness, especially his willingness to strongly oppose the war in Iraq united many people worried that Bush had succeeded in stifling dissent

But it's also important to realize that Dean wasn't particularly liberal. In his years as governor of Vermont he'd earned a reputation as a moderate in social and fiscal policy, addressing health care for children, for instance, but frustrating local activists by refusing to take up a more comprehensive medical plan. Bernie Sanders, the former mayor of Burlington who is now the only independent member of the House of Representatives, is a Vermont liberal. Dean is not. What mattered in Dean's case was his open manner and his willingness to risk making clear statements about Iraq. In their book, Armstrong and Moulitsas—who are widely known on the Internet by their shorthand names Jerome and Kos—retell the story of the campaign's early days, especially Dean's speech to the California Democratic Party in March 2003. He followed the well-known candidates, who trimmed and tacked:
The crowd, a few thousand of the party diehards, was getting a close look at the men seeking the Democratic nod, and not liking what it saw.
And then Howard Dean walked on stage.
"What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the President's unilateral intervention in Iraq?"
That brought loud cheers from the delegates.
"What I want to know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting tax cuts which have bankrupted this country and given us the largest deficit in the history of the United States?"
Soon the crowd was chanting "Dean, Dean," and that was before he unleashed his signature line: "I want my country back! We want our country back! I'm tired of being divided! I don't want to listen to the fundamentalist preachers anymore! I want America to look like America, where we are all included....We have a dream. We can only reach the dream if we are all together— black and white, gay and straight, man and woman. America! The Democratic Party!"

The crowd, they write, "was on its feet, the convention hall shaking from audience pandemonium, the speech serving as a liberation of sorts." Party activists "weren't alone in the fight. Not anymore. They had a champion and his name was Howard Dean. The call to arms by Dean was ideologically agnostic, purely partisan." And in that partisanship, it launched a movement that outlasted his ill-fated campaign and is still gathering strength.....