A Breakthrough in the Netroots (aka “The Grunge Blogosphere”)


matt stoller.jpgMatt Stoller, one of the most significant emerging leaders of the new political left in this country, has just written a fascinating essay that I think is a real breakthrough in his thinking and hopefully in the strategic thinking of the netroots crowd in general.
Stoller’s piece is smart Trotsky. I mean this as a compliment to Stoller who is trying to weave together the incongruities of passion, earnestness, and purity of motive on the left with a shrewder, calculating, appreciation of domino effects on the political right.
The essay is cerebral and cites a comment I made recently and have been making from time to time: “one of the characteristics of modern global politics is how organized minority factions are able to overwhelm majority views.”
If Bill Richardson is right and most Americans think that the war in Iraq is against their interests and want the troops to come home, then it’s clear that our political structure and the influence of a well-organized minority have been able to shrug off this strong public opinion.
In Israel, if the majorities of both Israel and Palestine want a negotiated peace settlement that has many of the features of the Geneva Accord (but without the name “Geneva”), then one has to wonder why the majority interest can be so successfully ignored for some time.
Some time ago, I began to think through whether there were “killer aps” that progressives could deploy to better win the big picture objectives they wanted to pursue. For instance, in my view the John Bolton battle was never about Bolton; it was about rejecting the pugnacious nationalism and anti-internationalism of the Bush administration. Removing Bolton, or stopping his confirmation as US Ambassador to the United Nations, was the first successful foreign policy hit of progressives against the Bush machine. Karl Rove was in shock and couldn’t believe that a civil society group had successfully assembled Democrats and certain key Republicans to tell the White House “no.”
The fact that the Bolton battle was not about Bolton but about taking ground back in the foreign policy community from Cheney’s neocons and young Jesse Helms crowd is important for future students of this episode to remember.
Likewise, while I still have a problem with Congress’s self-inflicted weakness vis-a-vis the Executive Branch, there is no doubt that Congress is returning to some healthy patterns of oversight over the White House — and is kicking the wannabe monarch in the shin now and then (though not enough). But this return to semi checks and balances didn’t just start with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid taking over the management of their respective chambers in Congress, this began to happen when Tom DeLay was run out of town.
I used to tell environmental groups, progressive foreign policy groups, gay rights groups, feminist groups and other global justice/civil society groups that I had occasion to meet or speak to that while their individual, parochial concerns were quite important — if they would just pool their money and resources to sue Tom DeLay into political insignificance, ALL progressive policy issues would get an uptick just by removing him.
DeLay was finally moved out — but many years too late.
The tactics that the Right has been using are not off limits to the left.
The Netroots world is doing a good job working to get people elected that represent a new and different political calculus in Washington. But that should only be part of the organizing schema.
Working to achieve tangible victories in key battles does not always mean fighting to reflect the interests of the majority of Americans. That’s good for some to pursue — but one is never going to be able to achieve the interests of all Americans on all good causes all of the time.
What is needed is more strategic thinking in progressive circles about what battles are worth having in order to achieve more systemic success. I think that consensus is impossible in the left — and thus we need the Matt Stollers of the world to find some like-minded associates and begin hatching the campaigns that matter, and ignoring the ones that don’t. Well-organized, focused minority efforts really don’t spend a lot of time at war with the less ideologically committed in their own group — they just work to beat their real opponents, or to secure their real objectives.
The political left has been too easily distracted by causes that in my mind didn’t matter — tackling journalists they felt were too biased, or challenging negative characterizations of the netroots, or trying to impose ideological conformity on other progressives who may be slightly out of step with prevailing currents.
Rush Limbaugh goes to work every day to tickle a strain of virulent, misguided nationalism that keeps his machine going. That’s how he views what to applaud and what to spit at. And he and his followers are shrewd and connected.
That kind of strong focus on the battles that matter, that can give some ability to a minority left to secure better outcomes for the majority than they are getting today would be a giant leap for the progressive blogosphere that Matt Stoller has played a strong role in building.
— Steve Clemons


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