Thoughts On The Post Debt-Ceiling Dynamics Between The Democratic Establishment And The Netroots

Since the passage of the debt ceiling deal, I have been reading through a lot of reflections among my friends in the online community about the progressive zeitgeist. Many in the Netroots community right now are feeling the same sense of

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Since the passage of the debt ceiling deal, I have been reading through a lot of reflections among my friends in the online community about the progressive zeitgeist. Many in the Netroots community right now are feeling the same sense of hopelessness around the country’s political and media landscape that pervaded back in 2002-03 during the America’s misguided war against Iraq.

I wanted to share couple of pieces around these big picture reflections from good friends of mine that I think are particularly noteworthy here at C&L and the build off them. First, let me start with Peter Daou’s analysis on “how the Democratic establishment shunned the left, spawned the Tea Party and moved America right.” Here is Peter’s scathing indictment of the “Democratic establishment” (emphasis added throughout):

Imagine a scenario where Democrats, instead of marginalizing the Netroots, treated them with the same awe and respect the tea party engenders on the GOP side. Imagine an Obama presidency where the health care debate started with a fierce fight for single-payer; where Gitmo had been closed; where gay rights were unequivocally supported; where Bush and Cheney were investigated for sanctioning torture; where climate change was a top priority; where Bush’s civil liberties violations were prosecuted rather than reinforced; where the Bush tax cuts expired; where the stimulus was much bigger; where programs for the poor, for research, jobs, infrastructure, science, education, were enhanced at the expense of war and profits for the wealthy; where the Republican assault on women’s rights was met with furious resistance. I could go on and on.

In short, imagine an America where the Democratic establishment loudly proclaimed that they were unshakable champions of core progressive values and that they would work hand in hand with their base to convince America that their ideas were superior to the right’s.

Of course, that’s a fantasy. The unwillingness of Democratic leaders and strategists to do anything remotely close to that has virtually guaranteed that the triangle isn’t formed on the left. Obama’s supporters are fond of pointing to the GOP House and complaining that his hands are tied because of the 2010 midterms. But it’s precisely the Democratic establishment’s decrepitude that enabled the rise of the Tea Party and the 2010 defeat.

Greg Sargent frets that “one sixth of Americans agree with the liberal argument about the [debt] deal.” He’s right to be worried about the numbers. America’s national debate is conducted on the right’s terms. That won’t change unless and until Democrats work with their most ardent activists to move a low-information nation toward progressive positions. The online community and progressive groups simply can’t do it on their own without the participation of the Democratic leadership and media. The media won’t do it as long as the Democratic establishment marginalizes the left.

Peter’s lament is an unfortunate reminder for those of us who immersed ourselves into the world of Democratic and progressive politics around the time of rise of Netroots in 2002 around the explosion of energy generated by communities organized through MoveOn, DailyKos and of course, the Dean for America campaign. When the Netroots emerged, pivoting off the organizing against the march to war against Iraq--against which the Democratic establishment in Washington failed to put up any kind of credible opposition--there was a lot of hope that the dynamic between the party and progressive establishment and the activists plugged in through the online world would change.

Things seemed to have moved towards the right direction when an all-out opposition against President Bush’s effort to privatize Social Security synergized the efforts of the Congressional Democratic Leadership, progressive communities in Washington and the emerging progressive blogosphere, clicking on all cylinders back in 2005. Yet somehow all that mojo, despite the explosion of social media communities and fancier digital tools have been lost.

Why?

Well, this is where Ilyse Hogue’s thoughts in The Nation are poignant:

Some may say that this is business as usual in Washington and that getting frustrated at party bosses is as old as our democracy, so why am I making so much of this now? Well, for a couple of reasons. We are coming off a decade of unprecedented organizing opportunity. With the emergence of online engagement and social media, Americans were beginning to feel as though they had a way to strategically participate in the conversations in Washington that shape their lives. This president was the first one elected using broad engagement strategies, and his election changed the national psyche by demonstrating to millions of Americans that their political participation could pay off and democracy could work. The disappointment about the debt deal is especially acute against the backdrop of the record levels of political participation, enthusiasm and hope generated during the 2008 election.

In between, we had the 2010 Citizens United decision, which rebuilt those gates around the capitol that the online revolution had supposedly crashed. Corporate cash, already omnipresent in lobbying, dominated the airwaves; and thirty-second ads, played over and over once again, drowned out the millions of organized voices crying for change. That led to the 2010 election of radical candidates representing a tiny minority of Americans who were more concerned about the federal deficit than they were about joblessness and the overall economy.

The debt deal’s final resolution to what essentially amounted to a hostage crisis by that minority represents a complete unmooring of official decision-making from the will of the American people. The last few weeks could be the final straw that leads to a collapse of confidence not just in this government but in the American project of self-governance. When citizens don’t participate, democracy is in peril. At a time of so much great need in our country, sending the message that citizen involvement is futile is dangerous not just to the substance of one debate but to the core principles that allow us to call ourselves a democracy. Are we really prepared to risk that?

That’s a chilling question and I believe progressives both inside and outside the Beltway need to keep thinking about how to get out of this malaise.

Well, I have couple of thoughts here. One from a policy-centric point and the other is a process oriented one, which will loop back to policy-related concerns.

First, let me start with policy: So, this weekend everyone has been talking about the S&P "downgrade". I have heard from lot of smart observers that this is basically another smoking gun that allows the progressives to go after the crazy House Republicans by pointing at their intransigence and building the case against their transparent strategy of shoving down right-wing dogma down the throats of all Americans through hostage taking.

Well, I think exposing the right-wing is always a good idea. However, it doesn’t help the fact that so many Democrats in Washington championed the “debt-ceiling” package for the sake of “bipartisan” “compromise.” It is difficult to pin the ownership of current economic malaise simply on the House GOP, when members of the Democratic establishment in DC are out their championing economic principles grounded in “austerity.” It seems like if the progressives and the Democrats really want to find their voice and reclaim the dominant turf in today’s political conversation around economics, a good place to start would be not to just launch an all-out assault on the House GOP, but also to go after the extreme right-wing framed fantasies around austerity, even if they've also been embraced by Democrats.

Now moving over to the process aspect, let’s address the issue of effective online engagement that seemed paramount both in Peter and Ilyse’s pieces linked above. I think both Democratic and progressive online operatives need to take a hard look at the current model beyond just engaging in day-to-day messaging. Is the current model working? I don’t think so. The current model is basically predicated upon the one that was created after 2003-04 elections when Democratic members on the Hill and progressive organizations in Washington brought in “online strategists” (like yours truly) to begin conversations with the Netroots.

There is no doubt a lot of progress was made in those early years as the give-and-takes between the Democratic establishment and the Netroots led to the rise of what somewhat resembled a progressive echo chamber. It was easy to build momentum around the issues of Republican “culture of corruption” (thanks to Tom DeLay and his cronies) and the defense of Social Security. The zenith for this community was the 2008 elections, when it played a huge role in defining John McCain as a bizarre, out of touch, reckless presidential candidate who would have been nothing short of a disastrous and erratic leader to follow Bush.

The problem has been that following the 2008 elections, the infrastructure built around these relationships did not become stronger as the relationships didn’t go through the necessary maturation. As a result, a huge part of the Democratic establishment still views the world of Netroots with skepticism. Unfortunately, the majority of folks who were to bridge the communication divide between the establishment and the Netroots, were not effectively plugged into the decision-making conversations.

Sure, there are exceptions. I know number of fantastic staffers, who are doing their best with limited resources and support to elbow into the decision-making streams, but the current numbers are just not enough. My perspective on this is based on what I have seen from both sides of this equation. I have been fortunate to work as a leadership staffer on the Hill, who was plugged well in as well as being engaged as a member of Netroots. In both, I've worked towards a number of ways to advance a progressive agenda.

I think Democrats can make a move in the right direction if work to re-bridge the communication divide by not just looking to hire “New Media strategists” (BTW I loathe people still using the term “new media” in freaking 2011) or “social media gurus” who can help them put up some meaningless blog post or launch Twitter accounts, but by bringing in staffers with progressive policy and political gravitas who fundamentally “get” the zeitgeist of both off and online left. As mentioned, above Democrats took some baby steps baby steps back in '04-05 following the rise of Netroots, and showed some encouraging signs all the way up to 2008, but in last two years despite the explosion in social media communities, the engagement fundamentally has been stalled. I don’t believe we are going to get moving any time soon unless sincere efforts are made to bridge the enormous divide between DC and the Netroots. As prescribed above, a couple of good places to start would be to immediately move away from the extreme rightward tilt in policy and by re-engaging with the Netroots in a meaningful way that is not based on superficial focus on tools but policy.

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