Do the Netroots Matter?

Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press by Eric Boehlert, Free Press, 280 pages, $26.00

Netroots: Online Progressives and the Transformation of American Politics by Matthew R. Kerbel, Paradigm Publishers, 192 pages, $22.95

These should be good times for the netroots, the loose coalition of bloggers, MoveOn activists, and online organizers that sees itself as the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. A Democrat is president for the first time in eight years, after using the Internet to organize volunteers and raise vast amounts of money. The Democratic Party now has a genuinely national presence and is targeting states that it had once written off, while the Republicans are in organizational and ideological disarray. So why aren't the netroots happier about Barack Obama's victory and the political transformations accompanying it?

Part of the explanation is that they weren't invited to the party. As Eric Boeh-lert observes in the last (and best) chapter of his new book, Bloggers on the Bus, the Obama campaign had little direct contact with netroots bloggers. Although Obama's advisers were very interested indeed in learning from the netroots, they had no interest in working with bloggers who might disrupt their control over messaging and money. Instead, they built their own blogging and online fundraising structures from scratch, combining a traditional campaign organization with new network capacities in what Matthew Kerbel describes in his book Netroots as a "hybrid" structure.

But the netroots' discomfiture isn't mere pique. Nor is it simple anger that Obama has broken his promises to roll back the security state that developed over the previous eight years, although this is surely important. The real worry for the netroots is that Obama is undermining their particular blend of online politics. He has taken the parts of netroots politics that he likes (online organizing and fundraising), while dumping the parts that he doesn't (a strongly confrontational politics and emphasis on bottom-up decision making). There isn't much room for the netroots and vigorous online partisanship in Obama's plans for the future of the Democratic Party.

This situation makes for a complicated story. While the netroots have had genuine impact, the president they helped to elect has no use for their style of politics, even as he steals some of their tricks. Boehlert, who has previously written a good, punchy book about the mainstream media's servility to conservatives, mostly fails to tackle these complexities. Instead, he tries to convince us that the netroots in the 2008 campaign helped foment a political revolution taking place in plain sight. He argues that an unruly bunch of opinionated, irreverent bloggers shoved aside the self-appointed journalistic elite described by Timothy Crouse in his 1973 book The Boys on the Bus. "In 2008," Boeh-lert writes, "bloggers took the campaign bus down a very different route."

Unfortunately, this attractive story is not true. Not only were netroots bloggers unable to redirect Obama's campaign bus; they were never allowed to board it in the first place. Boehlert can tell us about activist moviemakers who use cheap editing tools to create biting documentaries and clever YouTube videos, bloggers who uncover embarrassing facts about Republicans, and online activists who relentlessly attack biased networks and sexist television pundits. But he cannot show that any of these affected how people voted. As he frankly admits, the Obama campaign insulated itself from bloggers and online activists. Nor were bloggers able to shape the course of the election on their own. Boehlert tells us about many interesting and useful initiatives undertaken by the netroots, but he can't point to anything like the "macaca" moment in George Allen's 2006 Senate race, where a viral YouTube video stymied both Allen's re-election campaign and his presidential ambitions. Netroots bloggers surely helped disrupt Republican communications strategies, but it's hard to argue that they had a decisive impact.

The book doesn't tackle the difficult questions until the very end. While getting there, it provides us with a succession of stories, mostly variations on the theme of valiant netroots bloggers or activists fighting against the system, and powerful actors (whether news channels, Republicans, or Obama campaign strategists) alternatively trying to ignore them or shut them down. Even when Bloggers on the Bus describes bitter intra-netroots disputes between Hillary supporters and their foes, it paints them as Manichean struggles between plucky feminist underdogs and elite bloggers whose anger spills over into sexism (bad behavior by Hillary supporters like blogger Larry Johnson largely goes unmentioned). These stories provide valuable information--Boehlert is quite right to deplore the lack of serious journalistic (or scholarly) work on the people involved in the netroots. But their framing is repetitive (a little of Crouse's genial cynicism would have gone a long way) and not very helpful in explaining the broader implications of the netroots for politics.

The story of the netroots is less one of individual heroes and villains than of the revival of an overt left-of-center partisanship that had largely disappeared from mainstream debate. Although many elite journalists and opinion makers continued to be liberal, they were genteelly so, preferring to maintain a polite consensus around the proper limits of debate than to engage in fisticuffs with conservatives.

The netroots are neither genteel nor interested in nuance. They want to aggressively confront a right that they see as dangerous and an establishment that they see as at best semi-corrupt. Their combativeness can be a problem. The fights over Hillary Clinton's candidacy were so bitter because members of the netroots used debating tactics against each other that they had previously reserved for external enemies. But they also potentially provide a model for a politics that can actually engage citizens. As political scientists such as Theda Skocpol and Nancy Rosenblum have argued, vigorous political contention mobilizes people and gets them involved in civil society.

The netroots may help to create a more participatory American politics. If they do succeed, however, it will be the result of their long-term effects in building political movements, not their short-term effects in an election like that of 2008, when they were not especially consequential.

It is only in the last chapter of his book that Boehlert directly confronts the fact that the nomination and presidency were won this past year by someone who neither relied on netroots bloggers nor even liked them. But as he argues, even if the netroots did not play as important a role in Obama's campaign as they wanted to, they helped lay the groundwork for it through their work over the previous five years. This chapter reads like the closing pages of a different book, one that would have provided a more historically grounded overview of the netroots and their activities. Pieces of this better book are visible here and there in Bloggers on the Bus, but they are overshadowed by a narrative that dramatically overestimates the role that the netroots played in one particular presidential election.

Kerbel's Netroots faces similar problems but does a much better job in managing them. Kerbel is a political scientist who is interested in the netroots both for social scientific reasons and because he is rooting for them to win. He hopes that the netroots can provide an antidote to the pernicious force of television, which he sees as promoting political apathy and cynicism. Like Boehlert, Kerbel wants the netroots to do as much as they can to displace the current media elite. Unlike Boehlert, he sees the netroots as themselves being elite actors, albeit elites who help build communities of politically engaged citizens.

Kerbel lacks Boehlert's eye for an entertaining story (Bloggers on the Bus has some good ones, for all of its faults), and his prose style traverses the limited range between the pedestrian and the halt-footed. What he offers instead is a serious assessment of whether the netroots have had demonstrable political consequences and of what their likely long-term impact on American politics will be.

Kerbel sometimes pushes his data a little too far. For example, he uses statements drawn from a survey of netroots bloggers to draw conclusions about how their enemies, right-wing bloggers, organize themselves. Sometimes he makes unsupported assertions, such as a claim that there is no ideological orthodoxy among netroots activists, when there is good data from other studies that netroots blog readers are strikingly uniform in their attitudes to hot-button political issues. Nonetheless, most of Kerbel's conclusions are well supported by the evidence, including evidence that has emerged since his book was written. (Yochai Benkler, Aaron Shaw, and Victoria Stodden have forthcoming research showing that left-wing blogs organize themselves around horizontal dialogue and right-wing blogs are more hierarchical, just as Kerbel suggests.)

So, do netroots bloggers have real political consequences? Kerbel argues that the netroots probably do affect elections: Congressional candidates with netroots support in 2006, he finds, did better overall than candidates without such support. Other political scientists might argue that Kerbel does not show that the netroots changed the outcomes of these races; perhaps they simply identified candidates who would have done well anyway. And sometimes the netroots may actually have hurt candidates, as Eli Sanders has argued in this magazine. [See "Anatomy of a Netroots Failure," March 2009.] Even so, Kerbel provides an array of suggestive evidence that netroots blogs have made a positive difference in congres-sional races, largely by raising money for the candidates they support.

Kerbel finds less evidence that netroots bloggers have changed media narratives. Progressive bloggers, for example, were unable to shake the mainstream media from their belief that the "surge" strategy was decisive in turning around Iraq, to stop reporters from focusing on trivia, or to undermine the kind of bipartisan centrism long exemplified by Washington Post columnist David Broder.

None of this supports the triumphalist narrative of the netroots' inevitable success (which, in fairness, is more a creation of the media than of netroots bloggers themselves). While Kerbel wants to see the netroots do well, he recognizes their limitations. They face resource constraints and have to think carefully about how best to deploy their fundraising energy. They can force the mainstream press to defend itself and perhaps sometimes behave a little better, but they are unlikely to supplant it in the near future. Most significantly, Kerbel argues that netroots-style political mobilization is not enough to win races. It needs to be supplemented by more traditional forms of top-down organizing and conventional media. Obama won because he married decentralized volunteer structures to centralized campaign organization, a telegenic debating style (at least in the later parts of the campaign), and well-targeted advertising. Kerbel is likely to be disappointed in his hopes that Obama embrace the netroots, but he is right to suggest that the netroots do best when they are able to work together with other actors.

This is the lesson that emerges from the netroots' most striking successes. Their efforts to defeat Joseph Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primaries went hand in hand with those of local volunteers, few of whom had even heard of Daily Kos. The netroots are probably shaping public debate more than they used to, but that influence is partly due to support from sympathizers on cable news channels such as Rachel Maddow, who is an assiduous reader of blogs.

If the netroots are to have any hope of pushing back against the parts of Obama's agenda that they don't like, they are going to need more allies. These will not be hard to find. Civil-liberties organizations are unhappy about Obama's policies on wiretapping and lack of interest in prosecuting Bush administration officials who signed off on torture. Union leaders are increasingly impatient with the administration's reluctance to move forward on the Employee Free Choice Act. Left-wing economic think tanks are critical of bailout deals for large financial institutions.

In these and other areas, the netroots are likely to make tactical and strategic alliances with other actors. We are also likely to see other groups with different political goals adopting tools from the repertoire that the netroots have created. Finally, the relationship between the netroots and sympathetic parts of the mainstream media may grow closer as the netroots become better established financially and as traditional media become more comfortable with overt partisanship. Neither of these books provides good evidence that the future of American politics belongs to the netroots. Both strongly suggest, however, that they have already helped to shape that future and will continue to play an important role in it.

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