Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Jon Chait on the netroots

Jonathan Chait writes on the netroots in the latest TNR (free link via Yglesias). Chait gets some things right, but mischaracterizes the netroots as mini-Norquists, and misses the importance of the Iraq War.

The fundamental aspect of the rise of the netroots that Chait misses is the context. Chait compares the mindset of the GOP in 1964 with the mindset of the netroots today in that both thought that being true to one's party would mean winning. He might want to compare election results from those two years to glean the importance of political context to this analysis.

The president's unerring instinct for the errant and the unpopular makes it pretty easy for netroots-influenced Dems to agree on policy these days. All we have to do is stand athwart the administration yelling "stop." It's good policy and good politics. But all we've heard from the media-- including its stand-ins for liberals, like Joe Klein-- is that opposing the president's deeply unpopular, deeply wrongheaded and dangerous actions will be seen as shrill and partisan by the voters. It's not true.

Context for the rise of the netroots: Over four years ago, we stumbled unprepared into an unnecessary, catastrophic war, because the right wing message machine-bred GOP thought it might be fun. The centrism-uber-alles Democratic Party went along, and the lazy mainstream media, cowed by attacks from the right, failed to even try to report the facts on Saddam's WMD program. The Iraq invasion was the product of a debased, one-sided, rhetoric-over-reality political culure.

Context for netroots-backed prescriptions today: This county hates this war and does not trust this president, with good reason. Opposing the president is, therefore, both good policy and good politics.

Chait writes, in a view anticipated this morning by Yglesias's MSM Rules, that "[w]hat they consider treasonous is any criticism of any part of the Democratic Party or its activist base from the right. You can attack the Democratic leadership in Congress for failing to force a troop withdrawal from Iraq, but you cannot attack it for opposing a troop surge." Chait overlooks the fact that the troop surge is a travesty of a mockery of a sham, a purely political move guaranteed to produce little or no serious effect strategically, but certain to draw the US presence in Iraq out for longer. The public views it as such. Therefore, opposing the surge is good politics and good policy.

The netroots have provided rhetorical and moral support for newly assertive Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid despite endless heckling from an MSM on issues such as choosing an Intel Committee chair, use of a military airplane, a bipartisan visit to Syria, and stating that the president's policy guarantees a loss in Iraq. The MSM, unaccustomed to assertive Dems, has a knee-jerk tendency to cast GOP actions as "assertive" and Democratic actions as "shrill"-- ie, Joe Klein warning against investigating the president's unlawful warrantless wiretaps. This timid, unprincipled mindset, unattached to reality and politically ineffective, is combatted by the netroots.

Chait, miscasting the netroots as preoccupied with fealty, misunderstands what it is to be a "wanker." Wankers are not the ideologically deviant, they are rather those such as David Broder who are willing to lie and to treat Democrats unfairly. Chait's mischaracterization makes the netroots look more like the anti-heterodoxy Right than the anti-distortion force they really are. Throughout his article, he miscasts the netroots as being concerned with ideological correctness, when they are in fact concerned with factual accuracy and representing huge majorities of people. He goes particularly awry when he describes the netroots as not believing in the concept of fairness, when in fact they are working for a fair, conscientious, and diligent MSM-- which we haven't seen during the Bush administration.

Kos's statement that "I'm all about winning" can only be understood in the context of the rule of the Bush adminstration and, formerly, the lapdog GOP Congress. Chait sees the netroots as unequivocally unconcerned with ideas, and every bit as bloodthirsty, hostile, and dishonest as Grover Norquist. This is premature, and I believe it will turn out to be wrong.

We don't know how the netroots will behave if/when it is in the majority, not the opposition. The New Right wanted to cut taxes, remake the law to be more hospitable to social conservatives, and claimed to want to shrink government. The netroots want to end our involvement in Iraq's civil war, expand health insurance to more Americans, and stop running up huge deficits. The netroots do not have the encompassing worldview that the New Right had; it is unlikely that they will give into the dark side and deliberately deceive the public, like Bush the compassionate conservative, about how extreme their desired policy prescriptions are once they are near power. Admittedly, though, Chait could prove to be right-- a sense of grievance that outlives underdog status can lead to overreach.

I think it's more likely that the impact of the netroots will dissipate after the urgent need to oppose the current administration fades away. I think it would be much better for America if President Obama appoints Jim Leach and David Iglesias to positions in his administration that pursuing the Bush route, but I don't know how widely held that view is.

Chait's most sound observation is that we're long overdue for a left-leaning counterpart to the right-wing movement. Because the right has such an effective message machine, it gets heard, and it seeps into the public consciousness and begins to sound respectable merely through repetition. Left-leaning ideas are instantly dismissed as unserious, while wild-eyed right-wing ideas about launching a democracy jihad throughout the Middle East are treated as sober and thoughtful. Brian Williams launched a fusillade of Limbaugh-friendly questions at the Democratic presidential candidates the other night-- unimaginable from the other side.

The dominant narratives of the past fifteen years have been pro-GOP in the face of truth-- truth about the popularity and effectiveness of programs like Social Security, truth about the GOP's efforts to appear more centrist than it intended to govern, truth about the downside of failure in a war of choice. The media was cowed by the right, and the Democrats instinctively tacked to the right out of an unsupported belief that this was tantamount to "seriousness" on issues like the war, the president's illegal wiretapping, privatization of Social Security, huge deficits to enable tax cuts for the very wealthiest, and just about every other issue. The netroots, by providing support for reality-based views that got little to no expression in the MSM, is fighting for truth and justice.

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