The prospect of being slaughtered next Tuesday is concentrating the minds of some prominent conservatives wonderfully.
Patrick Ruffini, Jon Henke, and John Hawkins are beginning to flesh out their thoughts on what a post election conservative on line community might want to accomplish in the future. Let’s take the meat of their arguments one at a time.
Actually, I don’t think it’s ironic at all that the analysis of problems on the Right is similar to the arguments made by the Netroots Left. For one thing, the “claims made by Markos Moulitsas” are in many ways intentional recycling of the movement on the Right.
The underlying systemic inputs are very similar. The political/electoral culture and incentives, and the emergence of the internet as an important social and technological phenomenon impacted both the Left and Right at approximately the same time.
The difference in uptake and evolution is predominantly due to the political cycle. Democrats went through the wilderness from 1995 to 2003; they found their way from 2003 to 2008. Republicans entered their wilderness in 2007, though I would argue that the Right has been in the wilderness for longer. How long the Right wanders in the wilderness depends, in large part, on how seriously they take the lessons they can learn from the Left.
Will the Right’s netroots movement look like that of the Left? To the extent that the tools, and the social/political dynamics, are similar, I’d say the Right’s netroots movement will look a great deal like that of the Left. The question is not what tools are available, but how they are relevant to the surrounding environment. The components will not be identical, but the basic concepts they represent should be very much the same. Or rather, they will be when the Right regains its footing.
Jon also notes that “the surrounding political environment” i.e., the conservative on line community’s relationship with the Republican party, has to change before much progress can be made.
Hawkins makes somewhat the same point and amplifies the idea of using the netroots model for the rightysphere:
Why has the left side of the blogosphere grown so much faster?
Personally, I think there are two reasons for it. The first is that the Right has a large talk radio presence while the Left doesn’t. That means on the left, strongly motivated partisans have little choice other than to flock to the blogosphere while on the right, they can simply opt to listen to Rush Limbaugh or Laura Ingraham to get their daily fill of conservatism.
The other more salient reason for the Left’s growth is simply that they’ve been out of power and that has produced an anger and an energy that has driven them online. There was similar growth on the right during the nineties when websites like Townhall and Free Republic rose to prominence as a response to the Clinton years. If Obama gets into the White House, it will be terrible for America, but my guess is that the right side of the blogosphere will grow like a weed for the next 2-4 years.
The bad news is that the Republican Party looks at bloggers solely as an alternative means to get their message out. In other words, there’s a completely non-functional top down organizational structure. It’s non-functional because the Republican Party organizations and pols issue talking points and press releases, most of which are of no interest to bloggers, and they are largely ignored. In other words, they spend most of their time issuing unheeded orders to people who, by and large, think they’re incompetent and aren’t inclined to pay much attention to what they say.
There are exceptions: Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, Thaddeus McCotter and a few others — but most of the Republican Party doesn’t really understand the blogosphere or know how to communicate with bloggers.
I would add to Hawkins excellent analysis that the GOP doesn’t want to understand blogs or communicate with bloggers because, in my opinion, they want to maintain control of the message. Not only, as John points out, does the GOP treat bloggers as an appendage of the Republican PR machine, but at bottom, there is a profound disrespect for the blogosphere (except for a select few who have proven useful to them) and they despise the independence of most conservative bloggers.
How many GOP functions will Michelle Malkin be invited to after skewering the party 6 ways from Sunday for immigration, corruption, and incompetence?
Finally, Patrick Ruffini riffs off of both men’s analysis and offers a challenge:
What will it take to turn this around? If you’re a conservative blogger, the question you need to ask yourself is this. Is the main purpose of your blog to express your personal opinion? Or is its primary purpose to build political power for a cause? If you cannot answer yes to the latter, you’re probably not going to be comfortable with making the changes necessary to make online conservatism a political force to be reckoned with.
This is not a criticism, but an observation. Most conservative blogs are still stuck in 2003 — both in terms of the overwhelming focus on media criticism and punditry, and the tendency to outsource electoral politics to the Republican Party. This was in some ways legitimate response to what was happening in 2003-4, when media surrender-monkeys were undermining the War on Terror, Republicans had a kick-butt political operation, and Kos was going 0 for 16.
I don’t fault bloggers for holding on to this point of view in 2003 and 2004. What is unfortunate is that they clinged to it in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 and failed to pivot to the new reality, leaving the Republican Party without a powerful enough force to rein in the self-destructive tendencies of its elite.
Sadly, it’s human nature to cling to the frame in which you came up — traditional media people will never fully reconcile themselves to the blogosphere, talk radio people will always tend to view it as the center of the universe, and even denizens of the “new media” can become easily set in their ways. This is not unlike people who got rich on the housing bubble thinking it could never end. When things first start going wrong, it’s always just a momentary blip, not a sign of an impending crash. Only a catastrophic collapse is usually enough to make people rethink matters.
Building critical mass behind an independent online movement on the right will probably require new people. The old blogs that have been with us since 2003 will not go away. But they’ll need to be joined by people who care more about Indiana’s 8th district than Islamofascism, and MN-SEN more than the MSM.
Allow me to give the perspective of a blogger who has been online for 4 years and may have some unique insights into these matters as a result of my building a modest success of this site and my equally modest success at making a living as a blogger/writer/editor on the net.
All three gentlemen make excellent points about what needs to be done to improve the effectiveness of conservative blogs in making an impact on the political process. Certainly there are things we can learn from the left while at the same time, it is important to recognize that some specific tactics and structural components of the netroots simply aren’t transferable to the rightysphere.
Ruffini and Henke write for The Next Right, an online conservative community. This is the template used by the netroots to organize - large communities of online posters who rail against conservatives, exchange ideas, reinforce their own views on issues, and generally offer a comfortable, enjoyable place to belong.
That is the key - the need to be part of something greater than yourself - that drives the netroots and allows them to connect via these huge communities. The question is, can this model be duplicated by conservatives and further, is it desirable to do so?
Ruffini nails it with his description of conservative blogs being outlets mostly for punditocracy. My one foray into the real world of politics was my advocacy for Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign. This website alone raised more than $10,000 for the candidate in two blog blegs I organized and my efforts to unite conservatives behind Thompson’s fund raising activities in December and January were modestly successful. (I really can’t take much credit when Glenn Reynolds and other large bloggers linked and helped promote both fundraising efforts).
That part of it I didn’t mind. It was burying my native skepticism and critical eye in service to the candidate that discomfited me. In the end, I just couldn’t help myself and wrote critically of the campaign and candidate. But for a while, I was 100% with the program - and I hated every minute, every blog post and article I wrote in service to the cause.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually think Thompson would have been a decent president. He had certainly thought longer and more deeply about many issues than either McCain or Obama and his conservatism was informed by both a love of country and a deep, abiding respect for the Constitution and its principles. But he proved a weak, ineffectual candidate and it was a chore trying to defend him.
Ruffini seems to be saying that he wants bloggers who will shill for the cause. He appears to want bloggers who would subsume their independence and buy into the notion that the “primary purpose” of an individual’s blog is “to build political power for a cause.” That “cause” would be backing specific conservative candidates and issues.
One assumes this would be accomplished by adopting some of the online activist model created by the netroots - the most important in my opinion being the creation of online communities that I mention above. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this idea and I hope it is realized.
The problem, as Patrick mentions, is that many of us old mossbacks are stuck in 2003 and our blogging is unrelated to political activism, except in a roundabout way that presupposes our readers are forced to think about what we write and whose opinion might be altered because of the scintillating brilliance of our logic and reasoning.
I am not so full of myself that I actually believe my writing makes a difference. But it is mine, my own, and not beholden to a group, a party, or a cause. I suppose that means I will be left behind when this new conservative on line community begins to take shape. That will be my choice and I will harbor little bitterness towards those who choose another path.
But is it the best way for conservatives to achieve power? Is it a way at all?
There is a definite push back on the right these days against the “elites” who make their living inside the Washington-New York axis; where conservative media and commentators exist side by side with their liberal counterparts and it is believed - wrongly in my opinion - that criticism directed at conservatives in flyover country for their passionate embrace of Sarah Palin and the emphasis placed on social issues like abortion is an attack on “ordinary folk” and indicative of the elites’ desire to be accepted at liberal cocktail parties as well as a lack of ideological purity.
I have written that this smacks of a nascent anti-intellectualism (to go along with the anti-science notions pushed by some of the social cons) and that this is an argument as old as the republic itself (populists vs. elites). Questioning the conservative bona fides of Peggy Noonan or David Brooks - two conservatives who have done more to promote conservative ideas than all of their critics combined - doesn’t make sense in any other context except as an indication that many on the right prefer purges to debate and the guillotine to reasoned discussion.
For their part, the elites are, well, acting like elites - seeking a top down, “Live from Mount Olympus” here it is, rubes, take it or leave it analysis that inherently questions the ability of “ordinary folk” to think and act in their own interest and march to their own drummer. The fact that the conservative movement needs both sides to reinvent itself and thrive is lost in recrimination and threats of excommunication.
I have taken my own shots at the anti-intellectuals because I think their take no prisoners attitude is destructive. And if Ruffini et al believes that these purists will be able to see beyond the end of their own nose and participate in any community or movement that isn’t in absolute lock step with their precious notions of who and what a conservative is, they have a lot to learn. Perhaps, as Hawkins points out, the netroots coalesced because they were in the wilderness for so long and that maybe a few years on the back benches in Congress will bring some sobriety to “the base.” I am not confident that will occur.
Last year, I was one of the few conservatives who attended the Yearly Kos convention at McCormick Place in Chicago. What I saw was startling and, for a conservative, not a little frightening. At the time, I was laughed at and roundly criticized for seeing more into what the netroots were up to than was possible. I don’t think too many conservatives are laughing now:
In the summer of 1980, I was a volunteer for the Reagan campaign in Northern Virginia. There were many of us who had come to Washington to work in Congressional offices or fill positions in the burgeoning conservative lobbying industry and “idea factories” that were popping up every other week, contributing to the intellectual ferment that made conservatism so dynamic. It was pretty heady stuff for a 26 year old political neophyte whose bookish ideas of government and the people who ran it was largely shaped by narrative historians and political philosophers.
What was striking at the time was how confident everyone was and how determined people were to bring about a conservative revolution that would sweep the old order away and bring to power those who truly believed in conservative principles. The ideas themselves were important but only as a means to an end. Shaping the ideas, framing them, and packaging them to move the voting public to cast ballots for conservatives was the subject of much discussion in memoranda, position papers, editorials and articles from the few conservative publications at the time.
Anyone who lived through those times and experienced the feeling that ideology and politics had merged so that the ends and means were exactly the same would recognize what is happening at YearlyKos. Top to bottom, inside and out this movement is first and foremost nothing less than revolution. The ideas driving that revolution are pretty standard liberal fare; anti-war, health insurance, environmental protection, education, and jobs top the agenda here at the netroots convention. But the way the issues are being framed by participants in the dozens of panel discussions, workshops, and forums is where the action is. The nuts and bolts savvy of the political activists fuses with the wonks and wise men of the left’s intellectual brain trust to turn out a brand new way to showcase these ideas to the public.
And the netroots are even farther ahead now. They are organizing not just at the state level but all the way down to the precinct level to make the gains they made in 2006 and are going to make next Tuesday into a permanent, liberal majority. This will drive the Republican party to the left - much as conservative success eventually drove the Democrats to the right - and make conservatism an ideology that will be on the outside looking in.
Unless our online conservative wise men like Ruffini, Hawkins, and Henke can figure out a way to tap the enormous potential of the rightosphere and turn its energies toward creating a network of conservatives that can challenge the left at every digital turn.