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Netroots on shaky ground

Religion and BeliefGovernmentElectionsNational GovernmentRepublican PartyPoliticsPhilosophy

IT'S IRONIC. At precisely the moment so many people think that the Republican Party and the conservative movement went off the rails, the people who hate the right the most want to copy it.

That's the upshot of an alternately brilliant and tendentious cover story in the latest New Republic, in which Jonathan Chait argues that the so-called netroots "are the most significant mass movement in U.S. politics since the rise of the Christian right." Chait persuasively argues that the netroots — Democratic activist blogs and other online communities — are transforming the Democratic Party by championing a new emphasis on partisan fervor and political unity.

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the owner of the biggest lefty blog on the block — Daily Kos — is their standard-bearer. He prides himself on being an organizer, not an idea man. "They want to make me into the latest Jesse Jackson, but I'm not ideological at all," he told Washington Monthly magazine. "I'm just all about winning."

To this end, Chait writes that a major netroots hero is none other than Grover Norquist, the oddly colorful — or colorfully odd — right-wing activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform who has served as one of the most effective (and profitable) organizers of right-of-center interest groups. Chait quotes from prominent netroots figure Matt Stoller's blog: "To the extent that I have a political hero, it's probably Grover Norquist, not Ralph Nader."

In one sense, this is just plain bizarre, akin to a pro-life, right-wing church lady naming Gloria Steinem as her political hero. From another perspective, it makes some sense. The "New Right" of the 1970s and 1980s took many organizational pointers from liberals. So it's only fair that liberals return the favor. And besides, if you believe liberal propaganda about the awesome power of the Republican noise machine, why not become a bizarro-world Norquist who uses his powers for good instead of evil?

Well, one answer is that it's a stupid idea. Chait is a thoughtful critic of the netroots, but he shares with them a common false assumption: that conservative victories are the result of PR campaigns, partisan discipline and organizational guile. For the better part of a decade now, liberals have been trying to re-create the media of the American right — talk radio, think tanks, etc. — without spending much effort trying to replicate the message. Democratic gurus continue to claim that if they just repackage their old ideas in pretty wrapping, they'll win all day long.

The conservative movement was a response to generations of growing statism at home and abroad. From the Progressive era to the Great Society, government seemed to be expanding in tandem with the threat of communism. The conservative project was first and foremost an intellectual one because, as Hoover Institution fellow Thomas Sowell has written, it takes an ideology to beat an ideology.

The conservative infrastructure that arouses so much envy among liberals today was an afterthought. It was created because the far more valuable real estate — universities, foundations, newspapers and TV networks — were held by liberals. Conservatives used their institutions to have serious arguments about what conservatives should believe.

The netroots crowd seems mostly determined to skip the serious argument part and to settle on the idea that liberals should simply all believe the same thing, first and foremost on the Iraq war. And as important as Iraq is right now, it is hardly a serious substitute for the intellectual catalyst of World War II and the Cold War. Netrooters may have a terrible shock in store for them when the war is over and their reason for existence is too.

If conservatism were nothing more than a noise machine, that would be a shame. (I don't buy it.) But even if the netrooters are right, what exactly has that noise machine bought? Not that much. Ronald Reagan won the presidency without benefit of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, and Newt Gingrich took back Congress two years before Fox News was even launched. Folks like Limbaugh helped. But surely that had something to do with the substance of what Limbaugh had to say and not just his ability to say it. If merely having a radio show is all it takes, Al Franken would be a hugely successful radio host today. He isn't.

Meanwhile, the supposedly all-powerful Republican noise machine's greatest victory is allegedly the George W. Bush presidency — which he barely won the first time. And, recall, Bush had to campaign as a "compassionate" conservative in order to get as far as he did. If we're so good at PR, why did conservatism need the adjective?

Netrooters want it both ways. The GOP is evil and intellectually bankrupt because it doesn't care about anything but winning. But it would be the greatest thing in the world if Democrats could be just like Republicans!

That doesn't sound like a winning strategy to me.


jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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