After years of being dismissed or mocked by press and politicians alike, the grassroots insurgents of progressive blogs won new credibility after the stream of Democratic victories in the 2006 elections. These decentralized "netroots" played instrumental roles in drafting and electing Sen. Jim Webb (D-Virginia) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), and in dozens of other races at all levels of government.
With increasing success has come increased scrutiny. Critics argue that the netroots are ideologically substanceless: Most recently, Jonah Goldberg in the May 8 Los Angeles Times restated the claim that the movement is more interested in blind partisanship than in actual issues. In Goldberg's reading, progressives believe Democrats just need to "repackage their old ideas in pretty wrapping."
Such arguments, however, are off the mark. The netroots aren't just about winning elections; they are about creating a platform for effective advocacy of progressive causes. And while the netroots indeed tend to emphasize Democratic unity over narrower ideological or policy differences, that emphasis on broad coalition is far from hollow. It is premised on a fundamental pragmatism, and on the recognition that a divided Democratic or progressive house cannot stand.
The notion of netroots bloggers as issueless activists should be preposterous to any reasonable observer. The fight to preserve Social Security against threats of corporate "privatization" is unambiguously issue-based and ideological. Domestic espionage policies, the suspension of habeas rights and the politicization of the rule of law within the Justice Department: these issues are where activists are waging important ideological fights. You can see clear issue-based agendas and goals in advocacy for environmental awareness, election integrity (PDF) and privacy rights, and in the policy-based efforts of such groups as Energize America, which seeks a comprehensive renewable energy platform.
Critics misunderstand the point when they decry the netroots' supposed homogeneity of opinions on issues or accuse progressive bloggers of lacking depth and detailed knowledge. This claim looks pretty absurd in the face of rancorous online debates over issues as diverse as gun policy, Middle East strategy, privacy rights or even whether individual lawmakers deserve support or scorn. It's also presumptuous to say a movement that has produced painstaking research, analysis, and breaking news on the U.S. Attorneys scandal, the H5B1 "bird flu" virus, the Scooter Libby trial, the legal ramifications of "Unitary Executive" theories and other events lacks depth. In comparison to what, exactly?
The foremost goal among liberal bloggers and activists is simply to provide a national grassroots framework of support for progressive and liberal voices. In the current decade such voices have been almost entirely absent from the largest institutions of the press, even as the most rancorously and bitterly divisive conservative voices find easy and frequent refuge on editorial pages and in the pundit corps. The netroots even seek to act as counterpointor at least cattle prodto an increasingly pliant political press. Over the last decade the mainstream media have become more ambivalent about reporting even the most transparent of falsehoods and manipulations by the politicians they cover. If you want to find substanceless coverage, look at how lackadaisical conventional reporters have become in framing all political arguments as mere efforts of issueless partisanship.
Most importantly, the netroots are a movement born of a new and desperately needed self-sufficiency. The glacially reactive Democratic establishment was unwilling to tackle critical issues with the necessary vigor, so the netroots did it themselves. The press was unwilling to host progressive conversation, so progressives circumvented the press. And when traditionally progressive single-issue groups and organizations could not bring themselves to work together to achieve unity of purpose and influence politics, the netroots gave progressives a way to ignore those groups. This is grassroots activism on a fundamentaland nationwidelevel.
That's far from non-ideological or non-issue-based. Born of anger and frustration, perhaps. Newly intolerant of the bickering and internal gamesmanship that has marked so many liberal causes and movements of the last forty years, certainly. But primarily, the netroots is a bitterly pragmatic institution: we are willing to take inches, not yards, if need be. Progressives have the luxury of time on our side, and we are beginning to learn, after a decade in the wilderness, to work together.
Michael Lazzaro, who writes online as "Hunter", is a Daily Kos Fellow and Contributing Editor at www.dailykos.com.