Democrats, look West

As pundits have already noted more times than John Edwards has uttered the words “two Americas,” Democrats may well make history this presidential season by nominating, for the first time, either a woman or an African American. What the party will not do next year, however, for the 39th straight time since the massive territory of California won its statehood in 1850, is to select a nominee who hails from the West Coast.

For the record, Sen. William Gibbs McAdoo of California came closest, having narrowly lost the nomination twice in the 1920s. But, frankly, he was no more a Californian than Hillary Rodham Clinton is a New Yorker. Other than that, the nearest the party has come to nominating a true Westerner in the last century would be South Dakota’s George McGovern or Texas’ Lyndon Johnson, neither of whom would likely have known the Pacific Ocean had it carried them away while they were sleeping.

This is a telling omission. The Democratic Party, still tightly tethered to its 20th century zenith and the governing agenda that grew from it, continues to look to politicians from the old-line industrial states (New York, Illinois) and the manufacturing and farming South (North Carolina, Tennessee) even as unassuming San Jose quietly replaces Detroit on the list of the 10 largest American cities. In fact, since the modern party was born in Martin Van Buren’s time, Democratic politics at the highest levels has always been controlled by a power axis joining urban Easterners with populist Southerners.

And yet, under the surface, something is in fact changing in the party’s geographic balance. The candidates may give the impression of a party centered east of the Mississippi, but, in every other way, the Democratic universe is tilting West. The shift is most obvious in Congress, where industrial-state Democrats such as Charles Schumer and Rahm Emanuel now answer to a couple of Westerners, Harry Reid of Nevada and Nancy Pelosi of California. Its effect is even more profound at the activist level, however, where the power and energy in Democratic politics now runs increasingly along an East-West current.

I got my first sense of this change not in California but in eastern Iowa, back in early 2003, while riding through the soybean fields with Howard Dean. What struck me then were the crowds Dean drew -- huge, emotional audiences of Democrats young and old and in between, all of them expressing a pent-up fury not just with the direction of a Republican government but with their party’s own inability to do anything about it. I returned to Washington believing that something profound was happening in the grass roots of the Democratic Party, something those of us who followed politics didn’t understand. For the next four years, I traveled the country to meet donors, bloggers and ground-level activists, mapping what I came to recognize as the first real political movement of the Internet Age.

The members of this movement called themselves “progressives,” harking back to the good-government types of an earlier age. But they were, in temperament, more like the Goldwater-Reagan conservatives who had taken over the Republican Party decades before. They wanted not just to take back government, but to overhaul a cautious and accommodating party establishment.

This new progressive movement, which now exerts a strong gravitational pull on the direction of Democratic politics, is a national phenomenon, but much of its financing and intellectual energy comes from the West. The Democracy Alliance, a secretive group of about 100 millionaires and billionaires who have thus far poured more than $100 million into building what they call a “progressive infrastructure,” has its strongest presence in California and Colorado. (Rob Reiner and Norman Lear are among the Hollywood cognoscenti who are “partners” in the alliance.)

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the founder of Daily Kos, the most influential political blog in the country, hails from Berkeley, as do Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, the co-founders of, and George Lakoff, the linguist and resident philosopher of the movement. Arianna Huffington, namesake of the successful Huffington Post blog, “publishes” from Los Angeles. The Service Employees International Union, the country’s fastest-growing union and labor’s main presence in the new movement, maintains a strong presence in California, where the service economy sustains, just barely, a new century’s diverse working class.

What all of these new forces want is not a party that represents any new ideological vision, necessarily, so much as one that is more confrontational, more principled and more shrewd.

Because West Coast progressives were among the earliest innovators in the new technologies of the Digital Age, it’s not surprising that their movement champions interactivity and the use of the Internet as a tool for organizing and messaging. They disdain the old party’s penchant for “targeting” a relative handful of “winnable” states in an age when, they believe, a party can reach into every state with very little money and manpower. Doing so, they believe, might not change the calculus of a presidential race, but it could lead to unlikely victories in local and congressional races.

And because Western progressives didn’t come to politics via the great old machines that long dominated the North-South party, they’ve never understood or accepted the more compromising, pragmatic impulse that characterized the Democrats’ governing establishment in Washington. West Coast progressives always admired Bill Clinton for his force of personality and his ability to get elected, but they never really bought into the governing ethos known as Clintonism, with its emphasis on “triangulation” -- a word that has come to denote all that is reviled by the progressive movement.

That these new progressives don’t have a West Coast politician to represent them in the Iowa caucuses is in keeping with the point of their entire movement. The progressive uprising inside the Democratic Party isn’t about trading in one group of politicians for another; it is about building a party in which politicians in general matter less. In their view, the 20th century may have been all about candidates dispersing their messages to the populace through the bullhorn of paid media ads, but the 21st century is about the populace sending its message to the politicians, thanks to the democratization of the online world. Who leads the charge at the top of the ticket hardly matters, as long as he (or she) says what the progressives want to hear.

The goal of this new movement, to the extent that it can be readily distilled, is to create a Democratic Party that is more responsive to its disaffected liberal base rather than to just single-issue groups and undecided voters. And this is a goal the new progressives are well on their way to realizing, for better or worse. That’s why all but one of the presidential candidates (Joe Biden) traveled to Chicago last month for the first-ever presidential debate held by a convention of progressive bloggers, which I helped moderate. It’s also why, when effectively accused Gen. David H. Petraeus of betraying his country this month, it took several days for a single Democratic candidate to offer even a tepid rebuke. It’s telling that most of the Democratic candidates hired bloggers and Internet strategists even before assembling their policy teams.

Understanding this seismic shift in Democratic politics, from a party dominated by a tired, receding East-South establishment to one defined by an East-West alliance, and especially by the influence of technology-savvy Western progressives, will be critical to making sense of the coming campaign.

If there is a serious obstacle standing between Hillary Clinton and the nomination, it is not her old vote on the war, per se, but what that vote represents to many progressives: namely, her ties to the Clinton-era party that seemed too eager to imitate its opponents rather than beat them. The other leading candidates, meanwhile, will scramble to earn the imprimatur of the new movement, even if it means keeping quiet when a wartime general is attacked. That wouldn’t have happened five years ago, but such is the new landscape of Democratic politics. The sun is going down on the old, Industrial Age party. To get a good view of the sunset, look West.

Matt Bai, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.”