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The Electoral-Based Community

Why the rise of the left-wing blogosphere has been bad for the Democratic party.

12:00 AM, Jul 15, 2005 • By DEAN BARNETT
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A FEW MONTHS AGO, Markos Moulitsas, proprietor and founder of the left-wing blog Daily Kos, penned a brief but extremely insightful posting. Under the heading, "Evidence that we live in a different world," Moulitsas pointed to a recent Time magazine poll that showed 79 percent of the American public had never heard of (or didn't have an opinion of) Ann Coulter. Moulitsas wrote, "I'd venture to say that 100 percent of this site's readers know who Anthrax is."

Indeed, there is little doubt that the habitués of the Daily Kos, like their hated cousins who read popular conservative blogs such as Power Line and Little Green Footballs, live in very different worlds than their friends and neighbors. Blog readers are typically voracious gatherers of news. They not only simply know who people such as Ann Coulter are, they usually have strong opinions about these minor public figures, too. This is an unusual trait. After all, while Ann Coulter may be a polarizing firebrand beloved by her supporters and loathed by her detractors, when it comes to fame she's hardly Madonna.

For students of the blogosphere, it came as little surprise when the popularity of politically oriented blogs began to tumble in the wake of the presidential election this past November. But something funny has happened since then. While the traffic numbers of conservative blogs have remained at roughly the same levels following their post election slide, the left-wing blogosphere--and especially the Daily Kos--have almost fully rebounded. While Glenn Reynold's Instapundit, the most popular conservative blog, averages in the neighborhood of 150,000 page views a day, the Daily Kos now averages over 550,000; the sites were almost equally trafficked just last fall.

Theories abound for why the Daily Kos has left the right-wing blogosphere so far in the dust. One plausible explanation is that the Daily Kos has engendered a tremendous sense of community amongst it audience/contributors. While conservative blogs remain for the most part virtual op-ed columns (with the notable exception of Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs), the Daily Kos has become a virtual family which allows readers to write their own blogs-within-the-blog (called diaries) and to engage in limitless amounts of commenting. Whatever the reason, there is nothing like the Daily Kos on the web--it is a phenomenon and the unquestioned leader of the blogs.

IN THEORY, THIS SHOULD BE A POSITIVE DEVELOPMENT for Democrats. The Daily Kos should provide the party's most devoted adherents with a constructive outlet for their energy; indeed it does. The site has raised bundles of money for Democratic politicians and its patrons certainly have a surfeit of passion that they're willing to bring to any political conversation.

The problem for the Democratic party is that, like much of the country, it has a dim understanding of the blogosphere. The party is not alone in its denseness here. Much of America's existing power structure still has no idea what to make of blogs.

This trait was recently put on embarrassing public display in an obtuse Doonesbury strip. In the piece at issue, Garry Trudeau suggested that bloggers were "angry, semi-employed losers" who survived on a diet of cat food. Contra Trudeau, most accomplished bloggers are highly educated--a great many of them are lawyers and college professors--and have been successful in other fields of endeavor. Typical bloggers include law professors like Hugh Hewitt and the contributors at the Volokh Conspiracy, as well as the Academy Award nominated (and Ivy League educated) Roger L. Simon.

The Democratic party, on the other hand, errs in precisely the opposite fashion as Trudeau. While Moulitsas recognizes that the left-wing blogosphere is a world unto itself, if establishment Democrats have any awareness of that fact they have yet to betray it. Where Trudeau feels bloggers are a bunch of shut-in half-wits, the Democratic party seems to be under the impression that bloggers are an enormous, important constituency--and that it must go to whatever lengths necessary to win the hearts and minds of this virtual community.

THIS SEEMS LIKE A MAJOR MISCALCULATION, because the politics of the left-wing blogs are far out of the American mainstream. Where most of the 120 million Americans who voted in the last election bear a benign indifference to political matters, the left half of the blogosphere seethes with hatred for George W. Bush and his supporters. What's more, the blogs take numerous positions that would strike all but the most passionate Democratic partisans as patently preposterous. For example, several of the left-wing blogs recently ran an advertisement that referred to West Virginia Senator and former Ku Klux Klan Kleagle Robert Byrd as an "American Hero."

Also, the level of discourse on the Daily Kos and other prominent liberal blogs is not something that would be attractive to the majority of the American public. The writings are often obscene and usually relentlessly hostile and negative. Crude personal attacks, whether aimed at right-wing bloggers or politicians, are the order of the day.

A typical example came on July 4 in response to a humorous piece by the internet satirist "Iowahawk", which purported to be written by Abu Masab Al- Zarqawi and was titled, "Stop Questioning My Patriotism." This relatively benign and (and extremely funny) essay elicited the following response from regular Kos contributor "Armando:" "Fucking pricks. You goosestepping McCarthyites. Now go cry to momma. You yellow-bellied elephants."

And yet mainstream Democratic politicians are desperately trying to ingratiate themselves with Kos and his audience. A Who's Who of top tier Democrats have written "diaries" for the site, including Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, and Ted Kennedy. The above listed politicians, and their less mainstream colleagues (think the John Conyers/Louise Slaughter variety), are constantly romancing the Kossacks.

More ominously--and more to the party's detriment--its leaders have adopted the blog's hysterically shrill style as their own. For instance, Ted Kennedy's diary for the Daily Kos adamantly demanded "accountability" for Iraq. When you've entered a realm where Ted Kennedy is a straight-faced champion of accountability, you know for sure you're in "a different world."

Perhaps most pathetically, these politicians' earnest efforts to win Moulitsas's affections often fall flat. On the Daily Kos, the "front page" gets the heaviest traffic; a typical diary languishes in obscurity, one of dozens of similar efforts offered each day by the community unless Moulitsas plucks it from relative anonymity and promotes it to the front page. The vast majority of diaries written by politicians for the site do not get promoted to the front page. Moulitsas didn't even deem Ted Kennedy's screed worthy of special note.

Yet the kowtowing continues. What makes the endeavor ridiculous is that Moulitsas and other left-wing bloggers want substance: They don't want their rhetorical style aped--they want a politician to champion their far-left views. And yet the Democratic party has adopted the juvenile patois of the left-wing blogs without any corresponding shift in position, so they continue to pitch their woo in vain. These stylistic makeovers are transparent and therefore unsuccessful; the left-wing blog readers presumably see as clearly as anyone else that Harry Reid is an unconvincing firebrand, Ted Kennedy is not a credible champion of accountability, and Robert Byrd is a preposterous nominee for American hero.

THE DICK DURBIN FIASCO of a few weeks ago provides a wonderful case in point. As is well known, on June 14 Senator Durbin compared the conditions at the Guantanamo detention center to what one could have seen in Nazi Germany or a Stalin-run gulag or while receiving the tender mercies of Pol Pot.

Durbin's comments made him an instant hero in the left-wing blogosphere where hyperbolic Bush-bashing is always received warmly. Steve Gilliard, a Daily Kos alumnus, penned a lengthy defense of Durbin in which he reminded the senator's critics that climate control was the preferred interrogation technique for the Luftwaffe. Moulitsas called the ensuing controversy a "moronic Right Wing smear attack" and proclaimed, "I stand with Durbin. Proudly."

Durbin's attempt to curry favor with the left-wing worked. Temporarily, at least. But one shouldn't require the counsel of David Gergen or Michael Barone to realize that outside the alternative worlds of the blogs, comparing America's military to Nazis, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge is a political loser.

In the week that followed, it became apparent to the senator and his staff that he had made a terrible mistake. Now that he was in the soup, to whom did the senator turn?

To the bloggers. On June 21, Senator Durbin's office held a conference call with several left-wing bloggers. Of the seven attendees, there was no representative of the left-wing blogosphere's royalty. There was no Moulitsas, no Gilliard, no Atrios.

Even more indicative of the pathetic nature of this outreach attempt is the fact that this became probably the first Senatorial background conference-call ever to be "liveblogged." One of the participants, "Annatopia" of MyDD.com, posted a fairly detailed account of the proceedings on her blog . (Curiously, this post was later taken down for reasons unknown; you can see a copy of the post here.) At least two members of the senator's staff talked strategy with the bloggers and testified that thanks to the senator's acquaintance with a constituent who was a POW in Vietnam, Durbin felt very strongly about this issue.

(It is interesting to note that there is some disagreement as to how the call came together in the first place. Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker insists that the senator's office arranged the call in response to a request from the blogging community. Jeralyn Merritt of Talkleft.com, one of the call's participants, recalls things differently. She writes in an email, "A number of bloggers, myself included, had been e-mailing back and forth with individual members of Senator Durbin's staff on the issue of Guantanamo and his remarks. Sen. Durbin decided it would be more productive to get us all on one call. I was asked to invite some bloggers to participate, and I did.")

Yet later that day, Durbin offered an overwrought apology from the Senate floor, his commitment to his former POW constituent having apparently evanesced with remarkable rapidity. Shortly thereafter, Durbin learned that the left-wing blogosphere was not won over by his charm offensive and that liberal bloggers far prefer substance (in this case, determined and unflinching opposition to the Bush war effort) to touching the hem of a senator's garment.

For many of the bloggers who had supported Durbin through his ordeal, his apology occasioned a spasm of characteristically potty-mouthed outrage. Steve Gilliard suggested that Durbin "go fuck himself"; on the Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas concurred, observing that he agreed with Gilliard and added that "Durbin fucked up."

WHILE THE FURY SPEWED AT DURBIN is out of place in mainstream political discourse, it represents business as usual in the most prominent precincts of the left-wing blogosphere. Of course, left-wing blogs do not have a monopoly on offensive and vitriolic rhetoric--the right also has its crank bloggers, too.

Yet only Democratic politicians have concluded that "their" blogs somehow represent a new norm. As left-wing blogs have become ascendant, the left's politicians have become increasingly strident and bilious.

How has this strategy been working? Disastrously. The last six months have been a horror show for Republicans. And yet, astonishingly, the Democratic party has suffered more in the polls than the Republicans. According to a recent poll done by Democrats Stanley Greenberg and James Carville, 43 percent of Americans have warm feelings for the Republican party compared to 38 percent who feel the same way for Democrats. Greenberg characterizes his poll's results this way: "Republicans weakened in this poll . . . but it shows Democrats weakening more." Greenberg says the Democrats' fall is due to voters feeling that the party has "no core set of convictions or point of view."

Why is that? The Democratic party has decided to imitate the style of the political blogs, even though the most trafficked one, the Daily Kos, receives fewer than 600,000 visits a day.

While the traffic numbers of the Daily Kos are a great accomplishment, even 600,000 readers (a generous estimate) are nearly insignificant from a national electoral perspective. And while Kos's readers represent a constituency which prefers a steady diet of heated rhetoric and non-stop Bush bashing, there is nothing to suggest that a larger movement is developing with a similar taste for bare-knuckled, obscenity-laced politics.

As Markos Moulitsas observed, his virtual community is a "different world." Democrats seem to have forgotten that elections are held in the real one.

Dean Barnett writes about politics and other matters at soxblog.com

Correction appended 7/15/05: The article originally misidentified Rep. John Conyers as "David Conyers."