The Magazine

The Lopsided Netroots

Why there's no conservative Kos.

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By DEAN BARNETT
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In early August, the collection of liberal blogs that refers to itself as "the Netroots" held its annual convention. The convention's name, "YearlyKos," invokes the allure of the liberal blogosphere's most powerful entity, the Daily Kos. All the major Democratic presidential candidates participated fully in the festivities in order to honor the Netroots. So too did all of the minor candidates with the exception of Joe Biden, who was on a book tour. By all accounts, Biden's absence didn't cast much of a pall on the gathering.

A few days earlier, the Netroots' longtime organizational bête noire, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, held its annual convention, titled "The National Conversation." A mere 350 people participated in the DLC's conversation, roughly one-fifth the attendance at YearlyKos. For their part, the Democratic presidential candidates apparently weren't feeling particularly gabby. None of them made an appearance at the DLC's annual schmooze-fest. The organization that once fueled Bill Clinton's presidential aspirations now can't even win the attention of Mike Gravel.

Some people on the right fear that the left has developed an insurmountable advantage in harnessing the power of the Internet. While the Daily Kos, YearlyKos, and other bastions of online liberalism have clearly become power players, conservatives have no comparable entities. The right-wing blogosphere doesn't hold conventions, doesn't win the attention of candidates, and more important, doesn't move voters the way the progressive blogosphere does. The progressive blogosphere is a hotbed of activism; the most prominent outposts of the right-wing blogosphere stick to punditry.

But is this in fact a problem for the Republican party and conservatism generally? In order to answer that, you have to look at what the Netroots are, and what they aren't. Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong penned the seminal introduction to the Netroots' core philosophy in their book Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics. The most noteworthy thing about Moulitsas and Armstrong's political philosophy as outlined in Crashing the Gate is that they don't have one. Seriously. A key part of their long-term plan is to open progressive counterparts to conservative think tanks like the Hoover Institution and the Heritage Foundation so Netroots denizens of the future will know what to believe.

Just because they lack a grand (or even not-so-grand) political philosophy doesn't mean Moulitsas and Armstrong lack a tactical philosophy. They want to win. In the past, Moulitsas has insisted that he practices the politics of "winnerism." This claim looks a lot less risible after the 2006 midterm elections than it did before.

Contrary to popular belief, the Netroots aren't particularly liberal. Opposition to the Iraq war aside, they're nonideological. They will happily support centrists like Virginia's Jim Webb or Montana's Jon Tester so long as those centrists are "proud" Democrats. One of the things that most animates the Netroots is the belief that the kind of politics practiced by centrist organizations like the DLC is best described as "loserism."

If you're getting the sense that the main difference between groups like the DLC and the Netroots is one of style, you're warming to the scent. The Netroots are passionate and in your face. They may not know what they like, but they know what they don't like. Their turn-offs include Republicans, conservatives, and George W. Bush. Their turn-ons are politicians and pundits who don't shy away from exposing and excoriating these turn-offs.

The Netroots never would have become what they are today if it weren't for the DLC. The Netroots collectively believed that organizations like the DLC sabotaged liberal electoral prospects. Therefore, the Netroots long ago set out to supplant the DLC. Based on the relative success of their nearly simultaneous conventions, Markos Moulitsas can now give a speech on a virtual aircraft carrier under a banner reading "Mission Accomplished" if he's so inclined. This part of his and the Netroots' war is won.

So what of the conservative blogosphere? Some online righties are trying to rechristen the conservative blogosphere "the RightRoots," but a name change won't alter the conservative blogosphere's basic composition or aims. Scott Johnson is one-third of the trio of wizened lawyers that runs the Power Line blog, one of the conservative blogosphere's most popular and respected sites. When I asked him why conservative blogs don't do the same thing as the Netroots, Johnson responded, "None of us purports to lead a movement, and we're working for a living."

Johnson, as usual, is 100 percent correct. Most prominent conservative bloggers are middle-aged. None has shown any interest in developing a political movement. There are younger conservative bloggers who share Moulitsas's ambition, but none of them has amassed a fraction of his audience.

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, the most widely read center-right blogger, amplifies Johnson's point. "Different needs produce different approaches," he says. "People on the right think their political machine works, but that the media is out to get them. Hence rightish blogging is more about punditry and reporting, and they've succeeded--note the paucity of lefty bloggers embedding in Iraq, while the number on the right is extensive enough that I can no longer name them all. People on the left, on the other hand, know the media is basically on their side, but feel that their political machine stinks, so they've focused on building a new one. And they've succeeded, too."

Let's conclude with a further note of consolation for conservatives, who might be panicked over their missile gap in the virtual arms race: Markos Moulitsas has frequently said his biggest asset isn't the size of his audience or the amount of money he can raise, but rather the soapbox that his prominence has granted him and likeminded lefty bloggers. Conservative bloggers have the same kind of soapbox available to them, but use it differently. Nevertheless, when the Republican party power-structure tag-teamed with Ted Kennedy to shove an atrocious immigration bill down Congress's throat, the "RightRoots" as personified by the conservative blogosphere and talk radio played a major role in killing it.

In other words, if the Republican party's "political machine" continues to misfire, the conservative blogosphere will be well positioned to help insist on a tune-up.

Dean Barnett blogs at