Beltway vs. Blogosphere
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Sam sent me an email with a link to a story published by MSNBC on the rift between liberal bloggers and the Democratic leadership. Here are my thoughts on the issue.

Date: Sun Sep 18 10:23:09 CDT 2005
From: Jesus Ortega 
To: Sam Moreno
Subject: Re: Article: Beltway vs. Blogosphere

On Fri, Sep 16, 2005 at 04:50:23PM -0500, Sam Moreno wrote:
> Jesus,
> Tim sent me this but I don't know if he sent it to you. So, here it
> is. Lets talk about this.
> Beltway vs. Blogosphere 
> Democrats are struggling to reconcile the differences between party
> leaders in D.C. and independent activists on the Net. 
> week&&CM=EmailThis&CE=1
> _____________________________

I read the article, and it seems to me that there are, as it tends to be the
case with most texts, multiple levels to it.  In other words, there are
several related topics that are mentioned or implied and that we should
discuss here, I think.  I extracted from the article four main issues that I
will proceed to write about below.

First of all, it seems to me that what the author is talking about is not so
much a rift between the Democratic leadership and the "bloggers" as perhaps
between the leadership and the activists (i.e., what it's usually called the
"rank and file").  He's simply using the bloggers as an example because
it's a trendy topic and it's something political commentators appear to be
more or less forced to talk about these days (more on the role of the
bloggers in this rift below though).  Let's face it.  There's always a few
topics out there that anybody "in the know" is supposed to deal with, or at
least mention, not to sound as if he is "out of touch" with the social
reality.  I have the feeling blogging is one of those right now.

So, is there a rift between the Democratic leadership and the rank and file?
I'd say there is indeed one, and I'd even dare to say it goes way beyond
that, for there is also a serious divide between the leaders and the
Democratic sympathizers and voters themselves.  In other words, the split is
not limited just to a "leaders versus activists" opposition, which would
make it way too easy for the DNC to simply make up excuses and resort to the
old argument that the activists are just "too radical".  Yes, activists tend
to lean more towards the extremes than both their leadership and the voters.
Still, the main problem here is that the leaders of the Democratic Party
have been out of their own "mainstream" (i.e., the liberal mainstream) for
quite a while now.  They are so frightened (have been so frightened for a
couple of decades now) by the conservative onslaught that they have ended up
believing the talk radio boasts stating that the "common American citizen"
shares the Republican platform.  They have internalized so deeply the idea
that the majority of the American society is indeed conservative that are
way too afraid to defend their own views or do anything other than give in
and go with the flow.  On the contrary, I'm convinced the majority of
Americans who vote are far more moderate than the talk radio or Fox News
would have us believe, although due to the duopoly that controls the
political system there is no center party to vote for.  Even more important,
we shouldn't confuse "Americans who vote" with Americans, and I believe that
if we took into account all those citizens who feel disenfranchised the
resulting portrait of the American society wouldn't be nearly as favorable
to the right as they think it is (once again, it's the political system with
its "winner takes all" system that promotes this disenfranchisement among
the poorest of all, which, after all, was the intention of the Founding
Fathers who clearly stated several times that they didn't pretend to build a
"democracy" but a "republic").

But how did the conservatives manage to spread such idea?  After all, it
wasn't so long ago that they were on the defensive, and it wasn't far
fetched at all to even think about the possibility of a leftist revolution
here on American soil.  I believe this is a key question to ask ourselves,
precisely as liberals.  It's important to learn from everything that goes
on, including our own opponents.  It's even more important because we find
ourselves now in the very same position conservatives found themselves back
in the 1960s and early 1970s.  So, there is a good chance we can learn
something from them about how to get out of such uncomfortable (and, let's
admit it, powerless) position.  I believe here is what happened: the
conservatives learnt from what they saw in the 1960s.  Mind you, they didn't
change their core values or key ideas.  However, they did change their
methods, their tactics, their rhetoric.  What did they learn from the so
called New Left that was so influential back then?  They learnt to organize
themselves, they learnt the importance of the new social movements, they
learnt how grassroot movements can actually put pressure on the politicians
and influence the political system at least in part, they learnt about the
importance of spreading ideas and setting the agenda, they learnt how it's
not so much who is in the White House that matters (although I don't deny
that it also has its importance) but rather what everybody is talking about,
what people consider important, what is in the air... in other words, what
Germans define with the term "zeitgeist".  That's what they learnt back
then.  It shouldn't surprise us then that quite a few well known members of
the conservative "intelligentsia" today came precisely from the ranks of the
New Left (David Horowitz is perhaps the best known name here, but there
are quite a few others).

I remain convinced we, liberals, can only recover if we take a cue from our
opponents and spend quite a few years (what is commonly known as "crossing
the desert") organizing grassroots movements that can have an impact on
society as a whole.  We badly need these groups to get out there and build a
network of like-minded citizens capable of spread our ideas and set the
agenda in the public discussions, groups that can influence those who hold
office and offer, in exchange, activists and personnel who can work in their
re-election campaigns, people who can spread ideas like a virus among peers,
friends and relatives.  Unless we build this network, winning elections will
achieve nothing at all.  Simply making it to the White House or regaining a
majority in Congress is just plain useless without having previously won a
significant portion of the citizenry out there or, even worse, without even
being able to set the agenda of what is it exactly that we will be
discussing and legislating about.  This is something that professional
politicians tend to miss, being as they are so isolated in their own world.
To them , it's winning elections that matters, since they are judged by how
they "perform" at that level.  Liberals from the rank and file though cannot
be forgiven for not realizing this.  We need to conquer the nation's minds
first.  We need to spread our own "zeitgeist" prior to winning a political
majority in the elections, or all will be useless.  That's what we should
learn from the conservative onslaught.  If we don't learn that, extract our
lessons and do something about it, anything else we may do is completely
pointless.   We have grown too comfortable in our own homes, our own world,
our public offices, in academia, in the different non-profit organizations 
that are involved in social projects but do not make any effort to go beyond 
and connect to society as a whole.  We need to reconquer the street.  We 
need to flood the airwaves and regain the minds of our fellow citizens.  
Without that, all is moot.  

Second, and this is directly related to my previous point, if we are not
capable to stand up and defend the ideas we value, nobody can blame our
opponents for claming that we, liberals, have no values.  Nobody can blame
the conservatives for accusing us of moral relativism when we have been
totally unable to stand up and defend our ideas, being too afraid of being
finger-pointed as "bleeding heart liberals" or "old school liberals".  We
are what we are.  Period.  Since the very moment that we feel intimidated by
the labels thrown at us we have already lost the battle.  The power of
labeling is, obviously, related to my previous point, and that's precisely
why is so important to recover the street.  However, we will never be able
to reconquer anything if we go about it in a timid fashion, being
embarrassed of being who we are, politely asking for permission before we
even express our ideas.  It's not an issue of becoming rabid liberals 
Jesse Jackson style now.  It's just an issue of standing up for our values.
One doesn't need to be dogmatic or extremist to have deep beliefs.  One
doesn't need to impose ideas on others, but we definitely need to stop
feeling ashamed of ourselves.  It's not aggressiveness and imposition that I
am calling for here.  It's just self-confidence.  Liberalism has a long and 
precious history of social achievements that we can be proud of.  We need to
emphasize that the old exploitative and unfair capitalism of yesteryear
would have never won the Cold War against Communism.  It's precisely because
we managed to reform it and give it a human face that we ultimately won the
war.  It's not conservative capitalism that won!  It's liberal capitalism!

There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to a faith in the
role of government in a modern society.  Actually, it's such a reasonable
belief that even a conservative President promises federal money and
assistance to rebuild a city destroyed by a natural disaster.  Where are the
cries against "big government" now?  Where were they when Congress made an
effort to improve an education system that had been in serious decline for
decades?  Where were they when Congress, once more, intervened to make sure
the elderly could buy the medicines they needed at a decent price?  How
about when it comes to debating the problems with the health system?  The
reality is that the government doesn't have to be our enemy.  It's never
been our enemy, not under a Democratic President, not under a Republican
President.  It's about time things like this are affirmed without any
embarrassment again.  It's about time someone goes out and talks about the
shameful social injustice that raze American families and cities in the name
of a "trickle-down economics" that only trickles upwards.  Someone has to
say this out there, and we we are accused (because we will be accused) of
"promoting class warfare" we should simply retort that we will not take that
from the people who fled New Orleans in the wake of a severe flood, leaving
behind those fellow citizens who couldn't afford a nice hotel and didn't
even own a car.  Now, that is "class warfare".  "Class warfare" is to
continuously reduce taxes to those who have the most while increasing it to
those who have the least.  "Class warfare" is to fight against trade unions
at the same time that one does nothing to stop the shameless plundering of
our companies by top executives who don't appear to be accountable no anyone
and appoint their own friends to the boards of directors that supposedly
keep an eye on them.  

Third, it's true that technology has introduced a new element in the whole
picture, and this is precisely where the bloggers come into the whole story.
Let's be honest.  There is little chance any of these bloggers are going to
be your average working-class (or lower-class) individual.  Their social
background will be, most likely, middle-class at the best and, as such, they
will be as "rank and file" as any of us.  I suppose what I mean is that
confusing the so called "blogosphere" with "the average citizen's opinions"
is quite misleading.  Not only do they need access to the technology and the
know-how in order to publish their opinions, they need, more importantly,
the time and the education to write.  Nevertheless, they've obviously had a
healthy influence in the political scene by dislodging the old elites and
forcing some fresh air into an already rarefied atmosphere.  Nevertheless,
chances are this is just temporary.  How long will it be before these
bloggers are simply absorbed into the political establishment?  How long
before they become so popular that, by the very nature of their popularity,
become isolated and separate themselves from the average joe out there?
Let's be sincere.  It will happen sooner or later.  Even more important,
isn't blogging just giving opinions just like any other commentator but 
using another media?  What is it exactly that we think the bloggers will be
able to accomplish that yesterday's political commentators didn't accomplish
already?  Do I hear these bloggers are criticizing the lack of dynamism
within the Democrat Party?  Do I hear these bloggers complain about the
Democrats not presenting any real opposition to the Republicans?  Fine, but
is this truly something I haven't heard or read in the writings of the so
called "mainstream political commentators"?  I wouldn't say so.  We have
read all this before in the pages of the major newspapers and magazines.
So, what is it exactly that these bloggers will bring into the picture other
than an image (I emphasize the word "image") of a more direct connection
with "the people" that, as I mentioned above, is not truly real?  What we
need is not more opinions, more words, more speeches.  What we need is more
action, more commitment, more involvement, more activism, more grassroots
work, not words.

In any case, I agree the Internet as it stands (who knows what changes we
will see in the future) has a different nature than other media we have seen
in the past.  It's not so centralized, and it doesn't impose such a high
barrier of entrance.  In this sense, the Internet does have a positive
effect in unblocking the elitist nature of the political system and work
around the old loyalties cemented between the mainstream media and the
ruling classes.  It is an useful tool that can certainly be used by the
grassroots movements to organize and spread the word.  Still, as I have said
above, what is needed is organization, action, commitment, and not just
speeches.  We, liberals, need to get out of our houses and start organizing.
Consuming "liberal opinions" doesn't help.  

Fourth, and finally, the presumed candidacy of Hillary Clinton in 2008 is
not only merely theoretical at this point but, as I stated above, totally
secondary.  Again, what matters is reconquering people's minds, first of
all.  Once we manage to set the agenda, once we can truly say there has been
a change in the atmosphere (in the "zeitgeist"), it will then be worth it to
discuss how to win a majority in the elections.  As a matter of fact, by
then this other debate will not even be necessary.  In the meantime, while
it is the right that continues to dominate the discourse, who is sleeping
in the White House is completely secondary.  Mind you, I'm not saying it's
useless.  I'm just saying it will have no true effect on our society. 

Jesus Ortega