One of the least enjoyable aspects of getting older is the almost inevitable urge to complain about how things were better in the past. You start noticing how much more stuff costs, how you consume different cultural artifacts than younger people, how the neighborhoods and places of business you frequent have changed, and how the means by which you accomplish things in life have either become antiquated or obsolete. Before you know it, you are starting to use lots of inappropriate definite articles ("the HBO" was a favorite one of older people when I was a kid), and you sound like an old Dana Carvey character, even though none of the kids these days even know who Dana Carvey is:
That's kind of how I feel when I read articles about how the progressive blogosphere and / or netroots have changed for the worse, such as the one Big Tent Democrat put up this morning. Believe me, I understand the feeling that BTD expresses. I spent much of 2008 exasperated by a progressive Internet space that had seemingly reversed itself overnight on things like the value of triangulation, bipartisanship, appearing Fox News, allowing Joe Lieberman to keep his seniority, sending more troops to Afghanistan, retroactive immunity for telecom companies, replacing local state party organizers with ones who answer directly to the DNC, and much more. It seemed as though numerous policies and strategies that had held near-consensus stature within the progressive online ecosystem had been either scrapped or reversed simply because Barack Obama said it was a good idea to scrap or reverse them.
Back then, the urge to call people who reversed their positions lobotomized "sheeple" was almost impossible to resist--and I frequently did not resist it.
However, that is not an impulse I feel anymore. This is because I realized Barack Obama persuaded progressive activists to change their minds not because those activists are sheeple or because activist organization leaders operate in "veal pens," but rather because Obama developed new messaging that was more convincing than the likes used by myself, or BTD, or anyone else on the left who was making contrary arguments. He just beat those old arguments, plain and simple, and the progressive Internet space changed.
The turning point in my sentiments came in late 2008. During November of that year, then President-elect Barack Obama was loading up his cabinet and senior advisors with Third Way, center-right DLC types. (Even many supporters of President Obama's appointments conceded this was happening at the time, but argued Obama was making these appointments to placate the establishment with symbolism so he could govern from the left.) I became just about the leading national spokesperson against this trend in Obama appointments. My writing on this topic was appearing in national newspapers on a daily basis, and I was receiving lengthy interviews on the subject in news outlets like NPR and MSNBC.
However, after about five weeks of high-exposure public argumentation on this front, polls began coming out showing that an almost absurd number (90%!) of self-identified Democrats approved of President Obama's transition. And it wasn't just abstract numbers: even my Kucinich-supporting, sister-in-law-to-be sounded kind of peeved when she told me "you're not giving Obama a chance," or something to that effect. Seeing those polls, and having her say that to me, was the epiphanic moment when I realized almost no one agreed with me and, most importantly, that they did so because I wasn't being persuasive. It wasn't that I dealing with sheeple--I had simply lost the argument to other people, mainly President Obama, who were more persuasive than I was.
The progressive Internet space didn't change because it is filled with lobotomized sheeple, or veal pen online leaders craving access to power. It changed because President Obama persuaded it to change. Starting from virtually nothing online, President Obama quickly built the largest online progressive, political organization in existence. In late 2008, his email list had 13 million members, all of whom joined voluntarily. In two years (2007-2008), he nearly tripled what MoveOn.org did in a decade. He accomplished much of that long before he was the Democratic nominee, or even before he won Iowa.
The progressive Internet space changed because President Obama was more persuasive to the audience of the progressive blogosphere than even the most prominent progressive bloggers. It changed because his message was more persuasive to the membership of large progressive email organizations than the leaders of those organizations. President Obama took his message--and message is more than just policy, it includes all the cultural signification coming from a campaign--to the same online channels that are available to all of us, hired a bunch of smart online organizers, and ended up convincing many millions more people to voluntarily join him than any other online progressive organizational leader had ever done in the past.
As such, my situation during the transition would not have been different if a few large, Internet-based progressive organizations had taken my side. The leaders of those organizations would have been pilloried in the same way I was, because President Obama meant much more to the progressive base than any and all of his left-wing critics, myself included. He won the argument among the progressive base, and did so in dominating fashion, as is demonstrated by the fact that he got way, way more people to join him than any online progressive organization has ever done before.
Now, just because President Obama persuaded more people so far does not necessarily mean he is right in every case, that he will win in every case, or that his persuasive power is total. And it certainly doesn't mean that, if you disagree with him from the left, you shouldn't try to fight back However, it is important to recognize that President Obama has in fact won the argument among the base so far, and not because of veal pens or sheeple. He convinced 13 million people to voluntarily join his online operation. In order for a more left-wing force to displace, or at least shift, Obama, they have to do something comparable.
Something will displace President Obama's power among the progressive base eventually, as the ground is always shifting online, and always shifting in politics. However, longing for the good old days when a more left-wing viewpoint held a stronger position online is not going to put anyone in a position to take advantage of that shifting ground. While the landscape will change again, it simply won't just change back to a pre-Obama Eden. We have to start to formulate what new, workable strategies there are for left-wing messaging and organizing in the future.