What is OpenLeft.com?

by: Matt Stoller

Sun Jul 08, 2007 at 18:17


(Actually bumped at 1:32 p.m., eastern - promoted by Chris Bowers)

We believe that there is a great movement of left-wing activism in America today, and we want to understand it. 


Now, there are a lot of ways to talk about movements, and we see them not as historians but as modern political activists.  That means we are trying to understand the institutions those movements left behind, and the technologies, tools, tactics, and ideas of those institutions.  The first progressive movement, from 1890-1920, led to the regulation of the meat industry, anti-trust legislation, popular election of Senators, women's suffrage, the federal income tax, etc.  It's not clear, though, what institutions remain that live on along the lines of early progressive era groups.  The ACLU is one example, as it was established after the first red scare, and now has a large direct mail base.

Matt Stoller :: What is OpenLeft.com?

In terms of institutions building, there have been two great left-wing movements in the past seventy five years, each of which, in their time, represented the best of America.  At the core of the first movement was the mass unionization efforts of the 1930s, which led to the expansion and prosperity of the middle class in the post-WWII era.  The second started with the civil right movement in the 1950s, and flowered into the broader movements of the 1960s. The institutions of this era combined to end Jim Crow and the Vietnam war, achieve new rights for women, and pass the first major environmental and consumer safety laws since the turn of the century.  These two groups are sometimes referred to as the Old Left and the New Left, respectively. 

Now, we realize that these terms are loaded and possibly controversial. If you look on the blogrolls to the right, you may disagree on where we place different groups and organizations.  There are reasonable arguments to be made that "Common Cause is not a New Left group" or "The Old Left was Stalinist!"  But we are looking at movements in the context of the political structures they leave behind, and for better or for worse, Common Cause came from the direct mail liberalism of the early 1970s, and its New Left inspired, anti-partisan model of organizing. 

The 'Old Left' presents a different problem, because the idea of 'the left' provokes imagery of instability.  The 1930s, though, was an unstable time, a time of national emergency. and the great innovations in the labor movement were organized by left-wing activists, some portion of which were Socialists who had extremely progressive views on race and power, views which only now are mainstream.  Many of these organizers were purged in the late 1940s, and the fear of being considered 'left-wing', the beginnings of triangulation, happened as the country demobilized from war.  Many left-wingers and Socialists in the 1930s were just good organizers - they taught the neoconservatives, after all, and no one can deny that neoconservatives have been able to wield power effectively.

It's time to get over the idea that 'the left', liberals, progressives, or anyone who believes that power should be distributed and not concentrated in the hands of a few is a scary hippy.  And that's why we called the site 'OpenLeft'; we see our ideas as a mark of pride, not shame.  We think that businesses - like Google - have built highly profitable organizations based on principles of sharing information and distributing power.  The genuine radical threat at this moment in history is coming from elites who believe that concentrating power, information, and wealth in their hands should be America's priority.  The response to this threat is a new era of left-wing activism, promoted by normal Americans, who have innovated with the tools we have.


Both 1930-1950 and 1960-1975 left institutional legacies in the form of strong unions and mass membership organizations.  It is inconceivable to think of modern politics without the hundreds of millions labor pumps into the politics every two years, without the intellectual heft of the consumer rights movements, the environmental movement, and the women's rights movements, without the moral and political credibility of black church networks, and without the economic leverage unions provide for their members.  The institutions of these two eras left us a prosperous and secure country. Now, their increasing weakness, due both to internal problems and right-wing attacks, has severely damaged our country (and, indeed, our world).

The catalytic Presidency of George W. Bush and the conservative movement that put him in power has created the third great movement in left-wing politics, which we call the Open Left.  This is a movement of tools and technology, but more than that it is a movement of changed cultural relationships.  Many of us saw the Democratic Party leadership fail in 1998 with impeachment, in 2000 with the recount, in 2002 with Iraq, and in 2004 with the Kerry campaign.  We concluded that it was not just a stronger Democratic party we needed, it was a new set of ideas to animate our political structures.  Fortunately, those ideas existed on the internet, the cultural medium in popular use at the time of these failures.  And so the Open Left came into being, built on the internet and in response to the excesses of the modern right, the limits of the institutional left, and the learned apathy of much of the public.

Politics today works much differently than it did only ten years ago.  In 1997, the politics of siloed special interests reigned supremeMoveon, the first Open Left group, does not have the same relationship with its members that Common Cause does, or that the United Autoworkers does.  The UAW is central to the economic welfare of its members, and Common Cause has a Federated mass membership structure dependent on regular direct mail fundraising.  Moveon's credibility, by contrast, comes from the willingness of 3 million people to open and read their email, and to sometimes take actions based on the recommendation of Moveon's leadership.  This makes Moveon much more responsive to their members, much lower cost and much more flexible, but also less of a clear and direct presence in their members' lives.

This isn't just true of Moveon, of course.  Blogs, Drinking Liberally, Step it Up, Freepress - in fact all mass political organizations built in the last ten years share these characteristics.  Political power is more and more situated in far-flung networks that can be activated and deactivated quickly, and the new millennial generation that will be the political backbone for the new progressive America likes it this way.

At OpenLeft.com, we are going to explore these new dynamics.  We don't believe the internet changes everything, or that older institutions are irrelevant.  Far from it.  We think that any institution can succeed in building the new America we see unfolding in sketches on the internet.  We see the internet and the Open Left as a sort of operating system for a new political system, where groups can plug in and form coalitions more easily and effective on the left, and we see a strong set of dynamics pulling us into this new coalition-focused direction.  We hope to host many of these groups, serving as a forum for strategic discussion of goals and tactics.

We want to explore various characteristics  of Open Left politics.  Identity, including race, notions of the 'creative class', and religiosity are at the root of our changing political dynamics.  New Economy companies such as Google and sustainable energy businesses are a part of these emerging coalitions, and extractive industries are set against us.  And there is an international element to the Open Left, as this movement is global in nature, though we will mostly explore the American component.

Why Open Left?  Why not just netroots?

Good question.  We've never been comfortable with the term 'netroots'.  It's a term without a coherent meaning, sometimes pointing to liberals that organize in online communities, sometimes meaning anyone online who does so.  This term doesn't describe who we are, because there is no divide between online and offline at this point; insiders use email and blogs, and outsider activists run campaigns and have in-person conferences.  The term 'Open Left' is a much wider and more descriptive way of understanding the larger political dynamics at play.  It is not the use of the internet that matters, it is the expression of traditional left-wing American principles on open systems that is the institutional innovation at work here.

This has been a long time coming.  The internet itself expresses certain values that go back to very early American philosophers, and its communal and networked structure combined with its rampant capacity for individualism is uniquely situated for our moment in history.  The third important left wing movement in modern American history is nearly ten years old, it's time we recognize what's going on.

Thus, OpenLeft.com.


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nice post, Matt (1.33 / 3)
It is not the use of the internet that matters, it is the expression of traditional left-wing American principles on open systems that is the institutional innovation at work here.

Oh, I think the use of the internet certainly matters, because none of the Open Left that you describe would be possible without it.

I'm curious about what the right will do, whether activists on the right will copy some of the tactics of the Open Left as they did with both the Old and New Left. Will the success of Ron Paul in raising money and rallying activists wake them up like Howard Dean and Wes Clark did on our side?

Join us at the Missouri community blog Show Me Progress!


Old vs. New Left (0.00 / 1)
We've never been comfortable with the term 'netroots'.  It's a term without a coherent meaning, sometimes pointing to liberals that organize in online communities, sometimes meaning anyone online who does so.  This term doesn't describe who we are, because there is no divide between online and offline at this point; insiders use email and blogs, and outsider activists run campaigns and have in-person conferences.

All well said, especially the distinction between Old Left and New Left. It could not be clearer after the '06 election, even with Democrats replacing Republicans in office. There is yet a finer distinction and difference between simply beating Republicans, and getting New Left Democrats elected.



New Left Democrats?? (4.00 / 1)
Can you give me an example of what you are talking about?

Join us at the Missouri community blog Show Me Progress!

[ Parent ]
New Left? (4.00 / 1)
I don't think you mean New Left, do you? New Left suggests SDS or one of the liberation movements - the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, etc. It also suggests an opposition to the labor movement, at least as it existed in the 1960's. If you think about the tone of these groups in the  60's and 70's, that really isn't what it seems like you're calling for with "New Left Democrats." The New Left didn't vote most of the time, much less vote for the Democrats!

The terms don't really refer to politicians today. The split just doesn't exist anymore. First, the Old Left institutions are no longer nearly as racist and sexist as they were. Second, the split was often on grounds of Marxist ideology - Stalinism and Trotskyism vs. Maoism and structuralism.

I think we should be getting leftist Democrats elected, who have learned from both the Old Left and the New Left. But since neither really exist as a movement today, I don't really understand what you mean.


[ Parent ]
The potentials for synthesis (0.00 / 0)
First, the Old Left institutions are no longer nearly as racist and sexist as they were.

One of the big reasons for this change is that since about 1970 many of those who became the union organizers and staffers of "old left" institutions were themselves veterans of the New Left.  This is the productive kind of synthesis we should be looking for in this time as well.

Iraq Moratorium Day


[ Parent ]
Before Moveon (0.00 / 1)
there were a number of smaller netroots/openleft groups, including one I helped start at Women Leaders Online.

The earliest groups predated the introduction of the World Wide Web and were primarily listserv-based, including Phil Agre's Red Rock Eater News Service and Nathan Newman's pioneering work.


just to clarify (0.00 / 0)
the groups/listservs I mentioned above were among the first efforts to break out of the original "closed" internet spaces like The Source, Compuserve, Prodigy, and AOL. These closed spaces had forums for various left issues, but the corporations that ran those spaces restricted those forums and allowed Freepers to ruin them.

In the face of these corporate obstacles, there were a couple of efforts to build membership-funded progressive online communities based in San Francisco - The Well (Whole World 'Lectronic Link) and IGC (Institute for Global Communications).


[ Parent ]
Much needed (4.00 / 2)
The problem with much of the "progessive blogsphere" is the centrality of DailyKos.  DK has such serious endemic defects that it is actually holding progressivism back, after helping it forward for so long.

For one, DailyKos has a myopic goal, enshrined in its FAQ, of being a "partisan Democratic blog."  Many on that site unabashedly place the interests of the Democratic party and its established politicians over the interests of the people or of progressive values/causes.

That's not the only problem with DailyKos, but it's probably the biggest.  I hope that this site, with its more open mandate, won't fall into that same trap.


People Worry Too Much... (4.00 / 1)
... about the Orange Satan, in my opinion.

I'm no big fan, but I sure hope this site isn't going to be bitching and moaning about it all the time.


[ Parent ]
Spot-on comment (0.00 / 0)
"Many on that site unabashedly place the interests of the Democratic party and its established politicians over the interests of the people",

I was going to post something similar but now I don't have to.
:-)

Openleft feels like a breath of fresh air.


[ Parent ]
Tiered approach (0.00 / 0)
The central task up till November 2006 was defending the Republic against the right wing hordes and DK has played a central role in plugging the dyke. As this movement blooms, I expect "one, two, many DKs" and an emerging ecosystem where different players fill different roles, all pulling in the same general direction. There are going to be differences and that's a good thing, all part of a mighty movement building itself.

[ Parent ]
Whoo-hooo! (0.00 / 0)
Nice place you got here. 

We always said you lads would make good!


Many (0.00 / 1)
of those old left organizations will have to re-invent themselves to stay around. 

Take Common Cause, one of your examples.  The average donor in their direct mail program is in their 70s (or it was just a few years ago).  They are having to adapt into more of an online organization to keep the doors open.  Plus they are getting more back to their original roots, in terms of the issues they work on.  A campaign to end the war in Iraq would be right in line with their history, believe it or not they were not always a singularly minded campaign finance reform organization.  Back in the day Common Cause helped launch a new era of organized political activism, much in the way that MoveOn did decades later.


It stands to reason (0.00 / 1)
that members of a political organization who were active in the 1960's might not be the most internet-savvy today.

And it's a shame that new incarnations like MoveOn only come to life during an attempted putsch like the Clinton impeachment.

We've got to stay abreast of the issues, the nefarious and the technology all at the same time.


[ Parent ]
This left winger wants a massive mulligan... (0.00 / 0)
Sherman and Peabody need to step into the wayback machine and get our country back...

"Generosity, Ethics, Patience, Effort, Concentration, and Wisdom"

Filling the void (0.00 / 0)
What i've always admired about both you and chris are your abilities to step back from the movement and provide structure and context to the developments and growth of the movement.  Your analysis of this new movement is not only fascinating, it's what will drive the "Open Left" to unimaginable success.


Can I Be the First... (0.00 / 0)
...to whore?

I'm so proud!

Good luck guys...


A stimulating opening (0.00 / 1)
Congratulations on this endeavor; I am excited about this moment in history. My mother's first computer lesson is today and I will definitely let her begin right here.

This is a fantastic move forward (1.33 / 3)
This is a very well thought out initiative. As a current member of the new SDS, I've been loathe to suggest greater reading and involvement of DKos because it doesn't really fundamentally jive with the more radical leftists. While I believe this site isn't really a radical forum, it can offer a way for people like New SDSers to interface with the growing movement we have on our hands. I'm looking forward to all the synergy we can generate together.

I wish there were a better word ... (1.33 / 3)
...than "left." It has lost so much meaning over the years, and, obviously, has been demonized. But none of the other words - most especially, "progressive" and "radical" - has done a better job of defining those of us who are, well, on the left, wherever exactly that is on the spectrum.

However, while I certainly don't want to get known in my first post here as a nitpicker, although I like your "Open Left" appellation, I find your categories of New Left and Old Left a tad confusing for this old New Leftist. Maybe you could add New Left Notes to the blogroll, as a sort of bridge from old to new.

That aside, congratulations on your launch. I expect I'll be visiting you guys a lot more than I did when you were at MyDD.


I have to disagree (2.67 / 3)
I kind of like the term 'left'. Sure, it appears fairly abstract nowadays, but its origin in the days of the French Revolution shows that we're part of a political tradition going back hundreds of years.

Forgotten Countries - a foreign policy-focused blog

[ Parent ]
Hey MB (0.00 / 0)
Like you I'll be visiting this place quite a bit more than MyDD.  At least the initial prospectus suggests a much more receptive context for those of us with a larger view of what constitutes progressive activism, and how the various elements of movement, issue, constituency and electoral politics interact.

BTW, perhaps when you look at it, you may see New Left Notes (and for good reason), but Tom Good's site is named Next Left Notes.

Iraq Moratorium Day


[ Parent ]
Full Disclosure (0.00 / 0)
Very well said.  I hope you leave this diary up in a semi-prominent spot as a clear articulation of what this site is about and as a guide for discussion.  And I appreciate the much more complete bios on you guys than was on MyDD.  I would love to see added there a clear articulation of any present connections to candidates. or if none is the case, a clear statement to that effect.  With the intensity of the Primaries just heating up, it will be interesting if you can prevent this place from becoming another room in Donald Segretti's Playhouse.  Setting the tone at the top - which you've already done a great job with this diary and your "about/contact" section - will help greatly.


Congrats all around (0.00 / 0)
A new project brings new possibilities.

More bipartisanship, please. (0.00 / 0)
And less anger.

Thanks!


OpeLeft (0.00 / 0)
Matt,

What a perfect description of what you are trying to do. It was so clear and visionary.

I'm of the genration that lived through my father in the "Old Left", and was part of the "New Left" movements of the 60's and 70's. I thrived in those envrionments. While I am not as good at forward imagery as you guys, I am truly excited about the possibilities.


Glad to see the new home! (0.00 / 1)
Not sure I completely grok this post, Matt, but nobody I've ever read has spoken my language as precisely as you and Chris have for the past few years. 

I'm definitely along for this ride, whatever it may be.


Question: What role for insiders? (0.00 / 0)
Is openleft a challenge to insiders or is it above and just observing the growing divide bw the netroots and the establishment?  The netroots are a clear challenge to old levers of power. Classic examples would be Markos vs DC media consultants, or Atrios vs. pundits like Joe Klein and Friedman. 

In other words, there's a lot of insiders who hate anything to do with those lefties on the internets.  They may actually be using the internets and interacting with lots of the netroots, but they share a mutual distaste for it and liken the netroots to what Rush Limbaugh is on the right. 

Where does openleft fit in on all this?  Sounds to me like the long awaited revolution against all that, but maybe that's just me projecting...


international element should not be minimized (0.00 / 0)
A major challenge is to figure out how to incorporate an international dimension into our work.  The 2 progressive movements meant to inspire us today were strongly influenced by world-wide leftist movements. 

We must be committed to building a multi-party world (if we subscribe to the belief in taking power out of the hands of the few}.

Issues of global governance can't be ignored.  Right now decisions are being made by a few elites that essentially "govern" the globe's direction.  We can't talk global governance issues without promoting vast grassroots movements that can prevent the further establishment of a global oligarchy or dictatorship.

Go ahead and solve the following problems unilaterally, to name a few:
immigration
corporate capitalism
trade
militarism
"terrorism"
global warming
the collapse of our oceans
the trashing of space above earth
consumer safety
bio-ethics, etc.

I would hope that the international dimension would play a major role in openleft's approach.  A truly successful progressive movement is impossible without a MAJOR international component.


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