A New World Waiting

by: Matt Stoller

Mon Nov 12, 2007 at 14:10

I gave a speech on Friday afternoon at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia on the rise of the Open Left and the emergence of internet politics (it's published on the flip).  The audience was composed of a variety of scholars, including 30-40 Nobel laureates and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among others.

Needless to say, I was completely freaked out for two days before the speech.  Though it was a scholarly nonpartisan group, my speech was from my perspective as a movement progressive.  I walked them through the impeachment and the creation of Moveon, through Fox News and the right-wing infrastructure, the blogs, Jena 6, the media reform movement and net neutrality, and Ted Stevens and his moment in the sun ('the internet is not a truck, it's a series of tubes').

One of the reasons I was so nervous is because the first great growth period of purely partisan liberal institution building is over, and we are now confronting the limitations on our power.  I don't know how to tell the story of where we are, because I'm not sure where we are at this moment when our leaders betray us.  There's this puzzle, where we help elevate individuals into decision-making roles, and then they cannot maintain the same allegiance to the activists who helped them.  It's systemic - Jon Tester, Jim Webb, Jerry McNerney - they have all cut out the centers of power who boosted them to prominence.  It's institutional; forget about NARAL, which just endorsed Al Wynn.  Moveon has still not released the results of their email in September asking whether primaries would be a useful antidote to Democratic inaction on Iraq, even as Cindy Sheehan left the Democratic Party.  Given the level of anger and frustration, the gravitational pull of decision-making centers, is a puzzle.  I had a tough time putting together my ideas about the open left in the context of this puzzle.

All of this is to say that I found this article from Conn Carroll useful.  Carroll basically sees what we do as a new party apparatus, and I agree with that.  I'm exploring the notion that we - and I include Power Shift, ColorOfChange, blogs, and Moveon - are the electoral machinery of a partisan liberal movement.  Our central claim is that popular participation in politics is a good thing, that democratic participation in our civic institutions, be they corporations, nonprofits, or governments, strengthens our society.  It's a big claim, and it cuts against the antipartisan arguments of the liberal interest groups of the 1960s and 1970s.  We think that popular partisanship is how stuff should be decided, they prefer bipartisan deals by insiders.

The three other movement centers are (1) the class struggle moralists like Naomi Klein, Van Jones, and David Sirota, (2)the progressive futurists like Larry Lessig, Craig Newmark, and complexity theory academic networksm (3) and the business elites like the Googlers, Facebookers, and Vinod Khosla.

There's a new world being built.  We're not ready to take full power, as the bridges between the people who are working to create the morality, politics, and infrastructure of this new world don't exist as fully as they need to for progressives to really take power. 

No candidate right now is talking about that new world, which is why the gap between the melting ice caps and Clinton/Obama/Edwards plans for incremental college education credits is so vast. 

We'll get there, but it's going to take a few years. 

Matt Stoller :: A New World Waiting
Here's the text of the speech I gave.  I don't tend to give the speech as prepared, and this was no exception, but here's what I wrote down.

In 2003, the University of Maryland did a groundbreaking study on media consumption habits and the Iraq War:

  * Fifty-seven percent believed that Iraq gave substantial support to Al-Qaida, or was directly involved in the September 11 attacks (48% after invasion).
  * Sixty-nine percent believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 attacks.
  * Twenty-two percent believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. (Twenty-one percent believed that chem/bio weapons had actually been used against U.S. soldiers in Iraq during 2003)

I talked to one member of Congress from Arizona who is afraid to vote for an increase in fuel efficiency standards because her constituents laugh at her when she mentions global warming.

There have always been problems with media in this country, but it is now a crisis.  You can see it with creationism in schools, with the Iraq war, global warming denialists, you can even go back to Clinton impeachment.  The bad faith is actually embedded in our very media structures.  During the 2004 political campaign, the Senior Vice President at Fox News, John Moody, authored multiple internal memos with talking point guidelines for news shows that furthered a conservative agenda, encouraging hosts, for instance, to use the term 'flip flop' when describing John Kerry.

I am from a community, a political community, of people who are angry about this.  I guess you could call us liberals, or progressives, but fundamentally we are citizens who have been betrayed and are developing new organizing models on the internet.  Here's what we're reacting to.  This is the end of a story on CNN by Jeanne Moos on waterboarding, which is a simulated drowning technique used to torture people. 

MOOS: Anti-war demonstrators have taken to demonstrating water boarding and posting their protests on You Tube. Even a few amateurs have tried it at home, timing themselves to see how long they can last. [more laughter]
MOOS: Not smart. Do it wrong and experts say water boarding can kill you.
MOOS: For the good old days when water boarding meant riding a board on water.
Now, that's constitutional, Mr. Attorney general nominee. Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

Isn't that amazing?  We're talking about torture here.

Over the past nine years, a consistent stream of this kind of information from the political media has created a reaction among liberals like me who have become radicalized.  We organize on the internet, but not exclusively on the internet.  We converse with, attack, mock, undermine, and praise the political figures, journalists, decision-makers, bureaucrats, and pundits that tell the story of modern America.  On CNN, that story is about how waterboarding is just another playful technique, and they don't mention that it was used by the Nazis or the Spanish Inquisition. 

And that's where I come in.  I'm a liberal blogger, and I am one of the millions of people who are angry at George Bush, the Democratic leaders, the press, and at the Republican Party for their consistent failure to govern the country according to basic humane principles.  I am not alone, there are many of us, about 1-4 million people read liberal blogs every day, with the primary age group being people in their forties and fifties.  We exist because the top down structures premised on information scarcity and hierarchical control like Fox News and CNN have convinced us that we cannot rely on them and that a new type of politics is necessary.

The story of the new movement of liberal internet politics goes back to 1990s.  In 1998, Bill Clinton's approval ratings were in the upper 60s, and yet, the consensus in DC was that Clinton would of course have to resign, and prominent Democrats were calling for the President to pack it in.  David Broder, whose nickname is the dean of the Washington press corps, had a line at the time where he said, during the impeachment fiasco, that "He came in here and he trashed the place.  And it's not his place."

In such an environment, with a huge disconnect between the public and the elite decision-makers, internet politics on the left got its start.  An online petition at a new site called Moveon.org by two Silicon entrepreneurs, costing $79.95 to put up, got 500,000 signatures in a few weeks because people forwarded the email to their friends and social networks. Today, Moveon.org has 3.3 million members.  In 2006, the group made more than 7 million phone calls, organized 7500 house parties, and raised and spent $27 million, mostly from small donors. 

Moveon wasn't the last institutional reaction on the internet.  As greater and greater shocks have occurred - a Presidential race in 2000 dominated by trivialities and 'fuzzy math' and an Iraq war with a debate dominated by falsehoods and fear, the loss of New Orleans - there's been more innovation.  The liberal blogosphere itself started in 2000 as a response to the recount.  There were no good sources of updated information about what was happening, so a liberal journalism named Josh Marshall started a site called Talkingpointsmemo to chronicle the recount, updating it frequently and linking and clipping relevant news articles.  Talkingpointsmemo is now a collection of sites with a staff of seven journalists, and was key to uncovering the Attorney General firings earlier this year that led to the downfall of Attorney General Gonzales.  In 2005, the site ran a campaign on George Bush's attempted privatization of Social Security, and asked its readers to write their member of Congress to get their position on the issue.  TPM then used reader feedback in their reporting, incorporating activism into the very act of journalism.

In 2002, the largest activist liberal blogs - Atrios and Dailykos - started, one by a lawyer and one by an economist.  These sites are now read by around ten million people a month.  And very early on they had an impact.  At a party celebrating former segregationist and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday, then Majority leader of the Senate Trent Lott said that if Thurmond had been elected President when he ran on the segregationist platform that "we wouldn't have had all these problems."  While this was reported in an offhand manner by ABC's the Note and dropped at the end of a long story, Atrios did research and found Lott's consistent record of racist affiliations and statements.  Lott eventually resigned as Majority Leader. 

In 2006, ColorofChange.org started as a response to Katrina, operating along very similar institutional lines as Moveon.  The Jena 6 protest in Louisiana was the result.

These new communities are politically powerful, and they incorporate similar principles that underlie open source communities, at least compared to other parts of the political system.  First of all, there's memory and accountability.  My readers are smarter than I am, and I get called out all the time for errors.  Inevitably on any issue, there's an engineer, a doctor, a plumber, or a statististician who knows more than the I do.  There are skeptics who google what I wrote in the past and keep me honest.  If my predictions are wrong or my arguments are bad, I lose credibility.  And if I lie, they can comment right on my blog.  There is a level playing field, and no gatekeepers.  Don't like what I write?  You can start your own site.

The structure creates a collaborative form of politics and an sort of immunity to bad faith.  I'll give you two examples.  In the waning days of the 2006 election, a bunch of Democrats in Congress were not facing any Republican challengers.  But they had a lot of money in their political accounts.  So Chris Bowers, a blogger at MyDD, decided that they should give this money to the Democratic Party so that it could be used to expand the map and pick up even more Republican House seats.  He brought together a group of volunteers that worked over email to identity, out of 435 members of Congress, which were Democratic safe seats, how much money these members had, and how to contact them.  Then, working with Moveon, they pelted these members with phone calls and emails, and about $5 million was put into use by the party.

Last year, I was exploring an the politics of an issue called network neutrality, which is the regulation that says that all packets of a certain type that go over the internet must be treated equally.  Comcast or Verizon hasn't been allowed to slow video from one website because they don't like the content, because of net neutrality.  Obviously this is important, and I was blogging about the politics of the issue.  It was getting some traction, and so an AT&T lobbyist named Mike McCurry, who was formerly the White House press secretary under Clinton, came onto my blog and started arguing with me.  We went back and forth a bunch of times, and he was giving out misinformation.  The wonderful part of it was that network engineers who like liberal politics read my blog, and they were arguing with Mike McCurry and showing him he was wrong.  Because he's used to a top-down media universe, he eventually attacked bloggers for being foul-mouthed and irresponsible.  The backlash, from angry programmers and network engineers who knew he was lying for profit, was so aggressive that other lobbyists became afraid of publicly support the telecom and cable interests position.  They spent upwards of $100M in lobbying and campaign contributions, and still lost.

Traditional media structures rely on scarcity of bandwidth.  And politicians have relied on those structures to get elected and to govern.  Now they beginning to rely on new structures to get elected and to govern, structures that govern themselves with a good deal of similarity to open source development communities.  We are constantly learning and trying new things, and we are committed to building a new political system where the information rights of way belong to the public in the same way that roads belong to the public. 

There is intense conflict between these two systems.  Just this year, a major campaign of the blogs was to ensure that the Democratic Party didn't do a Presidential debate on Fox News.  Both the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and the Nevada State Democratic Party booked debates with Fox News, and we were very aggressive about getting those debates canceled through our influence with Democratic leaders, and getting Presidential candidates to refuse to attend them.  The argument that we made was that Fox News is not a news outlet but a partisan outlet intent on misinforming the public.  After the Nevada debate was canceled, Fox News sent out a press release attacking us as radical fringe elements who had taken over the Democratic Party, thus proving our point.  And major Democratic Party influentials felt free, because of our work, to come out against Fox News.  Mark Mellman, a pollster for Kerry, revealed that Fox News viewers voted for Bush by an 88% to 7% margin.  No demographic segment, other than Republicans, was as united in supporting Bush. Conservatives, white evangelical Christians, gun owners, and supporters of the Iraq war all gave Bush fewer votes than did regular Fox News viewers.

Elites within the Democratic Party validated that Fox News is, in fact, a Get Out the Vote machine for the Republican Party.  That is how my world debates the role of media in a democracy, by undermining those that have a track record of dishonest propagandizing.  Those are our values.

Internet politics isn't linear.  It's going to grow, but it's going to grow along with shocks to the country.  And we know they are coming.  China is selling dollars, climate change seems to be accelerating, the situation in the Middle East is increasingly chaotic, oil will shortly move above $100 a barrel, there is a good deal of global financial instability, etc.  All of possible shocks will probably increase the amount of power in this new political world.

As you know from the increasing political pressure on the scientific world, the free flow of information is also under attack.  That's true on the internet.  Large cable and telecommunications companies have recently been caught blocking political content over phone networks and the internet itself.  For instance, NARAL tried to send a pro-choice text messages to its members, and Verizon Wireless blocked it, calling the content 'unsavory'.  There's a nightmare scenario here, of course, since this is not just a political attack but an attack on the free flow of information.  Imagine billionaire Domino's pizza founder right-wing Tom Monaghan, who has founded an extremist Catholic University to promote his views in Florida, buys a cable network or telecom company and begins blocking scientific research which doesn't correspond to his reading of Catholic dogma. That would include stem cell research, medical schools that teach procedures to terminate pregnancy, or even biology departments that do research into natural selection.  That's what we're fighting off right now, while at the same time engaging in criticism, organizing against the Iraq war, recruiting candidates, raising money, and working to get a Democratic President elected in 2008.

We are a political community that has a fundamentally different vision of the world, we began to organize in response to disinformation and bad faith, and we have grown because of the ability of everyone to participate and ruthless and relentless criticism and commentary.  Many of the values of this community correspond to the values of the scientific community; the free flow of information and the continuous criticism.  Both the liberal political space and the scientific community are what one Republican operative sneered at in 2004 as part of the 'reality-based community'. 

We're facing a series of challenges to the basic underpinnings of the free flow of information, and net neutrality is just one example of how top down structures are threatening the very fabric of how science and politics are conducted.

So we're fighting to maintain the communities we've built, to expand the power of the new politics, and to build the political information systems on the internet that will actually be able to cope with the challenges we know are coming.

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A New World Waiting | 14 comments
Hey Matt (0.00 / 0)
Do you have a copy of your speech somewhere? I'd like to read it.

Great post. (0.00 / 0)
I'm glad you are being philosphical, in more ways than one.
I am curious to hear more about your thinking re category 3, the tech business folks. Do you think of them as truly aligned with the open left movement, or as just providing the tools for it to flourish?

That's a good question (0.00 / 0)
I'm skeptical of "big" business (not all business) ever being an ally of progressive politics, or even democracy in general.  The antidote is to replace them where possible (agriculture) or else unionize them.

I support John McCain because children are too healthy anyway.

[ Parent ]
Some of us are (0.00 / 0)
One of the main reasons why I started my company is that we need to elect better Democrats, not just the same old establishment risk-averse types. 

We think that recent advances in data analysis and targeting (including the massively parallel system we have built and which is 50x faster for multi-variable analysis than what others are using) will make it much easier to challenge establishment candidates, including entrenched incumbents, because the insurgent will no longer need to do saturation media buys to reach the critical number of voters.  Low-turnout primaries are particularly amenable to the focused microtargeting that we enable.

So yes, there are some high tech companies that are aligned.

Voter Genome Project

[ Parent ]
Goes back to identity politics (0.00 / 0)
Look back at the tech boom and specifically the dotcom boom of the late 90's. The centers of gravity were urban centers like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, all strongly Blue, and the suburban office park wasteland of Silicon Valley, call it Purple. The people working there were highly educated urban hipsters, what Chris would call the progressive creative class.

A lot of the tech industry has been bought up by the Old Money companies, or they've brought in more conservative management as the industry has matured, but you have to keep the roots in mind. Also, people like Lawrence Lessig (Stanford law professor fighting the studios on copyright) and Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist who's refused to sell it out) are very much outsiders fighting the system, although the buzz they both generate give them stature way beyond their actual power.

[ Parent ]
Wasteland? (0.00 / 0)
Have you been to the Peninsula?  Palo Alto is a small town but I'd hardly call it a wasteland.  Actually I think Silicon Valley, the Santa Cruz mountains, and the San Mateo/Santa Cruz coasts are some of the most beautiful spots in the country.

Voter Genome Project

[ Parent ]
Yes (0.00 / 0)
Those are the nice parts on the edge of Silicon Valley, but the heart of it is a wasteland of office parks and strip malls. It's suburban enough to qualify as Purple and distinct from the urban centers of the dotcom boom. I've lived there, and I see more of the East Bay side from Hayward/Fremont down to San Jose. I know about the beautiful natural spots just outside town, but that's not the Valley any more, is it?

[ Parent ]
I guess it depends (0.00 / 0)
I didn't mean to get all Chamber of Commerce on you but I guess where you stand on this depends on where you sit.  From my perch in Redwood City and not being in the semiconductor business, I think of the Valley as being from here down to San Jose.  And when you say the "heart" of it I take that to mean where Oracle, HP, and Google are (from Redwood down through those leafy small cities like Atherton and Palo Alto to Mountain View) and not where Cypress and Intel are (Santa Clara/San Jose).  You're right that there are lots of office parks, but to me that means Redwood Shores with its lagoons and fountains and less those boxes down in San Jose.  And when the trees in the parks are flowering all year, and you're never more than a few minutes from the foothills or the Bay, it doesn't seem like much of a wasteland.  Particularly compared to my old neighborhood in Manhattan.  And other than Manhattan this seems to me to be about as Democratic an area as I've ever seen.  I guess the East Bay might be more Republican.

Voter Genome Project

[ Parent ]
Just call it Blue (0.00 / 0)
I don't really want to get sidetracked on the aesthetics of Silicon Valley. You're right about calling the whole peninsula Blue. The Easy Bay side from Fremont down to San Jose is cookie cutter suburbia. It's a narrow strip of suburbia with the bay and foothills on both sides, but it follows the same mold. I called it Purple more than Red. I shouldn't be talking. LA County as a whole is more conservative, although the core areas of the tech boom like West LA are solidly Blue.

I also forgot about Orange County which had its share of the dotcom boom and is very conservative.

The original question was whether the business elites of the tech world belong in this group. I'd say yes, but slightly less so. The Old Money in tech is conservative, but the innovators who came out of the dotcom boom are more liberal than most business elits.

[ Parent ]
It's a Mixed Bag (0.00 / 0)
There are a lot of Democrats among the tech elite but where they stand on insurgent campaigns varies.  I have spent some time raising money for Democratic candidates out here and find that it's a mixed bag among the big money donors.  Some people are still content to let the central party tell them where to contribute but a growing number are more interested in targeting their donations to particular candidates who look to shake up the status quo.  In some ways it seems reminiscent of the old Dean/Kerry divide from '04. 

Voter Genome Project

[ Parent ]
Forgot One Thing (0.00 / 0)
It's a completely non-scientific poll, but check out this recent Slashdot poll of political affiliation: http://slashdot.org/...

Liberal and Libertarian were tied for 1st.

[ Parent ]
Good Post - Good Speech (0.00 / 0)
I really like your speech, and post about it.

I agree with much you have said, and have been following Open Left rather closely.  I think the three strongly differing views, while all being on the same side, have an educational and confrontational aspect at the same time.  And I find much to sympathize with.

The key to me is the betrayal of the people we have backed.  All I have been able to do is to communicate much more with my congress critters with some immediate feedback. 

I really admire, (and am participating) in the bush dog campaign, and I really do not care if Nancy Pelosi does not like it.  We have to hold people in government accountable.  I am not sure how far we can go, but if the Donna Edwards thing is a good example, I am proud to belong to this kind of a movement.  (DiFi would be somebody on the Senate side I would like to see targeted.

So, please keep it up, Matt.  You are an inspiration to many of us, at least, and I am sure that the powers that be may not like us, let us just make sure they do not stop us.

Learning the lesson of the 60s (0.00 / 0)
We're not ready to take full power, as the bridges between the people who are working to create the morality, politics, and infrastructure of this new world don't exist as fully as they need to for progressives to really take power.

The main problem of the 60s was the failure of the leadership to connect to the main body of the American People.  There was little outreach to the workers, soldiers and retirees, to the folks that make up the greatest number of voters. We are not going to take power until we make that connection. Jon Tester is perfect example. We helped get him elected, with money and phone calls into Montana and other good things. But in the end, he got elected because he resonated with the people there in a way that we never will. He went out and did the hard work of connecting with his voters in small groups and learned their concerns. Now he is trying to represent those views, which I am sure he shares to a large degree.

For progressives to win, we have to make that connection ourselves, through candidates who share our views. 

We must educate the public (0.00 / 0)
I loved this post and speech.
I am 30 and still new to blogging, only started in the last 6 months. It has only been since I discovered OpenLeft that I have truly grasped the power of blogs.

For a long time I thought they were only sites for chatter.
(See my embarassingly recent post in which I call on blogs to do more than talk....
http://www.openleft.... )

I think many bloggers take for granted that the general populus understands their power. I do not think that is the case.

Your post is in many ways asking-- where do we go from here?

My answer is out into the general public-- educating people and building on what we have now accomplished.

We won the Battle. Now the Real Fight for Change Begins. Join MoveOn.org and fight for progressive change.  

A New World Waiting | 14 comments

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