How Liberals Rule the Web

by: Matt Stoller

Mon May 05, 2008 at 21:08


Picking up off of Chris's post on how the medium is the movement, I'd like to observe a couple other areas where the internet's reduced communication costs is empowering liberals.
Matt Stoller :: How Liberals Rule the Web

  1. The I bet I can find 1,000,000 people who dislike George Bush! group just hit a million people on Facebook.  Megan Brooks, a high school student in California, created the group with this description.

    This is a group for people who don't like George Bush. We know 5,000,000 people is a small number compared to all the people that hate GWB, but this is facebook. NOTE: Not all Americans are stupid! Recent polls concur that 70% of Americans disagree with what Bush is doing as president. Also, if you're here to start drama, get the fuck out...

    I made this group on 2/15/08. I made a little bet with myself that I could find 5,000,000 people

    Megan's in high school, and she thinks it's a 'little bet' to find one million people who share a common sentiment.  It's a charming impatient page: "PLEASE DO NOT REQUEST THE ADMINS, it's highly annoying..."  There is no way I could conceive of contacting and connecting a million people in high school, let alone around a political issue, let alone a globalized group that included trusted administrators from Egypt, Canada, Germany, Jamaica, and Russia.  This is like model UN, only it's not a model, and it's not super-lame.

  2. Meanwhile, Tom Hanks endorses Obama, without having to through a rancid corporate media filter.

    Beware: Celebrity Endorsement

    While you may think that Hollywood stars have outsized influence in our culture, it is undeniably true that they get pilloried when they make liberal or overt political statements.  Whether it's Hanks making a relatively unremarked endorsement seem by a few hundred thousand people or John Cusack communicating about War, inc at Crooks and Liars, or the WGA strike itself and the remarkable victory against the content cartel it's clear that storytellers have a renewed capacity to make liberal arguments.  They always wanted to, and now they can.

  3. This lecture, by legal scholar Elizabeth Warren, titled 'The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class', has been viewed separately over 40,000 times.  She walks through government data and her own data to discuss the increasing debt burdening American families.  Prior to youtube, there would be no way for her to tell her story.  Prior to the internet, she wouldn't be able to get her point of view across except in a few Op-Eds or in some Congressional testimony.  Now she can become a personality and deliver low production quality hour-long lectures on government statistics, and have them viewed by tens of thousands.  And those tens of thousands can reinterpret their views of the world without a rancid corporate media filter.

  4. This letter, put out by 100 labor-friendly leftist academics and spearheaded by Dan Clawson, on SEIU's internal fissions represents the most widely debated labor dispute in years.  From the 1930s to the 1950s, there were many local labor-only newspapers and newsweeklies, because media was understood as a critical organizing tool and the corporate media titans controlled the editorial pages.  The labor press died, and then the newspapers themselves gutted labor coverage, leading to limited internal labor debate and an intellectual atrophy and institutional isolation of labor organizing.  This debate, and the WGA strike, represent newly effective ways that labor communicates its values and core ideological debates and differences.  

    The academic world and the labor organizing world are fusing here around working class structure, which is interesting, because 'issues' really are irrelevant here just as they are in the larger meta-argument of how we are fighting over structure.

  5. And then we have candidates like Scott Kleeb, who is following in Donna Edwards's footsteps in trying to ward off a right-wing Democrat in a primary through savvy use of the internet.  Donna Edwards and her campaign was just written up in the Baltimore Sun, which described part of the strategy.

    Matt Stoller, who runs the liberal blog OpenLeft, played a leading role in fundraising and in generating online support for Donna Edwards, who defeated Wynn. With the help of the "net roots," Edwards raised $400,000 for the primary from more than 8,000 donors, nearly half of the total funds she received from individual contributions.

    People like me, communities like this one, and candidates like Donna Edwards have been empowered by the internet and its tool sets, and we have responded by working to elect people like Donna Edwards.  Donna, of course, staked out a strong position on net neutrality, and Wynn first came to my notice because of his position against net neutrality and his stance on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

  6. GasTaxScam.com: A former Google employee and political organizer, David Alpert, organized a satirical petition to protest a conservative pander around low energy prices.  Within a few hours, it had thousands of visitors, and tens of thousands of people have been exposed to the idea that a gas tax holiday is a scam.

  7. Color of Change, the 400,000 person group behind the Jena 6 protests that works exceptionally well with black radio to create change, has a
    petition out
    on superdelegates that says that Democrats should not let the nomination be subject to backroom deals.  James Rucker, who runs the group, is representing the black community far better than the NAACP.  Clinton has fallen in favorability rating by 36 points among African-Americans, as Al Giordano noted.  It is Color of Change that is there to organize and push.

In each of these examples, a group or set of individuals could do something liberal around grouping or communicating that they couldn't do before the emergence of the internet.  None of these catalytic agents is poor or disempowered.  Indeed, the least empowered of them is Megan, and she's a high school student in Silicon Valley.

This is just a few days on the web, but it sounds like a conspiracy:  academics fighting for labor solidarity and with and against labor organizers, youth playfully organizing for a globalized society that hates right-wing elites, African-Americans taking a chunk out of a politician who betrayed them, Hollywood stars putting out overt liberal politics without being preachy or attacked, a professor broadening her audience on economic insecurity to tens of thousands, and liberal Jewish political writers and organizers pushing for liberal Democrats to win in primaries and fighting against conservative bait-and-switch promises of cheap oil.

And as Chris noted, if the medium is the movement, then there's no comparison in terms of the candidates.  Survey USA shows what's going on in North Carolina, but this is mirrored elsewhere.

If Obama wins, it will be entirely from the 19% of voters who describe themselves as Liberal. Clinton leads by 9 among Conservatives and leads by 8 among Moderates. If Obama wins the popular vote, it will be because of his 16-point advantage among Liberals.

Obama didn't always have an advantage among liberals, but perhaps it was inevitable that the internet-breakout candidate would move in that direction.  Ron Paul is certainly far more liberal than the Republican mean, as was Mike Huckabee, the other internet success on the right.

I don't have a good sense of the underlying drivers here, but there are a couple of underlying factors driving the success patterns of each of these internet actors.  One, a pre-existing social networker is amplified dramatically by the medium into a difference in kind.  Two, none of these activities are for profit, and while some of them have ties to the non-profit world, those ties are mostly tangential.  Even the labor arguments are happening outside the formal structure of labor, just as most of the interesting content during the WGA strike was produced on the unofficial strike blog, United Hollywood.  A sort of 'market leftism' is at work, where bottling energy is driving the work rather than any organizational impetus.  Three, these examples are going around a corporate media filter, while using that filter to advance the organizing itself.  

Fundamentally, I think what's happening is that all of these examples are using a different narrative about the world than the one coming from elites and the media filter in general.  That narrative is one where Bush is hated, people are basically the same in our instincts and desires, and the world is playful, messy, funny, and tragic all at once.

Narratives are incredibly powerful; they dominate our thinking and our culture.  For instance, the metaphor of the war on terror is threatening our country's continued existence with its wrong-headed framing of all problems as requiring low trust centrally managed security theater.  The production of a strong and consistent counter-narrative is the key to any revolutionary movement.  Without a central story, a movement cannot grow and cannot wrap new people into it.  That is why religions organize themselves around storybooks, such as the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, etc.  Stories are simple devices for organizing people, and the internet has allowed anyone to tell their own story and share it for no cost.  Why is it liberals who are doing that better than anyone right now?  Well, first of all, I'm not entirely sure it is (immigrant nuts love the webs too), but in the political mainstream, it's quite clear that it is the liberals who are reaping the benefits.

It seems like the internet's current form is dominated by liberals because it is liberals who acknowledge the basic messiness of the world around them and the lunacy of the establishment that runs it.  The Iraq war didn't go as planned, the Clinton impeachment was crazy, and, oh yeah, peak oil is serious but why not use the phrase 'I drink your milkshake' to describe it.

That story wasn't being told anywhere, but it's the story of our time.  And there are infinite permutations of it, from the local food movement to the reframing of the last forty years of economic 'growth' into the Shock Doctrine.


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the most important area (for me) (4.00 / 6)
living in a small, rural, conservative, very religious town and feeling like we might possibly be going insane because no one else...looks like us, thinks like us, raises their children like us, eats like us, votes likes us

...well it is pretty frustrating and depressing.  But the internet helps with keeping sane, and being pro-active, and learning information that we do not get from our tv or community.

Before, a kid had to be brave and break away from his/her small town by going to college (or getting a job in the city) in order to be around diverse viewpoints.  Now they have the internets, and with a healthy dose of rebellion and curiousity there is so...much...to...learn.


Tastes great, More filling (4.00 / 5)
And more egalitarian, less structured, which is difficult for the over-the-top hierarchical types to negotiate. Advantage: liberals.

Once again, hard to separate me from the medium. Seems best to think of medium in the broadest possible sense, because the reciprocal change in both from their interaction is extraordinary, and more like a single organism than an actor and a stage.

My first professional campaign was 1988. We thought it was something when the pollster could fax us cross tabs. I didn't know then that the fax machine was facilitating a revolution in Eastern Europe at that very same time. Content of faxes couldn't be tapped and decoded. Social networks were golden. Velvet, too. They named the revolution after the velvet part.


Great Post (4.00 / 1)
Great stuff. This really helps put things in perspective for me, who just happens to be another example of someone who found out he could do amazing things on the Internet that previously were impossible for me.

I'm enjoying this new direction we are taking. Fun times.  


Immigrant nuts? (0.00 / 0)
Do you mean "anti-immigration nuts" in the 3rd graf from the end?

A fantastic post in any case.


Unfiltered information (4.00 / 2)
Here's why I love the internet:

http://www.time.com/time/natio...

This page features a pdf of the complete 85-page  transcript of Mohammad al-Qahtani's interrogation at GTMO, from mid-December 2002 to mid-January 2003.  (the "20th hijacker")

It is a remarkable document, chilling and infuriating, brutal and banal.  If you feel like reading true-life George Orwell, take a peek but give yourself a couple of hours.

Time Magazine leaked it, I printed it out and read the whole thing.  Just like that.  It didn't matter where in the world I happened to be.  And now I have unprecedented insight into this dark and disturbing corner of our government; and that insight, present in the minds of citizens, innoculates us all from the encroachment of tyranny.


Access as a value (4.00 / 5)
I would also argue that democratized access to information and education is an inherently Progressive value.  Meaning - the information itself doesn't have to have a Liberal slant in order to accomplish the Progressive goal of exposing more people to more ideas.

I've always considered the enemy of Progressivism to be Authoritarianism - not necessarily Conservatism.  Access to knowledge is an inherently anti-Authoritarian structure.  The medium is the movement.


conservatism = authoritarianism (4.00 / 1)
They are one and the same.

miasmo.com

[ Parent ]
Actually, They're Not The Same (0.00 / 0)
On a basic empirical level, political conservatism has a moderate correlation with both SDO and RWA (though it's what most social scientists would call "strong.")

On a more abstract level, there are various different aspects of conservatism, which only converge under special circumstances.  For example, David Souter--really does seem to function as a "true conservative" of a certain type--one who believes in gradual change, and maintaining contiunity of society's existing institutions.

Now, if we want to talk about movement conservatism--that is, conservatism as defined by the existing conservative elites of today--then you are 100% correct.  But this is actually a minority position within conservatism in general.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
goals vs marketing (4.00 / 1)
The goal of a car company is to make a shit ton of money. The marketing of a car company is that if you drive this car, your friends will think you're cool and you'll get laid all the time. Plenty of people believe the marketing.

The goal of conservatism is for a powerful few to rule a powerless everybody else. The marketing of conservatism is "family values," "smaller government," "gradual change, and maintaining contiunity of society's existing institutions," etc. Plenty of people believe the marketing.

miasmo.com


[ Parent ]
Still disagree (0.00 / 0)
The goal of conservatism is for a powerful few to rule a powerless everybody else.

That's actually the goal of authoritarianism.  The goals of conservatism - intellectually honest conservatism - are limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a general adherence to the status quo (resistance to radical change).

Obviously, I am not describing today's Republican party.  And many conservatives realize that, which is one of the reasons the GOP has been doing so shitty lately.  They can see that their principles have been transformed into empty talking points by a group of assholes who seek nothing but power - which is what you described in your last paragraph.


[ Parent ]
To continue my metaphor: (0.00 / 0)
And many conservatives realize that, which is one of the reasons the GOP has been doing so shitty lately.  They can see that their principles have been transformed into empty talking points by a group of assholes who seek nothing but power

And the guy who went into debt to buy the Lexus realizes that his friends still think he's an asshole, he's still not getting laid, and now he's $40,000 deeper in debt.

All of the principles of "intellectually honest conservatism" were concocted to advance an agenda that keeps the ruling class in power. It's bullshit. It was always bullshit. People who buy into "intellectually honest conservatism" are either chumps or have adopted whatever ideology that will help them network on the golf course or suck up to corporate bosses or clients.

This mythical time of "intellectually honest conservatism" was when Democrats ran the country, the new deal and great society and war on poverty were the conventional wisdom, and "small government" meant cutting funding for anything that empowered the poor and middle class." George Bush/Tom Delay style conservatism is entirely consistent with your "intellectually honest conservatism." Anyone suddenly disappointed in Republicans is like the chump who spent a bunch of money he didn't have on a Lexus. In both cases, the marketing was bullshit from the start.

miasmo.com


[ Parent ]
I'm not saying there was some mythical time (0.00 / 0)
But the reality is that many citizens believe in the conservatism that I'm describing, while simultaneously rejecting authoritarianism.

We have to take these citizens at their word if we want to move the country forward.  You can't accuse fellow voters of being chumps who believe bullshit if you want them to work with you to combat global warming.

And no, the Bush administration is not consistent with the principles I've described.  The size of the deficit.  Free speech zones.  Torture.  Honestly.


[ Parent ]
good cop vs bad cop (4.00 / 1)
But the reality is that many citizens believe in the conservatism that I'm describing, while simultaneously rejecting authoritarianism.

Yes, I mostly agree with that statement. But consider how we got to the point where Republican politicians proudly embrace the conservative label and Democratic politicians avoid the liberal label. It came about by a massive message machine led by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich who relentlessly demonized liberals. There was no coddling and sympathetic validation of "honest liberalism." The closest thing to that was Limbaugh's faux excuse for liberals, saying that their problem is that they feel instead of think. The real message was that liberals were a bunch of irrational overly emotional sissies.

You can play good cop if you want to, but we know from experience that bad cop works. My personal opinion is that politically (not necessarily personally) conservatives are either chumps, whores, or assholes or some combination thereof. I'm not going to censor myself online. Offline, I have many conservative friends who are nice people and are not stupid. I'm not going to call them a chump. But online, or on the radio or on TV or in a newspaper editorial, I don't see a strategic benefit of liberals giving conservatism more credit than it deserves.

miasmo.com


[ Parent ]
Up to you (4.00 / 1)
I draw a distinction between conservatism and authoritarianism, and you don't.

I object somewhat "you can play good cop if you want to" because it's not like I'm being disingenuous, or keeping up appearances.  This really is what I think.  But that's alright, we can agree to disagree, and I appreciate your civility all the more because you're obviously pretty passionate on this subject.  Have a good one.


[ Parent ]
You Have A Point Miasmo (4.00 / 2)
But so does TValley.

You're both talking about some-but-not-all conservatives.

The point is, political ideology has many different factors contributing to it.

For example, while authoritarianism is a major compontent contributing to conservatism, it's also embraced for the simplicity of its answers.  People with lower tolerance for ambiguity and complexity are drawn to it, whether they are authoritarians or not.  And such people may need the contradictions to become much more glaring before they notice them than you or I would.

We noticed the contradictions from the get-go.  But we're naturally more inquisitive, more questioning.  These are traits that correlated more with being liberal or leftist.

Conservatives are never going to make a place for us.  It's not their nature.  But is our nature to make a place for others who differ from us.  Which, like it or not, includes conservatives.

The challenge is how to do this without, you know, sealing the fate of the human race.  My suggestion is that we look at how we can articulate a modus vivendi that doesn't tie our hands.

This does not mean "meeting them halfway," nor does it mean accepting their frames, or playing kissy face with their authoritarian leaders.  But it does mean doing things like pointing out how various liberal policies and instutions have produced the sorts of things that conservatives say they value.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Dude, I'm Just Being Nuanced! (4.00 / 1)
"Conservatism" as a movement may have goals, and I myself have repeatedly referred to Phil Agre's essay, "What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?" to make the very point that you state here.  In fact, when I brought this Glenn Greenwald's attention back in early 2006, he dismissed Agre as a partisan hack (not the exact phrase, but close enough). Over time, of course, Glenn changed his mind.

But there was a good reason for Glenn's original rejection of my thesis (even if there was a better reason to change his mind), and that's what I was getting at above.  It's part of the curse of being a liberal--even worse, a left-liberal like myself--that one cannot escape seeing the complexity in things.

I believe it is equally important to see conservatism from both perspectives--to be absolutely clear about its authoritarian core, and sensitive to how it also involves other factors that need to be taken seriously on their own, despite the fact that they are not taken seriously by movement conservatives themselves.

Part of the reason for this is that there are some things conservatives claim to want and value that liberalism does a much better job of delivering.  (Like, say, economic growth!) And I think it's imperative that we recognize there are powerful arguments to be made along these lines.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Liberals defending conservatism... (0.00 / 0)
is one of my buttons. It just sets me off. I am not familiar with Agre. I will check out the link. Thanks.

miasmo.com

[ Parent ]
Okay, I have read (0.00 / 0)
the Agre essay before. Needless to say, I totally agree with it. When I read it the first time, it was preaching to the choir.

miasmo.com

[ Parent ]
I Understand (4.00 / 1)
Believe me, I do.

But liberals really don't have to give an inch to make the case that they are better "conservatives" than conservatives are in a number of ways.  And that's not an argument we can even begin to make if we only see the authoritarian core.

For example, take the conservative values of social order and cultural continuity.  It was actually the liberal idea of religious tolerance, followed by the idea of separation of church and state, that made it possible to put the turmoil of the wars of the Reformation behind us--and that allowed us to live through great changes in religious orientations without necessitating radical breaks with our past in government as well.

Contrary to movement conservative propaganda, liberal multiculturalism--going all the way back to embracing Irish immigrants in the mid-1800s--has been a tremendous stabilizing force in our society.  Welcoming new immigrants and their cultures into ours has made our country stronger and more resilient over the generations.  This is exactly what movement conservatives have claimed they could deliver by attacking "unsavory" elements--but they have been wrong again and again and again.  Their hostility has only contributed to the very social chaos, divisiveness and loss of historical continuiity they claim to be fighting against.

They're no better at fighting for these cherished "conservative" values than they are at fighting terrorism.

To me, this represents a powerful and promising line of attack.  And it requires a more nuanced view of conservatism to grasp its potential, and to begin realizing it.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Great examples. (4.00 / 1)
Your examples reinforce my argument that what I call conservative marketing has little to do with real conservatism as a vector that moves society in a certain direction. It seems we both would like to get conservatives to see the disconnect between the reality and the marketing of conservatism so that some of them will reject it. We are both getting at the same point from a different angle. The difference seems to be whether you choose to associate the word "conservative" with what it says or what it does. I think that, without abandoning my basic rhetorical framework on this, I could see myself incorporating some of your examples and framing into an argument with a conservative. Thanks for the ammo.

miasmo.com

[ Parent ]
No One Right Way? (4.00 / 1)
Yeah, I'm not sure there is one right way to go about this. For now, at least, it seems best to let folks use whatever approach they're most comfortable with, and just share ideas, the way we've been doing here.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
This is why net neutrality is so important. (4.00 / 1)
Many right-wing corporate powers would love nothing more than to shut down this low-cost form of communication (both to silence liberals and make more money at the same time).

"The lightning whelk is strong, attractive, capable of growing to be one of the largest shells on the beach--and it opens to the left."

The Narrative Angle Is Key (4.00 / 5)
The late media activist/scholar George Gerbner, used to harp on how incredibly anamolous our corporate media culture was in terms of human history, how strange and destructive it was to have storytelling in the hands of people who had products to sell, rather than stories to tell.  What we're seeing here on the internets is, basically, a return to normal for the human race.  

And, of course, "normal" means that not everyone is going to play along with the emperor's new clothes.  In fact, if you de-privilege the courtiers, the vast majority of folks aren't going to play along.

That's what's starting to happen.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


"if you de-privilege the courtiers" (4.00 / 1)
Exactly.

Why is it liberals who are doing that better than anyone right now?

Because the pre-internet balance of liberal vs conservative was dependent on a monopoly of communications by big corporations. The end of that monopoly would inevitably change that balance in favor of liberals.

miasmo.com


[ Parent ]
Low entry (and exit) barriers (0.00 / 0)
make it more difficult to create a cohesive movement.

The web is by nature fractious and tribal.  By its nature it can't be a "movement" or sustain a movement.  It splinters in an instant, among bands of partisans who have no social connection to one another, and no reason to pay one another respect.  The Clinton-Obama rift is only the beginning.

The net isn't fundamentally progressive.  The first successful political blog was freerepublic.  Then, since the Bush administration has been such a disaster, the liberal web arose because the conservatives had no momentum.  Anyone with an axe to grind, from stormfront to the world socialists, can and do create web communities .  The current dominance of liberals is largely an historical accident, exactly what one would expect at the tail end of one of the most dismal Presidencies on record.

Although the web may be, for the time being, anti-corporate, it is far from anti-elitist.  It is the domain of educated people with time on their hands.  It excludes large groups - older people, the less educated, immigrants, etc.  

The low entry barriers are temporary.  Nothing can accelerate a web presence like money.  The web does raise money, but generally only with those who have capital to invest.  It would be interesting to know exactly what Clinton, Obama, and Moveon spend monthly on web marketing, web design, etc.  



Remember when TV was invented? (4.00 / 1)
Well, me neither but I've heard stories. I've seen movies.

Anyway, it was originally a toy for rich people. People used to stand in front of TVs in storefronts to watch them. If one person in a neighborhood had one, the whole neighborhood would come to their house to watch it.

And now? Everybody has them, except, paradoxically, a handful of the rich who are too cool for it. TV is no longer a medium for the elite, it has become the ultimate in mass communication. And it only took, what, about forty years?

The internet will make the exact same journey, in probably less than half the time.

And the low barriers to entry are exactly what the net neutrality fight is about. The elite would like to take control of the internet, but we don't have to let them.

Montani semper liberi


[ Parent ]
Model UN (0.00 / 0)
This is like model UN, only it's not a model, and it's not super-lame.

I'm sorry, but an international crisis isn't truly a crisis until someone's stuffed pet monkey is kidnapped.


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