Saturday, May 05, 2007

Jonathan Chait on Netroots

Jonathan Chait has written a long and interesting piece on the meaning of the "netroots", that part of the liberal/progressive blogosphere which focuses explicitly on electoral politics and the support of Democratic candidates. The piece came out in the New Republic some time ago and many bloggers and journalists have responded to it already. This means that I am, as usual, either too early or too late. But I didn't feel like writing about it until I knew what my thoughts were.

Chait's article has several different themes, all intertwined with each other, but his basic assertion is that the progressive netroots are the equivalent of the wingnut media machinery: an attempt to create political propaganda and to make the left walk in step, the same way the wingnuts do. Hut, hut.

This was a necessary development, according to Chait:

It has taken an abnormally long time for this message machine to come into existence. In the decades after World War II, the news media evolved a strong professional standard of nonpartisanship. Network news broadcasts faced little financial pressure, and newspapers--fattened up by advertising monopolies--followed the dictates of their professional values rather than the demands of the market. They maintained costly bureaus in Washington and abroad, and their ideology was mostly high-minded establishment centrism.

The first outlets to break away from this news oligarchy all sprang up on the right--talk radio, Fox News, the Drudge Report. Such partisan outlets did a brilliant job of injecting pro-Republican stories and ideas into the mainstream public discourse, using classic propaganda techniques, endlessly repeating ideas, phrases, and images that helped their side with little regard for truth or intellectual consistency. During the '90s and the outset of the Bush years, this was the landscape: a large mainstream media, with a social liberal bias mostly buried beneath studious nonpartisanship, and a wildly partisan conservative media. All the pressure on the mainstream media came from the right. Even liberal opinion journalists, in this unbalanced world, felt obliged to demonstrate their nonpartisanship.

That is it, pretty much. If you were a journalist who got attacked all the time for being a liberal and never attacked for being a conservative, how would you write? Whom would you fear? And which readers and citizens do you think might start getting a little bit angry as a consequence? Which stories would be put on page eighteen in the newspaper and which ones on the front page?

There are two subplots Chait weaves into his analysis with which I disagree. The first one has to do with his ideas of the political center, the moderate middle. The mushy middle, if you like, and it can be called mushy in the kind of world the previous quote outlined. What happens to the political center when the right pulls and pulls and yells and yells and the liberal pundits say "On the one hand...yet on the other hand...and on the third hand..."? It moves to the right, inch by inch, day by day until Attila the Hun is the human rights secretary.

It isn't that Chait doesn't see this. He does, and writes as much. But he doesn't appear to notice that the way this center is defined leaves only a few "nonpartisan" liberal commentators in it. The task of the netroots is to tug the rope from the other end when the wingnuts pull it from the other end. A country which uses "liberal" as equal to "Maoist" needs such an adjustment. A country which engages in just writing down what the wingnuts say and then reporting it without any other evidence needs such an adjustment.

The second subplot with which I disagree has to do with Chait's views on netroots as not caring about truth:

The notion that political punditry ought to, or even can, be constrained by intellectual honesty is deeply alien to the netroots. They have absorbed essentially the same critique of the intelligentsia that the right has been making for decades. In the conservative imagination, journalists, academics, and technocrats are liberal ideologues masquerading as dispassionate professionals. Those who claim to be detached from the political struggle are unaware of their biases, or hiding them.

Norquist once said something to me that gave perfect expression to this view. During the 2000 campaign, the two of us were making small talk before we were set to debate, and he offered that the event would be clarifying for his team as well as for my team. I replied that, while I certainly have strong opinions, I wasn't working for any "team." Norquist smiled at me in a slightly condescending way and said, "Sometimes, we're on a team and we don't realize it."

This is more or less the same view of the netroots. They attack liberals who, in their fervor to be seen as fair-minded, bend over backward so far that they do violence to truth. And they are quite right to do so. But the netroots critique is not that the liberal intelligentsia has stretched the conception of fairness too far; it is that the conception of fairness itself is folly. Any sense of detachment from the partisan fray is impossible.


This ethos helps explain the enormous distrust between the netroots and the traditional liberal intelligentsia. (Or, as Black put it, the "incredible gap between those who see the debate as a kind of game and those who, you know, actually give a shit about stuff.") Part of it is the slight whiff of anti-intellectualism in some quarters of the netroots. (Moulitsas, echoing Black's thoughts, suggested that "intellectuals' who'd rather read books and measure purity are next-to-useless. I prefer people of action, not of [sic] elitist academics.") The prevailing sentiment here, however, is not a distrust of pointy heads. Rather, it's a belief that political discourse ought to be judged solely by its real-world effects. The netroots consider the notion of pursuing truth for its own sake nonsensical. Their interest in ideas, and facts, is purely instrumental.

I could write a very long post on "truth" and its various meanings and whether one can be a detached observer of politics without also coming from some other planet. Then I could write another very long post on why it would be, nevertheless, important to try to be as objective as one can. But instead of all that let me just point out that I cannot see how a political idea could ever be judged without including its real-world consequences as an essential part of the whole idea. Chait isn't arguing against that, of course. What he argues is that the consequences are all the netroots care about. I don't think this is actually true, but if it were would it be any worse than the alternative he appears to recommend which is "to hell with the consequences"?

There are millions of blogs and many of them might be regarded as a part of the netroots. It's not possible to say that all of them are propaganda or that all of them are earnest hunters of truth or any such thing. But an important aspect of many liberal and progressive blogs is a certain type of hunt for truths: They pick up stories and interpretations of stories that the mainstream press ignores and they then frontpage them. That these stories are buried in the traditional media may be unintended or it may be purposeful. If the latter, the blogs would appear to be biased in promoting these stories, but the initial bias might in fact be in the way they were buried.

I kept feeling that I wasn't getting Chait's point about the nonpartisan truth completely. Reading a follow-up story of his made all much clearer. In this quote he responds to Matthew Yglesias:

There are three possible stances to take. One is that you should go out of your way to highlight your disagreements with the left, to show your independence. Another is that you should go out of your way to minimize your disagreements with the left, in order to avoid adverse political effects. The third is that you try to ignore the political effects and just say what you think. He explicitly renounces options number one and number three.

Put this into a wider perspective in which the pundits of the right never criticize the right. If liberal pundits are expected to "highlight" their disagreements with the extreme left (is there such a thing?), say, what will the overall impression be? What will the readers of opinion columns come away with?

This doesn't mean that I advocate avoiding the criticism of the left. I'm all for it, especially as soon as the left is in power and can actually affect our lives. But given the current setup of the media with its openly partisan conservative wing all criticisms of the left will have a ready-made echo chamber. Criticisms of the right do not. Something to take into account before one "just says what one thinks."