Armstrong and Zúniga characterize the party's coalition structure as more of a "gaggle" of single-issue constituency groups than a coherent movement. Primary campaigns are dominated by "single-issue dogmatists" who place "too much emphasis on what the party can do for them and not enough on what they can do for the party."
This charge is leveled against environmentalists, labor unions and even the dejected prochoice organizations that just lost two Supreme Court confirmation battles. Channeling Hillary Clinton, the authors call on Democrats to simultaneously protect legal abortion and "acknowledge that abortions represent a failure" requiring "viscerally disturbing procedures." Since so few Democratic leaders publicly challenge the prochoice movement's strategy, even when it fails, this argument is constructive.
Yet many people will resent being told to soften their language in defense of a fundamental and constitutional right. While it is hard to prove which language is most persuasive, Crashing the Gate also makes a compelling case that single-issue groups' purist demands on Democratic candidates have a tendency to backfire, sidelining viable progressive candidates and insuring Republican victories.
The authors tout this "netroots" success as a sustainable way to engage more supporters and liberate the party from moneyed interests, but they also deliver a stern warning for the establishment: Donations will evaporate if Democrats continue to hire worthless consultants, shirk accountability and lose elections. In this model, netroots activists and grassroots donors are essentially shareholders--they demand transparency, accountability and decent returns on their investments.
Some have criticized bloggers like Zúniga for concentrating on money and strategy at the expense of public policy; a recent Washington Monthly profile even belittled his "obsession with tactics" over ideology. But such criticism ignores the civic benefits of the new fundraising landscape. Democracy functions better when donors push politicians to win campaigns based on their defining issues, instead of using financial pressure for policy changes, favors or special access. Unlike traditional mega-donors, most of the netroots activists ask very little for their donations. Many have no business interests, they don't want special access and they could care less about photos from a ballroom fundraiser. They just don't want their money wasted.
Armstrong and Zúniga call on activists to challenge political and media elites and demand the Democratic Party purge its well-connected loser consultants. These steps will, in turn, create opportunities to develop the intellectual and communications infrastructure to compete with the conservative machine. They note much of this work must happen offline, in the real world, but the netroots are an integral part of the game plan.
Their plan is not unrealistic; no serious political initiative would launch today without a strategy for online fundraising, blog engagement and netroots activist recruitment. But technological advances are not inherently empowering, progressive or egalitarian. Much of the online audience is richer, more educated and less diverse than the rest of America, according to an October 2005 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Crashing the Gate does not sufficiently acknowledge these inequities in technological access, or explain how they can distort online opinion and activism. Progressive bloggers should not only write on behalf of the members of America's underclass but also empower them to join the discussion.
In the end, Armstrong and Zúniga have written the rare polemic that focuses more on fostering innovation than defending a particular worldview. They decline to outline a progressive policy agenda and humbly reject attempts to anoint themselves leaders of their website communities, let alone the netroots. Instead, they are trying to develop a decentralized progressive movement that draws strength from its members and has no traditional leaders to be co-opted. It is an admirable vision of "people-powered politics," and one that the Democratic Party sorely needs."
Howie question: Without "leadership," how the hell do we kick the crooks and liars out with this "decentralized progressive movement"?