When it comes to politics, I grew up in the progressive blogosphere. (See high school, college (mirror)).
That’s my background, and a large part of my identification. But the blogosphere is dead. Sure, some of the same outlets are around. They’ve even got paid staff and everything. Many bloggers are still blogging. And don’t get me wrong, I read a couple of them even more frequently than I did in the “good old days”.
But it all feels … I dunno. Stale? The moment has passed. And turns out that it was a moment. Or a movement, but it’s all over now and we can’t tell the difference anyways.
A few vignettes:
- When Occupy Wall Street really took off, I was at a conference in D.C. The attendees congratulated themselves on Occupy. They assumed that “we” were ones behind it all. Well, not us exactly, since we were at the conference. But surely “our people” were. Of course. We’re the left, after all. If something happens one of us must’ve been behind it.
- Look at the changing composition of Netroots Nation attendees. First, they were readers, writers, and commenters. Then, bloggers and journalists mostly. Then, bloggers, journalists, and online organizers. Now? It’s a reunion. With “New Media” directors of various center-left organizations hanging out throughout.
- The “progressive wonkosphere” has turned into “Matthew Yglesias presents the amazing Ezra Klein empire.” Plus the worthy academics at Crooked Timber. All whom I read every day, but they’re not part of a movement anymore.
- The last breakout star of the blogosphere was Nate Silver in 2008.
- When Change.org or MoveOn or Salsa changes its model, what happens? There’s a lot of talk, but the discussion is on private email lists. Our technology has regressed.
- Open Left is dead now. Chris has moved to the hot new online tactic du jour – online organizing. Matt’s story can’t be categorized by a sentence. The best of the best of blogging wasn’t good enough for them.
- The hot new left writing is centered around magazines.
- Mike Lux still writes smart, great stuff. His writing is aimed at an audience of fellow organizers, not an audience of bored officeworkers appalled by the House Republican bullshit of the day. But it’s published in the chaotic swirl of the Huffington Post.
Here’s why it was doomed from the start:
In the old days, opposing or replacing Bush Republicansism was The Most Important Thing. So corporate lawyers and lefties banded together to do that. They attacked Team Red using whatever ideological weapons were at hand, and papered over their difference in part by defining themselves through their tools and their enemies.
The failure of street protests against the Iraq War taught them that electoral politics was the true path to change. And if the Democrats were pretty awful, too, the failure of Team Blue was cowardice, which after all is much more excusable than malice.
Think about it. The ideas and critiques coming out of that era were contradictory at times: “We have a problem with neoconservatives running the government.” “The American empire has always been awful” “The Pentagon’s budget is too big and wasteful – so much money is being lost to corruption and waste.” “The Pentagon is awful – so much money is being spent on toppling democracies and propping up dictatorships.” “Our political system is dysfunctional and corrupted by corporate power. Our problems are systemic and entrenched. If 5% more of America votes a particular way, those problem will be fixed.”
Everything was awful. But roughly half the political elite were, broadly speaking, good guys. Looking back, the incoherence is kind of staggering.
Speaking for myself – at the time, I had only been politically conscious in the Bush era. Electing a bunch of Democrats – well, that seemed about as difficult and likely as root and branch reform to the institutions of the State. So why not blur the two in my mind?
When the “good guys” started having the power to do bad things: cue the crackup.
Turns out that the bloggers didn’t all agree, after all. For some, actions that got denunciations of dictatorship and demands for impeachment 4 years ago now brought … not indifference. Just a sort of shifty-eyed acknowledgement that “yes, it’s all bad. But our priorities right now are different.”
I’ll never forgive Obama for lying to us about his plans for FISA and the government power to wiretap. Seems like most people have already forgotten.
Now look at Online Organizing, that other great innovation that was going to save us, the other half of the Netroots Coin. A different but related story is happening there. We let our tools define us, so our conferences became more like trade shows and our friendships became business relationships.
To be sure:
I want to be really clear about this. I love the Netroots and I think there are amazing people doing great stuff. I just don’t think those great people are doing great stuff in the context of the Netroots. The Progressive Blogosphere was like college: awesome time, great friendships, but we’re done. Sure, we can hang out with old friends, and they might be working on similar stuff as they were back then. But naked bonfires in the woods just wouldn’t be the same, the former student president is working for Goldman Sachs, and one of your close friends secretly hated labor unions the whole time.
What we have now and why it matters:
When I bring this up with people, often I get a variation of “Yes, we grew up and professionalized. We’re still friends with a shared background and formative experiences, but we’ve figured out how to get shit done better now”. I believe true, but it’s also not the whole story.
The netroots meant blogging, then also email blasts/petitions/”MoveOn-style online organizing”. They worked really well together. One convinced, the other brought opportunities for action. The withering away of one means that the other has to do too much of the work.
Do you know why the MoveOns of the world didn’t do any pushes around housing justice? A large proportion of their membership have conservative views on “those people” “buying houses they can’t afford”. MoveOn is a great organization with a strong ethos of internal democracy. They can’t force their members to do anything. And blast email isn’t the best way to make a nuanced, convincing argument.
I’m very happy that there’s a new media magazine ecosystem to the left of where the old blogosphere was. Some people (myself) moved there. But a lot moved right, to the MSNBC’s and Huffington Posts of the World. Suddenly those institutions aren’t mocked by liberals — they’re counted *as* liberal. It’s sad. But when you had that shotgun marriage of “shit’s fucked up and bullshit” with “and if a few more Americans are convinced, our new rulers will fix everything”, what did you expect?