There is something to be said, good and bad, for bravado, unshakable faith. For sometimes it is warranted, this brazen belief in one’s cause.
Take, for instance, the “netroots” — defined by Daniel Kreiss, an assistant professor of political communication and research methods at UNC-Chapel Hill, as an amalgam of online activists that foisted the prerogative upon itself to mold the Democratic Party. No longer would the party be spineless: It would show up to the electoral fight in the same weight class as the Republicans, who had long schooled their counterparts in the art of narrative-shaping and speaking the loudest in a political shouting match.
The left found some fangs and snarl in the netroots. They sicked an army of bloggers on senate candidates, broadened the Democrats’ gaze to consider a more cogent national platform, took exclusives and not-so-subtle hints from campaign staffers to foment stories that would lionize their preferred candidate or demonize their opponent. It stirred chatter on a nascent medium. It rose the Democrats’ urgent whisper to a formidable yell. And soon they had a chorus of support behind them, shaping traditional media stories when the 6 o’clock news and the AP could no longer ignore the bang and clatter online (Kreiss 199-213). They weren’t a force to be reckoned with so much as they were the prevailing force: The netroots took the windblown Democrats and made them the wind.
While Kreiss’s case studies paint the netroots as indomitable, he doesn’t allow for the alternative: The netroots aren’t infallible. They are vulnerable. They are susceptible, in fact, to alienating the middle, adopting a holier-than-thou tone that repels more than it lures. And, perhaps most important, the netroots can’t alter an election without cajoling the traditional media to propagate its arguments. Its bravado, sometimes, is unfounded.
That’s the emphatic assertion of Eli Sanders, a senior staff writer for the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger. In detailing the repeated electoral shortcomings of Darcy Burner, a congressional candidate in the Seattle area, Sanders proposes in The American Prospect a new lens through which to view the netroots: as influential, yes, but not omnipotent.
Burner, in the eyes of the netroots, embodied The Second Coming. She was everything the netroots desired in a candidate: bright, precocious, unafraid to boast her intellect, oozing with conviction and defiance. Burner knew what the Internet and blogosphere could mean for an upstart candidate, and she was eager to mine the netroots for all of the clout it had to muster (Sanders 24).
In 2006, a groundswell of online support helped Burner — who had never run for office — net the largest share of her district’s vote of any Democratic candidate in history (48.5 percent). Burner still lost to incumbent Dave Reichert (Sanders 23). When she contested the seat again in 2008, the progressive site ActBlue raised $750,000 on Burner’s behalf (Sanders 25). First they had given her a megaphone. Now they had given her a modest war chest. The netroots carried a big stick, and they didn’t speak softly.
Consider Burner’s plan to de-escalate the United States’ presence in Iraq: The plan advocated a substantial troop withdrawal and an unambiguous commitment to diplomacy. Burner’s proposal permeated the Democratic national agenda, prompting dozens of candidates to champion withdrawal and diplomacy — and even compelling Eric Massa, a House candidate from New York, to call and thank Burner for helping him win his election. It was a victory, too, for the netroots: The plan exemplified the ability of the blogosphere to circulate policy goals of a radioactive nature that would give most national party consultants indigestion, but would also galvanize progressives pining for measurable reform (Sanders 24). It is here that the influence of the netroots prevailed. At least for Democrats.
But it wasn’t sunshine and lollipops for all. The netroots placed Burner so firmly in a far-left corner from which she couldn’t extricate herself. Getting photographed in a T-shirt with the Internet- and protest-savvy “</war>” slogan left Democratic bloggers orgasmic. But that left an opening for conservatives, who used the netroots’ foaming-at-the-mouth affinity for Burner to portray her as a radical liberal. Soon they nudged the narrative toward traditional media, which responded in kind with stories in Time magazine and The Seattle Times that suggested bloggers were marooning Burner on a political island that was left of left…of left.
And therein lies the fault within the netroots’ stars.
“When we take on an issue for our agenda,” said DailyKos blogger Joan McCarter, “we can become a liability.”
Their shortcomings appear even more profound when the netroots attempt to anoint candidates. While they fancy themselves as the unofficial vetting committee of office-seekers, bloggers often lead themselves astray with myopia. They are not, it turns out, the preeminent barometer of readiness for public office. “It’s a symptom of their idealism that they can pick someone like Darcy Burner, who’s never run for office, and turn her into a first-tier congressional candidate,” one Democratic consultant told Sanders (25). Their misguided approach extends to their policy, too: The netroots, Sanders writes, often spur a conflation of “populism,” which some sectors of the electorate equate to “radicalism.” It doesn’t have the same appeal to a large swath of voters as it does to Burner and other indoctrinated progressives. In fact, it sometimes spooks voters — and, in so doing, causes the Democrats to squander votes in the middle (Sanders 25). This, coupled with the occasionally arrogant, patronizing discourse of netroots bloggers, leaves liberals with an elitism problem. A liability, even (Sanders 26).
The netroots working in Burner’s corner couldn’t move the show as much as Democratic actors did in Kreiss’s case studies (2006 Connecticut senatorial race, 2008 presidential election, 2010 Arkansas senatorial race). Sanders attributes most of their limitations to their inability to shape the conversation in the traditional media. Reichert emerged mostly unscathed from the campaign as Burner supporters did little to discredit his policies. Instead, they got trumped by a simple TV attack ad that showed Burner incorrectly saying that she had received an economics degree, not a computer science degree, from Harvard (Sanders 26). The ad overwhelmed campaign blather for days. Burner was held to the fire while Reichert skipped toward reelection. No matter how much the netroots kicked and screamed, they couldn’t match the reach of traditional media or shape the narrative: “Even though political blogs are powerful and growing more so all the time,” Sanders writes, “they still are not nearly as influential as a mainstream newspaper article that gets turned into an effective attack ad…” (Sanders 26).
Not so fast: The netroots might have let Burner down, but they’re not always consigned to coach behind the first-class-flying traditional media. George Allen was a presidential nominee frontrunner in August 2006 when he called an Indian American videographer a “macaca” at a campaign event — 400,000 YouTube views in mere weeks and an avalanche of outraged blogs later, Allen lost his election to Democrat Jim Webb by 9,000 votes (Karpf 149-150). Michelle Bachmann was a shoo-in for reelection to Minnesota’s 6th District in October 2010 when she appeared on “Hardball with Chris Matthews” and proposed a formal inquiry into purportedly un-American members of Congress. The echoes of McCarthyism prompted a YouTube video with 200,000 views, widespread discussion in the mainstream media and $800,000 worth of donations in 48 hours to Bachmann’s opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg. The electoral gulf separating the candidates became a narrow pass, and Bachmann withstood a three-week barrage to win by just three percentage points (Karpf 154-156). It is clear, then, that the netroots aren’t powerless: They can control the dialogue in traditional media as effectively as Kreiss suggests.
Yet as Sanders writes, they’re not unassailable.
“Politics is about the exercise of raw power,” Sanders says. “But the Burner campaign’s successes and failures prove that bloggers don’t have it in sufficient quantities — not yet, anyway — to behave as if they can dictate the terms of the debate and to condescend, you-got-punk’d-style, to those they need to persuade. They misunderstand human nature if they think that people will be persuaded after a good talking-down to.”
In other words, lay off the sanctimony. Maybe then, perhaps, will the bravado of the netroots be justified.
Kreiss, Daniel. “Acting In The Public Sphere: The 2008 Obama Campaign’s Strategic Use Of New Media To Shape Narratives Of The Presidential Race.” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change, 33 (2012): 195-224.
Karpf, David. “Macaca Moments Reconsidered: Electoral Panopticon or Netroots Mobilization?” Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 7 (2010): 143-162.
Sanders, Eli. “Anatomy of a Netroots Failure.” The American Prospect, 20.2 (2009: 23-26.