Sunday, September 16, 2007

Matt Bai, The Argument, and Ideas

To be more specific, the Dems' lack of 'em. Yes, I just finished Matt Bai's The Argument, and the titles was a little deceptive: it might just as well been called "ideas", because that was the crux of the book. To be specific, the point was that the "progressive" movement lacks them: while there are policies and tactics and strategies and whatnot, there are no unifying ideas, ideals, and ideologies to bring things together. He pointed out how influential Hayek's Road to Surfdom was to the Republicans, and noted that no book was anywhere near as influential; the closest was Lakoff's book on framing, which is a tactical reference more than anything else.

(I've read Lakoff, and while I thought he had a lot to say about Republicans' "strict father" frame, he fell down when trying to describe liberalism as "nurturing parentage". Not only does that subconsciously buy into the Republicans' framing by embracing the "mommy" role in all but name, but it bears little resemblance to any liberal philosophy I've ever read.)

He examined all sides of the "argument".

He looked at the "Democratic Alliance", a highly secretive group of liberal-leaning investors which tried to replicate the success of the Republican machine, but fell apart because there were no guiding ideas or frameworks to govern their giving, so they fell back on the very kind of market-driven evaluation that doesn't really work in this context. This really grabbed me; I've been railing about this for a while, and was surprised to learn that it's not so much that such investors don't exist, but that they were mostly dysfunctional.

He looked at the Democratic Party, which has (as many people have pointed out, including myself) gotten so wrapped up in preparing the tactics for their next election and defending the ideas of the past that they've lost sight of the present or the future; that there's nothing new coming out of it, when liberalism should be the engine of progress and growth.

And, of course, he looked at the bloggers. I'll be honest: I wasn't expecting it to be as damning as it was. His primary subjects were Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong, and what was principally notable about the book was that Markos nor Jerome seemed to neither have underlying ideas or philosophy supporting their tactical notions, but that they didn't even seem to care. Bai kept on describing incident after incident where Kos and Jerome seemed completely clueless about important progressive books and important progressive thinkers; they were the embodiment of Bai's complaint that bloggers seem not to either know nor care what happened before 1998. As a blogger myself, I disagree, I think there's a lot of us who have a wider base of knowledge to draw on... but in terms of the elite bloggers, I think he made a point.

Indeed, my own ruminations about the division within blogging was brought into BRUTAL relief in the book. I had heard things about Townhouse, the exclusive email list populated by the top-tier bloggers, and am well aware of the controversy over Kos supposedly dictating what lower-level bloggers do at the behest of Jerome. What Bai revealed was not that Kos was dictating the actions of bloggers, though- it was that Kos and the other elite bloggers seemed not to really care about them at all. The "blogetariat" are at this point merely a necessary nuisance for the big-tier guys, who are principally concerned with the amount of real-world access that their Internet fame gets them, rather than blogging (or the Internet) as a medium in-and-of itself. They're as intellectually incurious as George W. Bush himself, just angrier.

Bai goes so far as to claim that Kos barely even cares about politics, but mostly cares about the wealth and success that DailyKos and other blogging initiatives can get him. He's supposedly more interested in the sports blogging network he's setting up than the Democratic party at this point.

(The episode where all the bloggers who were critical of Bill Clinton's politics turned into sycophants in his presence was just sort of embarassing.)

Is this all true? Well, assuming Bai isn't lying, it certainly doesn't paint a positive picture, but the basic problem is simple: liberals (screw "progressives", liberalism is nothing to be ashamed of) aren't paying enough attention to building a coherent ideology and developing policies based on that ideology. They're still running willy-nilly from policy to policy, with the only real difference between the "insiders" and "outsiders" being their willingness to work with Republicans instead of antagonize them.

Again, I'm not sure how correct this is. I do think there are bloggers out there who are concerned with building a liberal ideology, and I do think there are Kos diarists like that too. What I think is more important is this idea that the blogging "elite" are not living up to their rarified status, and that those of us who aren't in the Treehouse need to start asking serious questions about just what the hell is going on with those who purport to represent us.

Edit: One thing where Bai seems seriously off-base is his attacks on Democratic "hatred" for Bush. No, it's not just that animating the Democratic base, and it's disingenuous to pretend it is. Among other things, things would be somewhat more coherent. Just look at the anti-Clinton movement. I also don't think that Lieberman got a raw deal, honestly, but that isn't the important part of Bai's book- it's that quest for ideas. Joan Walsh complains that the Democrats' success in 2006 proves that Bai was wrong, and that the Dems are fine without ideas. The latter is an assertion beneath contempt, and the former is addressed in Bai's book: 2006 was a reaction to the Republicans, not an endorsement of the Dems.

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