Is the progressive blogosphere dead?

UPDATE (10/29/13): The progressive community is abuzz about a pair of posts from Ian Welsh and Jerome Armstrong about the “Failure of the Netroots.” My view is that Ian and Jerome are reflecting deep, often unspoken dismay among some progressives that the Obama presidency has been a disaster for their cause. Some of the most egregious national security practices and civil liberties violations of the Bush era have been expanded and enhanced under Obama, negating years of tireless, thankless activism by the netroots against the Bush-Cheney agenda.

Following is a post I wrote in response to a 2012 Daily Beast article about the decline of the liberal blogosphere which tracks some of the arguments made by Ian and Jerome. Note my (pre-Snowden) comments about Glenn Greenwald and my prediction that bloggers like Glenn would be among those who “help shape the national debate” in the years to come…

In 2005, I wrote “THE TRIANGLE: Limits of Blog Power,” about the power (and occasional powerlessness) of progressive blogs. Seven years later, the questions remain the same and the Daily Beast’s David Freedlander writes about the perceived decline of the liberal blogosphere, igniting a spirited debate among bloggers.

Jane Hamsher: “Pam has already touched on David Freedlander’s piece about the decline of independent blogs 10 years down the road.  There are many things that are true in his long piece, but he somehow doesn’t manage to ask the rather obvious question — where’s the money? …The reason increasing numbers of blogs can’t keep the lights on is simple –  Google.  As I wrote on Bytegeist recently, news advertising revenues (both online and off) have tanked since 2000, and that money is going straight to Google, who passes pennies on to news outlets for every dollar they receive.”

Susie Madrak: ” As Jane Hamsher points out, we lost revenue over Google ad practices. (Not to mention the Obama campaign’s refusal to buy ads directly from blogs. Guess they showed us, huh?) But I liked Pam Spaulding’s take best. Like me, Pam is just trying to stay afloat with her health problems…”

Pam Spaulding: “It’s not that independent political blogging is toast — after all the longevity of a blog post in the historical record far outweighs a short message on social media. A blog essay has more lasting influence; the problem is independent blogs don’t have sufficient value in today’s commercial space to sustain their existence —  save for the lucky few people who have been able to monetize (or fundraise) for theirs to continue to exist.”

Raven Brooks: “The dynamics of the Netroots may have changed since its beginnings in 2004, but the influence has grown. Freedlander’s premise that people of influence dismiss progressive bloggers is simply not true. Not a day goes by without a staffer, candidate or elected official asking for advice on how to reach bloggers–and get money and support from their readers.”

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Is it time to divorce the progressive movement from the Obama presidency — and can a primary challenge succeed?

NOTE: The title of this post reflects a question that is being posed by opinion-makers on the left. It is not intended to advocate for or against a primary challenge to Obama.

As disappointments rack up (the latest here, here, here and here) and the ever-growing stream of anti-Obama criticism from the left continues unabated, talk of a primary challenge now permeates progressive circles.

From blogs to Twitter and other online discussion forums, a fundamental question is being asked: is it time to divorce the progressive movement from the Obama presidency?

To some, the answer seems obvious: the White House has already separated itself from the left; all that remains is for the left to sign the divorce papers.

To others, talk of a primary challenge in 2012 is absurd. History shows that not only do they not succeed, but these quixotic quests can hobble the candidate in the general election.

Still others say that because President Obama is the figurehead of progressives (whether he likes it or not), even a futile challenge sends a message to America that the Obama presidency does not represent the objectives, policies, hopes and dreams of the left. The point is that because the rightwing noise machine has effectively portrayed Obama as a raging liberal, his failure to actually be one creates a dissonance that will damage the left for years, perhaps decades to come. A good number of progressives simply want to pull Obama to the left and see a primary challenge – or the threat of one – as an effective way to do it.

Skeptics and Obama supporters shrug this off as idle chatter, pointing out that the vast majority of rank and file Democrats and liberals still support the president and have no interest in opposing him.

Recent polling, however, puts some weight behind the notion that Obama could face trouble from the left in 2012:

Democratic voters are closely divided over whether President Barack Obama should be challenged within the party for a second term in 2012, an Associated Press-Knowledge Networks Poll finds. Among Democrats, 47 percent say Obama should be challenged for the 2012 nomination and 51 percent say he should not be opposed.

Despite all this, and even among strong advocates, the consensus seems to be that a credible primary challenge is wishful thinking.

But I wonder if they are factoring in the media’s hunger for a ratings-boosting 2008 redux, a bruising primary battle that can be covered like a 24/7 cage-fight. I suspect they’re not. If the media and online commentariat want a Democratic primary fight and a candidate steps forward with a modicum of legitimacy, Obama will have a serious fight on his hands.

The new Obama fault line on the left: ‘He’s a closet Republican’ vs. ‘He’s an inept Dem’

Paul Krugman is getting lots of attention for a scathing piece that concludes:

Whatever is going on inside the White House, from the outside it looks like moral collapse — a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction.

Interestingly, Krugman is on the forgiving side of a new divide on the left over President Obama.

Here’s what I mean: For some time, the basic division over Obama on the opinion-making left  was between those who argued that he had accomplished much considering the obstacles and those who believed he was selling out progressive principles out of a misguided desire for bipartisanship.

Today, the predominant rift appears to be between those who believe he is selling out progressive principles out of a misguided desire for bipartisanship and those who say that he is actually getting the policies he wants, i.e. that he is perfectly comfortable ditching progressive principles because he doesn’t believe in them.

Proponents of the latter view have new ammunition with a story making the rounds about Obama’s private self-assessment:

Privately, Mr. Obama has described himself, at times, as essentially a Blue Dog Democrat, referring to the shrinking caucus of fiscally conservative members of the party.

Whichever position wins out, one thing is for certain: Obama has lost the left’s opinion-making machinery. Of course, some would say that’s exactly what he wants.

The definitive take on the progressive critique of Obama

In the cacophony that constitutes our national debate, an article or opinion piece will emerge that encapsulates an entire debate. This piece, by David Dayen, does just that, perfectly articulating the need and the rationale for a progressive critique of the Obama administration:

Liberals are neurotic creatures. We tend to treat pressing global problems, small swings in the political dynamic, and minor differences of opinion among like-minded colleagues as if all were of equal world-historical importance. And so we come to believe that a blog post criticizing the President will do as much harm to progressive politics as a 9.5 percent unemployment rate; that catastrophic climate change is as consequential as a comment thread about Rahm Emanuel; and that a guy with a sign at an anti-war rally is as worthy of attention as the health-care crisis.

Some progressives, appalled by internecine warfare, believe that for the left to succeed, its members must band together and support the current Democratic President and Democratic Congress through all their compromises and concessions. These progressives urge their brethren to accept that which exists in the realm of the achievable, and form a united front against a pernicious conservative/corporate behemoth that can sniff out weakness and division, and use its massive resources and decades of cultural indoctrination to extinguish any hope for a progressive renaissance.

While this approach is not entirely wrong, it is deeply problematic. It assumes that unity of effort has animated political change over time. But history teaches us otherwise. In fact, what successful progressive movement politics has done over the decades is agitate, dissent, disrespect, and censure, until the forces arrayed against reform fold. Not everyone on the left has to join in this agitation–but some must. As American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) founder Roger Baldwin said, “So long as we have enough people in this country willing to fight for their rights, we’ll be called a democracy.”

…Ultimately, progressive “despair”… represents more than the smug carping of dilettantes who would rather take down a presidency so they can prove the correctness of their own nihilism. There’s some of that, of course. But progressive critics of the President are working to figure out the choke points in our busted democracy, and either leverage or fix them to achieve goals in which they truly believe. They also mean to present an argument for a grander progressive vision that can endure over time, through the next president and the one after that. They have yet to succeed, but they have no choice but to try.

David is exactly right.

I’ve written about the cold civil war on the left:

There is a civil war on the left over Barack Obama. The fault lines are jagged, and depending on the issue, porous, but broadly, the split is along two fronts:

Those who believe that critiquing — and occasionally opposing — the president on issues such as gay rights, civil liberties and national security is healthy and necessary and those who believe that Obama’s progressive critics are going too far, reinforcing rightwing attacks and undermining his presidency.

Those who argue that an incremental approach is the best we can hope for and that Obama’s list of accomplishments is impressive and those who say that in the long run, watered-down legislation, half measures and empty ‘bipartisanship’ are worse for America (and the Democratic Party).

Critics of this White House should acknowledge some impressive legislative accomplishments. But at heart, the fundamental demand progressives are making is that elected officials adhere to core principles. Without that, we are completely adrift.

Agitating for change doesn’t stop based on the party in power, it is motivated by real world problems. Ignoring those problems out of a misguided sense of loyalty is a path to despair. We’re seeing it play out now.

The fierce urgency of defending Obama — against the left

As a lifelong Democrat and progressive activist, I’ve spent years going after Republicans and conservatives. I worked for John Kerry and went head to head with my counterparts on the Bush team. I marched in countless anti-war protests and incurred the wrath of the 101st Fighting Keyboarders. I’ve canvassed door to door for environmental groups and had doors slammed in my treehugging face. I’ve engaged in flame wars in conservative forums. I’ve blogged since the beginning of blogs, attacking Hannity, Coulter, Limbaugh, Savage, O’Reilly.

But never have I seen a more fierce reaction than from fellow Democrats when I criticize President Obama. It is a visceral anger, deeply personal, and sadly, it is directed at progressives who set party aside and critique the White House on principle.

I’ve finally realized the crux of the problem: it’s that many of Obama’s defenders are ignoring the difference between campaign mode and governance mode. In campaign mode, my job as a Democrat is to cheer my candidate on, to work overtime to get them elected. That’s exactly what I did when my former employer, Hillary Clinton, dropped out of the race and endorsed Obama. I was in constant contact with my friends on Obama’s campaign, helping (informally) with blog outreach and strategy. I did everything I could to help elect him and when all was said and done, here’s what I wrote:

As a Democrat who left one career behind in 2001 and made politics my new one after Bush was elected, who vowed to fight every wrong-headed policy foisted on America by the Bush administration, I feel a profound debt of gratitude to Sen. Obama and his family, his campaign, his tireless and devoted staff, and his volunteers and supporters across the country. As well to Hillary Clinton – who was true to those who respect and love her, proving the detractors wrong and crisscrossing the country on behalf of the Obama-Biden ticket – and to her supporters, volunteers and staffers who joined hands with their primary opponents and worked around the clock to arrive at this amazing day.

…What I didn’t yet know was how centered, thoughtful and disciplined Sen. Obama would prove to be in the fierce storm of a presidential election, competing with two formidable opponents. As others have noted, it augurs well for his presidency (should tonight’s results turn out as anticipated). Most importantly, I couldn’t possibly know the stamina and dedication of his strategists, staff, volunteers, donors and supporters, who are poised to finally slay the dragons that defeated Gore and Kerry.

So today, as I vote for President Obama, with history at my fingertips, I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who worked so damn hard to elect him and Democrats across the nation.

On the day he took office, I switched from campaign cheering mode to fulfilling Obama’s request that we “hold him accountable.” I take those words and that duty seriously. It’s my job as a citizen. Since 2008, I’ve used the written word to tug at the administration from the left.

I truly respect and admire Obama. I’ve worked in past campaigns with a number of his staffers. I know they are good and decent people trying to improve their country and working tirelessly under extreme stress. There’s no denying that they’ve racked up an impressive list of accomplishments and they deserve credit for it. But that doesn’t mean I should set aside the things I’ve fought for my entire adult life. It doesn’t mean I should stay silent if I think the White House could do a better job promoting a progressive vision. And it doesn’t mean I should stand aside if I think mistakes are being made. Sure, I’m just one individual with an opinion, but why the fierce urgency of defending Obama whenever I express it?

The glaringly simple formula for rightwing dominance of our national debate

There is a simple formula for rightwing dominance of our national debate, even when Democrats are in charge: move the conversation as extreme right as possible, then compromise toward the far right. Negotiation 101.

Here’s how John Boehner does it:

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) will call Tuesday for the mass firing of the Obama administration’s economic team, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House adviser Larry Summers, arguing that November’s midterm elections are shaping up as a referendum on sustained unemployment across the nation and saying the “writing is on the wall.”

In one fell swoop, this becomes the starting point of a conversation. For Democrats it would be an end point — if they ever reached it.

It’s no accident that in 21st century America, torture has been mainstreamed; climate denial has taken firm hold; book burning, racial dog whistles and brazen religious intolerance are part of our discourse and par for the course. This is how the right plays the game, using Limbaugh, Hannity, Fox, Drudge, blogs, chain emails, talk radio, etc. to shamelessly and defiantly drag the conversation as far right as possible. And Republican elected officials are willing to take the heat to play the game as well, saying things no Democrat would be willing to say.

This is the reason the left is furious: when progressive positions are unnecessarily bargained away, Democrats are ceding the leverage that would move the national debate back to the center. After all, the counterweight to the right is not the mushy middle, it’s the principled left.

Progressive activists don’t expect a single payer health care system, bringing all Bush warmongers to justice, ending the looting of the poor by the ultra-rich, revitalizing the environmental movement, undoing Bush-Cheney’s executive power excesses, bringing about true social justice and stopping needless wars. No. They’re far more jaded and pragmatic than anyone admits. But at least make those the debate points rather than ditch them unilaterally.

Democrats run away from the left while Republican run to the right. The net effect is that the media end up reporting far right positions as though they were mainstream and reporting liberal positions as though they were heinous aberrations. And you wonder why America is veering off the rails?