If you followed the 2004 election season only on television, you missed out on lots of the good stuff. This was the year the Internet erupted as the outlet for political discourse, and a surprisingly large number of memorable moments came out of the rolling conversation found on the Berkeley-based Weblog DailyKos.com.
When Dick Cheney claimed during the vice-presidential debate that he had not met Senator John Edwards until that evening, a Daily Kos reader unearthed TV footage of the two men together at a 2001 prayer breakfast. Before the debate was even over, the image had been posted on the Daily Kos Web site and disseminated by the Kerry campaign.
Then there was the moment when a Daily Kos reader realized that a Bush ad showing the president speaking to an audience of soldiers had been altered to make it appear that the crowd was full of military personnel. The Bush campaign had to apologize.
And when the Sinclair Broadcast Group announced it would preempt normal television programming to air the anti-Kerry hit piece Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal, it was on Daily Kos that outraged readers first organized a boycott of Sinclair’s advertisers. The company’s stock began to tank, investors complained, and Sinclair ultimately was forced to air a more balanced program instead.
Each time, the Kerry campaign profited without having to lift a finger. Neither, for that matter, did blogger Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the founder of Daily Kos. All he had to do was give people a place to talk.
The meteoric rise of political bloggers during the presidential campaign has sent media types scrambling to parse what it means to have a new army of semiprofessional commentators getting press credentials, covering stories from multiple vantage points and, in many cases, drawing enormous crowds. Prior to the election, a New York Times Magazine cover portraying veteran political journalists R.W. Apple of the Times and Jack Germond of the Baltimore Sun peering over the shoulders of Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox seemed to frame all the tensions created by the rise of this new class of pundit. Did bloggers like Cox and Moulitsas have the credibility of seasoned reporters? Were they even journalists at all, or were they simply journal-keepers? Were they even observers, or merely rabble-rousers with axes to grind?
Several months later, the better question to ask is not how bloggers are changing journalism, but how they’re changing politics.
By the time all the dust from the 2004 election had settled, Moulitsas had had an impressively deep impact on the presidential race for someone whose primary tools are nothing more than an opinion and a laptop. He helped launch Democratic candidate Howard Dean’s Internet strategy, which first thrust both Web-based fund-raising and opposition to the war in Iraq into the middle of the campaign. He also started the Draft Wesley Clark movement, which solidified the importance of both Web and war to the 2004 campaign, and further encouraged Democratic nominee John Kerry to stake out his own tenuous opposition to the war.
And just as Moulitsas became one of the few people to turn blogging into his own primary source of income, he also turned Daily Kos into a formidable generator of money for others. By the end of the 2004 campaign cycle, his readers had donated more than a half million dollars to the “Kos Dozen” — actually, fifteen congressional candidates hand-selected by Moulitsas. Online donors often didn’t even share a home state with the candidates they were funding.
Perhaps the candidacy most emblematic of this new type of political power was that of rookie congressional candidate Jeff Seemann. In April, Moulitsas made a gaffe that accidentally linked his fortunes to those of Seemann. In writing a post about the four civilian contractors who had been brutally killed in Fallujah on March 31, his emotions overshot his sense of diplomacy. “I feel nothing over the death of mercenaries,” he wrote. “Screw them.” The response from the political establishment was immediate. The Kerry campaign delinked from his site. Conservative blogs denounced him as a hatemonger and pressed Democratic candidates who advertised on Daily Kos to withdraw their support. Three of them pulled their ads. Daily Kos readers began to worry that the Web site was toast.
Enter longtime blog reader, Daily Kos regular, and long-shot congressional candidate Seemann, who became the first candidate to place a new ad after the pullout. At that moment, things didn’t look too bright for Seemann’s candidacy. He was an ordinary guy from Canton, Ohio, who had dropped out of college and worked as a disc jockey, sportswriter, and music researcher for Clear Channel Communications. His entry into public life followed an accidental fall that shattered his elbow and taught him that his insurance wouldn’t fully cover his medical bills. When the cost of medical care forced Seemann into bankruptcy, he had a revelation about the shoddy state of American health care. Something needed to be done, he decided, so he ran for the House of Representatives from Ohio’s sixteenth Congressional District. Given that the Republican incumbent, Ralph Regula, had held the district for 32 years, the Democratic Party wasn’t even planning to run anyone for the seat. Regula’s last two challengers hadn’t even raised the $5,000 necessary to file initial Federal Elections Commission reports.
But once Seemann placed his ad on Moulitsas’ Web site, something amazing happened. The Daily Kos community repaid his loyalty by emptying their own wallets. “The place went nuts,” recalls Tim Tagaris, who served as Seemann’s communications director. “Everyone was so worried about Markos. There became this mini-fund-raising drive for Jeff Seemann.”
Seemann’s candidacy became highly Web-powered, supported in large part by donors and volunteers from nowhere near Ohio. A half-dozen staff members, including Tagaris, were hired from connections made on Daily Kos or other blogs. Most of the staff, from the candidate on down, routinely visited the blogs to talk shop and make friends. Tagaris posted drafts of Seemann’s campaign speeches to solicit critiques; one day the campaign even let the community vote on Seemann’s schedule. In the end, Tagaris says, the campaign raised about $60,000, or roughly half of its funding, from Daily Kos readers, and another 35 percent from other Internet sources. Tagaris says Daily Kos “turned a candidate who was destined for anonymity into a viable candidate.”
But even with the help of the Daily Kos community, Seemann did little better than his forebears, garnering only about 33 percent of the vote. In fact, the entire Kos Dozen lost — all fifteen of them. So did Dean. So did Clark. So, of course, did Kerry.
Looking back, the question is not whether blogs like Daily Kos have political power. The question is how should they harness it.
Markos Moulitsas is hard at work stoking the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy. He is doing this while curled up on his sofa, tapping away at a battered silver PowerBook held together with electrical tape and covered in bumper stickers of the “Fuck the Republican Party” variety. It’s a few days after the election so, like most Democrats, he is tired and depressed. But he’s also vibrating like a high-tension wire. In a weird way, he admits, he’s kind of glad that John Kerry lost. It has given him so much more to do.
Moulitsas dreams of a left-wing media empire capable of counteracting the Republicans’ efficient and long-established media machine, filling the space that Rush Limbaugh and his ilk occupy in the life of conservative politics. Although, to be sure, he doesn’t want to replicate the conservative approach to media. On Daily Kos, to be is to disagree: Unlike Rush fans, readers don’t adoringly refer to themselves as “dittoheads.” The charismatic personalities who have emerged as leaders on the site are not inhibited by the unidirectional dialogue of television or radio, where you can hear them, but they can’t hear you. The pundits who hang out on Daily Kos want to be nit-picked, tangled with, and argued down. “I don’t want people to agree with me 100 percent — that scares me,” Moulitsas says. “I have no illusion that I’m any more enlightened than anyone else.”
The Nation cleverly referred to blogs like Daily Kos as “open-source politics,” a spirited discourse to which anyone can contribute. Unlike many blogs, which read like online soliloquies, Daily Kos is an enormous freewheeling political debate with Moulitsas at the center throwing out opinions for people to kick around. It’s as though he had invited all of the country’s progressives to move their coffeeshop conversations to a giant online forum. Anyone can post, and if you have something smart to say, your posts will get noticed. Users can start new threads without interrupting the flow of the original debate, and readers can rate each other’s postings so that the incisive entries get highlighted and the trollish ones sink to the bottom. A half-dozen of the site’s most trusted posters, who rose from the ranks by keeping particularly eloquent diaries, serve as “guest bloggers” who take the lead on posting over the weekends or while Moulitsas is away. It gives him some relief from having to post constantly, but it also has effected a slight diffusion of power and a feeling that it’s the community, not him, that sets the agenda.
Daily Kos isn’t the only well-known partisan blog, of course. But its status as one of the nation’s most-read Web sites is way more impressive once you realize there are nearly five million blogs out there. At the height of campaign season, Daily Kos was scoring more than six hundred thousand visits a day, and Moulitsas had gone from operating one server over the summer to running eight very maxed-out servers on election night. Among political blogs, Daily Kos ranked second only to the Drudge Report in terms of site traffic; blog search engine Technorati currently ranks it #8 overall in link popularity. As a measure of the site’s status, during the election season, Daily Kos content was cited by other bloggers approximately as often as content from the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, USA Today, and ABC News. Moulitsas was getting namechecked by everyone from The Onion to Tom DeLay.
Physically, Moulitsas lives in a small cottage in Berkeley with his wife, their toddler son, a multitude of Apple computer products, guitars, wonkish books, and a bike he never has time to ride. In every other respect, he exists on his blog, which he uses to record his thoughts on the state of the nation and to converse with an army of readers who look to him for political insight.
The 33-year-old Moulitsas can be an incisive and sometimes biting critic of his own party, but he also has a vision for how to rebuild it. If you want a nation of progressives to hammer out the sort of unified party message that wins elections, he says, there’s only one way to do it: You have to let them talk to one another. A lot. No holds barred.
Since so many progressive voters are now willing to get active in revolutionary new ways, Moulitsas believes the Democratic Party needs to become more revolutionary itself. Moulitsas calls himself a “Reform Democrat,” who is proud of his blue beliefs but convinced that after three consecutive electoral defeats the party is in dire need of an adrenaline shot and a message that works. One way that he believes this should happen is by Democrats fielding and funding candidates for every possible race.
But in light of the Kos Dozen’s win-loss record, Moulitsas has had to defend the wisdom of giving seed money to dark-horse challengers in a nation with an almost total reelection rate for incumbents. It has created some tension between him and the Democratic establishment; Moulitsas engaged in a well-publicized shouting match this fall with the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the Boston convention. The DCCC protests that it has only so much money to go around; Moulitsas alleges that the Democrats are putting their money only on safe bets, leaving everyone else to fail.
Some conservative blogs also had a field day with the Kos Dozen’s failure rate, saying that Moulitsas may have learned how to raise money, but not how to pick candidates worthy of being supported with it. “That’s $547,157.97 of donated money, squandered on the basis of mass trust placed in Moulitsas by his readers,” scolded Josh Trevino, one of the founders of Republican blog RedState.org. “The missing element in the Kos Dozen was sound, basic political judgment, informing the decisions of who to fund, and in whom donors could place their trust. … Mastery of the mechanisms of netroots mobilization is a different thing from mastery of the methods.”
Moulitsas counters that each Democratic challenger in a previously uncontested district paves the way for future races. Sooner or later, he says, a challenger will unexpectedly win a seat. And even if they don’t, he is willing to wage a war of attrition in which challengers tax the incumbents’ war chests and tie up their time.
Take the races in which Daily Kos candidates came closest to winning — four of them would have won had thirty thousand votes swung the other way, he says. Moulitsas likes to use the example of Richard Morrison’s race in Texas against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who hadn’t even opened a campaign office since he won his first term twenty years ago, and generally spent election season fund-raising for more-endangered Republicans. “We pinned him down in Texas in his district for the last two months of the campaign,” Moulitsas says. “He had to spend $2 million of his money on himself instead of elsewhere. When we endorsed Richard Morrison, he didn’t have a dime. He had nothing, he was a joke of a candidate, and he was able to take the money we were able to raise and really build a credible campaign that kept DeLay at 55 percent of the vote. The most powerful Republican in the country, second only to George Bush, easily the most powerful Republican legislator — and he could only garner 55 percent of the vote in his own district!”
Daily Kos reader Brody Burks became convinced that the race was important to him because he shared Morrison’s party ideology. “I gave to Richard Morrison until it hurt,” the 23-year-old trademark analyst writes. “At one point, my fiancée admonished me to stop sending him money and pay my own bills.” The thing is, Burks isn’t anywhere near Texas; he lives in Washington, DC. And while out-of-state donations are nothing new to the political process, in the past they’ve mostly been the tool of giant corporations and political action committees, not individual small donors. Kos donors often tagged an extra penny onto their contributions — say, $25.01 — to let campaigns know it came from a blog. “For many years, the conventional wisdom was, ‘All politics is local,'” Burks writes. “That’s still true, but now even local politics is national.”
A Daily Kos candidate came even closer to victory in Colorado’s fourth district House race, where former state Senator Stan Matsunaka was recruited to run against incumbent Marilyn Musgrave. Daily Kos readers contributed $44,000 of Matsunaka’s $600,000 budget, and with the help of a pointed TV ad that portrayed Musgrave picking children’s pockets on the playground and a soldier in Iraq, the race became much tighter than expected. Musgrave had to spend $3 million to defend her job, and the National Republican Congressional Committee supplied another $2 million. In the end, Musgrave won with only 52 percent of the vote.
“Suddenly you had $5 million that could have been spent in a lot of other competitive districts that were spent to defend somebody who should have been an easy victory, somebody who was about to run unopposed,” Moulitsas says. “They had to spend $5 million to basically pull her ass out of the fire. That, to me, is victory. With $50,000 of my community’s money we tied up $5 million of Republican money.” To Moulitsas, the point isn’t that the Kos Dozen lost — the point is that they ran at all.
He is impatient with the Dems’ high-minded approach to politicking; his gut preference is for a bloodier fight. “We’re not going to win by pulling out an encyclopedia and saying ‘No, really, global warming is happening!'” he says firmly. “The conservatives have declared war on liberalism, and we have been treating it like we can appeal to people on the basis of reason, that if they’d just look at information and become educated they will see that it is in their interests to vote Democratic. The other side has been playing on emotions, they have been playing Orwellian tricks on the language!”
He’d like to see progressives make better use of negative campaign ads — he’s convinced Matsunaka could have taken Colorado if there’d been more money to keep running the pickpocket ad — and says that if the party doesn’t want to get its hands dirty funding attack ads, independent campaign committees should do it. He thinks Democrats should try to divide the Republicans on wedge issues like abortion, and drive progressive voters to the polls by running ballot initiatives on lefty issues such as raising the minimum wage. “We need to be down and dirty and absolutely tear them apart,” Moulitsas says. “We have enough ammunition, but we’re always too afraid to take the low road. It’s like we’d rather lose than go down in the gutter with them. Fuck that. Let’s go down in the gutter.”
A good deal of Moulitsas’ political imagery is couched in military terms, very likely because much of his life was shaped by war. Although born in Chicago of a Greek father and Salvadoran mother, when he was four his family moved to his mother’s native country, then in the grip of a brutal civil war. “Here, war is a video game,” Moulitsas says. “I’ve seen firsthand the ravages of war and the hatred, and just the notion that politics can be a life or death issue.”
Moulitsas’ family rented a house belonging to his grandfather that was in the middle of a field in contested territory; rebel troops wanted to use it as a headquarters. When Moulitsas was nine, his parents received an envelope full of photos of him and his brother going to school on the bus. “The message was kind of like, ‘We’re watching you. Get out,'” he says. According to family legend, after the war was over and someone went back to check on the house, it was riddled with bullet holes.
The family retreated to Chicago, where Moulitsas was in for a particularly hideous adolescence. He was a skinny kid who loved computer culture, followed the news assiduously, and was painfully aware of his accent. “I spent a lot of time in libraries,” he says. “I was a definite nerd. I was hopeless. I had no social skills; I barely spoke English. If I was ten, I looked like I was six. I was short for my age, so I was the weird foreign short kid. It was the Army, basically, that gave me the cocky arrogance that I carry these days.”
Moulitsas was indeed an unlikely candidate for military service, entering at age seventeen and all of 118 pounds. He’d figured that if he ever ran for elected office and had to vote for war, he should have done time in the military. Basic training provided Moulitsas with what he describes as the major turning point of his life: a grueling sixteen-mile road march in 100-degree heat. Moulitsas, who is not the sort of guy to do things the easy way, was determined to finish first with the people who were bigger than him. His strategy was to never take a break — when everyone stopped to rest, he’d just keep marching. But finally, toward the end of the trek, fatigue overtook him. Even though he was sure he was far behind, he stopped to rest with the next group of soldiers he saw and, while squeezing the blood out of his socks, learned that he had somehow caught up to the leaders. He was so elated that he refused to surrender his rifle and heavy rucksack for the last two miles when relief trucks came by to pick them up, and ultimately finished the march with the lead group. “I kept thinking, ‘You know what, I can do this — there is nothing that people can throw at me that can ever compare to the pain and the overall horribleness of this experience,'” Moulitsas recalls. “I came out of that day thinking I could conquer the frickin’ world.”
In the Army, he also underwent a political transformation. He went in a hawkish Republican because of Ronald Reagan’s support for the Salvadoran government. He came out a Democrat, having served with people of different races and social classes from all over the United States. After basic training, he was stationed for three years in Germany where he was a LANCE fire direction specialist for a missile unit. He reveled in his reputation as a platoon class clown who was continually reprimanded for his long hair and frequently drug tested for coming home red-eyed after nights partying in German clubs — smoky air doesn’t mix well with contact lenses. He played rhythm guitar and wrote lyrics for a punk band. He inscribed the Bad Religion lyric I want to be a man, but I don’t want to die with a rifle in my hand on his helmet.
It wasn’t a good time to be in the Army and to have ambivalent thoughts about death. The first Gulf War had begun, and the equipment for Moulitsas’ unit had been sent to Saudi Arabia. He was slated to follow — but the war ended before his unit shipped out. “I didn’t even deploy and I had to go through soul-searching and come to terms with my own mortality at the age of nineteen,” he says. “I’d get letters from friends in college saying, ‘We went to this party, blah blah blah,’ and I’d be like, ‘Who gives a flying fuck? I could be dead next week.'”
Instead, Moulitsas finished his military service and went off to college as well. He entered Northern Illinois University planning to study music — in addition to his punker career, Moulitsas is also a classically trained pianist who had hoped to make a living composing film scores. But fate intervened again when a columnist at the school paper wrote something nasty about Mexican-American students. “There was a big protest and all the ethnic groups stormed the paper and they burned the copies of the newspaper,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘This paper’s kind of a piece of shit, but this isn’t the way to change things. If you want to change things you’ve got to get on the inside, so what the heck, I’ll try to be a columnist.'” Within a few semesters Moulitsas not only had his column, he was editing the paper and freelancing for the Chicago Tribune. He dropped his music major and added three more — philosophy, political science, and journalism. He was primed for a reporting career, but his emergent blogger tendencies rebelled at the last moment. “The thing about journalism that kind of annoyed me was that I’m always writing about other people,” he says. “Maybe I just want to set too many trends, I don’t know. But it was fun for a couple of years and then suddenly it just started grating on me that it was always about somebody else. I got a little selfish — I was like, ‘What about me?'”
Instead, he turned in a last-minute application to the Boston University School of Law. “I wanted a way to kill three years of my life in a respectable fashion,” he says, even though he had very little interest in practicing law. “I knew within thirty minutes that it wasn’t for me,” he recalls. “At graduation, more than one person came up to me and said things like, ‘My God, I thought you dropped out after first year.’ Because I disappeared. I was working as a legislative aide for a state legislator, and I was helping organize Latino grocers and I was working as a quality-assurance tester for a couple of software firms. So I was doing everything but go to class.”
For one thing, Moulitsas had met Elisa Batista, now his wife and a reporter for Wired News. “I took a tango class at law school to meet girls, and she took tango class to learn how to dance tango,” he recalls dryly. “My whole point was to meet girls, plural, and she was the first, so I kind of blew it.” He had also started his first blog, the Hispanic-Latino News Service — although back in 1996, nobody called them blogs and the technology really wasn’t there to make them very manageable. He’d spend three hours before class combing the news for headlines and hand-coding the site. His blog attracted a job offer from short-lived Latino portal site PicoSito.com, so Moulitsas moved to San Francisco during the dot-com boom. When PicoSito went belly-up, the Web development company across the hall offered him a job, where he learned more about the new technologies that were making blogging easier.
By early 2002, Moulitsas had become a regular reader of early political blog MyDD.com, and soon cemented a friendship with the blog’s owner Jerome Armstrong, whom he refers to as his “blogfather.” Inspired by MyDD and his distress over the 2002 midterm election results, Moulitsas launched Daily Kos. It was originally a small site, simply a place to vent. But it was getting noticed. In late 2002, Joe Trippi tentatively tapped Armstrong and Moulitsas to help plan the nascent Dean campaign’s Internet strategy. “It was basically like, ‘What you guys have done with blogs, how can we do that for the Dean campaign and what will it mean?'” Armstrong recalls. The two bloggers formed a consulting firm they dubbed Armstrong-Zúniga and drew up a strategy memo that suggested using Web sites for fund-raising and MeetUp.com — a Web site that helps activist groups organize local get-togethers — as a way to organize Dean support groups in real life. Although the campaign would eventually adopt both of these ideas — raising $40 million largely from Internet donations — the two bloggers got lost in the shuffle in the hectic days of the early campaign. Moulitsas, who was frequently mentioning General Wesley Clark on Daily Kos as a possible presidential contender, decided to throw his support elsewhere. “We set up a Web site over a weekend and launched a ‘draft Clark’ effort,” Armstrong recalls. “Of course, the next week Trippi calls us, all freaked out.” At that point, Clark was still not officially in the race, so Moulitsas and Armstrong turned DraftClark.com over to some other supporters and signed on with Dean for real.
Armstrong moved to Burlington to work for the Dean campaign; Moulitsas’ role was smaller. Meanwhile, he was sinking his efforts into Daily Kos and a second, more personal blog at Fishyshark.com that chronicled his life as an expectant father. While Daily Kos can be a tough-guy Web site (the Times Magazine deemed his tone “cruel and superior”), Fishyshark is a sweet and tender journal of his wife’s first pregnancy and her subsequent miscarriage. Moulitsas revived the blog in 2003 when Elisa became pregnant again with their son Ari, humorously retelling tales of colic, morning sickness, and other adventures in projectile vomiting.
But keeping up Fishyshark, which Moulitsas says requires more self-examination and wordcraft, is much harder than feeding Daily Kos, where he can whip up an entry in a few minutes. So while his posts to Fishyshark became more erratic, Daily Kos was growing like kudzu. The crowds arrived in distinct waves: first, after the 2002 midterms; then, after the United States invaded Iraq in early 2003; and finally, the biggest crowd of all showed up over the summer of 2004 as the election season kicked into high gear. With each wave, some tension developed between old and new posters, as newcomers bungled the etiquette and some of the older folks, feeling outnumbered, dropped out. But the crowds also pushed the site to evolve and improve.
Guest blogger Paul Delehanty, who is known online as Kid Oakland, calls the Daily Kos conversation style a product of the Berkeley’s Free Speech movement and the Silicon Valley culture’s passion for freedom of information. “It may not be a literal connection but it’s a deep, spiritual connection — a very West Coast, high-tech free speech sense of political discourse,” he says. “It’s almost like the feminist discussion about discourse, where instead of conversation being strictly oppositional it’s more organic — you can have people who agree but disagree, or take it off to a side discussion.” The result, he says, is a conversational whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
In fact, the conversation has grown so big that Moulitsas no longer sees his creation as a publication, but as a virtual city with residents who each contribute to civic life in their own way. “I’m the mayor of the city, but nobody thinks that Chicago is great because of Mayor Daley,” he says. “You have the good and the bad, you have the town drunk and the comic, you have the grammar cops and the content cops.”
But as with any large city, not everyone agrees about how to run it.
The difficulty of laying down a set of expectations for bloggers is compounded by the trickiness of defining what a blogger is, anyway. The old definition was that they were mainly online diarists, ordinary people who wrote about their crummy day at the office. Now that sites like Daily Kos have readerships bigger than those of many city newspapers, there’s plenty of debate about whether they are amateurs or professionals, independent observers or online celebrities.
“‘Blogger is such a stupid word!” Moulitsas mourns, burying his face in a couch cushion in frustration. “It’s like saying I’m a ‘telephoner’ because I use the telephone, or I’m a ‘computerer’ because I use a computer. A blog is a tool and it could be used for any number of different things and in any number of different ways.” He breaks down a few of the better-known lefty bloggers: Cox is a gossip columnist; Duncan Black, better known as Atrios of the blog Eschaton, provides an information gateway. Markos describes Joshua Micah Marshall, a Washington Monthly reporter who blogs the Talking Points Memo, as “clearly a DC insider-type journalist.” But what about Kos himself? “I’m an activist,” he says simply.
The awesome power of sites like Daily Kos certainly has not been overlooked by the political establishment. Shortly after the election, Moulitsas spent one morning scoffing online at a second Kerry presidential bid; he’d also recently criticized the campaign for mainly using its multimillion-name e-mail list to solicit donations, instead of rallying voters to the polls. But despite Moulitsas’ snark on Kerry, that afternoon his cell phone rang with a Kerry operative wanting to do an election post-mortem. Moulitsas gave him some friendly advice: stay away from making claims about fraud in Ohio until there’s conclusive evidence, and concentrate on using that e-mail list and the campaign’s leftover $30 million to help Democrats take the 2006 midterms.
At moments such as this it becomes hard to tell where Moulitsas stands relative to the political process. Is he an outsider, lobbing criticisms at the Democratic Party? Or is he an insider who has the ear of their campaigners? “I am a party activist,” he says after chewing on the question for a while. “At the end of the day, I want what’s best for the party and I’ve been very vociferous about it.”
Some Daily Kos readers are clearly concerned about how partisan bloggers interact with the politicians they cover. “I would say one of the overriding issues facing the major blogs is their situation with regard to the Democratic Party,” writes a longtime Kos poster from San Francisco who goes by the online name Marisacat. “Are they independent or not, do they receive missives/faxes/communications from the party (and more recently the campaign) and treat it like any other press release or release of information, or do they feel ‘bound’ by a relationship? And is being in the loop with the party dependent on what they blog and who holds sway at the site?”
During the campaign, for instance, Moulitsas’ connections to the Dean and Clark campaigns raised more than a few eyebrows. Brian Reich, writing on the Web site Personal Democracy Forum, dubbed the Daily Kos “machine politics 2.0.” He criticized Armstrong-Zúniga for not revealing its client roster during the ’04 campaign season, and suggested that both men used their blogs to push the consulting firm’s candidates. “While the Daily Kos is a community site, it is hardly a democracy,” Reich writes. “Make no mistake, it is Kos’ world, and his readers and writers are all just playing into it.”
In response to the first point, Moulitsas says he is no longer consulting and therefore has no clients to reveal — although he concedes that could change if someone particularly exciting comes along in 2006. And on the second, he is quick to respond that he and his site are clearly partisan, and that the whole idea of blogging is to promulgate your own opinion. “My site is my site,” he says. “You can start your own site. That’s the whole point: Anybody can do this.”
Reich’s criticism also overlooks the fact that most of Moulitsas’ readers have gathered around because they like what he has to say — they find him charismatic and thought-provoking and an antidote to what they call the “so-called liberal media,” which they consider to be a conservative-leaning echo chamber. Most of them will readily defend the right of bloggers to take sides. “Kos, Atrios, and the others make no bones about who they are supporting, so you know that you are receiving biased material at times, but I consider that to me much more honest than, say, Fox News, who purports to be unbiased but is actually under the thumb of right-wing ideologue Rupert Murdoch and the GOP,” writes Kos reader Kevin Theis, who was inspired by Daily Kos to launch “Operation Fool Me Once,” a letter-writing campaign that asked editors of newspapers that endorsed Bush in 2000 to change sides.
But whether the liberal blogs have created an echo chamber of their own is something many Kos readers struggle with. “I do worry a bit about insularity,” writes Marilyn Jones-Wilson, a Kos reader from Oak Park, Michigan. “The Kos community and blogs in general felt so positive about a Kerry victory that the loss was even harder for me than for my friends who felt pessimistic about Kerry’s chances.” Marisacat worries that the blogs sometimes played up good news about Kerry and dismissed anything that boded ill for the Democrats. “Even mild criticism of Kerry from posters was so attacked and denigrated by others that it was wearing,” she writes.
But while Kos posters may have overestimated how well their candidate was performing, Delehanty points out that they excelled at pinpointing what the other side, and the mainstream media, were doing wrong. “One of the roles of an oppositional politics is to watch, to witness, to pay attention,” he says. Kos readers certainly turned out to be a ruthless fact-checking force. And given how easy it now is to dig for archival information on Lexis-Nexis or CSPAN, and how quickly that can be uploaded to the Web; the likelihood of more investigative scoops emerging from the blogosphere is overwhelming. “Technology has so democratized activism that anybody can really take the lead and take charge,” Moulitsas says.
With the Republicans controlling both the White House and Congress, there should be plenty for the progressive blogs to investigate. “It would have been nice if Daily Kos would have become obsolete for the next four years, but the fact is that Bush is going to put out all the ammunition we need,” Moulitsas muses. “I think the fact that we are a minority and that we have to fight to retake the country will energize a lot of people.”
Even after a bruising election season, Moulitsas still has the attention of thousands of progressive voters who are looking toward the 2006 midterm elections. And just like him, they’re spoiling for the next fight.
“I’ve seen our collective voice nudge the media into taking some responsibility for truth and fairness,” reader Jones-Wilson writes. “I’ve seen political officials back down, commentators retract or rephrase statements, alternative media pick up threads of a story and carry them into the public awareness. The power of the people who are both informed and motivated is tremendous indeed. Who could go back to sleep after tasting that?”