[Originally published in The Stranger, June 14, 2006]
A New Voice in the Democratic Party Showed up on the Las Vegas Strip Last Weekend, Searching for a Big Win
The Riviera Hotel is a strange place to hold a blogger convention. Located in a low-rent section of the Las Vegas Strip, its aging rooms and tarnished casino speak less of the promise of new media than of the inevitability of decay. Those who organized the event, dubbed YearlyKos after one of the country's most influential online liberal communities, Daily Kos, didn't mean to imply anything in their choice of venue. They were simply after cheap lodging and a central location for the first in-gathering of this country's growing corps of left-leaning bloggers—a large, intensely partisan crew that brought with them assorted techies, political consultants, and a huge contingent of "Kossacks," the fast-typing Democrats who rage and post diaries about the latest political news each day at Daily Kos. But something is always implied in Las Vegas, whether one wants it to be or not. The city exists because of its ability to suggest a feeling—sometimes accurate, more often fiction—that one's fortunes are about to change, that the big win is coming right up. Last weekend, as the normal crowd of retirees sat mesmerized by the spinning wheels of the Riviera's slot machines, the liberal bloggers sat in the hotel's conference rooms, staring at the scroll of political news on their computers, mesmerized by the idea that this was the way to victory.
The purpose of their convention was part celebration and part proclamation, as the founder of Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas, put it in his opening address: "The Republicans have failed us because they can't govern. The Democrats have failed us because they can't get elected. Now it's our turn... We have arrived."
Indeed, as the June 8 opening approached, the conference had taken on "turning point" significance in the minds of many political observers. It marked the first time so many participants in the liberal blogosphere had unplugged from their geographically dispersed internet connections and materialized in one location. More importantly, it was a rare show of strength on the left, one all the more notable for having been conceived and nurtured outside the traditional Democratic Party power centers, by progressives who were so dissatisfied with their leadership and so furious with country's major media outlets that they decided to take matters into their own hands.
Frustration from the contentious Florida recount of 2000, anger at the misleading marketing of the Iraq war in 2002, dismay at John Kerry's failed presidential run in 2004—all met their outlet in emerging technology, and now, just a few years after the liberal blogosphere got going, more than 1,000 people were in attendance at the conference on the strip, with many describing the gathering as historic, the left's answer to conservative talk radio and Fox News. Liberal blog stars like Arianna Huffington of HuffingtonPost.com and John Aravosis of AmericaBlog.com milled about, as did a large cohort of mainstream journalists, there to chronicle the doings of a group that now competes with them for the attentions of the politically inclined (Daily Kos alone now has about 600,000 readers a day, a number greater than the subscription base of major urban newspapers like the Chicago Tribune). Prospective Democratic presidential candidates were also on hand, hoping to woo the "netroots" with free drinks and fancy finger food at evening parties held at two of the strip's better hotels. General Wesley Clark feted bloggers at the Hard Rock Hotel; former Virginia Governor Mark Warner offered free martinis and amusement-park-style rides atop the Stratosphere Tower. Senator Barbara Boxer was there, telling the crowd they had "awakened a sleeping giant." So was Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
And so was Howard Dean, an early booster of online activism who has benefited from the rise of the netroots more than any other American politician. Blogs helped him raise $25 million online during his failed 2004 presidential run, and they ensured his subsequent election as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, where he created an entire department devoted to monitoring the blogosphere's daily moods. Likely because of this, he was quick to pick up on the Woodstock vibe at YearlyKos. "This is a movement that is not so different from the movement of the '60s," Dean told the crowd when he took the stage in one of the Riviera's large ballrooms. "I can't tell you how important this is."
That did seem to be the consensus—among the blog believers and even among some skeptical observers. A group of alienated people with a new vision and a new way of expressing themselves had found a way to meet up in one place (albeit a strange place most attractive for its discount hotel rooms), and now that they had connected, nothing in liberal politics would be the same again.
The first question on everyone's mind was simply: Who are these people? Even Dean seemed confused on this point, expecting, like many, a younger crowd of bloggers than showed up at the Riviera. In his speech he made a joke about retirement security ("Maybe not so important to a lot of your readers, but very important to my generation") and it fell completely flat, given the large proportion of gray-hairs in the audience. In truth, Dean, at 57, is a lot more like the average YearlyKos attendee than he, or most people, would think.
Popular imagination has cast online networking as the province of the under-30 MySpace generation, but the median age of a Daily Kos reader is 45. Lefty online political organizing is in fact a middle-aged game, and the conference reflected this, with those who came to Vegas being about as far from the stereotypical twentysomething WTO protester as one can get while still being in the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party," as Dean famously described his constituency. The median income of a "Kossack," determined in March through a survey by an online advertising group, is $85,000. And while their favored moniker compares them to a Russian warrior tribe, the Cossacks, these are strictly laptop warriors, not a physically intimidating bunch. More than 40 percent of them have postgraduate degrees and their "warrior" bodies spend a lot of time sitting in front of computers, reading a median of five blogs a day.
A conservative infiltrator, who came to YearlyKos expecting to blog about a "freak show," found himself having to report instead that "people here are largely, disappointingly, golf-shirted, short-haired, and white-bread," and that "grooming and hygiene are up to Western business standards." Moulitsas later told me that Dean, for all his talk of having a department at the DNC dedicated to watching the blogs, seemed badly prepped on blogosphere demographics. "He came off as if he didn't understand who he was talking to," said Moulitsas, 34, a former army artilleryman with bulging eyes, a quick mind, and a penchant for not mincing words. Having run Daily Kos for four years, Moulitsas knows better than anyone else that if one throws a blogger Woodstock, one is going to have a lot of attendees old enough to have been at both the original 1969 Woodstock and its modern high-tech facsimile.
On Saturday evening, about 20 bloggers and Kossacks from Washington State's growing liberal blogosphere met up at a casino bar in Old Las Vegas, a place not quite as flashy as the Technicolor new end of town, but just as outlaw feeling, if not more so. Among them was a 48-year-old general contractor from Bellevue who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Rick, or by his online handle, "Rickeagle." He explained to me that he likes Daily Kos because it's "a newspaper that the readers write." In fact, he considers the site's 90,000 registered users to be the largest team of unsalaried political reporters in the nation.
Rick admitted it's not a perfect analogy, since a lot of what goes on in the Daily Kos community, and in the liberal blogosphere as a whole, depends upon paid mainstream journalists writing articles that the bloggers then pick apart online. But what may be more important than the analogy is the motivation it expresses: a motivation to create political analysis outside of the traditional media channels, channels that the netroots members almost universally see as corrupt, weak, and right-leaning. Moulitsas described this desire in his opening address to the conference, saying the blogosphere should thank the Washington press corps for its existence, since it was founded by avid consumers of political news who decided to stop yelling at their televisions and their morning papers and instead "start publishing those rants on the web." This impulse has led to the creation of what Matt Stoller of the liberal blog MyDD described at YearlyKos as the "parallel structure" of the lefty blogosphere—a place where liberals are creating the media they wish they had.
The path that "Rickeagle" took into the blogosphere is typical of those at the conference. It began with the discovery that something new was happening online: During his two tours in Kuwait as a navy patrol-boat driver, Rick, a stout man with a buzzcut and a well-trimmed mustache, got turned on to military blogs, which have proliferated as active-duty soldiers have become more connected to the internet. Later, a feeling that something was very wrong with the direction of this country led Rick into the liberal blogosphere, where he found his way to the blogs Democratic Underground and Eschaton. "And then I found Daily Kos," he told me, with the tone of someone who has found salvation. "I never had a focus for my passion before... I felt like I was a lone voice. Finally, I found a community I could communicate with."
He and his girlfriend Susan (handle: "suz in seattle") signed up for YearlyKos right after it was first announced last year, long before the conference had become a pilgrimage destination for major Democratic politicians. The couple mainly wanted to meet the other liberals they had been chatting with online, but as more and more big names were announced as conference speakers, Rick had a pleasing realization: "We're very important," he told me.
Susan added: "Politics is all going to be on the internet in the future. You can see it coming. This is the beginning of something really big."
If YearlyKos is really going to be the beginning of something big, and if the liberal blogosphere is really the transformative movement within the Democratic Party that its most ardent fans think it is, then the netroots will need to pass a major test: They will need to have more Dean-like successes in the future and ultimately, the movement will need to produce an internet-made candidate who, unlike Dean, can actually win a presidential nomination. Even people like Moulitsas admit that that kind of power is still years out. So far, the blogosphere has demonstrated that it can bring 1,000 people to Las Vegas, create media buzz, and raise significant amounts of money—like the half-million dollars raised last year by online contributors to Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett's run for Congress in Ohio. But aside from Dean's ascent to the helm of the DNC, the netroots still can't point to many candidates that they have successfully put over the top; Hackett, who made an impressive showing in a traditionally conservative district, nevertheless lost by just under 4,000 votes.
With a bravado suitable for the Las Vegas Strip, Moulitsas used the conference to repeat the big bet he's making this year: "Lieberman is going to lose." In what is both a play for clout and an act of political retribution, the netroots are targeting pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman (D–Connecticut) in his upcoming Democratic primary in August, trying to punish him for being too conservative and vowing to replace him with Ned Lamont, an antiwar telecommunications executive. So far, their drive seems to be working. Lieberman, who once led Lamont by more than 45 points in polls of Democratic voters, now leads Lamont by only 15 points. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have poured into the Lamont campaign through online donations, and Lieberman has been refusing to rule out a run as an independent, a sign that he believes he might lose the primary. If he does, the netroots will have claimed their biggest political scalp yet, and the perception that they are a power broker in Democratic Party politics will grow tremendously.
This very real scenario is raising urgent questions among traditional Democratic power brokers in Washington, D.C., who wonder: What does the liberal blogosphere want, and more importantly, can the party give it to them without pulling so far to the left that it heads over a political cliff?
Earlier this year, while he was in Seattle promoting his new book, Crashing the Gate, Moulitsas told me that the "over-the-cliff" worries don't bother him, particularly given the Democrats' current fortunes. "The party already went over the cliff and it's splattered on the ground dead right now," he told me. "We're going to try to rescue it." His tone, defiant as always, meshes perfectly with the prevailing attitudes in the liberal blogosphere. A poll of blog-reading MoveOn.org members conducted earlier this month by Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal showed that members of the progressive blogosphere want a resuscitated, newly aggressive Democratic Party (one that will "stand up and fight," in the language of the poll).
However, the poll also showed that the liberal blogosphere is more partisan than ideological. In other words, despite the fears inside the beltway, the netroots are willing to be pragmatic in order to win, and would be happy with a Democrat who stands for something and is a fighter, but who disagrees with them on certain issues—as long as that Democrat is an aggressive winner. This explains why Senator Harry Reid, a former boxer who is Mormon and opposed to abortion, got such a warm reception when he rose to give the closing keynote at YearlyKos on Saturday evening. The fact that Reid shut down the Senate earlier this year over stalled investigations into flawed pre-war intelligence more than made up for any discomfort the Kossacks had with his abortion stance.
Other findings from the poll flesh out the image of the netroots as a highly informed, highly partisan class whose members are not easily impressed by glitz: They want plainspoken candidates who emphasize policy proposals over personality, they want to hear a positive Democratic agenda more than they want to hear attacks on Republicans, they want fewer legislative compromises by Democrats in Congress, and they say their favorite politicians are, in order of popularity, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama, Barbara Boxer, Jack Murtha, and Russ Feingold.
Another interesting poll finding, in light of the rampant speculation about who the Democratic presidential contenders will be in 2008: The more often a person reads a liberal blog, the more likely it is that this person has a poor opinion of Hillary Clinton, and a positive opinion of Al Gore.
Still, one thing remains hard to measure: the size of the liberal blogosphere. Rough estimates put it at three million people, a small (but increasingly influential) percentage of the Democratic electorate, and people like Moulitsas see huge potential for growth, particularly during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, as more and more people go online for political news and information. However, given the discrete demographic that seems to be drawn to the liberal blogosphere—highly educated, upper-middle-class people who are online for hours each day—there may be an upper limit to just how big it can get.
Whatever its potential size, Moulitsas seems firmly ensconced as the liberal blogosphere's loudest voice, having appeared on the Colbert Report, on the Washington Post op-ed page, and, during the conference, on NBC's Meet the Press. He has also become a kind of patrolman of the way the blogosphere is perceived, and the way it presents itself. When he's not knocking down criticism that Daily Kos is a far-left echo chamber and a kind of cult (he counters by pointing out the members' raging disagreements), he's talking back to those who say discussing politics online isn't effective activism (he says it is effective, in the same way Rush Limbaugh's radio show is effective at energizing the right, and he adds that the liberal blogs encourage donations and get-out-the-vote efforts). When some members of the blogosphere complained after the conference about the amount of money Mark Warner spent on his party at the Stratosphere, Moulitsas called them hypocrites for wanting attention and then not wanting it. When Maureen Dowd wrote a slightly unflattering column about Moulitsas during the conference, he described her to me, in front of other reporters, as "an insecure, catty bitch."
"The whole thing is bursting—it's a huge story," exclaimed YearlyKos media coordinator Christina O'Connell on Saturday after two New York Times pieces about the convention came out (one was the Dowd column, the other a generally positive news article).
Major media reporters not credentialed in advance were now clamoring for press passes. The Associated Press and Bloomberg News were flying journalists to the strip. Fox News was sending a camera crew. Newsweek had dispatched a photographer. C-SPAN was already there. "Several of them are saying that they see this as a historic event," O'Connell told me. "They want to be here at the beginning."
Reid, when he took the stage on Saturday evening to close the conference, said much the same thing, describing blogs and the internet as part of a communications revolution, on par with the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, and one that has the potential to reverse the Democrats' fortunes.
"Prior to the explosion of blogs, our national debate was controlled by a handful of media conglomerates," he told the crowd. "Like the kings and the church of old, these powerful entities controlled what news and information made it into the public square. But not anymore. Not with the internet."
He continued: "The internet has put the power of information in our hands, and now it's time we use it... We [Democrats] don't have a bully pulpit, but we do have you. We need you to be our megaphone."
The crowd ate it up, and the members of the mainstream press sat in the back writing it up, sending out word that something big had definitely happened in Vegas. Dan Balz of the Washington Post, who in a free moment during the conference told me that he sees political blogs as "a force to be reckoned with in Democratic politics," filed a story for the next day's Post in which he made a brief reference to an effort by YearlyKos participants to "dispel their image as doctrinaire liberals." In his conversation with me, Balz had sounded as if he admired the bloggers' instinct for getting around traditional gatekeepers, be they party gatekeepers or media gatekeepers like himself. "The idea of gatekeepers is not necessarily a good idea," he told me, adding that political writers like him "have had to adapt" to a new reality of constant blog criticism and challenge.
In short order, as is the way in this new political world of perpetual media monitoring by liberal blogs, Balz's story was being picked apart on Americablog by Aravosis, who honed in on the sentence about "doctrinaire liberals." It was Monday. The conference was over. But the new online liberal assertiveness continued unabated, pushing the Democratic message and pushing back against the Democrats' perceived enemies. The post began: "Note the logical fallacy here..."