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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Netroots Rising Is An Engaging History of a Citizen Army of Grassroots Activists

I just finished reading Netroots Rising. Lowell Feld sent me a copy of the book a couple of weeks ago and I promptly forgot to email him to thank him. My apologies to Lowell for my bad manners. But I knew I wasn’t going to read it right away and I didn’t want him to know how long I was going to procrastinate before getting to it. In my defense, I’ll add that it’s been a busy few weeks.

Since I was overcome by events, I confess I put off reading it because I kind of suspected that once I started, I wasn’t going to want to deal with interruptions. I was right. So I carved out a chunk of time when I wouldn’t be disrupted while I was reading. Glad I did.

I suppose you really could start the book and put it down. I’m also told there are people who can eat just one potato chip.

Netroots Rising reads almost like a novel. It has several narrative lines and it switches back and forth between the points of view of both authors, Nate Wilcox and Lowell Feld. It has a rising story line with twist and turns, obstacles, and complications. And the varying plotlines converge at the end.

The book opens with the state of the political sphere in 2002, where the advantage went to the Republicans. Most fundraising in both parties consisted of large donors writing checks for at least $1,000 or $2,000 a pop. But the GOP had the lock on donations from small donors thanks to their mastery of direct mail and earlier computer technology. They built better databases than the Democrats had and led the way with grassroots GOTV field efforts. Their ground game was beating the Democrats most every time.

In addition, the earliest, most successful websites and blogs were dominated by Republicans such as the Drudge Report, Free Republic and Instapundit.

Although the Republicans dominated the Net, as they had the airwaves on cable television and radio, they mostly took their talking points from Rush Limbaugh, Tom DeLay and Karl Rove and theirs was a top down operation.

Netroots Rising opens from Nate Wilcox’s point of view with the situation in Texas and recounts the struggle of the progressive grassroots and the new netroots activists in local races there. It covers the antics of Tom DeLay and his newly formed Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC). It briefly describes Republican dirty tricks in other states, such as those that defeated Vietnam veteran and triple amputee Max Cleland in Georgia, and describes DeLay’s successful attempt to force an unprecedented and barely legal mid decade redistricting scheme in the Texas legislature. The tome describes in fascinating detail the various attempts to unseat DeLay and the role of a growing grassroots activist core, which did an admirable job of challenging him.

The book then segues into the mounting frustration of Lowell Feld, who watched, with increasing dismay as the 2000 election unfolded, followed by 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the Democrats’ totally ineffective 2004 election campaign, when John Kerry was Swiftboated into defeat while a core of paid professional consultants and party insiders appeared helpless to counter an aggressive Republican spin machine.

Lowell had earlier enlisted in the Draft Wesley Clark movement, attended meet ups, and gradually got involved in both netroots and grassroots activism. Meanwhile, Wilcox joined Howard Dean's campaign, one of the earliest to utilize the Internet effectively.

The book goes back and forth between Wilcox in Texas and Feld in Virginia. Of course, it ends with the triumph of Jim Webb’s election, truly one of the glowing success stories of the progressive Netroots in 2006. It gives the behind the scenes account of the famous maccacca incident that led to George Allen’s defeat by Webb.

The conflict between the grassroots and netroots activists versus the party insiders and professional staff is a constant theme running through the book. The tome also details the difference in campaign philosophy between the somewhat chaotic and exuberant bottom up style of the activists versus the top down, button down professional discipline of the professionals and insiders. A traditionalist would think that the top down model should be the more successful one because of its discipline and focus. But that wasn’t borne out by the results. Democrats kept losing elections under the helm of the party professionals like Bob Shrum and Tad Devine. So, grassroots activists, especially those newly enlisted from the netroots, felt justified in questioning the old top down model.

The book does not end on a triumphant note, however, content to rest on the laurels of Webb’s and Jon Tester’s victories in the Senate. Instead, I sensed a growing frustration on the part of authors Feld and Wilcox at the fact that netroots activists are still not exactly greeted with open arms by party insiders. There is dissatisfaction that, despite all the hard work of netroots and grassroots activists, they haven’t been embraced as part of the Democratic Party’s mainstream but are still outsiders looking in. So, Netroots Rising ends with a question: What is the future of the Netroots?

I don’t think anybody can answer that question. But based on the history of other grassroots reform movements and of alternative press from the past, I’d venture a guess that some of the better blogs will eventually become part of the mainstream. Some bloggers will lose interest and move on to other activities. And newer technology will replace all of this. Things we can’t even imagine yet will supplant the netroots and blogs with still greater innovation. But one thing will never change and that is the human desire to communicate with others and the yearning to use whatever technology is available to organize our fellow citizens and to improve our lives. In that, the netroots isn’t something brand new but is the newest addition to an honorable tradition. All of the reformers, those who published broadsides and pamphlets and underground newspapers and mimeographed fliers are all part of our rich legacy. And we will someday watch other exuberant newcomers grab onto the newest technology to go even farther than us.

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