Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Progressive Blogosphere

Chris Bowers (MyDD.com) and Matt Stoller (bopnews.com) have published a study via the New Politics Institute on "The Emergence of the Progressive Blogosphere".

Just the other day, Greenlily and I were discussing traffic patterns and user demographics of political blogs, but I was saying that I didn't know that there had been very much data collected at this point. I'm delighted to have been wrong. The growth in number of, and traffic to, progressive blogs is truly astounding, and as the study suggests, represents an invaluable opportunity for coordinated activism on the local and national level.

I may just be late to the party, but this is my also first introduction to NPI.

The New Politics Institute has been established by people from across the country and across the political spectrum to help progressives succeed on the dynamic new battlefield of 21st century politics.

The New Politics Institute is a think tank for politics. Working like a conventional policy-oriented think tank, NPI will assemble some of the finest minds in progressive politics, the non-profit world and the private sector to study, master, incubate and promote new strategies, technologies and techniques for the rapidly changing politics of this new century.

None of the study data surprises, me really. From the study:
The Internet has come to play an increasing role in political discourse and organizing. According to a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 33% of Americans have looked for political information online, and 15% of Americans have read someone's blog. Clearly, the netroots will play a major role in providing money, support, organizing and media exposure in the 2008 presidential contest.

Given the recent broadcast and print media scandals, and the ways in which the MSM has generally degraded into noise machines for their corporate ownership, it was only a matter of time before the internet became the bastion of citizen activism. Candidates in the upcoming mid-term and presidential elections will ignore blogosphere influence at their peril. As will voters, I believe. Before political blogging, it was easier to understand how people had a tough time fitting politics into their mad-busy lives. Now, however, insighful analysis and commentary is just a few clicks away. Being uninformed is no longer simple to justify, and I hope this ease of access translates into a measurable impact on voter turnout. It has the potential to be, I think, nothing short of revolutionary. Here's why.

I think die hard liberals and hard-core conservatives represent the "fringes" of their respective ends of the spectrum. There is an equally small number of true-blue centrists directly in the middle. The rest, and majority, are simply "habitual" Democrats or Republicans, choosing their affiliations very early in their political lives and sticking with them, mostly because they're too damn busy just paying the mortgage, raising their kids, keeping their jobs etc to be terribly passionate about politics at all. But these are the "sleeping masses" that need to be woken up.

My mom is a perfect example. She's been a registered Republican all her life. Not because she really pays close attention to what the GOP is doing or what they stand for here in 2005, but simply because she came from the old-school Republican generation of "small government". She's not hyper-conversant regarding Iraq, social security, economics, civil liberties etc. She's got any number of things going on in her life that distract her from paying much attention to political news and, if for no other reason than a shortage of time, takes what she hears on network news and pretty much runs with it. Even if I deny her credit she's due for more interest than is apparent, I don't know that she's aware of the available tools that would help her become genuinely informed about the nuances and battles currently being waged. Her husband was much the same way, as are the bulk of her friends, from what I've been able to gather.

I think she represents a HUGE contingent of the voting public, and really believe that their general lack of engagement with politics is what's fed the power gain of the GOP. A cursory glance of opinion polling seems to support the idea that those most vehemently opposed to say, gay rights, or legal abortion, really do represent a modest fraction of the whole. Trouble is, that fraction is VERY active, chummy with party leadership, and is actively steering policy with contributions, propaganda machines 527's and local activism. So, when people like mom go to the voting booth and flip the lever next to GW, they don't really realize what they're supporting in the process. How could they, when they're simply not paying close attention?

(Mom, if you're reading, I hope you'll forgive me using your story as an example.)

Feel free to weigh in on my off-the-cuff analysis of political temperature of the vox populi if you've got an alternative take on the situation.

In the meantime, if you're even remotely interested in the "Emerging Blogosphere", check out the study results.

9 comments:

les said...

This is fascinating stuff; I fell by Daily Kos while the Ohio mid-term congressional election was going on, and it looked like the discussions there mobilized substantial contributions and real, experienced political help for the Hackett campaign, all through yellin' around the net. Pretty cool. Those are big numbers of voters, accessible.

Officious Pedant said...

The Dean campaign made that very clear during the 2004 election cycle. The blogosphere is a powerful political tool for everything from smearing the opponent or issue of the day, generating money, and getting out talking points near instantaneously. More, once those talking points hit the sphere, they can be revised in near real time based on the reactions of that same blog.

It's both exhilarating, and terrifying, when you think about that.

Lily said...

Well, in my opinion its a mixed bag, Yes, Dean showed the power of the internet, thats true. He raised cash and people connected. Nobody can deny that. And...the access to articles, commentary, blogs, material... more than anyone can read! (although some people seem to have loads of time and are quite self congratulating on that aspect!!) But it takes more than being well read and well versed, it takes more than "education". I really think it also takes an understanding of the context of issues, getting out there in the world away from the computer screen. Listening. not just reading.
I know many people that use the internet instead of good old fashioned conversation, instead of talking to people in their community about issues of importance. Some will not even attach their names, preferring anonymous safety while playing "docile Joe neighbor" outside of the house.
I do it so I am not stalked being that my commentary is so riveting. (JOKE!!!!)

Its nice that we have the luxury of communicating instantly with someone from Alaska- that has really changed things. But I also think there is a degree of detachment that creeps in, especially for people that are hard working, raising a family, struggling in this misguided economy. For many people, its understandably hard. For some, it is a matter of being in "the two income trap" -coined to describe people that no longer have the choice of raising children and who need two incomes to maintain a commercially-driven standard of aspirational living. (after all, people in Manhattan are convinced they need four wheel drive, and people below the poverty line aften have $90 sneakers or COACH bags. Do you think anyone with real income has to have "abercrombie" across their chest??? Get real)
Now I would say spend less time in Wal-Mart buying plastic bathroom accessories, and cut back so you can afford some time to read and raise your family. I do not mean that in the Santorum sense of women belonging in the home. I mean the four-job family that struggles to have a new SUV and live far beyond their realistic means before filling in bankruptcy forms in front of their giant plasma televisions) I mean living simply to have time for learning, in the "European" sense.
And to those who cannot read blogs, relentless liberal SPAM, or much else- we say "You are ignorant, you are sheep, you are lemmings, you follow your leaders and your gods, and you are too _________ (lazy, uneducated, ill-informed, brainwashed, manipulated, inflexible, insert the typical descriptions)
But---Is that an example of the liberal suburban bias discussed in our earlier threads? Does the blogosphere represent the diverse cross section one would find at a supermarket? (and I don't mean the organic markets)Or does it represent the comfortable, the underemployed, the perpetual student, the 40 year old in moms basement, and the office person lucky to be equipped with internet access?
Another thing to remember- we pay legislators, reps, senators, and their ilk lots to be well versed. Instead of attacking ordinary citizens that flounder, I say we go after the people on OUR damn clock. Ask them more questions, demand that THEY know issues, in addition to demanding it of ourselves. We pay them. Nobody pays me to know about CAFE standards or caribou. (arguably, they should, by crediting the taxpayer for every "I don't know" they give us)

Cantankerous Bitch said...

I really think it also takes an understanding of the context of issues, getting out there in the world away from the computer screen. Listening. not just reading.
I know many people that use the internet instead of good old fashioned conversation, instead of talking to people in their community about issues of importance. Some will not even attach their names, preferring anonymous safety while playing "docile Joe neighbor" outside of the house.


While I agree with your overall point, I do need to kick in a quibble.
As for the 101 Fighting Keyboardists -- Yes, the idle pontificators may very well outweigh the genuine process participants by a significant margin. While criticism of them is likely well-founded, I think there's a certain failure in the "activist" model that they are excluded from the contingent of "foot soldiers" by default. Here's a recent example from my own experience to illustrate:
I think Chuck Pennaccio is wonderful, and he won my PA Senatorial vote ages ago. I've written to his campaign on a few occasions, describing my pavement-pounding limitations and asking what I can do to help despite these limits. I've received no response whatsoever. I've asked the same of other activist organizations over the years, and gotten the same kind of response (sometimes a nice form letter "Thank you for your intererst, if you can tack fliers all over your 300 square mile county, that would be great" comes in reply). Now I understand that there are known methods and proven techniques, and the modest resources of many organizations mean that developing new models takes a back seat to the otherwise low-hanging fruit. Still, if our processes exclude (however benignly) a contingent of enthusiasts for lack of a way to integrate their contribution, then I think that's just as much a failure of activist methodology as it is indicative of armchair punditry.
And, I addressed the ID thing in my comments in the "Something for Everyone" thread, so I'll just refer you there rather than repeat.

And to those who cannot read blogs, relentless liberal SPAM, or much else- we say "You are ignorant, you are sheep, you are lemmings, you follow your leaders and your gods, and you are too _________ (lazy, uneducated, ill-informed, brainwashed, manipulated, inflexible, insert the typical descriptions)
But---Is that an example of the liberal suburban bias discussed in our earlier threads? Does the blogosphere represent the diverse cross section one would find at a supermarket? (and I don't mean the organic markets)Or does it represent the comfortable, the underemployed, the perpetual student, the 40 year old in moms basement, and the office person lucky to be equipped with internet access?
Another thing to remember- we pay legislators, reps, senators, and their ilk lots to be well versed. Instead of attacking ordinary citizens that flounder, I say we go after the people on OUR damn clock. Ask them more questions, demand that THEY know issues, in addition to demanding it of ourselves. We pay them. Nobody pays me to know about CAFE standards or caribou. (arguably, they should, by crediting the taxpayer for every "I don't know" they give us)


Yes! Your point about bias is completely fair. Just for clarifications, sake, however, my criticisms apply to the fairly massive "wired" population that have the ability to use the tools the internet provides and simply do not. In fact, the people described in my original entry all fall into this "wired" group, without exception.

And you're right -- demanding a higher degree of competence from our elected officials is totally valid. One only needs to watch Dr. Video's (Frist) response to the Shiavo tragedy to see how appaling it is when their supposed expertise pales in the shadow of partisan rhetoric.
You're also correct that demanding competence of ourselves isn't enough. However, I tend to be tougher on the general public, since it takes an informed person to spot an uninformed person, doesn't it? I mean, how else would someone know to question Santorum's "34,000 new jobs" claim if they didn't have at least a passing aquaintance with energy-production methods & facilities and local labor markets? Likewise, how's the average citizen supposed to spot the fallacies asserted by "teach the controversy" advocates if they don't have a loose grasp on evolutionary theory and the political history of the Creationism-cum-ID movement? It's hard to hold people accountable when we lack an accounting primer to begin with. This is why I wag my finger at the "sleeping masses". It's tough to grade an algebra test if you suck at basic math, right? Clueless politicians get elected by clueless voters in the first place. We're the ones putting unqualified dolts in office, and as much as I'm shocked and apalled by just how inept some of these Senators/Reps are, I'm even more shocked and appalled that there are people that voted for them to begin with.

Lily said...

First- regarding the sleeping masses--Yes! I'm with you as usual. But I think there is a triangle of sorts- superimposed on a layer of bullshit that offers up a very different reality. Politicians, those that elect them (or get stuck with them, often by their own self-imposed disenfranchisement)- and the intermediaries which are often the media and profit and non profit organizations... The folks that traverse the fuzzy wasteland between Joe Average and Joe Politician. The Politicians count on our ignorance and our willingness to believe the media, the media counts on our ignorance and on our easily seduced minds,(further fed by self imposed disenfranchisement) and the population counts on the media for filling a role that they simultaneously strip of accountability and standards... the population looks to politicians to serve their "interests", and so it goes, each position one of dysfunctional composition.. and it represents a giant RUSE.
The positions are not equidistant...self-aggrandizing just makes it seem so...and there is an unwillingness to acknowledge our responsibility for not only poor democratic hygiene but for the disconnect. We have the media serving the powerful, politicians serving the powerful, the powerful serving politicians to remain powerful, and the media increasingly owned by same. The sad reality is that "Joe Average" of the population is not really a part of this structure at all...and we allow that to be so by our unwillingness to change. We behave and our activism reflects a buy-in of the first view when in fact the dominant paradigms are reflective of the second and strategies have not kept pace.
And as long as we do not challenge the assumptions of this, it perpetuates.
Now your other points address the activist community. Again, it has to do with the idea that the media and "organizations" act as intermediaries that beg results that are not forthcoming because they do not have the deep pockets that corporate lobbysists have nor the pockets/saavy of media packaging. Always it will be this way unless we change the way we view the structure and what needs to occur in that structure. Organizations therefore spin in the vacuum, too far removed from where they seek to imbed.
The power of money, naive as this may sound, needs to be offset by the power of the vote. How can citizens compete with corporate propagandizing media? Again- we chant "organizations!" The mighty nonprofit!!! They will be our salvation! Grassroots and all that jazz. This is ineffective largely because it still pre-supposes the first power structure and not the second wherein they "equate" themselves to power structures but cannot get themselves to function like them. In comparison, they are ineffective and irrelevant.
In essence, they fail us. Why? Many reasons ranging from simple sophistication to idealism. (AKA "love will pay the server bill") Because Average Joe has become a consuming baby, spoon fed a diet of FOX... Average Joe wants to be spoon fed everything, and cannot act to engage himself politically in organizations any more than he can get off his ass to decipher bogus news. The result is that we have actual activist groups that will EMAIL your senator with the click of the mouse. They will compose the email and send it on your behalf about an issue. But do you think a Senator reacts to a zillion of those? One click activism? Its original, but sad. Voting with your wallet is just as fast, by the way. When I say "vote" i mean that on many levels, as we wield more power as consumers than we do in other ways.
You asked why these organizations do not court you, come tell you how YOU can help, pull you in. "What can I do, Sierra Club, without leaving my house??" What can I do, (insert political campaign) to be a part of what you are doing? I hear your irritation, but...
I daresay we are making a mistake when we number one, expect one click activism, and number two, expect someone to engage US... it is our responsibility to FIND a way to become engaged. Mothers do it, with tons of kids, if they believe the stakes are high. Go tell a mom at a rally with her brood that you feel disempowered by Pennaccio! Many would tell you pack up your kids with some Cheerios, and find the fortitude to do it, and while you are at it you are teaching your child something good.
I must admit that when people email me asking how they can help in group A or B, without ever meeting any of us in A or B to talk about the real goals of A or B, I view them as less than committed. Harsh??? See, "activism" inherently implies action. Some can more readily take that on than others. I answer that they should come to a meeting of group A or B and I tell them when it is. If they are mothers, I invite them to participate with mothers. (hence, our mother's activist networks) But I am suspicious of "i want to help, but cannot do anything" people. What can they do? Would you try to sell houses from your basement, or open a restaurant in your refrigerator? Why would you try to change society from a laptop? Again I say: society is OUT THERE.

Lily said...

And I must not let the default comment get by- that word! Ouch! Default=powerless, baby! You are not that! They don't have the power to determine your participation!
And on models- let me call your attention back to our article describing one of our "new models"!!! It does not always take money to change the way one works on a cause. We may be small in what we do around here, but we try hard to find new ways to do it. And to engage the "difficult to engage" politically. When you say you are excluded by default, I say thats one notion I have never bought into!!! You KNOW how busy I have it! But if you don't get out there and talk to moms or other people that find it difficult, how do you develop a model for what works? Good models involve exchange and interface, and tailoring to needs, problem solving to address barriers. Talking to moms led us to a mom-friendly model- house meetings versus libraries and quiet places, children included and welcomed, etc. Try to think outside the box a bit! Don't be Daily Kos. (but gotta love him!!) Be, well, Cantankerous!!!!
And instead of lamenting what we are not, find strength in what we are!!! Look at Cindy Sheehan, she is doing as a MOTHER more to get press and anti-war attention than lots of sophisticated essayists. I'm not smart, but I'm passionate as hell!

ZelleA said...

And they are already trying to discredit her "concerned mom" image by commenting on her "PR firm" to orchestrate her grief and indignation. They realize the appeal of the "average" person, seeking accountability. They know Americans will more readily connect to her, and they are at work trying to change the public's perceptions. See, this is an example of the liberal "Catch 22". If she gets advice and, in a sense, markets her message, its jumped on as an indicative of lack of authenticity, as though it dimishes her point. And yet, we know that without a certain degree of saavy, nobody gets air time. Its a fine line to walk and contributes to the image dilemma. Its a pepetuation of our willingness to let others define our strategy.
Recall Julia "Butterfly" Hill, who made headlines for a year long "tree-sit". How quickly they pointed out her book deal, scheduled appearances on Letterman, etc. to disparage her. What helped that plan backfire was that she was very honest about her motives and blunt about the activist community. An example of taking ownership of the image from the start.

Cantankerous Bitch said...

Lily,

You asked why these organizations do not court you, come tell you how YOU can help, pull you in. "What can I do, Sierra Club, without leaving my house??" What can I do, (insert political campaign) to be a part of what you are doing? I hear your irritation, but...

Let me clarify --
I didn't say or mean "courted", but I've clearly been to vague. Sorry about that. Some better examples --
While I was living in Colorado, I heard that a disarmament group in Boulder was looking for help. So, I gathered up my resume, put on my Sunday best, and headed out to see them. Very swanky office in downtown Boulder, well-equipped, and looking well-funded. What they were looking for were people to gather petition signatures in the local neighborhood. We "trainees" were given roughly a 30-minute presentation, carved up into groups, and shuttled into various carpools to be dropped off in our respective neighborhoods. The newbies were paired with more experienced folks, so we could listen to how they handled their rap. Like a great many 18 year olds, at that point I had more passion than knowledge, and while I was willing to knock on the doors, my patter really sucked. To be effective, it was necessary to be at least a little conversant in military technology (U.S and Soviet), treaty initiatives, military-industrial economics and geopolitics. I wasn't terribly well-informed about these things, and unfortunately, the organization hadn't developed any kind of scripting we might study or any guidelines as objection-handling. As such, I pretty much sucked. So, I headed back to the office after a few days and spoke with the staff coordinator. I showed her my resume, explained what kind of business experience I had (which wasn't all THAT much at that point, but I had some useful skills nonetheless) and asked if there were other ways to help. I told her I could help write up & edit these missing scripts and rebuttal strategies, work the phones (given a script), help out around the office, help produce canvassing materials etc etc. While she was grateful for my enthusiasm, she was able to only give me a blank stare in response. Everything short of their petition drives were handled by a small group of people, and they were confident that there weren't any "empty spots" in the organization other than for pavement-pounders.

I had a couple of similar experiences in future years with other miscellaneous grassroots organizations, but I'll fast forward to the most recent. When emailing the candidate, I didn't just say "Hi, how can I help?" I sent a sizeable chunk of detail regarding what I could do -- help with press releases, letter-to-the-editor drives, work the phones, email campaigns, website content production -- on and on. Again, to no avail. My expectations were not "one-click activism", though I can appreciate what you're saying there. You're right -- I know scores of people that are satisfied to fill out petitions and leave it at that.

That being said, I think one of the reasons the progressive end of the blogosphere is exploding is because of limitations like these. When our existing models can really only accommodate front-line staffers, rally attendees and pavement pounders, where does that leave the rest of us? We lament the lack of effectiveness of these organizations but only target the frustration outward, at an unsympathetic electoral body? That doesn't make much sense to me. Don't we fail to capitalize on a large contingent of supporters by not taking full advantage of our technological interconnection, for instance?

All I'm suggesting here is that our definition of "action" could use some overhaul. If our existing infrastructures were as effective as they're intended to be, wouldn't we see more success that we do? Wouldn't we see better traction in legislation and elections, rather than the shriveling power base and fragmented party strategies like we now see? I don't ask to be antagonistic -- I ask because I'm trying to carve out a place of my own.

And as much as I appreciate the sentiment behind "would you try and change society from a laptop?", my immediate reaction is yes, if that's where your skill set is. If "grassroots" is intended to mobilize all citizens, then we have to make sure there's a wide range of methods by which citizens can participate. Look at the recent Ohio election. Paul Hackett was expected to lose by a good 50 points. Several concentrated weeks of effort led by the blogging community didn't just raise money, but drove voters to the election. He ended up losing by only 3 points, in a district believed to be irretrievably Republican. This tells me there's potential in any number of places that has yet to be exploited. But we're going to have to redefine "activism" to make it work.

Cantankerous Bitch said...

ZelleA,
What surprises me most is the willinness of people to believe Fox pundits rather than the voices of the people actually IN Crawford. I mean, what kind of nonsense is that? As if O'Reilly has already been somehow vetted as "reliable" -gag- and the voices of ordinary citizens are politically suspect?? That just defies logic, particularly when these same critics like to rant about voter apathy. Of course, when voters ARE engaged, but take the opposing side, then suddenly they're fair targets for smearing. Please.