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What Happened To The Progressive Netroots Movement?

Then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) at Netroots Nation in 2008 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/HARRY CABLUCK
Then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) at Netroots Nation in 2008 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/HARRY CABLUCK

Nine years ago, a burgeoning movement of progressive online activists gathered in Las Vegas for the first ever “YearlyKos” convention. The New York Times write up of the conference noted that “it seemed that bloggers were well on the way to becoming — dare we say it? — part of the American political establishment.” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), keynote speaker for the conference, told the paper that he admired the progressive blogosphere because “they have the ability to spread the truth like no entities I’ve dealt with in recent years. We could never have won the battle to stop privatization of Social Security without them.”

Fast-forward to now: The conference (now known as Netroots Nation) gathered in Phoenix, Arizona last week and the landscape has changed considerably. Many prominent blogs, especially on the local and state level, have fallen by the wayside. Members of the movement have moved to social media platforms. Some of the leading online communities, such as the Daily Kos site for which the conference was originally named, remain powerful forces for progressive change. But even if the “blogosphere” that sprung up at that time is no longer as visible in 2015, the progressive actions coming out of the Obama administration and the progressive rhetoric being employed nearly all of the Democratic contenders in 2016 indicate that the movement was in many ways a success.

In the early 2000s, an assortment of progressives frustrated by the arrival and actions of the George W. Bush administration began blogging their takes on national, state, and local politics. When then-Sen. Republican Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) made the claim in December 2002 that the nation would have been better off had 1948 Dixiecrat nominee Strom Thurmond been elected president, traditional media largely ignored the story. But thanks to the attention paid by outraged progressive bloggers over the next two weeks, the story ballooned until Lott resigned his leadership position. In the years that followed, more and more of these activists began working to reactivate what the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and former Gov. Howard Dean (D-VT) called the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

The left-wing blogosphere had a two-pronged electoral aim: More and better Democrats. This meant both standing up to the Republicans in control of the White House, House, Senate, and Supreme Court, but also those in the party who wanted to be “Republican Light.”

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Soon after that 2006 gathering, the netroots movement claimed some of its most noteworthy achievements — through a mixture of grassroots organizing, online fundraising, opposition research, strategic messaging, and rapid response. In Connecticut, progressive bloggers helped a largely unknown businessman named Ned Lamont to win a stunning Democratic primary upset of incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman. In Montana, netroots activists helped propel a state legislator named Jon Tester to victory in a contested Democratic Senate primary and a tough general election. And in Virginia, they successfully helped draft former Reagan administration Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb to run for Senate as a Democrat, helped him win a close primary, and helped him narrowly defeat Sen. George Allen (R) — the last seat necessary to give the Democrats control of the Senate. Early netroots leaders Lowell Feld and Nate Wilcox chronicled these and other early victories in their 2008 book Netroots Rising: How a Citizen Army of Bloggers and Online Activists Is Changing American Politics.

In 2006, the prominent progressive blog MyDD listed a progressive blogroll of the top websites in each of 43 states. Today, just 18 of those remain active. And MyDD, one of the first major liberal sites, has been largely dormant for several years. Its founder, Jerome Armstrong explained in an email that he “had to get out to save from becoming hardened, cynical, and without peace,” citing the negativity in American politics.

ThinkProgress reached out to several dozen of the most prominent national and state netroots figures and observers from the early days and asked them about the state of the netroots movement — whether the once burgeoning progressive blogosphere remains a cohesive force, has evolved into something new, or has simply fizzled. The respondents gave a range of answers, but some common views were clear.

In many ways netroots was a victim of its own success. A primary role of the netroots a decade ago was providing more timely news coverage and an alternate narrative to the traditional media. Waldo Jaquith, a prominent Virginia blogger and the director of the U.S. Open Data Institute, suggested that many netroots activists have moved away from running blogs because that sort of work is no longer as necessary. “A lot of blogging culture from a decade ago has become part of mainstream media. We used to move stories throughout the day, while newspapers would only publish once daily. We’d publish information rapidly, as we learned it, and publicly assemble stories over hours or days,” Jaquith explained via email. In sum, he said, “All of this is baked into modern political journalism infrastructure,” and, “We succeeded in up-ending how political journalism is delivered, and how people expect to receive it.” Indeed some of those early bloggers have moved on to write for more traditional media outlets.

With more tools than just blogs available, much of the activism has spread to other avenues. Joe Bodell, frontpage contributor at Minnesota Progressive Project, echoed this view. “Ten years ago, what we know as the smartphone had not yet hit the market in a big way, so getting information from the political internet meant sitting down in front of a computer and reading a website. Today the flow of information has become much more direct, with social sharing tools becoming much more popular ways for any given individual to gather information.”

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Some individual bloggers have taken their sites to larger community sites and group blogs. In 2003, New York-based attorney David Nir launched the popular progressive blog Swing State Project, under the handle “DavidNYC,” to provide analysis of the swing states for the 2004 elections. Nir and his colleagues brought awareness to campaigns across the country and, with other progressive blogs, helped raise millions of dollars for endorsed candidates. In 2011, Nir said, DailyKos publisher Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (“Kos”) hired him to run the site full time as a “blog-within-a-blog” called Daily Kos Elections. Though he says the blogsophere has changed over the years, “Near as I can tell, the entire community came with us, and almost all the same folks who’d been contributing for years are still very active.”

Indeed, Daily Kos has grown significantly over the past decade. Its readership has grown fairly consistently. A site that was originally created to be “therapy” for one frustrated political junkie has turned into a professionally staffed hub for like-minded activists. Longtime progressive blogger Chris Bowers, now executive campaign director for the site, noted that it has “gone from 10 to 30 staff during my five years here. We continue to grow every year. We are a profitable company with a proven, diversified business model.”

But while national communities like Daily Kos have grown, there also seems to have been a decline in the number of state-level blogs examining politics, organizing volunteers, and raising money at the state and local level. Feld, whose now-retired Raising Kaine site helped elect Tim Kaine as governor of Virginia in 2005, is now editor of Blue Virginia, one of a dwindling number of significant progressive blogs in his state. “The rest of the progressive blogs that were around in 2005 have folded or basically gone into hibernation,” he lamented. “Why has this happened? Probably numerous reasons, but I’d point to the lack of investment in state-based progressive blogs and other infrastructure by Democratic and progressive donors, as well as the loss of ‘energy’ due to Dems controlling the White House since 2009.”

The challenge of energizing activists when your “team” is in the White House is not a small one. George Washington University professor David Karpf, who has written extensively on the impact of the Internet on politics, says “the politics of opposition is a lot simpler than the politics of articulation.” The Tea Party movement, for example “took off as soon as Obama sat down in the Oval Office,” but “shrank in size as soon as Republicans took over the House.”

Still, Karpf notes, most those activists remain part of the progressive establishment today. “Whether they’re part of the Democratic Party establishment depends on how you view the ‘Elizabeth Warren wing’ of the party.” Looking at the rhetoric and ideas being articulated by Democratic 2016 hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and even Lincoln Chaffee, Warren’s brand of economic populism and progressive vision seem be the mainstream view in today’s Democratic Party.

Even as the number of blogs has declined, the impact of progressives online has in many ways grown. ActBlue, a non-profit that collects online contributions for Democratic political candidates and progressive non-profits, has seen its numbers increase steadily. A company spokeswoman noted that its collected about $17 million over the 2006 election cycle, about $62 million in the 2008 cycle, about $86 million in the 2010 cycle, $173 million in the 2012 cycle, and $315 million in the 2014 cycle. In total, ActBlue has helped raise more than $772 million since its inception in 2004.

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And activists are quick to point to some major victories on policy issues they believe the netroots helped make possible. Two state blog co-founders — Phillip Anderson of the New York-based The Albany Project and Bob Neer of the Massachusetts-based Blue Mass Group — pointed to the community’s success in defeating SOPA and PIPA, two 2012 proposals to force Internet providers to more strictly enforce copyright laws. Numerous others named the FCC’s action on net neutrality, filibuster reform for Senate confirmations, and the nation’s progress on LGBT equality.

And while the move from blogging to other media may make the netroots a harder community to identify and track, several people noted that in many ways the people who were “crashing the gates” a decade ago are now well ensconced in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Amanda Marcotte, blogger at Slate’s XX Factor and Pandagon, explained that, post-George W. Bush, the netroots split “into different directions, but are no less effective. Some of them because political leaders. Some, like myself, became journalists. Some are organizers. But their impact on the Democratic Party is unmistakable. They were the central force pushing Obama over Clinton and that sent a message to the Democrats: Be more liberal. Clinton’s clearly heard it. The party overall has moved to the left.”

Yosem Companys, another Internet politics scholar and former Diaspora CEO, noted that this evolution is common historically: “There will always be gates to crash, just as there will always be gatekeepers. Every so often, grassroots movements will attempt to crash the gates and reform the party.”

And Jaquith observed that, now that the netroots activist are all a decade older, they no longer need to crash gates. “In many cases, we’re the new gatekeepers who are going to need to have our gates crashed in a few years.”

Ben Sherman, a 2013 graduate of the University of Texas and a staff writer at Burnt Orange Report, reflected on that generational shift: “At this point, young activists have seen the limits of technology in effecting the long-term, broad-based change they want. While there was a recent boom in attention to online organizing, especially from 2008–2012, the Internet has definitively not led to greater tangible political participation.” Today’s new crop of progressives, he observes, “are attaching themselves to institutions — legislatures, nonprofits, and charities — for the bulk of their work,” and for them, “online participation seems important in a primarily self-motivating way, joining communities of the like-minded and fueling a participation which is rooted in the organizations that will last long after these activists hit 40.”