A Conversation with Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga
Jerome Armstrong (founder of MyDD) and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (of DailyKos fame) are bringing their "Crashing the Gate" book tour to my home town of Portland. Their PDX itinerary on April 9th and 10th concludes with an event Monday evening to help Rob Brading unseat Oregon House Speaker Karen Minnis.
Earlier this week, I had chance to catch up with Jerome and Markos in advance of their upcoming Portland trip. We discussed their book, the state of the Democratic Party and the power of what Armstrong calls the "netroots" to transform progressive politics. Our chat, like Crashing the Gate itself, was wide-ranging and no holds barred.
First a little background about the book. Crashing the Gate (CTG) is fundamentally about winning elections. To the surprise of many, the book is not primarily about ideology and the Democratic "brand" or about technology and blogging. (In a nod to his one-time Dean campaign colleague Joe Trippi, Jerome noted the book is not "the revolution will not be blogged.") And while Armstrong and Zuniga offer a blistering critique of the Bush administration and the ruling Republican majority, they aim most of their fire at a Democratic Party establishment they see as out of touch, behind the times, and most of all, losing elections.
Markos and Jerome see a party beset by a three-headed beast that keeps the Democrats out of the majority. First, a unified Democratic message and agenda is blocked by the clashing priorities of single-issue interest groups spanning environmental, labor, abortion rights and other causes. For example, CTG tells the story of how NARAL's endorsement of pro-choice Republican Senator Lincoln Chaffee undermined the campaign of popular Democrat Jim Langevin, likely keeping the vulnerable Rhode Island seat in GOP hands. Second, Crashing the Gate looks at the Republican infrastructure of foundations, think tanks, media groups and leadership training. But their real venom is reserved for the entrenched leadership circle of at the DNC and its DC-based network of coin-operated consultants. For them, the epitome of failure is Democratic fixture and MSNBC regular Bob Shrum, "the uber-consultant who lost eight presidential campaigns so far and won zero."
Which is where the progressive netroots come in. The blogosphere and its growing community of readers at sites like MyDD, Eschaton, AmericaBlog, FireDogLake, Crooks and Liars, and DailyKos (which alone receives over a million visits a day) can mobilize to inform and transform the debate on key issues and breaking events (as Katrina, Social Security privatization and the Dubai ports deal all showed.) The netroots can also upend the political and financial landscape in key races across the country, as Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett (who received over $500,000 online) showed with a near upset in one of the reddest districts in Ohio. In states like Colorado, Virginia and Montana, a new wave of Democratic politicians with strong support from the netroots is overturning the traditional Republican stranglehold. From redefining 21st century media strategies to its roles in new groups like the Democracy Alliance and the New Democrat Network's New Politics Institute*, progressive grassroots communities on the web are changing the rules of the game.
But long before the conference calls with Harry Reid and the appearances on CNN, there was the 2000 Florida recount, 9/11 and the Dean campaign. As Jerome described the impact of the tragic unfolding of events in 2000, "Florida sucked me in. It was my political junkie moment." But it was the absence of liberal voices in the media after 9/11 that motivated both Armstrong and Zuniga to speak out - and reach out - online. By 2002, with the nation at war in Afghanistan and the Iraq conflict looming, the mainstream media would brook "no dissension from the Republican mind-speak", as Jerome put it. Markos, a lawyer who also served three years in the United State Army, concurred that in that environment, "criticizing the administration was seen as treasonous and seditious."
In 2002, Portland State graduate student Armstrong showed his MyDD web page to then little known Governor Howard Dean at the 2002 King County Democratic event in Seattle. Within weeks, he was on his way with Joe Trippi to transform political campaigns using blogs, meet-ups, online fundraising and virtual access to the candidate. While the Dean campaign ultimately imploded in Iowa, the importance of sites like MyDD and DailyKos was firmly cemented.
Fast forward to 2006 and the Democratic Party has begun to adopt one of the mantras of Jerome and Markos: compete against Republicans in every race, in every district. Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, Markos claims, is "showing people what a real Democrat looks like." Candidates like Schweitzer and Mark Warner**, the former Governor of Virginia, "embrace and redefine" the Democrats' message. "Unapologetic Democrats in conservative states," Markos notes, "can be very appealing."
For Armstrong and Zuniga, the DNC, the DSCC and the DCCC focusing only battleground states and open seats has to come to an end. "They can't ignore candidates running against incumbents," Jerome declared, citing the party's under-funding of "Fighting Dem" Eric Massa in New York's 29th congressional district. And in Senate races in more conservative states, Markos advocates for candidates "the establishment would like to step aside", such as organic farmer John Tester (Montana) and one-time Reagan Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb (Virginia). Ultimately, though, the success of the progressive netroots isn't measured by races won and lost. "My long term view is about building a movement with an ability to affect media coverage and the media narrative," Markos stated. "The long term goal is a progressive governing majority."
To achieve that, Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga agree, there is much to be learned from the conservative movement and its patience in laying the groundwork think tanks, foundations, institutes and direct marketing machinery for its current majority status. One area for sure, though, where Markos sees no need to emulate the right: the conservative blogosphere. When I asked him which conservative blogs he reads and respects, he simply replied. "None. Absolutely none. Not a single one. The conservative blogs are absolutely terrible, nonsensical and unreadable."
To hear more about Crashing the Gate from authors Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, check out one of their upcoming Portland area events:
- Sunday, April 9th. At the Lucky Lab Brew Pub (3:30 to 7:00)
- Sunday, April 9th, book signing at Powell's (7:30 to 9:30)
- Monday, April 10th, Rob Brading Fundraiser , McMenamin's Kennedy School (6:30 to 8:00)
* Markos is a fellow at the New Politics Institute.
** Jerome is an advisor to Mark Warner's Forward Together PAC.