Excerpts from an interview with Tom Ashbrook at WBUR’s “On Point,” August 21, 2007
(A less detailed, interview with Matt Bai is available here.)
Tom Ashbrook: Since early in the 2004 presidential campaign, the Democratic Party has seen a new outbreak of activism from angry bloggers, from fed-up billionaires – new, fired-up players alienated by the Clinton centrism of the 1990’s and infuriated by the Iraq war and President Bush. Journalist Matt Bai has been watching up close and intimate while these fiery “net roots” and liberal moneymen have become a major force. They’re changing Democratic Party politics. But, Matt Bai says, they’re not sure yet now to change the country. …Joining me today is Matt Bai, writer for the New York Times magazine. For three years he’s been watching the debate and changing guard inside the Democratic Party – maybe more than three years. He moderated just this month the Democratic presidential debate at the Yearly Kos bloggers’ convention in Chicago. His new book is “The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics” and he’s an old friend. …Matt, it’s been great watching all the action that you’re taking us right into the middle of. It started for your back in the Howard Dean campaign. What got you on this trail?
Matt Bai: Feels like about a hundred years by now! …It starts for me with the Howard Dean campaign. Not because of Dean himself. I went out and campaigned very early on. It was just me and him and a couple of aides driving around Iowa. Dean was interesting and I got to know him much better as years went on. But what struck me – what pulled me into this – were the crowds that he was drawing in remote parts of Iowa. The pent-up emotion of these crowds. There were older crowds, some younger people. They were most Democrats but some independents, some very liberal and some not. The aggravation with politics, with the Democratic Party and the direction it had taken in Washington. Their hunger for something different. The way Dean would stand up and say, “I’m Howard Dean and I’m hear to represent the democratic wing of the Democratic Party!” The applause would be deafening and people would be very deeply emotional.
TA: People wept, you said.
MB: Some actually wept at Howard Dean rallies and did crazier things like put fangs on and those kinds of things. …It was this outpouring of pent-up emotion and I came to realize that at that time I felt and still feel that it was a transformational moment. Something was happening outside in the grassroots of the Democratic party that was more important than what was happening in Washington. I came to believe that more strongly as the years have passed.
TA: We’re going to follow you down these new threads of activism. But in their meeting, you say, what comes out of it is “the argument.” You mean that in a couple of ways. Frame up “the argument” for us in its Matt Bai definitions.
MB: I do mean it in a couple of ways. The first is the most obvious and literal. There’s been an argument going on since 2003 when what I consider “the outsiders,” the progressive movement -- and I do think it’s a movement and it has self-identified as progressives, people who have not held power in Democratic politics, ordinary people, citizens, people online, big money donors, people who really want some control over their party. And then you have the party establishment in Washington which has been really neither center nor left but focused entirely on what they felt they needed to do to win. They were very much focused on fighting battles, day to day, in the legislative process, on trying to compromise in key areas. That has been raging and changing and evolving over the last couple of years. In the larger sense what we’re getting at… is that I think every movement in American politics that’s been successful – certainly over the last hundred years whether we’re talking about progressive of the early 20th century or the social equality movements of the 1960’s or the conservative movement that was very successful in the 1960’s and ‘70’s and beyond into the ‘80’s – every movement has to have some argument for the future and for what government needs to do to adapt. Each time presents different challenges, some more instrumental than others. A successful movement has to say that there’s a way government has to adapt to those challenges, and this is what it is. Generally that argument is divisive, it doesn’t necessarily unite people, it doesn’t necessarily sound great to a lot of people in the beginning. It’s often very unpopular, but it’s the thing that drives American politics and the long-term success of majorities is generally based around some argument that takes hold and that actually changes the way government operates. That’s the piece of the puzzle that I think this nascent progressive movement is still very much looking for.
TA: So within the party there’s an argument about the way ahead, and that argument is about what The Argument will be when presented to the country that people hope will lead the country in a better direction. Introduce us to the players here, Matt. We kind of know them but you take us in with a level of detail that for me, at least, is new. You’ve got your bloggers. You’ve got billionaires. And more. Who do you see as the major players in the argument?
MB: If we’re looking at the progressive movement, let’s for a moment compare the progressive movement to the conservative movement that people are very familiar with. The Reagan era conservative movement. If you have in the Reagan era conservative movement, say, a figure like Reagan, a leader, then a rough analogy in the progressive movement would be Howard Dean who really unleashed this wave of emotion and whose followers really began to take over the party at a certain level. You have MoveOn.org, which, to me, is something like the National Rifle Association or some membership-based group of the right. You’d have to look at them as a group that aggregates the power of ordinary foot soldiers around the country and turns them into a very powerful lobbying force. The donors of the conservative movement who were so successful who were so important to that powerful political force…
TA: … the Coors family and all the rest…
MB: …Coors, Scaife, Mellon… you could go on. Those are roughly analogous to the liberal donors I write about, the progressives I write about in the book which are members of something called the Democracy Alliance. It’s about 100 donors that have poured about $100M in, I’m told, to progressive causes in the last couple of years and it’s growing. Then if you look at the bloggers --and some of the bloggers won’t like this – but to me they are roughly analogous to the religious right in the sense that they bypass the traditional media. They speak to a highly motivated, passionate crowd. They’re obsessive about it. They’re on 24 hours a day. There’s really no movement without that online component because it is sort of the most passionate and most obsessive of all of the groups involved. These are what I look as the rough strains of a progressive movement that has gone largely unrecognized. It is a movement. You see in the 2008 campaign – the 2008 campaign on the Democratic side is largely about trying to adapt to the reality of this new movement. In order to understand this campaign, I think you have to understand how the progressive movement has taken hold and what it looks like.
TA: The bloggers may not like you comparing them to the religious right – or perhaps they do! The old progressive movement as you describe it is very happy to be seen as analogous to movement conservatives – rightwing movement conservatives – of the Goldwater era. Why?
MB: Well, because they were successful! There’s widespread agreement on this much, and that is that the conservative movement that took hold really after Barry Goldwater in the mid 1960’s and ultimately took over the party in a very practical way after Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign, this movement was wildly successful in changing not just the agenda in the country – this is important to understand – not just the governing agenda of the country, not just the electoral math but the debate. That is, the terms of the debate: where the center is, where the right is, and where the left is in the debate has shifted perceptively because of the power of that conservative movement. And so these progressives absolutely emulate that movement. They want to change the climate and the debate in the country, and they very much want to take power. In that sense, they very much want to do what the Goldwater-Reagan conservatives did. Now the difference, I would argue and some would argue that it’s not true – the difference that is sometimes overlooked is that movement began with, really, an argument. Not with media, not with Rush Limbaugh, not with think tanks that own huge buildings in Washington….
TA: …but with ideas…
MB: Right! With ideas and with pouring money into scholarship and arguments and debates. This is very important, too: not with unity, not with lockstep unity so they could win elections. They didn’t think they could win elections. They didn’t even like the Republican party. They began fighting with each other. And out of that emerged an agenda that was very dynamic and very appealing to people. Now whether or not it should have been appealing to people we can argue forever…
TA: … Do the new progressives you’re describing here, Matt, have a comparable argument or set of ideas? Or a corral full of ideas even if they’re not complementary at the moment?
MB: No. They don’t. They don’t and I want to draw a distinction between “ideas” and “the argument.” Once you start talking about the lack of ideas, people can say rightfully, well, there’s all these healthcare plans and there’s the expansion of this plan and that plan…
TA: …fair enough!…
MB: I’m not talking about policy ideas because they’re all piled up on the shelves and I could probably find a few within 10 feet of me! They’re everywhere in Washington. I’m talking about something a little more fundamental. What’s your vision of government? What do we need to change in government? We face in this country at least two monumental challenges that are entirely new, two of the most intractable policy problems we’ve faced as a country since the Civil War. One is the onset of global terror; one is the onset of a kind of globalized economy. It’s obviously changing our dynamic in a kind of post-industrial world where the economy that built the 20th century is no longer especially relevant. Facing those obstacles, I think the movement has to ask what has government been doing for 57 years that it needs to do differently now? We’re in a new reality. How do we meet the new reality? There’s very little discussion like that inside the progressive movement. In fact the discussion is generally how do we get back to what we were doing before. How do we get these conservative marauders out of the kitchen and figure out how to continue cooking the way we were cooking in the 1960’s and 1950’s. That, to me, is probably inadequate in order not just to change the country, which is what I’m primarily concerned with, but to build long-term majorities as well.
TA: …Matt Bai was out in Chicago earlier this month, moderated the debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls at the Yearly Kos blogger convention. Hillary Clinton made headlines with her response to one of his questions. She was booed at one point [for her response to a question about] taking money from lobbyists. Matt, you describe the bloggers as the progressive left’s answer to the religious right. In your book, you describe a lot of fury in this quarter. Does that work? And what does it contribute to “the argument”?
MB: Well, it’s certainly worked to revitalize the party at the grassroots. If you live in Nebraska and you’re a core Democrat, over the last 20-25 years at least, nobody’s come to your state, there’s been no Democratic party. There’s been no meeting to go to. You just read the paper and get depressed! And then suddenly there comes this thing called the internet and here are these things called “blogs” like Daily Kos and MyDD. You can log on at night when you get home and put your kids to bed and there are people in Seattle, and there are people who feel the same way in Texas, and all of you can begin to have this conversation that was not available before. There’s been a revolution at the grass roots. Has the blogosphere been an incubator for a more substantive debate about the future of progressivism? No. I would argue not. I think it’s largely been reactive. But I would say in defense of the movement that these are very early days. I’m chronicling very early days. In fact even now, as we head into the 2008 campaign, you see a rapidly evolving net roots. Part of that is simple technology. Four years ago, if we were having this conversation, broadband technology would have permeated so few American households that only very early adapters, people who were very comfortable with technology, would have been online surfing the web. Now, of course, that’s not true. A lot of people who used to donate by writing checks will click on a candidate’s website. A lot of people are discovering some level of blogs. As the technology goes mainstream, it really is happening. Also, the culture of the blogs begins to change from an early-adapter most-motivated culture to a culture that encompasses a lot of mainstream Democrats who want to have a much broader conversation. It begins to diversify in such a way that you’ll still have the blogs as we knew them in 2004, 2003, but you’ll also begin to have different levels and different sensibilities. Some of those will, hopefully, be quite substantive.
TA: …You say it may not be fully evolved, but it’s already pushing, to a remarkable degree the conversation among the candidates who were on that stage with you in Chicago and beyond. Why? How?
MB: It absolutely is. Chicago was a great example. That was a really interesting experience for me. By the way, Tom, if you haven’t… but it’s much harder to moderate one of those things than it looks on TV!
TA: I hear it!
MB: You had all but one of the presidential candidates – Joe Biden didn’t come. But you had all but one sitting on the stage for the second blogger convention, a bunch of people who had no role in politics three or four years ago. They not only came, but they did their very best to pander!
TA: What’s the effect that this group is having on the candidates on the stage? On their message? On their view? On the way they’re framing issues?
MB: Put it this way. This is one example and I think it’s a really interesting example. If you were getting all the presidential candidates on a stage four years ago and asked about a balanced budget amendment, for instance, Howard Dean himself would have stood up and said he was for a balanced budget. And he was the most “left-leaning” of the candidates. On that stage the other day, we asked the same question. One of my co-moderators, the blogger Joe McCarter, asked that same question and only Governor Richardson of all of the candidates on the stage was willing to back a balanced budget amendment and he was booed. The reason for that, largely, is because in the grass roots, in the progressive movement, this notion of balancing budgets, of Rubin-esque economics, of not investing money in social programs even if it means running up some kind of domestic debt has become really taboo. And now there’s this new force for wanting… not wanting to be so fiscally responsible but actually spend more money on programs and do the things that need to get done.
TA: Does that mean a new liberalism or progressivism – I’m not sure what to call it – has already taken hold? Is it a done deal? Or is it sitting there in tension with the centrist impulse of the 1990’s in Washington?
MB: I would say (I’m gonna hedge on this a little) … The answer to your question is yes and no in the sense that, yes, I think that for the progressive movement that argument is over. Centrism is considered the worst thing you can subscribe to online and in MoveOn and among the new donors. This triangulation idea – it’s really the backlash that created the whole movement,
TA: Despite the way Clinton won with that in a way Democrats had not won in decades?
MB: Yes. This is a complex question. Generally they don’t blame the president personally or not in the past as much as they blame the ethos that he stood for at the Democratic Leadership Council and other groups. But yes, even though he was victorious, the feeling was that the party itself suffered at a much more broad electoral level. There’s a very strong case to be made for that – that the losses in the 1990’s were really quite profound. But I wouldn’t call that a “new progressivism” because so far on a policy level, on an idea level, it’s pretty much just the same manifestation of the same politics that most of these folks, who are baby boomer generation, brought to the table going back to the 1970’s and 1960’s. I wouldn’t want a stereotype of everyone in the blogs as being a 196o’s liberal. But there’s certainly a strong strain of old-style, industrial-age liberalism. I think it’s less a matter of conviction than that that’s the only agenda available. There’s been so little leadership in rethinking government. I think if you had a lot of ideas and debate about what a new progressive government would look like, you’d get a lot of support in the progressive movement. But because there isn’t that debate, generally people fall back on the kinds of programs and approaches which really brought them into politics to begin with. And those tend to be very much industrial era programs.
TA: Are the net roots folks confident, empty as that may be? Will the new progressive stance bring the numbers out to the polls?