Matt Bai, political reporter and author of a new book, “The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics,” spoke with Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. August 20, 2007.
Neal Conan: Over the past several years, the Democratic Party has been transformed by the political equivalent of a shareholders’ revolt. Activists, angry with the Party’s Washington establishment found new ways to organize, to raise and spend money, to identify and elect candidates outside the party machinery. The key factors, according to writer Matt Bai, include the passionate partisanship of the political blogs, the connective power of the internet, and the galvanizing issue of the war in Iraq. In his new book, Matt Bai, a political reporter for the New York Times Magazine, chronicles what he calls “the first political movement of the internet age.” If the Democratic Party has changed from the industrial to the digital age, it has yet to figure out what it stands for. The platform of the 2006 elections, for example, was “We’re not them!” Matt Bai says Democrats need new ideas, a new sense of mission. They need “an argument.” … Is it important for Democrats to develop a shared political philosophy or is it more important to focus on winning the White House and expanding majorities in Congress. What should the Democratic Party stand for? … Matt, in the run-up to the 2004 election, a lot of people were thinking about how to change politics and the political process. But you say that they weren’t giving an awful lot of thought to policy.
Matt Bai: Right. I think that’s true. I think that’s been a hallmark of debate and discussion inside what we’d call “progressive circles” in the last several years because this movement I write about is the self-described progressive movement inside the Democratic party. And inside the Democratic establishment as well in Washington. I think the common thread in both of those has been an obsession with tactics, with electoral gains, and with winning or losing. That’s not terribly shocking because we were living in a time of fairly close political competition and every election seems up for grabs and every election seems winnable. It’s very hard to put short-term electoral considerations into the background. What I’ve effectively argued here is that, even allowing for the importance of that, it’s really important not just to the party but to the country to have this deeper discussion about what the argument for the future really is.
NPR: And one of the examples you use is the conservatives who, in the 1970’s took over the Republican party with a clearly identifiable political philosophy that could be boiled down to smaller government, lower taxes, strong defense, family values.
MB: That’s right. And that stemmed directly from a period in Republican and conservative history in the mid-1960’s, obviously after Barry Goldwater in 1964, where you really had this decimated landscape for conservatives. And they had to begin to think about what a movement would stand for. They did so in an environment that was not at all hostile to risk or to controversy because there was really nothing to lose. They weren’t going to win any elections any time soon. The mainstream Republican party was completely alienated from conservative thought and to their mind, so they didn’t have a vehicle really to work through. So they really began at the bottom, and began with the ideas. And this is something which is commonly misrepresented, the idea that they began with building the talk radio movement, Rush Limbaugh, or conservatives began by figuring out how to win elections. But they really began with these ideas, but you can have a very strenuous argument about whether these ideas make sense for the country. But I do think, if you look at the history of movements like the conservative movement, like the social equality movements of the 1960’s, like the progressive movement of the early 20th century – if you look at the history of social and political movements that have had very strong impact on American politics, they have, by and large, started with an argument, with an idea that is critical for the future of the country, for government to adapt to changing times, for transformation. Political success has grown from there. And the implementation by people taking those ideas and being willing to implement them at the very top levels of politics have grown from there.
NPR: And those arguments were developed not inside political parties but came from the outside and found their candidates.
MB: Yes, that’s exactly right. They came from the outside. They had leaders, certainly. They had people challenging them to think about issues differently. And each of those movements had a milieu, if you will. They had – in the early part of the 20th century people had coffee meetings in people’s homes, civic clubs. And in the 1960’s, marches. They marched in the streets in the 1960’s. And now I think you have the internet as the milieu for this particular movement. But what makes this movement different from those is that there is neither the focus on how substantively government needs to change, on exactly what is that we need to do to adapt for the future. Nor is there the leadership of that movement saying to people, “We need to think differently about how to govern the country.” What you say is correct. There is not a history of presidential candidates saying or doing that for a movement or for the party. Ronald Reagan was created by the conservative movement; he did not create the conservative movement. FDR did not create the progressivism that animated the New Deal. That came 20 or 25 years before him. It had been brewing going back into the 1800’s. So there’s no reason to expect the highest level of government to do this for you. There needs to be debate and discussion going on outside that establishment.
NPR: One of the things you’ve chronicled in this book is sort of a parallel structure, where Democrats set out to quite consciously figure out what the conservatives did and do the same thing.
MB: Right. I talk in the book about this Democracy Alliance which is, up until now at least, an entirely secret venture of millionaires and billionaires – liberal donors. There are about 100 donors in the group that started in the wake of the 2004 election and I had some level of access to it that others did not. Democracy Alliance essentially did exactly what you’re describing. They set out to replicate the conservative movement in the building of think tanks, in the building of media development that would serve their purposes, and in the building of building what they called “civic engagement” -- essentially get-out-the-vote efforts. They are at this point approaching $100M in spending on progressive groups that they have funded, expanded, and capitalized. One of the issues I talk about with respect to Democracy Alliance which goes to the heart of what we’re talking about when we talk about debate and dissent in these issues is that there’s a feeling inside the Alliance – and inside the Democratic establishment too – that unity is what’s most important now. Because Democrats have been close to winning elections, because they now control Congress and are in fact in very good shape for the presidency in 2008, that the most important thing is to learn from the conservatives, to stay in lock-step, to not fight with each other.
NPR: Stay on message.
MB: Right. Stay on message. Project a unified message. There’s a cost for that. They’re not wrong. Electorally that can be very beneficial. But you have to understand the cost that comes from that kind of enforced unity which is that it’s debate and disagreement and argument from which real intellectual advancement comes, and from where you begin to derive and agenda that people can argue about. It’s forcing people to make choices both internally and with the voters that creates a course of action for the country. And I think that to the extent that Democrats and progressives place this emphasis on always saying the same thing and not challenging the orthodoxy it becomes incredibly difficult to forge an agenda that might be more suitable to some of the really transformative challenges the country faces now and going forward…
NPR: And the Democrats, you argue, are locked into defending the gains of the New Deal rather than looking forward to ideas that might transform the country the way those ideas did 60 or 70 years ago.
MB: I believe that’s true and I’m not the only one. There are many people in the book who feel that’s true. It’s not a hard thing to understand. In other words, I’m not overly critical about this. Here you have an agenda that was passed and enacted by the Democratic congresses and the Democratic Party throughout the 20th century that was absolutely extraordinary – unrivaled probably in the history of government – and did some tremendous things. And you have a conservative movement that has tried rolling it back at every step along the way and continues to do so. Of course that creates a certain bunker mentality. You want to protect what you have. But – again – the cost of constantly protecting what you have, in a unified way, is now allowing yourself to adapt to the future. That’s the greatest ammunition, in a sense, that you can give opponents: an agenda whose relevance you’re not willing to revisit.
NPR: …Jeff is calling from Erie, Pennsylvania.
Jeff: First of all, I appreciate the topic. I think it’s very timely. I’m a professor of history, finishing a book on the history of liberals and Democrats during the 1970’s. It seems that though this is a historic opportunity for liberals, we’ve been here before – in the late 60’s. What we saw in the late ‘60’s were middle-class professionals taking control of the Democratic Party and essentially displacing what had been working class whites who had been at the heart of the party before. My fear for Democrats is that the political net roots – this is the same thing. These are middle class, majority white professionals, who are again going to take over the party and not be able to build a coalition of working class -- the sort of coalition the Democrats need to win. I’m wondering what the author’s comments would be on that – the dangers of the net roots having a stranglehold over the party and having that natural class tension between the working class and middle class professionals.
MB: Jeff, I think that’s an excellent point. You raise a host of issues. There was a huge transformation in the late 1960’s and it wasn’t, as you well know, only about professionals and working class, and it wasn’t only about race, it was also about party bosses being displaced by reformers who then held the power for many years and became the new insiders. That’s a shift I think we’re going to start to see again. So yes, I think it’s a legitimate concern that the new forces taking power within the Democratic party, this progressive movement, are pretty homogeneous and have their own set of concerns. I think see that begin to play out in the Democratic primaries. There’s a tremendous amount of power being exercised by this new progressive movement and on a lot of the issues you begin to see the candidates begin to play to that base.
Jeff: Not one of the candidates went to the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) meeting. This could be important to the presidency but they all go to the stupid bloggers! Maybe I’m a minority… But how these bloggers become more important than the DLC…!
NPR: You’ll have to read the book to find out about it! Because one of the things he does is chronicle the rise of the bloggers.
NPR: … Democrats hold the majority in Congress and seem well positioned for a run at the White House next year. But in a lot of ways, they’ve positioned themselves not as bold, new policy makers, but as a party of protests. Democrats are a party in search of a philosophy. That’s the focus of Matt Bai’s new book. … Is it important for Democrats to develop a shared political philosophy, and what should it be? …Just before the break, Matt, we were talking with the caller, Jeff, who made a reference to none of the Democratic presidential candidates doing to the Democratic Leadership Council’s meetings but all of them, as he described it, going to those “stupid” bloggers! That was the Daily Kos conference that you were at earlier this year! In fact, welcome to the brotherhood -- you mediated a presidential debate! It’s not easy!
MB: It’s really a lot harder than it looks!
NPR: There is a reaction from some in the party: who are these outrageous people on what they would call the fringes of the party who seem to be taking over?!
MB: I hope these folks will read my book and not just because it’s my book but because I really get into this. I think about who exactly are these people online. What are we talking about when we talk about online progressives? How fringe-like are these people? The reality is, most of the people in MoveOn.org or out in the blogs, two institutions I spend a lot of time with and talking about in the book are baby boomers… This is a movement largely comprising a lot of folks who burned out on politics, who were very engaged in politics at a young age, who felt left behind in a sense by the party, who sat out the ‘90’s and could never really relate to Clintonism and centrism and “triangulation” as they saw it. And who found a voice and a community on the internet. So that if you lived in Nebraska or Ohio or wherever, and there wasn’t really a Democratic party left to speak of because of the decisions the party had made in those intervening years, you could go online and you could be part, again, of a political club or movement. I hate to sound like a clichéd politician, I hate to sound like Hillary Clinton talking about lobbyists, but these are real Americans! They’re quite ordinary Americans, by and large. It was fascinating to spend a lot of time. There are, of course, as Bill O’Reilly consistently points out, hateful elements online, as there are hateful elements in every era of politics. There are some cultural trends online I talk about that I don’t think are good for American politics. It’s ahistorical. It’s uncivil in a lot of ways. It’s chaotic. But it is a movement that is permeating mainstream households as broadband becomes more and more of a fixture, as technology changes the way people connect to each other and to politics. It is not a movement of fringe people or crazy people. It is very much the mainstream future of Democratic politics.
NPR: Juan is calling us from Walnut Creek, California.
Juan: …I agree with your speaker that the question of unity is very important and the Republicans have displayed that over the past 20 or 30 years, but what they have failed to do when the obtained power is to deliver. The Democratic party right now has a great opportunity to solidify its base by delivering. What I’m talking about is a balanced budget. Back in the early 60’s and 70’s, Democrats were against balanced budgets. Now the question is, that’s where America is at. They want a balanced budget. They don’t want to leave their grandchildren with $9 trillion in debt. So the question is, are they going to deliver?
MB: Juan, let me address a couple of things you just said because I find your comment really interesting and helpful. Thanks! The first is that I think you’ve misread where your party’s at. And you can be very forgiven for that because these things are shifting very quickly and it’s very hard to follow. But actually, if you follow the presidential primaries, Bill Richardson is pretty much the only candidate who’s actually standing up and saying he’s going to sign a balanced budget. The orthodoxy now seems to be that some amount of deficit in return for social programming is actually acceptable and desirable. The reason I raise that is because that right there is the influence of the progressive movement I write about in the book. It really is a tangible example of how politics within the party has begun to shift to where the online donors and new progressive really are at. The other thing is you talk in terms of Democrats having the opportunity of solidifying the base. I’m sure that’s true. But really the point I try to get at in the book is they have the opportunity to do something else since Democrats now control Congress and might in fact win the presidency. Which is to change the way the country governs itself, adapting to an age where we face at least two completely unprecedented kinds of challenges: global terrorism that is rooted in a non-state threat that we have never faced before, and the onset of globalization and economic challenges beyond the industrial era that are something new after a century of unprecedented growth unrivaled growth. These are huge challenges. The thing I’m really arguing for in the book, through looking at all these characters, after spending so much time on the road because the book is really narrative in nature – the thing I’m really talking about is to not think so much about the tactical element, about how you win and how you build a base…, as to understanding that politics really is driven in large sweeps and historic sweeps by ideas. When you have an idea of how you want to adapt government to face new challenges, all of those other things – while important – grow from that. That’s how you build long-term majorities. That’s how you change the country which is ostensibly the business we’re all actually in. The hardest thing about the book, and this is what I’m trying hard to get across, is that I didn’t spend any time thinking about how you win. I talked about a lot of people who spend a lot of time thinking about how you win. But I’m trying to at least contribute to a conversation about how you effect change in government.
Juan: And I think of how do you expect changes being able to manage and be in power. …I think the Republicans have a certain base in terms of being fiscally responsible. They have demonstrated that they have failed in that respect. So the Democrats at this point? They want to do a lot of different things? One of the things I want to caution is that absolutism – like universal healthcare. Universal healthcare may be important. I agree with that. But I don’t think that’s where America is at… I think they need to approach it in a unified stance. We want to talk about basic healthcare and look at it as not universal, but this is a platform from which we’re going to take a step. And if the Democrats do that, then I think they’re going to be able to manage other things that are more important… of equal importance: the environment, Pentagon, the war on terrorism. The war on terrorism is important in relationship to our relations with the world. We cannot win the war on terrorism unless we win the hearts and minds of the world. This is where the arrogance of the Bush administration – they just don’t see the forest for the trees.
NPR: …Let’s go now to Willow in Kansas City.
Willow: … When you talk about winning hearts and minds, I’ve had an interesting experience since I became of voting age myself. I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, just before the last presidential campaign. Previously I’d lived in New York City and in Salt Lake City – two states, of course, where there’s no surprise, in pretty much how national elections will turn out. When I came to Kansas City, I was really amazed and actually energized by the progressives, by the grass roots activities that were going on here but [inaudible] there was really nothing – I think we all know that in retrospect – beyond [trouble with phone]. I was just saying that the problem was that beyond the big ideas there wasn’t anybody but Bush type of rhetoric. So I couldn’t agree more with the points you’re making. I would actually add that this is another cost of staying on message for the Democrats and actually for both political parties, I would say. First, voters are cynical. Most of us take what they’re saying with a grain of salt. We hear it as rhetoric. And frankly a lot of people are fatigued by the fact that they’ve started this campaign so far out. I think it’s reckless and irresponsible for our entire political system, like you said. Instead of challenging the orthodoxies and how things are, to spend $1 billion in paid media this far ahead when those dollars could be used in a much more efficient and responsible way.
NPR: She does raise the point – and it’s certainly mentioned in your book. There was an interesting poll out by Pew that was just in the papers. It seems it some ways – you could certainly argue that the Republican party, that the conservative idea galvanizing the party back starting in the ‘60’s and into the ‘70’s to the point where they thought until a few years ago they had a reasonable expectation of a “permanent majority.” Not a crazy idea just a couple of years ago. But it now seems that that’s exhausted itself. And you have both parties, essentially, in search of a new paradigm.
MB: Absolutely. I think that’s true. People have sometimes said to me, “Why pick on Democrats? Look at the situation the Republicans are in!” My answer is that I can only do one party at a time! This is hard enough book to write about Democrats. I’ve spent the past couple of years looking into it. … I think that’s true. We have two parties in tremendous confusion and disarray ideologically, looking toward the future, trying to meet challenges that are frankly intractable and very, very difficult to meet. I’m not sitting here with the answer. Nobody that I know is. I think there’s a huge opening for either party and for any party or movement in American politics who can reasonably and convincingly articulate a direction for government to adapt that is as compelling as we have seen the government adapt at critical times in America’s past – if you look at the New Deal and the Great Society. There have been other moments where previous generations have done a really remarkable job, greatly to our benefit, in rethinking what government needed to do in the wake of demographic changes, of international changes, of economic transformation. I fear that this baby boomer generation, frankly, has failed to do that. It may actually take generational -- a generation born into the post-industrial world, into a digital world, a less ideological culturally, and a less divisive world – to actually begin to address issues that are in front of us rather than behind us.
NPR: Let get Tom on the line, calling from Maplewood, Minnesota.
Tom: …I read an article by Dan Savage a while ago, after Bush was reelected, that the Democratic party should maybe look to the small islands in urban area that have huge populations and cut loose the…
NPR: … this is the “urban archipelago” theory – I think I heard it described that way.
Tom: I was wondering what your opinion is on that and if you think that the Democratic party, if it had a more progressive message and grabbed more cities, if they could afford to lose that other base…
NPR: This goes to the argument that you go into quite a bit – really about the 2006 election – between the chairman of the Democratic party, Howard Dean, with his 50-state strategy to rebuild the Democratic party, and the leaders of the Democratic campaign committees in the House and in the Senate who said, “Look, we’ve got a change to win now, don’t invest in Alaska! You’re crazy! We need to invest in winnable races!”
MB: Right. I have a whole chapter about this in the book. It deals with a lot of these issues. I’m not a political strategist and I think that’s to everyone’s benefit! So I try not to offer a lot of strategic advice. It does seem to me, having covered this for a while, particularly in the Democratic world, that the Democratic party has done enough lopping off of constituencies that it didn’t feel were high percentage bets over the years. So I do sympathize with Governor Dean’s 50-state strategy in the sense that I don’t know how many constituencies you can afford to write off before you’re trying to reach a very limited American audience and put together just the right number of electoral votes every four years. In that sense, I do sympathize. The point I make in this chapter of the book is that this is an argument that always boils down to tactics. This is an argument that boils down to how you use your money. Should you use your money to have people door-knocking in Kansas when there aren’t a whole lot of Democrats in Kansas and it makes the party less of a progressive juggernaut? Should you use your money to put up advertising in Ohio, because Ohio matters every four years and you know you can win Ohio, so why aren’t you putting all your money there? The underlying supposition is that you can use money to build a long-term majority and enact change. You had a caller who said earlier, I think it was Juan, who said something I hear very often – which is, the way you change the country is to get in power. And I address this very specifically in the book. There’s something to that. But there’s such a faith in the idea that the way you change the country is to elect Democrats that I think a lot of Democrats have forgotten to ask themselves why. And that you don’t actually just change the country by winning elections, you change it by what you do when you get there. In fact, I would argue that the reverse is true. You actually win elections long term – build long-term majorities – by changing the country. History proves that point more than it does the reverse.
NPR: And do you hear any of the presidential candidates who now, because of the accelerated primaries, are in a race in full swing, of course. But do you hear any of the presidential candidates talk about anything that seems outside of the Democratic orthodoxy?
MB: Well, you have seen Senator Obama, interestingly, in the last couple of months begin give a series of speeches, some of them quietly, where he has taken on some of the interest group orthodoxies of the party. He certainly has begun to put some substance behind the generational theme of his campaign in areas like education and somewhat in foreign policy and on poverty, too. So that’s interesting to me. But I would say that the short answer is “no.” At this point there has not been a terribly compelling argument. The campaign has been largely about trying to compete for the new progressive movement and for the party’s old interest groups. But also we’re in August. We’re not even at Labor Day yet. We have to cut candidates a break because they’ve had to go out and raise money and withstand scrutiny so early and the truth is you don’t really find out what candidates are about until the fall. I think they’ve got some time to figure that out and to figure out a way to articulate it. The history of campaigns suggests that we need to wait a little while.