Reinventing the Party Online

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga has managed to do something the Democratic Party has almost always failed to do.

Three years ago, the personal blog of Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (Army nickname: "Kos") of Berkeley, Calif., had, by his estimation, about 50 readers. Today, his blog has more than a million visitors a day and is by far the most prominent among dozens of burgeoning national liberal blogs. The readership for Kos and his other front-page contributors exceeds that of almost every daily newspaper in the country. The front page is a gateway to a vast network of blogs, threads, diaries, and links, making Daily Kos a community and a participatory phenomenon. Zuniga has managed to do something the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has almost always failed to do: tap the energy, enthusiasm, ideas, and anger of the party's activists.

And so when Zuniga and Jerome Armstrong write a book suggesting how the Democratic Party might get its shit together, people are going to pay attention. Crashing the Gate has been getting glowing reviews and is selling briskly. Armstrong is the founder of one of the earliest national liberal blogs, MyDD, and architect of Howard Dean's pioneering 2004 use of the Internet in his run for president. The pair were in the Seattle area recently, promoting their ideas and book at Microsoft, a packed Labor Temple, and a drenched Marymoor Park. I talked with them before the Labor Temple gig and again with Zuniga in Olympia the next afternoon.

Armstrong and Zuniga hold forth on things like a 50-state organizing strategy (which they advocated before new DNC Chair Dean adopted it), getting rid of the Democratic Party's stultifying consultant class, and weaning the party from its fear of alienating single-interest constituencies. It is Zuniga who delivers their pitch with an evangelical fervor. And to be sure, these are good and long-overdue ideas, born not just of the authors' blog experience but through extensive interviews with Democratic operatives and elected officials across non-Beltway-land. (Populist Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer comes in for particular attention and praise.)

Curiously, Zuniga says he's not a political strategist. While his intent is to use Daily Kos to promote party-friendly activism, the issues and strategies emphasized emerge organically, not in coordination with the party itself— unlike some Republican blogs, which are an integral part of a well-oiled talking-point machine.

Armstrong and Zuniga's focus is almost exclusively on how to restructure the party. In both the book and their public appearances, they take loyalty to the party as a given, spending little time explaining why anyone should care about electing Democrats. Sure, getting rid of the type of consultant-driven waffling and triangulation that has defined the Gore and Kerry presidential runs (and the presidential positioning of Hillary Clinton) is a great idea; the consultants have perfected the art of losing elections they should win. But the damage is done. Voters make their decisions based on image even more than issues, and the Democrats' image is mud. Democratic leaders not only haven't notably popularized any issues lately (pick one, for God's sake!), but it will take years, many years, to undo the image they've projected by being spineless politicians who stand for nothing but themselves.

Nationally, the Democrats need to start producing and spotlighting strong new leaders. They then need to convince Americans that these folks are strong and effective leaders. Armstrong and Zuniga recognize this but are almost silent as to how it might happen. Internal structural changes are useless if the leaders they produce wind up sounding and acting just like the last crew (cf. Barack Obama).

Oddly, with traffic for national political blogs starting to plateau, the pair doesn't have much to say about the future of technology in politics, either. Zuniga notes that Rupert Murdoch just bought and that Republicans will use the purchase not only to mine data but to learn how to market more effectively to young adults just forming political identities. The Democrats aren't thinking 10 years out in this fashion. But the authors are curiously clueless—at least publicly—about how coming technologies might further revolutionize politics.

Zuniga's newest venture isn't newer technology, it's holding "Netroots Leadership Institutes" to train technology people to help campaigns. "Cell phones are going to be a big organizing tool," he says. "I was sort of a visionary in the blog world. The thing that will change everything is the convergence between television and the Internet. With all these new technologies coming out, I just don't see how they'll wind up being used. . . . I don't fault politicians for not getting it. It's going to take a while for them to realize that the world is changing. It's early yet."

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