Susie Madrak started blogging in 2001, just after Sept. 11, back when the country was hurtling head-first into war and the blogosphere was a mysterious frontier on the far edges of the Internet.
“It was infuriating,” Madrak recalled of the political moment that spurred her to start throwing her own commentary online. “I could see that they were fabricating the reasons for war. Blogging was what I did instead of throwing a brick through the window.”
She started her own site, called Suburban Guerilla, and it soon became one of the boldface blogs of the “Netroots,” a new network of engaged political progressives giving a voice they thought was missing in the mainstream press. In time, millions like her took to their own keyboards, and thousands of similar sites bloomed. The Netroots became the world’s first online grassroots political organizing effort, and the goal was nothing less than to remake the American political system by pushing Democrats leftward.
“We didn’t trust the traditional progressive movement—labor, the issue orgs, the party—because of a record of failure and futility,” writes Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos, in an email. “In turn, they didn’t like us petulant upstarts. A popular sentiment was, ‘What are those bloggers going to do, hit George Bush in the head with a laptop?’”
Now, however, the Netroots, which were once thought to do to the political left what evangelical Christianity was supposed to do to the professional right, are 10 years old. In that time they vaulted Howard Dean to within a scream of the presidency, helped Democrats take both houses of Congress and several statehouses across the country, and gave the party what many in the movement believed to be some much-needed spine.
But with another critical election two weeks away, politicians, political operatives, and even the bloggers themselves say the Netroots are a whisper of what they were only four years ago, a dial-up modem in a high-speed world, and that the brigade of laptop-wielding revolutionaries who stormed the convention castle four years ago have all but disappeared as a force within the Democratic Party.
Madrak’s example is typical. She blogs, she says, more than ever, up to 20 times per day. But traffic is a third of what it was at its peak, and instead of being able to make a living through ad dollars, she is forced to seek donations intermittently on her site.
“The days when people could be very influential in the blogosphere aren’t here anymore,” she said.
The beginning of the end, many of the current and former bloggers say, came during the great Democratic primary Civil War of 2007–08. Until then, the Netroots had been remarkably cohesive, lining up behind promising congressional and Senate candidates en masse to raise money and boost name recognition. Since Democrats had been rendered to minor-party status, disagreements were papered over.
But then came the wave election of 2006, and suddenly the presidency was in sight. But the Netroots, like most Democrats, were divided among Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. During that campaign, the political blogosphere on the left became less known for sparking offline activism and more known for epic fights among those with divided loyalties.
“I supported John Edwards,” Madrak said. “And the Obama people were very vehement about what they thought about it. And they up and left the site if they thought you were being irrational about Obama. I still don’t know where they went. They just up and disappeared.”
Although the Obama campaign raised a record amount of money online, they never quite made common cause with online activists.
“It has been a very testy relationship,” said Peter Daou, a blogger in the early days of the movement and now a political consultant. “He didn’t reach out. That was complained about in 2008, and during his presidency there has been a very bad relationship. They have been dismissive, and you want to look for a reason why the progressive blogosphere has fractured, that is it.”
Once Obama was in office, the hard feelings didn’t cool, with a number of lefty bloggers urging their compatriots to rally behind the president, while others continued to try to drag the administration further to the left. When criticism on the blogs of the administration over their failure to push a public option in the health-care debate was reaching a crescendo, then–press secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed the “professional left.” Earlier this month, liberal websites lit up trying to drive a story that Mitt Romney had brought an illegal cheat sheet to the first debate. The White House dismissed them as “the tin foil hat crowd.”
“When we started we were deeply anti-Bush, and there was a unanimity of purpose in the early days that we needed to modernize the left,” said Bill Scher, who founded the site Liberal Oasis. “We thought we understood the modern media a lot better than the old guard, and way better than the elites in Washington. We were tired of watching our guys get beat up on the talk shows, and tired of the purity tests of the ‘Old Left.’”
His site, which at its peak received 6,000 to 7,000 visitors a day, is now updated once a week with Scher’s podcast.
“Since Obama, the cohesion has splintered,” he says. “The Netroots are now just a random collection of bloggers.”
MYDD, which stood for My Direct Democracy, got started in 2001, and along with Kos, Talking Points Memo, and a few others, was for most of the 2000s one of the tent-pole progressive websites. But Jerome Armstrong, the site’s founder, stopped blogging entirely in 2010, instead going to work for the campaign of Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.
“The Netroots had this movement, but Obama didn’t even recognize it. He created his own movement,” he says. “With Obama winning, and Democrats winning a trifecta”—the House, the Senate, and the presidency—“as an insurgent organizer, you are no longer a part of that. All you can do is hope for the best, and I don’t think we got the best.”
Part of the Netroots decline had to do with the inevitable maturing of the movement and the simple evolution of the Internet. Ten years ago the blogs were one of the few places on the Internet where it was possible to find out what was happening in real time, as even many establishment news organizations hadn’t figured out how to move their offline print and broadcast products to the Web.
That has long since been sorted out, and in the meantime, dozens of online-only news outlets have been likewise competing for clicks and crowding out some of the proud amateurs. The political conversation, like the rest of the online conversation, has moved to Facebook and Twitter, and the bloggers steeped in an earlier Internet culture have not been able to keep up.
“Some bloggers have learned how to play well with a very dynamic Facebook community, with a very dynamic Twitter community, but a lot just don’t have the mental bandwidth,” said Henry Copeland, CEO of Blogads, which sells advertising on the Internet. “You need a density of folks who are excited about doing it. All of this stuff requires a community, and as a blogger you want to be responding to other bloggers and be in the thick of it, and the thick of things has just moved in another direction.”
The typing hordes have moved in another direction too. The pace of blogging was always punishing and nearly impossible for those who did it to keep another job. But being marginally employed loses its charm after a while, even if you are able to elect the Congress of your dreams.
“The blogosphere that we knew of in 2004 and 2008 is not what it was,” says Raven Brooks, executive director a Netroots Nation, an IRL annual meet-up. “It is still a tight community; it is just older, more established. The economy isn’t what it was then. A lot were students, and they have graduated and gone looking for jobs.”
A number of the major players in the early days of the movement have gone on to trade their skills into something more steady. Daou and Armstrong became political consultants specializing in digital outreach. Scher blogs for the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group. Others, like Greg Sargent and Glenn Greenwald, ended up getting hired by establishment media outlets. And a few of the savvier, more entrepreneurial bloggers turned their own sites into more robust media outlets.
Talking Points Memo, which was once the province of Josh Marshall, has bureaus in New York and Washington, D.C., has spun off a half-dozen related sites, and has more than 20 staffers. Think Progress, an arm of the liberal think tank The Center for American Progress, hardly existed in the early days of the Netroots, but has since become a must-read for anyone looking to keep up with the latest foibles of the Republicans. Many bloggers with their own sites have been folded into the tent of Daily Kos, which has dozens of contributors and conducts extensive polling and microlevel analysis of local races.
“The downside to the growth of Daily Kos and the professionalization of our medium is that the small-time blogger is on the verge of extinction,” writes Moulitsas. “That chaotic cacophony of amateur online voices was beautiful while it lasted, though.”
Politics changed, too. Back in the day, at the very least the Netroots could arrange for boatloads of cash for favored candidates. But in a post–Citizens United world, the boatload is nothing when corporations and wealthy individuals can come up with yacht-loads of money. The digital aspect of campaigns has become less about shaping online conversation and more about using online tools to glean information about voters, and then using old-fashioned direct appeals to get voters to the polls.
“They may still be one of the most influential groups on the American left, but this is still the American left we are talking about,” said David Karpf, author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy. “It’s a little like talking about who is the best player on the Washington Wizards. In 2008 the digital people were new and sparkly enough that they got extra care and feeding by the campaigns, because they didn’t really know who was behind all of this. But now those in the Democratic Party who want to ignore it realize that they can.”
What’s left of the Netroots say they aren’t finished yet. They point to the handful of candidates for office this year that they got behind, like Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, as proof of their relevance—never mind that most of the Democratic establishment lined up behind them as well. They point to the mass protests in Wisconsin last year as proof of their ability to bring issues to the forefront—never mind that those protests ended up securing the anti-union lawmakers who voted on them in the first place. They plan on blogging away as ever—as Congress and whoever is the next president face the next round of budget fights.
But no one is quite certain to say what the future will bring—of politics, of organizing, of blogging.
Asked if she hopes to keep at it, Madrak said: “Oh Christ, I hope not. I just turned 58. I have been out of work for four years. No one is breaking down the door to give me an offer. Until I have other options I have to keep doing this.”