Drinking Liberally in DC with Chris Bowers

by , posted on Sunday, August 26th, 2007 at 11:10 pm

Originally posted at Fireside 14 and Prairie State Blue.

Drinking Liberally is, in it’s own words, “an informal gathering of like-minded left-leaners who want to trade ideas, get more involved, or just share each other’s company… and every week kvetch, vent, ponder, and pontificate on the issues of the day.”  And in DC once a month they have guest speakers.  Last Thursday the guest speaker was Chris Bowers of Open Left, and I stopped in to hear what he had to say.

Before taking questions, Chris began by sketching out the place of blogs and such within the broader progressive ecosystem.  Blogs, he noted, were originally very individualized projects, one person having their say via their own personal web log.  But now even enormous, multifaceted operations such as the Daily Kos and the Huffington Post have come to be thought of as a kind of blog.  A bigger category, of which blogs are but one part, would be the “progressive netroots,” which includes any progressive who is engaged online.  Chris offered MoveOn.org as an example that, while not a blog, was nevertheless very much a part of the progressive netroots.  Beyond this, then, are broader progressive communities, such as the Drinking Liberally groups themselves, which use the internet as one of their tools.  Broader still is the progressive movement as a whole, more generally, the broader progressive ecosystem that we are all swimming around in, every advocacy group, every staffer, the Democratic Party, yes, but others outside it’s ranks, too, everybody and everything that makes a claim, whatever it’s merits, to being “progressive.”

Too often, Chris added, when people want to get something done they tend to think it all starts on the blogs, and often that it all starts with core bloggers, when what we’re really dealing with is this huge, broad system that is too often subsumed in the blog “rock star” myth.  The way to get something done online, alternatively, is to find the niche that relates to what you’re trying to do and to get involved there.  One of the first questions for Chris, then, was: How do you find a niche appropriate to what you think you want to blog on?  A: Look for other blogs on your subject.  Use blog search engines like Technorati, or Google Blog Search.  Look for blog rolls at interesting websites and follow those links.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with Open Left?  A: Chris and Matt Stoller thought that MyDD, their previous home base, had become perhaps a bit too concentrated on the 2008 primaries for their taste.  Chris wanted to blog on a greater variety of things, like policy, legislation (net neutrality, for example), movement building.  Or something like their new Bush Dogs campaign, to take another example.  So, they concluded it was time to go someplace else.  Better for MyDD to keep going in it’s niche, while Chris and Matt expanded into other things elsewhere.

There were also a few questions about the demographics of blog readers, whether there was a risk of people sticking too much to their own niche and tuning out the rest of the world, and whether Chris had any ideas regarding what might be done to expand the community.  Regarding the demographics, he said it’s around 60% male, 80-85% white, that it skews toward those with high incomes and the well-educated (but I’m not entirely certain whether Chris was talking here about just the progressive blogosphere, or something broader than that.  Sorry.).  And as for the concern that too much of the blogosphere might be doing little more than preaching to the choir, Chris suggested that preaching to the choir, in and of itself, wasn’t a bad thing at all.  That the progressive side hadn’t been preaching to their choir, that for too long the focus had been on reaching out to independents and swing voters, and that you have to preach to the choir to keep the base active.  That said, however, the blogosphere is ideally about sourcing, about linking to something, and that this is a way to direct people to other voices.  Asked whether a greater diversity in the topics one finds discussed might not help some people feel less excluded, Chris restated the need to link to a wider variety of blogs, and the need to remember that the blogosphere is not all Daily Kos and Huffington Post.

On the right-wing blogs and how they compare to what the left does, right-wing blogs, Chris observed, tend to do what other right-wing media does, they attack liberals and “the media.” Their websites tend to be much smaller and relatively static.  They don’t engage in intramural policy fights.  There is no primary engagement, no fundraising.  They simply replicate what’s going on in other media.  Progressives, on the other hand, are building a new medium of communication, finding new leaders, he said, and are generally up to something much more expansive.  On the question of whether there have been no attempts by the right-wing blogosphere to elect Republicans, or just no successful attempts, Chris said they all seem to want to be pundits, the next Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, not activists.  And when they’ve tried to branch out and do other things, their efforts have been flops.  He offered an example of an attempt by GOP.com to organize house parties as fundraisers, where the top five efforts would receive a Special Republican Edition iPod as a gift.  The most successful house party raised only $498.  The third $150, the fourth $100, and the fifth most successful party only raised $50.  So the gifts for the five best house parties would have ended up costing GOP.com more than the parties themselves raised, if not for the fine print they had written into the deal.  Similarly, GOP PAC has been a dismal failure if you compare it to Act Blue on the left.  The thing is, the right-wing sites simply don’t get much traffic.  Open Left, Chris said, really isn’t that high volume a site on the left, but if you compare it to the right-wing sites, it would be in the top ten.

A couple of questions had to do with the new Bush Dogs campaign that is being spearheaded by Open Left, which is what I was there to hear about, and ask about, myself.  The Bush Dogs campaign is attempting to focus attention on those Democrats in Congress, in the House of Representatives more specifically, who broke with the party on the Iraq supplemental and FISA votes, functioning as part of a de facto working conservative majority that is enabling Bush to have his way on key votes, in spite of the fact that both the Senate and House have Democratic majorities.  The first question offered on the Bush Dogs campaign asked whether or not there was a danger of it becoming a leftist version of the Club for Growth.  How far do you go, the questioner wondered?  Chris answered that you do have to differentiate between which Democrats you go after and which ones you don’t, that, yes, you do have to make allowances for the district the Democrat is representing, for instance.

The question I had for Chris went something like this (well, to be honest, it was probably a much less clearly stated version of the following):  In your IL-14 diary a couple of days ago, you suggested that you don’t have a problem supporting Blue Dogs, just Bush Dogs. But if what we ultimately want is a truly progressive majority, and we think in wider terms than just a handful of key votes in the here and now, then don’t we need to buy into Matt’s argument that “in a majority Democratic House where conservatives have a governing working majority, electing a Blue Dog Democrat is little different than electing a Republican when it comes to public policy choices”?  For example, Blue Dogs like Patrick Murphy, or primary candidate Bill Foster in IL-14, may be fine on Iraq or FISA, but they are still deficit hawks committed to the Blue Dog Coalition-New Democrat Coalition-corporate Democrat way of thinking about the budget.  And they will never prioritize the kind of public investment agenda that progressives, i.e. economic populists, are calling for [here, here, here, here, and here, for example].  So, don’t we need to cast our net more widely than the Iraq supplemental and FISA votes if we want to do something about the conservative working majority in Congress that is too often enabling Bush to win the day?

I should add that as I began my question, I identified myself as somebody who was working for John Laesch, a primary opponent of Bill Foster’s, and Chris began his answer to my question by stressing that he is not endorsing anyone in the primary in IL-14, although he acknowledged that he hadn’t really been all that nice to Foster in that diary. With those preliminaries out of the way, he went on to say that he wasn’t really a manifesto guy. And he’s not particularly interested in developing a long laundry list of items to be included in any litmus test.  His concern right now is to focus in on where we’re losing votes in Congress right now, and the Iraq supplemental and FISA votes are the only pattern he can find, so that’s what has guided the decision to put the spotlight specifically on “Bush Dogs.”  Being in a caucus, in Chris’s opinion, doesn’t necessarily tell you where someone will vote. And as for my desire to see the fiscally conservative deficit hawk position be added to the list we use for establishing who’s with us and who’s agin’ us, Chris feels that since we’re not losing on the deficit/budget question right now, we should cross that bridge when we come to it.

There was also a question that asked Chris what he thought the future would hold, say five years from now, given the success we’ve had so far with all the energy that has been mobilized for progressive change.  He observed that we’re already seeing a splintering online, a manifestation of the same anger that we see directed at the Democrats in Congress right now more generally.  And it seemed to me that Chris here was articulating a point of view much closer to that I’ve suggested Matt started with in the week before the Bush Dogs campaign was hatched.  The answer to the problem we’re facing in Congress–where we are waking up in the aftermath of votes like that on FISA to the realization that some Democrats have become a part of a working conservative majority that is undermining the Democratic majority–is, in Chris’s words, “more and better Democrats.”

I remain convinced that our field guide to the species of Democrats who represent a danger to the progressive agenda is going to have to expand it’s list of tell-tale characteristics beyond just a couple of the most obvious votes taking place in Congress right now.  The Bush Dog campaign is very important, and it deserves our support.  There’s no doubt about that.  But the problem doesn’t end with those already in office.  We also need to work to support progressives in the primaries, and wherever we have a progressive alternative we need to oppose contenders who give every indication of wanting to go to Congress to advance a fundamentally corporate and/or conservative agenda.  Like Chris says, we need “more and better Democrats.”  And like Matt says, “in a majority Democratic House where conservatives have a governing working majority, electing a Blue Dog Democrat is little different than electing a Republican when it comes to public policy choices.”  Fighting the good fight against the Bush Dogs is only a beginning.


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