Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Blogosphere Saves Civilization

The Rise of the Liberal Blogosphere has a valid claim to helping save civilization.

Everyone knows the famous episode in Peanuts in which Charlie Brown prepares to kick a football with Lucy as the ball holder. Charlie Brown runs up to kick, and Lucy snatches the ball away, with Charlie landing flat on his back. And then Lucy promises that this time – this time – she’ll be a good ball holder and that Charlie Brown should try again. And this time – this time – she once again snatches the ball away. This was a running gag over some considerable period of time, with the same result every time: Lucy offers assurances, Charlie Brown is skeptical but finally agrees to trust her one more time, and Lucy invariably betrays that trust.

For a lot of Democratic voters, the party can seem an awful lot like Charlie Brown, with a succession of Lucys: first, of course, Tricky Dick himself, but certainly his progeny like Mike Deaver, Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. So as Democratic voters approach every election, there’s a strong skepticism that this time will be any different. Will the Democrats’ earnest appeal of positions on relevant issues finally be taken to heart by the voters, or will we once again have substance snatched away only to have a campaign revolve around patently silly issues like flag-burning, “law and order,” the Panama Canal, a spouse’s psychiatric treatment, a young man’s experiment with marijuana?

Many of us are finally seeing a different outcome, at long last. Finally, this time – this time – the ball is not being moved. Finally, this time – this time – the ball is steady and the kick looks to be good. Our man Obama seems finally to have broken some kind of spell that Republican magicians have had over voters for 40 years.

Obama is a once-in-a-lifetime candidate. He is our Ronald Reagan – a personable champion of our cause who has an uncanny ability to communicate our agenda in ways that appeals to a broad swath of voters on both sides of the political divide. Unlike Reagan, he is also a smart and savvy campaigner, having run a virtually flawless campaign that is not only succeeding on its own terms (i.e., putting Obama in the White House), but is also re-defining political campaigns for all time.

But Obama’s personal qualities – his charisma, his competence, his communications skills, his visions – don’t tell the whole story. Many Democrats believe that Obama alone is the difference – that he is what Kerry, Gore 2000, Dukakis, Mondale, McGovern, maybe even Clinton, were not. While those candidates certainly had negatives that contributed to their losses (or in Clinton’s case, to his inability to enact much of the progressive agenda), there was another powerful force that worked against their success. That worked, in fact, hand-in-glove with the Nixons, the Roves, the Atwaters.

The media was and in many cases still is an eager abettor of right-wing smear campaigns. The right figured out that many reporters simply would not stand up to basic bullying – assertiveness, yelling, name-calling, calls to supervisors, etc. The right was fortunate that the media was becoming corporate-ized, which meant hiring actors to portray journalists rather than journalists. The corporate media was selling likeability, and had no need of credibility. As long as viewers and readers showed up, the only goal was to spend as little as possible on the people producing the content.

But there’s a new kid on the block. With roots tracing back to the right’s vendetta against Clinton, a new generation of writers and thinkers collided with a new generation of publishing tools that gave direct access to viewers. No longer were large capital investments necessary to publish professional-quality work. Even television could be produced with little or no cost. And underlying this happy marriage was the rise of on-line advertising, which allowed the most successful writers and producers to earn their living. And while these bloggers didn’t supplant the actor-journalists, they attracted an audience of key readers and viewers. Political insiders, media, academics, intellectuals, government personnel and opinion leaders of all sorts were attracted to the credibility that these bloggers offered. And that has made a key difference.

Newspaper journalists are less likely to gullibly swallow the right’s smears. Cable “news” readers have discovered that it’s good for ratings to be skeptical. People who work in mass media have discovered that high quality analysis and reporting are now easily available, and that if they spurn it they will be made to feel foolish. Political operatives now understand that things said on video will circulate widely enough that they cannot be ignored. And citizens have discovered that they can participate in an political dialogue that makes sense to them, and more, have discovered that they organize, canvass, donate and agitate for the values that are important to them.

The left has already established the first great stars of the blogosphere. Kos, of course, but also Josh Marshall (now emperor of TPM Media), the writers of group blogs like Americablog, Think Progress and First Draft, and single stars like Digby, Atrios, John Cole, Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Steve Benen, Matt Yglesias, and Kevin Drum. These people have contributed to the triumph not only of the left, but of reason and democracy. (The right’s early stars, Glenn Reynolds, Jonah Goldberg, Katherine Lozez, Atlas Shrugged, NRO, Redstate, etc., have either already crashed and burned, or are about to get swallowed up. The real starts of the right have not, in my view, really emerged yet. Sullivan is sort of an exception, and the “new right” (Douhat, Larison, etc.) may yet emerge. But the serious writers of the right – those that will define a conservatism that is actually helpful to society, rather than to the rich and powerful – have not yet appeared.)

So, like the Irish monks of the late Dark Ages who can reasonably be said to have saved Western civilization, the lefty blogosphere has a claim to civilization-saving. These are golden days – salad days – that will be long remembered as a time when the forces of good finally rose up and vanquished (for a time) the forces of evil. It doesn’t happen very often, and it’s something to be savored when it does. The next three weeks are about as good as it gets.

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