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Matt Bai: The Argument

Sunny Hundal

The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics
Matt Bai


How billionaire donors, radical bloggers and 'netroot' activists are remaking the Democratic Party.


Imagine a left-of-centre political party without much electoral support, chided for not having enough bold ideas, facing a grumbling bunch of institutional backers that accuse it of betraying its ideological roots. Sound like New Labour? You may not be surprised to hear the same being said of the Democratic Party in the United States. This is the picture painted by New York Times journalist Matt Bai in The Argument. Away from the day-to-day concerns of most Democrat politicians and voters, Bai delves into three tightly-knit and politically-charged worlds seeking to influence the Party and its agenda: billionaire donors, radical bloggers and activist groups such as MoveOn.

The billionaires met in 2004 to try and forge a new path for progressive politics in the United States. Frustrated by George Bush's presidency and the apparent inability of Democrats to put up a serious fight, they were brought together on the back of a Powerpoint slide by Rob Stein. A long-time political operator, Stein’s presentation showed how over decades conservatives had built and financed a 'message machine' to develop ideas and promote them across the country, to the advantage of Republicans and detriment of Democrats. If progressives wanted to shift the political landscape in their favour, they were going to have to develop a message machine of their own by financing it. They were soon joined in their efforts by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the AFL-CIO.

Similar observations were being made around the same time among American bloggers, who wanted to ‘take back the country’ from George Bush and the neo-cons by re-energising the Democrats. Chief among them were Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the popular Daily Kos site and Jerome Armstrong of MyDD, who focused on how America could come back into the progressive fold. Bloggers were having increasing impact on Democrat politics, demonstrated by Howard Dean’s emergence as a presidential candidate in 2004 and subsequent election as national party chairman.

The third focus of Bai's book is MoveOn, an online campaign founded in the wake of Republican attempts to impeach Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. MoveOn evolved from an online petition to an action-orientated campaign group tapping into the wealth and support of liberals frustrated by political parties but still interested in politics and having an impact. Bai attends 'house-parties' organised by MoveOn members across the country to build grass-roots support and encourage ordinary voters to put forward an agenda of change they’d like to see.

The Argument offers fascinating insights into each of these nascent movements in a way few other books can. Bai travels with bloggers, sits in on secret meetings with the billionaires, and talks to key figures about their ideas and objectives. He builds a bigger picture of grassroots change that could profoundly affect the Democratic Party and American politics in general. But the critical thrust of his book is that none of these initiatives have yet built 'an argument' as to the purpose of the Democratic Party. Republicans, he contends, were able to move the political agenda rightwards and capture both the House of Representative and Senate by offering simple and convincing reasons for why people should vote for them. They made it the Party of small government, strong defence, conservative values and low taxes, and set out to convince the electorate why this was in their interests. They were so successful in fact that there were whole states where Democrats had been thoroughly routed and unable to offer much opposition to Republican candidates.

A Bai puts it:

Arguments come and go in American politics from one campaign to another, but some endure. The twentieth century, in fact, was dominated by the arguments of just a few popular movements and their visionary leaders. While all of their proponents laboured to make them as universal and as palatable to voters as possible, none of these arguments grew originally from a desire to win elections, nor were they designed to be immediately acceptable to the broadest swath of voters.

He goes on to cite the compelling arguments put forward by Roosevelt for the New Deal to save capitalism from itself; by Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy for a bigger government with a moral obligation to tackle social inequalities; and by Ronald Reagan against the evils of central planning, following the ideas of Friedrich Hayek. The crux of this critique is captured in an interview with Bill Clinton near the end of the book. Bai says the former President understood the need for the Democrats to have a new argument, to formulate ‘a third way – a way to retool the welfare state without actually dismantling it’.

The book’s general thrust is right in many ways. Bai recounts how the rich funders, who organised themselves under the moniker ‘Democracy Alliance’, faced stumbling blocks early on because they were unsure of what they want to achieve and how. And even when they did get their act together, the focus was on funding groups already operating within the confines of Washington politics rather than those with fresh outside-the-box thinking. The bloggers, similarly, are more interested in strategic victory over Republican candidates rather than looking at and dealing with the root cause of Democratic malaise.

But the problem with The Argument is that Bai is taking a shot at the wrong people. The bloggers at Daily Kos and MyDD are unashamedly activism- and strategy-orientated. In their own 2006 book Crashing the Gate Markos and Jerome point out that much of the Republican success is down to building broad coalitions (spanning social, fiscal and foreign policy conservatives), finding ways to get their message across to the public (direct mail and talk radio), and playing dirty. Why shouldn’t Democrats do the same in return? In other words, an argument is important but it is by no means the only way to win an election. Plus, as former Daily Kos blogger McJoan pointed out in a review of Bai’s book at the blog TPM Café, the activists at Daily Kos are a different breed to policy wonks at the Washington Monthly. The Argument, to that extent, fails to appreciate the plurality of bloggers. It also fails to give the Democracy Alliance some time to find its feet and start funding liberal thinkers who can build arguments for the progressive movement rather than simply help the Democrats hold on to power.

It’s difficult to avoid parallels with British politics in the midst of all that is going on in the United States. One could argue that while the Labour Party has become strategically better at winning elections, after ten years in power it still doesn’t offer voters a compelling reason to vote for them other than as an alternative to the Tories. Moreover, readers of The Argument on the British left will undoubtedly feel a pang of jealousy as they watch the growth of strong movements outside the Democratic Party fighting to reshape the future of progressive politics. Who in Britain is interested in funding an intellectual resurgence and developing a message machine for the left? Where are the activist bloggers raising money and offering support to politicians of choice? Where are the grassroots-driven movements like MoveOn, actively seeking to influence party politics?

By contrast with this ferment British politics seems positively dreary. To that extent, The Argument offers inspiration for activists in Britain looking to kick-start progressive grassroots movements in an era where trade unions are no longer as influential as they used to be. It also serves as a mirror for our own state of affairs. The Labour Party may have become better at positioning itself against the Conservatives, but without compelling new ideas and momentum, it cannot build and sustain a progressive movement. Maybe it’s time for others to step up to that task.