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If you had to name the two things the Internet has done to change Democratic Party politics the most, going with Howard Dean's campaign and the DailyKos blog would be pretty safe bets.
Dean's Net-based bid for his party's presidential nomination redefined political campaigning: it showed the way to a Democratic politics that wouldn't have to depend on big-money donors, it used a blog as a means of communicating to supporters without a media filter, and it resurrected grassroots organizing through social software hosted on the site.
DailyKos, run by Markos Moulistas Zuniga, has risen to become the most popular political blog out there. A single entry on the blog's main page in favor of a Democrat running for office can net as much money as a fundraiser for the candidate, and as much attention as a profile from a major newspaper. And DailyKos is slowly becoming the epicenter of all Democratic Party discourse -- members of Congress, leaders of progressive organizations, and hundreds of party activists post their own entries on the blog.
What the Dean campaign and DailyKos share is that neither of these two ventures would be what they are today if it weren't for the political activist Jerome Armstrong, who has played a big behind-the-scenes role in the innovation and successes of both. Jerome is the founder of a Democratic politics blog called MyDD, or My Due Diligence of Politics. Before he started his own blog, Kos was posting on MyDD. He credits Armstrong as his "blogfather," and now the two are business partners, currently working on a book together.
Joe Trippi, the former Dean campaign manager, writes in his book "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," that he too, got hooked on my MyDD. Trippi started responding to criticism about him posted by users of the blog. "Pretty soon, I was reading Jerome's blog regularly, and occasionally commenting on my own stupidity. Then, in January, right before I went up to Burlington, [Vermont], Jerome wrote in his blog about a web site called Meetup.com where, he said, some Howard Dean supporters were using the internet to get together in a handful of cities." Meetup went on to become one of the campaign's central grassroots organizing tools, and Trippi would later bring Armstrong on to the campaign to consult on internet issues.
Armstrong stayed in Burlington after the Dean campaign ended, but he has gone on to consult with Democratic campaigns across the country, most recently for the new Los Angeles mayor elect, Antonio Villaraigosa, and his MyDD blog was ground zero for discussion and rumors about the election of the new DNC chair, which just happened to go in Howard Dean's favor. Armstrong and Kos have also founded a political action committee called BlogPac which aims to harness the collective power of the hundreds of pro-Democrat political blogs out there.
AlterNet met with Armstrong in Washington, D.C. to talk about how he started his MyDD blog, got involved in the Dean campaign, and why he sees political bloggers as a growing force within the Democratic Party.
Were you involved in politics before you went online?
Jerome Armstrong: Not much. I voted, that was it. Political participation wasn't on my radar, really. I did some field organizing in in Portland, Oregon in the early '90s. What really got me going was in 2000 when I was working as a day trader. I started following the Florida story online. I'd go into Salon's discussion forums and check out what people were saying. I started my own blog, MyDD, in June 2001. I'd send what I was writing over to BuzzFlash and they'd link to it. Here I was, working as a day trader, and pretty soon 200 or 300 people were reading my articles on the Bush Administration. 300 people isn't that many, but I saw the potential for where this could go right away.
I started getting very interested in elections. 2001, like 2005, was an "off year" for elections. The only big ones going on at the time were the New York City mayor's race, and the the New Jersey and Virginia governors' races, just like this year. I was pretty much the only one blogging about those elections in depth, and people started dropping in on MyDD to see what was going on.
When did you start thinking about the 2004 presidential race?
Armstrong: Well, Kerry was the first one I started hearing about in early 2002, but I wasn't too enthusiastic about him. I read about Howard Dean in an article -- I think the article just mentioned his name -- and searched for his campaign. He didn't even have a site up, just one for his PAC; Fund for a Healthy America. I got in touch with his campaign and found out that Dean was making a trip that May out to the West Coast, where I was living at the time, and so I met up with him in Seattle, where he was speaking to the King County Democrats. I got there early, and Howard was the only one there, so I introduced myself and we talked.
I told him that people looking for him on the Internet didn't have anywhere to go. He was pretty intuitive about what could be done online. He said, "I meet with all these people all over the country, and they give me their business cards, and when I leave, where do they all go?"
But it was a while before Dean had anything serious going. I created a page about Howard Dean on MyDD before he had a site, which for a while was the landing page when people searched for him on the internet.
By January of 2003, I had already been in touch with Joe Trippi and other folks on the campaign for a while, and we were passing strategy papers back and forth. Trippi was worried that John Kerry had a list of 20,000 people he could call upon at any time to help him, and Dean didn't have anything like that. That's where Meetup fell in my lap, and I found the answer for that. Matt Gross, who had become my co-blogger at MyDD, became the chief blogger on the Dean campaign in March. I finally came on to the campaign full time in the spring and ran the online advertising. By that time, the campaign was clicking.
How did you and Kos find each other?
Armstrong: Markos started reading MyDD in 2001, and was one of the first people to write comments on my postings. He emailed me to tell me he was starting his own blog, Fishy Shark in 2002, which I linked to. Later, he started DailyKos. We started e-mailing back and forth, and he told me near the end of that year that he was going to stop blogging because he was about to start working for the State department. I was already talking to the Dean folks and Trippi was asking me to build a blog and other stuff. I knew Markos had a strong computer background, and so I invited him up to Portland where I was living, and so we gelled in a day or two.
Bloggers like yourself and Kos have already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on your own blogs. Why did you start BlogPAC?
Armstrong: We wanted to find a way for bloggers to combine funds that they had raised. This gives us a little sway in terms of where that money goes toward. We've since got 500 blogs to join BlogPac, so this thing is going to be huge in the coming elections. We have a board that includes eight or nine of the big-named bloggers, [like Duncan Black of Atrios]. We've broken it down by regions, and we've found local bloggers to sign in every state except for Hawai'i and North Dakota. There is something to be said for being an institutional power, and I think this is a way we can do it.
You see what's happening online as the driving force of what's changing the Democratic Party.
Armstrong: The Democratic party is undergoing a radical transformation in terms of where the money comes from; it's really starting to pour in from the grassroots instead of the corporate donors. It used to be that Labor would come in and drop millions at the DNC before an election cycle. In the '90s, that changed with corporate donors and wealthy individuals dropping the cash in. That can't happen anymore with the campaign finance laws, so the Party has to reach in from the grassroots.
That's where the bloggers have the advantage. They are touching base with the activists every day, in real and direct format that is going on live, which most people can participate in. And so what are you going to respond to as an activist out there: a direct e-mail or letter from the DNC that uses stiff language with bland promises, or the real, authentic voice of someone like Markos who will come out and say that Bush is an asshole? That's a fundraising drive that's going to move.
There's a rawness there that the Democratic Party just can't match. And this is an important point in terms of understanding where the bloggers are taking over the Democratic Party: The party activists out there don't like being in the minority, so the voice that best speaks to their anger and desire for empowerment is the one they are going to attach themselves to. The Democratic party and its politicians are restrained in their voices, and the bloggers don't have to be. It's pretty simple.
Jan Frel has worked as an editor for AlterNet and TomPaine.com, and occasionally posts entries on MyDD. Disclosure: I worked on Howard Dean's campaign in Vermont.