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Politics for Pragmatists

Star political bloggers Markos Moulitsas Zuniga and Jerome Armstrong talk about their new book, the state of the Democratic Party and the promise of people-powered politics.
 
 
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Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga are the founders of MyDD and Daily Kos -- two of the most influential political blogs in America, with web traffic numbers that compete with the circulation of major daily newspapers.

Relatively recent entrants onto the political scene, Armstrong's MyDD and Moulitsas's DailyKos have quickly become the centers of discourse about the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Ninety-nine percent of that discourse is not written by Armstrong or Moulitsas; the community format of their blogs allow for anyone to join in the conversation or start their own, and thousands of people have taken part.

Armstrong and Moulitsas are co-authors of the new book, " Crashing the Gate," which offers readers an extensive look into their understanding of the political dynamic in Washington, the state of the Democratic Party and the promise of people-powered politics.

"Crashing the Gate" is not a work of political theory. It's a fairly broad exposition and critique of the progressive-Democratic Party apparatus -- from think tanks to state party systems to the political consultants -- and its practices. The book has received endorsements and plaudits from writers in the progressive press to mainstream giants like the New York Times .

AlterNet caught up with Armstrong and Moulitsas to discuss their book and the pragmatic approach to politics that upholds it.

Jan Frel: I think a lot of folks were surprised at the heavy tactical focus of your book. Is that a product of the role and expertise you guys see yourselves as having in progressive and online politics -- tactics rather than ideology?

Markos Moulitsas: There are plenty of people in our party who can handle policy and wonk out with the best of them. But clearly we don't have many people who can win. Rather than let our wonks go to waste, we'd like to get Democrats elected so we can set them free. Thanks to the current Republican regime, modern politics is a zero-sum game. If you're in power you run the show, if you're out of power, you get nothing.

Jerome Armstrong: We looked at the problem of branding and messaging in the beginning of the process of writing this book, but the closer we looked and the more people we talked to, the more we realized that there were huge structural problems that had to first be addressed, to even get to the point where we can go further.

Certainly, we believe in progressive values that stand for things like environmental regulation, personal liberty as opposed to social theocracy, taxation that shares wealth to ensure societal stability, and a global compact in a world that is interconnected. But those are issues for candidates to run on and be elected on (and for others to then follow).

There is a pragmatic strain with which we approach politics, and that is reflected by the focus of the book. Part of the problem with Republicans is that they are too ideological. We are more interested in making sure that the structure around which we are running progressive candidates is sound, rather than whether or not the candidate is 100 percent aligned with us on all of the issues.

The only prescriptive focus of the book is to broaden the election strategy beyond the battleground mentality that dominates Democratic consultant thinking. We wish to bring about the realization that we have to contest every election if we are going to become the national party again. We are not looking to win with 50.1 percent -- we want a more systematic approach.

Frel: Markos recently wrote: "What every Democratic challenger should do at this point is run against D.C. Not just against Republicans, but against the entire frickin' town. It's a mess. It's a disaster. Run against it. Run against Pelosi. Run against Frist. Run against DeLay. Run against Biden. Run against the Democratic consultants. Run against the whole lot of them."

I saw some of that in your book -- that the problems are as much the Democratic consultants as DeLay or Frist -- but "run against D.C." and "disaster" seems to me another strain. Do you think our national political system at this point is redeemable, if only there were majorities of sensible outsider Democrats? Do you think it's the necessary starting point?

Moulitsas: It would be a start. But the "run against D.C." is a short-term tactic for 2006. The book takes a long-term view of building a broad new progressive movement. So it's really two separate issues altogether.

Armstrong: I am more inclined to see the pervasive problem as one of running Democrats everywhere, in every election, not just in some places. The "run against D.C." attitude is attractive and oftentimes successful, but ultimately it doesn't address the fundamental flaws in the approach by the establishment Democratic Party officials. They believe that Democrats should forget about half the states and focus all of our resources on trying to win just enough seats to win back the majority. They believe that we should just focus on 40 or so House seats, and not make sure that every incumbent Republican has a Democratic opponent.

What that does is leave half the country without a contest of ideas -- we abandon progressives in rural areas of the country and let Republicans rule there, and those Republican incumbents then go out and raise money for Republican challengers in contested races.

The other problem with this sort of battleground mentality is that it is transparent and plays to the Republican strong hand. The Republicans realize exactly what races are the battlegrounds and focus all of their resources in kind on the same races. What this does is allow the party with the stronger array of resources to have the upper hand, and that is the Republican Party, which has invested hundreds of millions into new media machine politics and database inventories that give them superior targeting of voter capabilities. The Democratic establishment, while they believed they were the party of governance, wasted hundreds of millions of dollars while ignoring what the Republicans have been building.

Frel: Following up on that, the pragmatic logic I've encountered that justifies a stick-to-Democrats politics is that, essentially, that's all there is out there: If the sick state of our politics are to be redeemed at all, it can only be done through the Democratic Party and standing party protocols -- primaries, elections, conventions, etc. Are you sold on that?

Moulitsas: Yeah. What else is there? A third party? Not likely. Revolution? I've been there (El Salvador) and it's ugly. No thanks.

Armstrong: I don't approach political voting with a fundamentalist attitude. I've voted for Greens and Libertarians in the past, and voting Democratic is not a religious issue. It's pragmatic based on the likelihood of defeating the Republicans and their destructive agenda for this nation, and its progressive based on the ideas and values that are dominant among the Democratic politicians. What I strongly advocate for is reforming the Democratic Party by progressives taking it offline into online organizing in a manner that takes control of the Democratic Party at the precinct level. If we can rebuild the party across the country, at this very local level, the message and branding problems will be much easier to address. It's certainly not going to be solved within D.C.

Frel: I've seen two statewide polls -- for Oregon and Ohio -- where more than 70 percent of respondents said the country is ready for another political party. And across California, the fastest growing voter identification demographic isn't D or R. -- it's "decline to state" and has been for years. There are millions of people who haven't partcipated in the political process for years, yet want to, but will have nothing to do with the Dems. What do you say to them about why they should participate through the Democratic Party, or even the one you envision?

Armstrong: I think actually, that people are ready for less party allegiance, rather than a new party. The lure of being independent, amidst the hyperpartisan environment, is something that polls continually show on the increase over the past decade. A candidate that's based on stating what they believe and less on what the consultants sell them through polling and focus groups -- that's what will appeal to people.

Moulitsas: When people say they want a "third party," they mean a party that thinks exactly like they do on ALL their issues. They're not talking about a realistic third party.

Frel: I loved the searing attacks you made in your book on the consultant class in D.C., and the follies of the establishment mindset among leaders in office and advocacy groups. You call for more Beltway outsiders to take on more of the duties of the Dem Party apparatus.

Armstrong: It's really the only option that seems to be available. Even for this upcoming cycle, all of the big races are going with inside-the-beltway media consultants whose best practices remain entrenched within a conflict-of-interest approach. It's a fact that consumer businesses no longer do commissions based on the amount of advertising that is done. That racket only remains in D.C. (particularly on the Democratic side). And if you look closely at what media consultants are doing, they are really only project managing the task of creating television commercials.

That is, they will usually outsource the creative and the placement of the ad, and thus are merely the middleman for the politicians. As project managers, they should be paid a set monthly fee, not commissions without end that sometimes reach into the millions. People that are contributing through donations are getting ripped off by the Democratic Party and its candidates that are participating in this scam.

Frel: Does the outsider-establishment qualities of a pro-Democratic activist or politician mean more to you than where they lie on the conservative-progressive spectrum?

Moulitsas: It's a factor. Nothing is that clear-cut, black and white. It depends on the district or state they're running in. How much money they have. What their ideology looks like. Who their Republican opponent is. How well-known and popular they are in their state. And so on, and so on.

Armstrong: I approach matters of ideology from a pragmatic perspective, focusing on the current events and how best to shape it, through elections, with a progressive agenda, rather than through ideological lenses.

Frel: Continuing with that, isn't there something about the D.C. political culture that eventually forces the outsiders either to conform or stop participating with the D.C. folks?

Armstrong: I hope not, and certainly I am doing my best to maintain a sense of authenticity while working within the political culture. I do think the Democratic Party would be served well if we had more bomb throwers within D.C. In that spirit, I've got some advice for some of the millionaire donors that want to help the Democratic party: Rather than continually funding media consultants to do terrible TV advertising, hire some whistle-blowers that will expose the consultant racket. The sooner we fix this problem, the quicker Democrats will begin winning.

Moulitsas: I'm a fan of having new blood continuously pumped in the system. We kind of address that in the book with a call for better nurturing and training of new progressive leaders.

Frel: Do you think it's worthwhile to invest in nurturing projects and programs through establishment channels at a time when the online progressive community can and has nurtured thousands of its own?

Moulitsas: The online world is just one facet of the progressive movement. There's a whole offline world in which elections are actually won and in which policies are developed. I take a dim view of the those who think the internet will conquer all.

Armstrong: The online community should begin to take matters into its own hands. It's time to go beyond merely collectively grouping hundreds of thousands of dollars and pushing it toward candidates and consultants that perform business as usual. Building a progressive movement is going to take more than that sort of hit-and-run attitude of activism. We should be creating institutions that effectively spend the dollars raised for campaigns, rather than relying on the establishment channels.

Frel: Do you spend time thinking about more fundamental changes to how we do politics in America -- more specifically through online politics -- such as how we can make our democracy participatory rather than representative? And do you have projects lined up for that?

Moulitsas: I always have projects lined up, and Daily Kos will continue to evolve to scale with its ridiculous rate of growth. And this book is a dramatic call to change the way we do business. Whether Daily Kos, the book and my projects will "fundamentally change" politics in America remains to be seen.

Armstrong: Creating direct democracy is what progressives are all about, and that means getting people involved in the process. We are only at the beginning of the technological changes that create more connections online and facilitate offline actions. As for the biggest project I have lined up, it's the followup to Howard Dean's campaign, which is working for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner in the coming cycle.

Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.