Preparing for the worst: what the US ‘Netroots’ can teach us about rebuilding a broken movement

April 29, 2008 at 9:51 pm | Posted in British Politics | 4 Comments
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As the gloom continues to grow over Gordon Brown’s stewardship of both the Labour Party and the country, it’s understandable – if a little premature – that some of us see the awful poll numbers, the bleak prospects in the local elections and the complete saturation of negative media coverage and deduce that it’s time to prepare for the prospect of a Tory government. David Semple recently argued that the left must indeed start preparing for opposition, ditch the diminishing returns of Blairism and return to its left-wing activist roots. Writing here, Martin Bright has called for a new manifesto for the liberal left, a restating of principles and a return to advocating policies for a fairer Britain. These are ideas worthy of debate, and whilst I’m not really one for signing up to whole manifestos, anything that inspires new thinking about how we can revitalise our agenda must surely be welcome.

But new manifestos and political rebranding alone won’t be enough to take Labour back to power. The past decade has seen the party’s membership collapse, their share of the vote dwindle almost everywhere and their much-abused allies in the Trade Unions haven’t fared much better, either. For Labour to be in a fit-enough state to return to power, it must work to reverse these trends, and if the current party is anything to go by, they can’t be trusted to do it for themselves.

Thankfully, there’s another political movement that’s endured some hardships in recent years and has only recently begun to enjoy a revival. With that in mind, I wonder whether it’s time we began paying closer attention to the alliance of progressive Americans described as the Democratic Party’s ‘netroots’ and investigate whether there’s anything they’re doing right that we need to learn from.

The netroots arose from a perfect storm that comes but once in a generation. Outraged at seeing the 2000 election ‘stolen’ by a slender Supreme Court majority and forced to suffer through two terms of an administration that’s proved incompetent, mendacious, secretive, regressive and complicit in internment, torture and rendition, the fury of America’s diffuse far-left, centre-left and liberal groups began to coalesce around the the internet, seeking refuge in like-minded solidarity whilst plotting ways of rescuing their country from the carnage being visited upon it.

In the aftermath of Kerry’s defeat to George W. Bush, two of the leading figures in this movement – Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos and Jermone Armstrong of MyDD – began writing a book outlining the key dysfunctions within the Democratic Party. In Crashing The Gates, They concluded that national Democratic leaders had lost touch with the country. They were too willing to acquiesce to corporate special interests, they swallowed Republican talking points as if they were the truth and they failed to challenge the obvious conservative bias in the output of a well-known media baron. For Moulitsas and Armstrong, these Democrats operated under the assumption that only by blurring the distinctions between the parties and by running campaigns for stage-managed, say-nothing centrists could they win elections. They were proved wrong over and over again.

Outside of Washington, the Democrats were in an even worse state. Party organisation in the red states was an underfunded sham and they were so uncompetitive that they didn’t even bother to field candidates in some districts. By handicapping their prospects before a vote had even been cast, they resigned themselves to nibbling around the edges of the electorate and retreated to the swing states that were their only hope of victory.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that the only major difference between the Democratic Party of 2004 and the Labour Party of 2008 is that Labour remains in power – for now. The cosy collusion with corporate interests, the inability to challenge the right-wing’s most egregious distortions and a seeming speechlessness when it comes it articulating what the party is for all seem to afflict Labour as much as it has the Democrats.

The ‘people-powered politics’ Armstrong and Moulitsas advanced used the internet as a tool for grassroots activism. The netroots sought-out and supported candidates who could best communicate the party’s values to the areas they wished to represent, even if it meant going against whichever party apparatchik was favoured in Washington. They collected small-dollar contributions, held online and offline fundraisers and developed crude but effective get-out-the-vote operations to support their candidates. At first they consistently backed endearing losers, but the 2006 election showed they’ve got an awful lot better at it.

To use the internet as a medium to organise, fundraise and affect such significant change at a local level is one of the enduring successes of the netroots movement, and their ever-growing number began to give them greater influence in the national party; blogging and lobbying hard enough to see politicians take up their causes in Congress. For the British progressive blogosphere to achieve even a fraction of what they have in the States would be an incredible feat.

Of course, none of this would’ve happened on this scale had the Democrats not been out of power for so long, and you can see this reflected in how the British conservative bloggers enjoy higher readerships than their progressive peers. Even the Lib Dem blogosphere seems better-organised than those who affiliate with the Labour Party. Powerlessess makes blogging more attractive; it allows you to rant anonymously into the void about the injustices we see around us, and if Cameron is elected into office in two years time, I doubt it’ll be long before their number multiplies rapidly.

With that in mind, this shopping-list of observations can’t really be enacted until the blogosphere of the British left becomes better-developed and more heavily-populated. Nonetheless, it’s valuable to have those ideas out there, if only to test & discuss which of the many benefits internet activism brought to the American left could be transported over here in the event we’re forced to endure another bleak conservative future.


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  1. […] Bleeding Heart Show recently blogged about the Democratic Party’s netroots and how it could possibly be applied to the Labour […]

  2. […] in the mean time, re-reading this earlier post on whether Britain can borrow ideas from the ‘people-powered politics‘ of the American left reminded me that the internet’s also a fine source of […]

  3. […] bloke called Neil at The Bleeding Heart Show wrote this post back in April that has many of the same concerns. Great blog, by the looks of […]

  4. […] The Bleeding Heart Show recently blogged about the Democratic Party’s netroots and how it could possibly be applied to the Labour […]

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