This story first appeared on AlterNet.
No one symbolizes the success of the liberal political blogosphere—known to many as the “netroots”—more than Markos Moulitsas, the outspoken founder and owner of Daily Kos, the popular daily blogging site, which began in May 2002 and rose to prominence during the Bush era.
The Daily Kos is part of a particular group of “A list” blogs like Fire Dog Lake, Atrios, Open Left, MyDD, Crooks and Liars and others that pioneered an aggressive and progressive approach to electoral politics, reflecting a generation of tech-savvy, promotion-conscious writers, activists and thinkers who dedicate much of their focus to getting liberal Democrats to win more campaigns.
During the Bush era, pushing back at conservatives and defeating Republicans was the centerpiece of the netroots’ activities. However, in the Obama era, a good deal of their attention is now focused on conservative, so-called Blue Dog Democrats.
Markos, who was born in Chicago to a Salvadoran mother, and Greek father, grew up in El Salvador, and returned to the U.S. in 1980, according to his Wikipedia page. Markos, called Kos by most in the blog movement, has had an unusual path to activism and progressive stature, given that he served in the U.S. military from 1989 to 1992, and was formerly a Republican.
Earlier, Markos majored in journalism and political science at Northern Illinois University, and received a law degree from the Boston University School of Law in 1999. He lives in Berkeley, Calif., with his wife and two children.
Despite the lack of a predictable original path to progressive politics, there is no question about Markos’ success. He has authored two books. The first, Crashing the Gate: Grassroots, Netroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, was published in March 2006 with Jerome Amstrong, who is considered one of the originators of the progressive blogosphere. His second book is Taking On the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era, which he has described as referencing famed Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky, who authored the original “Rules for Radicals” in the 1960s.
The Daily Kos has more than 200,000 registered users, and many prominent politicians and elected officials have posted on the site. Markos has appeared numerous times on mainstream media shows, and was tabbed as a columnist for Newsweek, juxtaposed with Karl Rove on the conservative side for the 2008 election.
The Daily Kos has spawned a major national progressive conference, now called Netroots Nation, (which is not now run by the Daily Kos), which attracted 7 of the 8 presidential candidates in 2007 and where more than 1,000 bloggers and activists attended (the next one is in Pittsburgh, Aug 13-16).
AlterNet’s Executive Editor Don Hazen sat down with Markos in the AlterNet offices in San Francisco in early April for an interview.
Don Hazen: Let’s start with the big picture—what is your take on the situation we find ourselves in? Has the netroots increased its influence in the Obama era?
Markos Moulitas: If you look at the official definition of netroots—which is pretty much anyone who engages in politics online—then absolutely; the netroots has had huge impact, if for no other reason than that it played an important part in Barack Obama’s victory. He’s sitting on an e-mail list that’s 9 to 12 million strong. But it’s a massive e-mail list. Twitter has obviously become the darling of the chattering class of D.C. All of the reporters are twittering, and they’re being exposed to criticisms that they’re not used to. So in that sense, yes.
If you want to get more particular, like blogs, that may be a different story, but I think the broader netroots—and to me it’s one big interconnected ecosystem—has become integral. It’s going to be the key way, moving forward, that people use to communicate. Especially as newspapers are dying, or going online only, and our modes of information are increasingly digital as opposed to analog.
DH: Did you expect this financial mess, and how do you expect it to affect the other issues that are important, like health care, climate change, immigration?
MM: Well, it’s been happening for a while. I know during the Bush years there was a pretense that the economy was going strong. But it was clear that it was an economy that benefited an elite, but really, there was little trickle down.
So really, as far as I can remember, this entire decade, it’s been tough for people I’ve been around. I’ve had the luck of having success with Daily Kos, but I’ve seen my social circles and my friends—they’ve all struggled. So I’ve never been under this illusion that things were great and now suddenly, BOOM!—they’re bad.
But of course now we’re facing a sort of economic Armageddon. Am I surprised? I’d like to say “yeah,” but after eight years of George Bush, nothing surprises me anymore. Disappoints me, but doesn’t surprise me.
How does that affect the key agenda? I had a theory in 2008 that the bailouts—the $700 billion that [Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson and Bush asked for were an attempt to bankrupt the country before Barack Obama could enter the White House. Of course, Obama embraced that and double-downed on that, so my theory went out the window!
It seemed like a great theory at the time, but now I don’t know anymore. We just saw recently that [Sen.] Arlen Specter [who has now joined the Democratic Party] is trying to use the economy as an excuse to flip-flop on EFCA. And we’re seeing Republicans ratchet up this whole, “We can’t chew gum and walk at the same time, ” rhetoric, that Obama’s doing too much and that the only thing he can focus on is the economy.
And of course during economic tough times there is always that rising anti-immigrant sentiment. Every time people are losing their jobs they’re looking for a scapegoat. I’m hoping this time it’s not so bad—I’m not sensing a huge anti-immigrant backlash, because I think people are really blaming the AIGs and the bankers and Wall Street for the current problems. I don’t think anybody really thinks that banks aren’t lending because of illegal immigrants.
So I’m hopeful that the backlash doesn’t materialize. But there is obviously moral and political reasons to push comprehensive immigration reform, and by all indications it seems the administration’s going to push it. How far, remains to be seen.
Immigration and Populism
DH: Have you personally changed your position on immigration?
MM: I’m an immigrant, so I’m very liberal. Not in the political sense, but I think immigration should be embraced. I wrote today that immigration is embedded in the DNA of our country, and I believe that very strongly.
Culturally, we are a joining of all these immigrant cultures from time immemorial, and so this notion that immigration threatens the fabric of our country I think it actually is the fabric of our country. Is the country gonna look different in 2050? Yes, but I think the country looks different now than it did 50 years ago. We are a country that’s constantly changing and that’s essentially a strength.
We’re constantly reinventing ourselves and it helps us stay relevant and current, as opposed to other countries that sort of stagnate under the weight of traditional cultures that don’t evolve.
DHazen: In this context, do you have fears about a right-wing populist uprising?
MM: I have to say that I don’t think it will be a right-wing populist uprising, but I think there could be a populist uprising. And I’m heartened that the American people have realized—and you see this in the polling—I’m not making this up, you know it’s conservatives who just make stuff up—than Pew has shown as well as ABC—that nobody’s blaming Obama for the current state of the economy, and they’re willing to give him a couple of years.
In two years, if there’s been no improvement in the economy, Obama should be held accountable and so should Democrats. Because we were elected on the promise that we start helping to fix this mess that Republicans left us. If we don’t, then we’re not doing our jobs. And I don’t have any problem with being held accountable. Because one thing this country lacked for so long, and the reason we’re in this mess, is a lack of accountability.
Consumption and the Economy
DH: What about the big pictures? Seems that Obama and the business establishment want to return to the consumptive ways of the past—for people to spend and borrow again. Is this the way to go for the future? If not, what’s the better alternative?
MM: I’ve been really heartened by the fact that public transportation ridership is up and miles driven are down, despite the fact that gas prices have come significantly down. So, the traditional notion is that as gas prices go up consumption goes down. But if the price goes down consumption will go up again. I think people are realizing that there are limits. This is scaring a lot of people.
I mean, this is economic Armageddon. It’s brutal. And people are realizing that even if they’re safe and secure in their jobs today, that’s not necessarily the case a week from now. There’s an uncertainty. And I think that’s causing people to retrench, pay down debt, save a little bit of money and cut out some of the frills. There are the Great Depression-type people who still save bottles and jars in their basement just in case.
DH: The thrifty types.
MM: Yeah. I think generationally we may be scarred by this in a way that lowers our consumption. And when new generations come along, they won’t have these experiences.
From a cultural standpoint though, the notion of “green” and of “carbon footprints” are really starting to become embedded in our consciousness. In ways that will effect our consumption patterns, whether it’s consume less or making sure that when we do consume we do so in ways that are sustainable and have minimal impact on our environment.
Every week, one of my proudest accomplishments is when I take out the trash and I judge myself and my family at how well we did that week by how much trash we take out. And currently we have a baby still in diapers, but we have one bag of trash per week. And one bucket of recyclables per week, usually two paper bags full of recyclables, for a family of four, including a baby.
Organizing on the Web
DH: Who do you think is doing the best organizing now, both on the Web and elsewhere? And please comment on this new accountability project that you, SEIU, Firedoglake.org and others are doing to hold Blue Dog Democrats accountable.
MM: Who’s doing the best? It’s weird, because five years ago there were two or three people doing activism online. Nowadays almost all activism is online. From people on Facebook to the Twittering class to the bloggers to other independent media. So am I seeing anything that stands out?
Last year, it was the Obama campaign, bar none. I’m worried actually this year that they’re misusing their list and not being aggressive enough. You’re talking about several thousand per congressional district.
DH: The media wasn’t impressed with their first effort at using their list and mobilizing their people.
MM: Well, here you have Obama giving a speech about why it’s important to pass the stimulus, as opposed to “Here’s your local congressman’s phone number, put some pressure on.” And I think they must be afraid of seeming too heavy-handed. There’s sort of a fragile truce in Congress right now. And that some of these Blue Dog Dems will bolt if you get several thousand phone calls demanding that they toe the line for Obama.
Blue Dog Democrats
DH: But you’ve always been in favor of going after Democrats in the primaries.
MM: Absolutely, and I’m going to be working alongside Accountability Now. In fact, I’ll be doing polling for them to essentially remind elected officials who they represent.
What we’re seeing a lot now with these bailouts and stimulus and CEO pay and bonuses is that there is a class of elected officials who are 100 percent beholden to corporate interests, not their constituents. They hide behind “oh, we’re in a moderate district,” but I don’t care how conservative, if you’re in the Idaho first congressional district, which is the most Republican district held by a Democrat, no one there is clamoring for higher CEO pay or bonuses. Nobody. It doesn’t exist. They’re all in NYC , they’re all in Connecticut.
And so this notion that this is the moderate position is patently absurd. If you look at what the definition of “center” is, it should be the place where a majority of the American people reside. In the American majority, the American people don’t want higher CEO pay. They don’t want bailout money going to bonuses.
So, what we’re gonna do is find these elected officials doing things like voting against the stimulus and voting to protect CEO pay. We’re gonna find what those major issues that are resonating are, and we’re going to poll districts—ask those people if they agree with the positions that their elected officials are taking.
If they do, hands off. There’s this notion in the traditional media that we’re going after conservative candidates with more liberal Democrats. Absolutely not true. What we’re doing, as I’ve said—and this is constantly ignored by the traditional media types—is that if an elected official’s is in tune with his or her district, and are doing his or her work and are lining up on the issues, they have absolutely nothing to fear from us.
Because incumbents never lose. They have every advantage to begin with. They have far more money than anything we’ll be able to raise for a challenger, so if you lose in your district, it isn’t because we targeted your district. It’s because you’re already out of touch. What we’re doing is giving people in that district an opportunity for change.
There’s a lot of people that I’d like to see gone from Congress. And realistically, that’s not going to happen, because they are legitimately in tune with their constituencies. And that’s their job. That’s fine. I may not like their politics but I respect them for the fact they are representing their constituents. But there are people who are out of touch with their constituents, more concerned with what their corporate lobbyists are asking them to do not what the people back home are asking them. Those are the people that are going to have more to fear.
Confronting the Gatekeepers
DH: Your book was a lot about gatekeepers and how technology enabled people to get around gatekeepers. What’s the gatekeeper dynamic now that we’re out of the Bush administration and with Obama in office, and with many people, at least theoretically, in the administration at least sympathetic to progressives’ goals?
MM: I got the idea of writing Taking on the System after reading Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.
I was struck not so much by the tactics he espoused, because a lot of them were dated and obsolete, but by the notion that in his era, the only way to affect change in the ruling elite, whether it was business or government, was to influence the gatekeepers and ask them to change. So his tactics were really predicated on pressure. Building pressure against those gatekeepers.
What we’re seeing in today’s era, thanks to, almost single-handedly, the Internet, is that you can influence the gatekeepers.
But you can also bypass them to communicate to people. You can find alternate political structures to support progressive candidates. And you can build alternate forms of distribution for whatever your product is.
We’re seeing it today with software developers and the iTunes store. They don’t need to get a publisher anymore to distribute their material. They just put it right up on a page and compete on a more or less level playing field with every other developer making applications for the iPhone.
So you’re seeing the Internet sort of revolutionize the way we’re dealing with gatekeepers. And when they are threatened with being made obsolete, they are more likely to concede to pressure. Because you have an elite, gatekeeping core—that’s never going to go away.
The idea is that we no longer have to be content with the status quo. If we want change, we no longer have to convince that gatekeeper why we want change. Now we can build alternate institutions with influence and power to bypass those gatekeepers. And that makes it a lot easier to then influence those gatekeepers, because they’re threatened with irrelevance. Nobody wants to be irrelevant. And if no one’s paying attention to you anymore you’re no longer a gatekeeper.
DH: Right. That’s why all the gatekeepers are Twittering now.
MM: Exactly! But about the Obama stuff. So, any time you have power, power corrupts. But, on the other hand, of course the presidency of the White House may be the ultimate gatekeeper in this country. Over the economy or the flow of information—over a lot of things.
You’re going to have people working to influence them from unfriendly directions. Whether it’s corporatists on the debate over the bailouts. Whether it’s the right, whether it’s well-meaning progressives with just the wrong approach to a certain issue. People will be working to influence those gatekeepers.
So you can’t just sit it out and say, “We won,” they’re friendly to us. Because they’re going to be under a load of pressure to act a certain way. And it’s easier for them to cave to that pressure if they don’t have anybody backing them up. And one way they know they have back up is you make sure you have your voice heard, you show yourself.
DH: Is that happening? Is Obama getting backed up?
MM: I think overall. When he gets attacked, stupidly, by the media, he immediately gets backed up. And sometimes it’s warranted. It’s interesting. Because what is it even called? This “toxic, bailout” is really complicated.
Within the progressive spectrum, you had economists disagreeing on whether this is good or whether this is bad. I’m not an economist, so I don’t really know, but I appreciate that the debate is happening. I appreciate that people are talking about it.
I wish the administration were better at 1) explaining what they think they are doing, and 2) responding to the critics. I don’t think that [Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner has been particularly honest in some of his responses to some of the more valid criticisms.
Fighting the Conventional Wisdom
DH: Do you get skeptical when Wall Street gets so happy?
MM: Of course! These people don’t have our best interests at heart!
The conventional wisdom among the power elite, in media and government, about reality—the sky is blue—this is conventional wisdom: after the stimulus bill passed, the conventional wisdom in D.C. is that the conservatives had won this great messaging battle. This huge battle, because they were united.
And nobody ever questioned Republican unity. In fact, we won in 2006 and 2008 by running ads that said Congressman X voted with George Bush 98.7 percent of the time. Unity is their problem, more so than it’s their solution. But this was the conventional wisdom, and you saw it on the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times and on TV, and everyone was bragging about what a great victory this was for Republicans because they had been united.
And I knew, last year, that this was going to happen. That the media was going to run with these bullshit, nonsensical story lines that had no basis in reality. We had seen it, in the debates. When Sarah Palin debated, you heard, “What a fantastic job! What Americans saw today is that she’s folksy! And real!”
And then the instapolls would come out—and this was a new development. The instapoll would come out and say Biden won 68 to 22 percent. And I noticed that this conventional wisdom forms. But it has no basis in reality.
And these polls were really a stark reminder last year that polling could be really effective in correcting that conventional wisdom and helping to form real conventional wisdom.
Daily Kos Polling
So I commissioned, at significant expense, a weekly poll looking at the ratings of the entire leadership of this country, in Congress and in the White House.
So you’re getting numbers, going up and down, week by week. So everybody was talking about this great Republican victory. And I’m looking at the numbers, saying that wasn’t the case. So I launched a counterattack.
But I started getting these poll numbers into the hands of D.C. reporters and media elites, and we’re not seeing that story line anymore. Nobody else had those kind of numbers, so we were able to—using an old-school method, telephone polling—correct this bad information.
Because this polling, someday it’s going to have Democrats falling and Republicans rising. It’s inevitable, it’s going to happen at some point. And when it does, I want to know that.
I don’t want to create this artificial, conventional wisdom that Obama’s Teflon if his numbers are tanking, because we need to identify the problems as they happen so we can correct our behavior. Republicans like to create these alternate realities, such as that being unified is this fantastic victory that’s gonna lead them to great electoral success in 2010. And I’m glad they believe it!
As we move forward as activists, one of the things that’s really critical is to always push back conventional wisdom and also promote a positive story line. We have, as progressives, the great advantage that truth is on our side. And Republicans don’t.
So how do we still help shape those narratives, especially when there’s still Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and so on? One of the tools I’ve seen recently is the aforementioned Twitter, where you have reporters write something stupid, and people who follow that reporter immediately push back.
Jake Tapper of ABC News had an incident recently. He was slammed for something he wrote about Obama. And he started banning people from his Twitter feed and it turned into this huge outcry in the Twitter world (laughing), and he ended up backing off. He banned Talking Points Memo at one point! He banned one of the guys from the American Prospect.
But moving forward, he’s got that in the back of his mind. It’s not like before when he lived in his bubble, when he just ignored the letters to the editor. But now, they see what people are saying about them, they read what people are Twittering about them, and it can keep them honest. As long as we don’t do what Republicans do and start making stuff up. As long as we keep to the truth, we use numbers and statistics and facts to back up our information.
We can make inferences and opinions based on those facts, but they have to be facts. And Republicans—obviously, they pull stuff out of who knows where. And reality doesn’t really support their beliefs.
The Daily Kos, Web 2.0 and Twitter
DH: So what about the Daily Kos? What’s stimulating your community? How is the economic crisis affecting things, and what about Web 2.0? What about Twitter and Facebook?
MM: The Daily Kos is going strong. It’s down from the election, of course, but it’s up year over year, which is what’s important.
But it’s getting harder to run a community like that than it used to be when Bush was president. Because then, we were all on the same page: “Bush sucks.” I don’t think anyone disagreed with that. But, now we have power, and you have to walk that line between constructive criticism and destructive criticism.
This is something that a Paul Krugman has to wrestle with, because he straddles that line very tightly. You never quite know if he’s being constructive or destructive, ’cause he’s never been an Obama fan. He was a big Clinton booster in the primary. And I don’t think he’s ever written anything nice about Obama. So that line is a tough line sometimes, and people’s perception of that line is different.
There are people who say, “You’re not being tough enough on Obama, he’s going the corporatist route,” and then you have people who say, “Now you’re just giving Republicans talking points,” so you have a divided community. Makes things a little livelier sometimes. I think it’s healthy. I’d rather be quibbling over how hard to criticize Obama, than being united in criticizing “President” John McCain! So it’s a very good problem to have! But it’s a challenge. And it’s one that people like me are finding their way through.
Big Changes Ahead at the Daily Kos
DH: Are people voting up diaries that are more critical of Obama?
MM: Sometimes you have dueling diaries: “Obama sold out” and “Stop picking on Obama, he didn’t sell out.” To me it’s a healthy debate. It’s not something that I’m too worried about.
And, moving forward, we’re redesigning Daily Kos. We’re dramatically changing. We’re going to empower the community with a lot more tools and the ability to do things. I’m being cryptic for now, since there will be a big reveal later in the year.
But when Daily Kos launched in 2002, and when I redesigned it to its current format in 2004, it was a fairly cutting-edge Web site. It was using the latest and greatest technologies. And now, it’s years later, which in Web terms is geriatric. The site’s 80 years old! Might as well be! It feels like it’s 80 years old.
And I’m somebody who likes to be on the cutting edge and pushing the envelope, and I haven’t pushed the envelope in several years. So I was feeling really antsy. And of course, the economy is tanking right at the moment when I’m spending a lot of money!
But we’re also changing the community dynamic. So it might be a huge flop!
DH: How are the new tools Web 2.0-ish?
MM: It’s all gonna be highly customizable stuff, the integration of Twitter and Digg. Buzzword, buzzword, buzzword! The idea is, I want the Daily Kos to be back in that cutting-edge mode. And maybe in five years it can be old again and I can re-imagine what it looks like.
But the current Daily Kos—it works, it’s functional, it’s growing, but for me, I need a little bit more.
DH: How’s the economic side of it? Are you down in advertising?
MM: I’m down horrifically. January was my first profitable January in the site’s history. Usually, the first quarter is a disaster. And I always start panicking around early March. And then things always pick up and this year, I was profitable in January, so I thought, this is great and I thought we won’t have this first quarter downturn. And February was death.
March was death until a couple of campaigns game through to pull us out of the gutter. But we were extremely profitable last year. And we have a significant chunk of change that we can live off. We have no debt. We’ve never had anybody invest in the company. We don’t owe anybody anything. So it’s a kind of good place to be. We have some money to play with, to ride out what’s hopefully just a bad quarter, It’s scary out there. Economically.
Organizations like the ACLU were big advertisers, and they had money wrapped up in [Bernie] Madoff. They had to cut their budget, they had to cut staff. So of course, the last thing they’re going to worry about is advertising. Understandably so.
And we have to assume that things are going to be tough and hope for the best but assume that things are going to be the worst. Like I said, we have reserves to work from. So we’re going to be fine, longer term. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t lose sleep over it sometimes.
DH: Are you Twittering?
MM: Yeah. As of last week. I was down at South by Southwest, and it was infective. It was all anyone could talk about. So I thought, “I could get into this.” So I started last week.
DH: Big news: Markos Tweets!
MM: So I wrote a tweet. “Tweet!”—that’s as bad as “blog.”
DH: It’s worse!
MM: I wrote that Geithner was starting to look like Obama’s [Donald] Rumsfeld. Meaning, sort of clinging to someone who looks out of their element, and doesn’t seem to have the answers or the confidence. So Fox News picked it up. It was their headline: “Kos says that Geithner is Obama’s Rumsfeld,” which is not what I said. I guess it’s just one more place where people can take my words out of context.
DH: Anything you want to get on the record before we close this down?
MM: I guess I’ll make one point: After Obama won the election, people talked a lot about how it’s going to be the death of the netroots. “They won, what are people gonna talk about, what are they gonna do?”
And nobody’s really asking that anymore. There has been a realization that Obama still has an agenda to sell. We still have Democrats who are not doing their job and need to be knocked out. And that Minnesota Senate race! It’s still not up in the air, because we know that Al Franken won the election, but we don’t know when he’s going to get finally seated. And, of course the media is the media, and we can’t properly count on them to do their job without policing them.
So, I think that people are realizing that what we won in November was a battle—a big battle, an important one—but that war is ongoing, probably never-ending. And if we really care about our country, and the future, about cleaning up the messes of the last Republican administration—that we can’t disengage, that we have to remain active and assist however we can to make sure not only that Obama’s agenda gets through, but that we hold Democrats accountable and that we continue to work to defeat the worst Republicans in the House and the Senate. Because, the fewer of them there are, the less relevant the blue-dog type Democrats and Evan Bayhs of the world become.
So we need to render them as irrelevant as we possibly can.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.