You've heard the story: the Netroots, the Democratic Party's equivalent of a punk garage band--edgy, loud and antiauthoritarian--are suddenly on the verge of the big time. The gang of liberal bloggers and online activists who helped raise millions of dollars for Howard Dean's presidential campaign two years ago are now said to be Democratic kingmakers. Last month in Connecticut, they fanned anti-incumbent and antiwar flames and were widely credited with the primary defeat of Senator Joe Lieberman, leading him to run as an independent. After they relentlessly derided Senator Hillary Clinton as calculating, overly cautious and lacking true liberal bona fides, she hired an adviser just to deal with them and even demanded that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resign. Coincidence? Moderate Democrats say it with remorse, conservatives with glee, but the conventional wisdom is bipartisan: progressive bloggers are pushing the Democratic Party so far to the left that it will have no chance of capturing the presidency in 2008.
Or maybe the Netroots aren't all that. Make no mistake, these online activists are having a profound impact on the Democrats and on politics in general. But the phenomenon is in its infancy. Compared with established interest groups like organized labor and conservative Christians, the Netroots play a small role in national politics. Even their most ardent players now recognize that you can't create a true movement using nothing but modems and instant messaging. "The Netroots cannot elect someone alone," says Matt Stoller, a blogger at the popular group site MyDD.
So they're branching out. Beyond posting exhaustive pieces about bias in Fox News coverage and uploading videos of presidential wannabe George Allen making a fool of himself, they're adopting the old-school tools of electoral politics, like canvassing their neighborhoods and calling their member of Congress. They're getting nitty-gritty in their focus too. The liberal online fund-raising group ActBlue, for instance, is trying to get activists to donate serious money to state-legislature campaigns that bloggers once considered too unsexy to care about. The goal is to put Democrats in control of state governments, where many key decisions are made.
The Netroots phenomenon began in 1998 when two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs circulated an online petition demanding that Congress, in their phrase, "move on"--that is, stop trying to impeach President Clinton. Thus was born MoveOn.org which now has 3.2 million members. Most of the bloggers who have become Netroots leaders can trace their influence back only a couple of years, to 2003 and '04, when the growth of partisan liberal online activism was spurred by a strain of antiwar, anti-Bush fervor and frustration with congressional Democrats for not standing up to the President. Blogs like Daily Kos and MyDD grew rapidly. Today their combined readership (more than a million people weekly) dwarfs that of the dead-tree versions of established purveyors of liberal thought like the New Republic, which has a print circulation of about 62,000. The conservative Rightroots movement is only just getting started.