November 23, 2008

Netroots Primer Part 1

Predictably enough, the last week’s developments, particularly the first round of Cabinet appointments, and Joe Lieberman’s continued chairmanship generated a lot of blogospheric discussion. And just as predictably, the traditional media and their unnamed sources made remarks regarding the unhinged left once again not getting their way. Of course, now the codeword for “the unhinged left” is “the netroots,” or as we like to call ourselves, in parody of the attendant derision, the dirty fucking hippies*.

Reading a couple of articles, several posts and some comment threads, I realized we need a primer for those  who came to the movement during this election cycle. 

“The netroots” is obviously a coinage related to “grassroots.”  People who regard themselves as members of the netroots see themselves as a collection of ordinary citizens using the internet to organize.  The simplest way to think of the netroots is as an open source citizens’ lobbyist group.

“Open source” means “anyone can participate.” “Citizens’ lobbyist group” means “people who are trying to influence government in the general public interest.”

All lobbyists say this bit about the general public interest, of course. I suspect even the guy who lobbies for the retention of mohair subsidy has a spiel worked out on how terribly important it is to America that mohair producers not be subjected to foreign competition. I doubt he uses the original national security argument, as we stopped using mohair in Army uniforms sometime after World War I.

But we really mean it. It turns out this is disconcerting to elected officials. At least, in my personal experience you get a double-take if, in response to a staffer who says (and they do invariably say this) “Who are you with?”, you say, “Nobody.” 

Lobbyists try to advance the interests of the causes they represent by

1)  Talking to elected officials and their staffs, explaining the importance of their clients’ interests

2)  Providing information about the impact of legislation on their clients, to the point that they are frequently involved in early drafts of the relevant parts of that legislation

3)   Bribing elected officials.

The first two methods are self-evident, and actually make some sense. Most people don’t know a whole lot about the mohair industry, and it’s entirely possible that nobody on some Congressional staffs that are charged with reviewing the current set of tariffs and subsidies knows anything at all about mohair production. However, it also seems self-evidently wrong to have an industry being regulated actually writing the legislation.

The bribery thing needs some explanation. (By the way, one reason they call us dirty fucking hippies is we say stuff like this out loud in polite company.) There are all sorts of ways that lobbyists bribe Congressmen.  The first, most open, and therefore, least effective is through campaign contributions.  That is not to say that it is not effective. One reason the turnover rate in Congress, up until the last two sessions anyway, was less than that of the Politburo’s, is because incumbents provide a very high rate of return on campaign contributions. 40,000 dollars from your industry can easily generate a hundred million dollars worth of contracts.  One way to see this rate of return is by checking the relationship between an elected official’s committee assignments and his donors. 

Less visible is lifestyle enhancement.  Senators and Members of Congress don’t make very much money relative to the amounts of money they control the disbursement of, even when you include perqs.  The people seeking to influence those disbursements don’t make large fractions of those disbursements for influencing them, but small fractions of those very large numbers still leaves them with salaries in the millions and tens of millions.  So lobbyists provide access to a lifestyle substantially swankier than the public servant salaries would support.  As Duke Cunningham and Ted Stevens demonstrate, there are limits to how much of this lifestyle enhancement you can get away with. And, as William Jefferson demonstrated, you’re much better off sticking to  enhancement in kind. 

Next up are lucrative jobs for spouses and staff.  Spouses can be very complicated. Elected officials are often already married to wealthy people with interests in government affairs before they assume office. Sometimes it’s probably true that they would not have been able to get elected at all without those spousal connections.  Other times, the spouse finds doors open for lucrative employment, following the election, that would not have been available beforehand.  Likewise, elected officials are dependent on staff who are very talented, very well educated, very diligent and very underpaid.  Long term relationships with staffers often leads to their spending parts of their careers in lobbying organizations making boatloads of money.  (It’s easy to think of McCain here, but he’s just been very visible lately.  Recall the recent stories about Democrats telling K Street that there better be some Democratic jobs opening up.)

Last and not least are jobs for yourself when you leave office.  Tom Daschle left office, and walked into a job that pays millions.  So, in office, you can be sure that you will be able to continue your swanky lifestyle when you leave, thanks to your lobbyist friends.

Of course, it’s not as crass as this description. What really happens is that if you’re a Senator, you are treated the same way as a captain of industry, hob-nobbing with other rich people, even married to one, becoming concerned for their needs, and they for yours (Bob Dole spent his entire career, pre-retirement, in public service, and left office a rich man). You come to take a certain lifestyle for granted, a certain deference, a certain collection of friends.   There comes a time when it is not self-evidently a bad idea to have them writing legislation regulating themselves.

This also means you don’t see many ordinary citizens.

This is where the netroots come in.  People have noticed that it is hard to get in touch with your Member of Congress or Senator (despite, as Christy Hardin Smith likes to say, he or she works for you) unless you are part of these lobbying groups.  But there wasn’t a whole lot you could do about that, other than throwing things at the teevee and stomping around.

Moreover, many people have noticed that our elected officials aren’t passing laws in the interest of the general public, but rather in the interests of the lobbyists they spend so much time with.  The internet made it possible for people who had been throwing things at their teevees to meet each other and organize, in the hopes of turning more legislators' attention to the common good.

 The netroots have two goals.

  1.  Lobbying public officials to vote in their constituents’ interest and in the public interest.

  2. Getting public officials elected who will vote in their constituents’ interest, and in the public interest.

You’ll note there is no ideology in this formulation.  However, it turns out that most of the time when actions are taken that are in the public interest, they end up falling to the left of the currently defined political spectrum.  There are exceptions. The Wall Street bailout covered the political spectrum. Everybody was against it, left, right and center. Many, many people told their elected officials they were against it.  It passed nonetheless.  (More and more it looks like the general public was right about this.)  But, in general, the issues that interest the netroots involve preservation of civil liberties, women's reproductive rights, reduced use and size of the military, more effective regulation of corporations, a more equal income distribution, recognition of climate change as a problem, and a generally reality-based approach to governance.  As things currently stand these are positions left of center, hence the term “left blogosphere.”

But you will find that most of the positions the left blogosphere support are positions that are also supported by the majority of Americans, often by wide margins.  Mainstream America is against the war in Iraq, against domestic surveillance, against immunity for lawbreaking corporations, in favor of products being tested for safety, in favor of products being labeled accurately, for universal health care coverage,  for the right to get a morning after pill and so forth.  Oh, and they don't like President Bush. At all.

This is the end of part 1 of this primer. 


The netroots is an open source citizens’ lobbying group, that tries to advance causes in the public interest through citizen actions and through support of candidates who vote in the public interest.


*Exegesis of this phrase, which I suspect was coined by Atrios, is worth a footnote.  It’s a shorthand reference to various narratives about commentators in the left blogosphere. The “hippie” part are those that make us out to be a bunch a crazy, flower-tossing, stoned fantasists, with no understanding of the real world, hopelessly trapped in a mythical version of the sixties.   The dirty part refers to our being unfit for polite company, Vinny from Queens, posting drivel from his parents’ basement dressed in his underwear while covered in Cheetoh dust. The “fucking” part refers to the fact some of us actually use the words in our phosphor print that are used in august places like the Senate cloakroom or the New York Times newsroom. 

We embraced the phrase because it is shorthand way of noting the absurdity of these characterizations. 

1 comment:

Paul Dirks said...

Of course there's the additional sense in which the Netroots is "open source." All this organizing and communicating goes on quite in the open where it can be seen by everyone. There are certain instances where I might want to send a blog author an e-mail usually if I want to politely point out a grammatical error. But for the most part the actual meat of the process goes on in comment threads.

There's also the tradition of transparency in edits. Most bloggers understand that once you've put something out there, it's a permanent feature and if you wish to correct something, overstriking ot otherwise noting the change is proper.

I know of certain print journalists who are rather uncomfortable with that notion.