Scenes From a Crack-Up - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Scenes From a Crack-Up

This article appears in the October 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

CHICAGO — “WHAT DID YOUR PSYCHOLOGIST TELL YOU?” So sounded a query at one of the first panels at YearlyKos, the second annual terrestrial meeting this August of devotees of the uber-liberal DailyKos website. The question came toward the end of “Holding Congress Accountable for a Progressive Agenda,” presented to Firedoglake celebrity blogger Jane Hamsher by a middle-aged woman who explained she was trying to convince disillusioned “progressive activists who are ready to give up” to continue to partner with her local Democratic Party chapter

Despite the Republicans’ recent midterm election reversal of fortune, forlorn talk of Democratic victors stabbing “the netroots” in the back has paradoxically replaced the We’re going to kick ass from one end of this country to the other! vibe of the 2006 convention. Betrayal? Participants were only all too happy to count the ways: No immediate Iraq pullout, defections on the hate crimes bill, congressional staffers building walls between representatives and bloggers who grew accustomed to easy access during the campaign. When word came down that Nancy Pelosi might cancel her YearlyKos engagement, a woman next to me scoffed, “She’s too busy writing Dubya’s legislation for him.”

Hence, Hamsher noted one of her site’s bloggers — “a shrink” — had intervened in the Firedoglake comments thread to talk distraught progressives “off the roof,” and thus the request that Hamsher share her professional pal’s methods. A few minutes later, an audience member asked how panel members propose holding representatives accountable “without looking like all we’re doing is being shrill and self-destructive.”

“That’s our job,” Hamsher retorted. “We’re supposed to be shrill and self-destructive…. We’re going to stand on principle and hold that line because if we don’t nobody does it.”

IRONICALLY, THE SHRILLNESS OF A YEAR AGO has mostly been replaced with a general air of ill-defined discontent. “Gore/Obama ’08” stickers fly off a table like hotcakes — “You already know who the perfect candidate is–now do something about it!” an omnipresent full-color Draft Gore postcard exclaimed — while the guy manning the Richardson for President booth was like an apparition: Unseen, unheard, sensed only by individuals touched with the ability to connect with dead candidacies. Faded “Dean for America” T-shirts were outnumbered only by their newer “Impeach Bush” counterparts. A popular panel, “Three People Who Helped Change Congress,” featured S.R. Siddarth (the kid George Allen called “macaca”), Mike Stark (the man roughed up by Allen campaign staffers), and Lane Hudson (the leaker of Mark Foley’s naughty e-mails). Call them the Seven-and-a-Half Minutes of Fame Players. Instead of donating their remaining minutes to, say, refugees in Darfur, they’re holding tightly onto them, trying to snatch significance out of the jaws of irrelevance.

Likewise, hundreds of Kossacks — as they’ve nicknamed themselves — flocked to “Ned Lamont for Senate: What Really Happened,” despite the fact that the topic could have been wrapped up in a few words: Um, he lost. The advisory board appointed to winnow down questions submitted online for the YearlyKos Presidential Leadership Forum included Gary Hart, Walter Mondale, and George McGovern. (Eugene McCarthy is dead. No word on how Michael Dukakis dodged this bullet.) Only Media Matters’ “Annoy Fox News” stickers feel more retro.

Is it possible for such a young, victorious movement already to be looking backwards? In 2002 Markos Moulitsas founded DailyKos. Five years later the site greets 600,000 visitors a day. Several no-chance congressional candidates the site plugged actually won in 2006. Saint Jimmy Carter has blogged on the site. The Washington Post story on YearlyKos 2007 is headlined “‘Net Roots’ Event Becomes Democrats’ Other National Convention.” And every major Democratic presidential contender save one (Joe Biden) showed up along with 1,500 Kossacks and 250 members of the media in tow. “Scorned and ridiculed, when not downright ignored, you continued to speak to each other,” Moulitsas said in his keynote speech. “Today, your views — once framed by the powers that be as naïve and out of touch — are now shared by a majority of Americans. Your early conversations have become the national conversation.”

This rhetoric is nothing new. During the Q&A session following Barbara Boxer’s speech at YearlyKos 2006 in Las Vegas, a young woman complained to the California senator about how “convenient” some in Congress found it to think of Kossacks as “extremists.”

“We pretty much consider ourselves ordinary Americans, but I get the sense that’s not what they think of us,” the young woman lamented. Yet, aside from a definitive change in mainstream attitudes toward the Iraq War, a visit at any given hour on any given day to will quickly refute the idea of the site as the vanguard of the mainstream. According to the site’s own monthly 2008 straw polls, KosWorld is a place where Hillary Clinton has only just begun to pull ahead of Dennis Kucinich — she’s up to 6 percent! — and John Edwards is the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination.

In truth, this much-hyped pony may have but one trick after all. The Netroots Candidates Celebration at YearlyKos 2007, for example, was a complete bore. Candidate after candidate relayed the exact same story: Each had been told there was no way he could win, but each nonetheless decided to reject “conventional wisdom” and run for Office X anyway because he knows in his (bleeding) heart that progressive ideas are better and the country is in such dire straits somebody has to do something. What else? Oh, universal health care not wiretaps, a joke about George W. Bush, and a dig at Bill O’Reilly who just so doesn’t get it. Voila! You’re a Netroots candidate!

The crowd is particularly excited about the candidacy of a Kossack named Ron Shepston, whose DailyKos handle, CanYouBeAngryAndStillDream? is apparently supposed to be inspirational rather than embarrassing. One candidate says the Democratic Party is about forcing the establishment to “renounce their nobility.” Al Franken sent a video message that felt like a rehearsal tape for an unfunny Saturday Night Live sketch. I cut out early and caught Spiderman 3 on pay-per-view.

NOT SO LONG AGO, PROGRESSIVE BLOGGERS relished their outsider role as “citizen journalists” driven by passion, not cash. Indeed, during forums many still give their Kos ID number before their name, adding to the clubhouse atmosphere. (Low ID numbers indicating a longtime member of the five-year-old site frequently spur applause.) The sheen of revolution has slightly dulled, however, and that left-wing sense of entitlement has begun to creep in. “I think all bloggers, in one way or another, view themselves as professionals,” a facilitator told the crowd gathered at the “A Union for Bloggers: It’s Time to Organize!” workshop.

It sounds like a spectacularly unserious endeavor, but during the Q&A session a woman bemoaned the travesty of her and husband’s inability to quit their jobs and become fulltime bloggers because the “social safety net is in tatters.” Representatives of the AFL-CIO, armed with “Kicking Ass for the Working Class” stickers, were on hand, as was a DNC employee, a D.C. District Court administrator, a Working America official, and the man who got the National Writers Union up and going. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters not only posted Blogger Wanted: Inquire Within signs everywhere, but also handed out free T-shirts festooned with the slogan Working Class Blogger.

The meeting only became more surreal as a clearly miffed young woman complained about the focus on political bloggers. At a conference… put on by a political blog. “There are knitting bloggers and nature bloggers and all kinds of bloggers and we have to include them as well, do we not?” she said. The man from the Teamsters counseled inclusiveness. Perhaps sore-knuckled knitters can find a place in an international brotherhood after all. The sky is the collectively bargained limit, even for conservatives.

“I would want to include conservative blogs because if they have to adhere to the journalistic standards the union sets…” the moderator began.

“… they’ll go out of business!” a woman finished. Cue predictably spontaneous applause.

THE LARGE ROOM WAS ABUZZ with the collective murmur of dozens of men and women repeating well-worn phrases like broad scientific consensus and the debate is over, varying only in tone, tempo, and timing. These buzzing worker bees had arrived at the “Online Messaging: What Works and What Doesn’t Fly Online” workshop and, after a short PowerPoint presentation, had been split into groups to compose an Action Alert based on the lessons Jeff Lucas and Dean Nielsen of Progressive Majority had just imparted. A few examples: “Personalization is key.” “It’s really important to pick a fight.” “It’s always good to have an enemy.” “There’s something to be said for fear.” And most improbably, considering the convention host: “It’s fairly difficult to go too far online.”

There’s something delicious about these two liberals speaking unabashedly in public the way the left always warns us Karl Rove does in private. Especially at a conference where erstwhile TAS scribe David Brock had earlier gushed, “It’s great to be here this morning with you all, no longer blinded by the right, but surrounded by all this light and energy as a proud progressive,” and condemning, to raucous cheers, the right-wing “cult” that had wickedly used “emotional vulnerability and fear” to draw him in. The left must be using the good kind of fear, choosing the right enemies.

At any rate, our charge was to stir up protest via e-mail against a school district’s decision to place a moratorium on the screening of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in the classroom. The Kossacks tore into the assignment with relish. “Do You Support Banning Books?” the subject line of one potential e-mail read, comparing An Inconvenient Truth to Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye. “School Board Pollutes Classroom With Censorship!” screamed another headline. “Stop the Attack on Critical Thinking in Our Schools!” Then there was the content. “Every day in my classroom 30 students sit down and expect to hear the truth, but now the school board is telling me I cannot provide it to them,” a young lady read aloud to the groups.

Evangelical parents could make the same argument for screenings of The Silent Scream in every biology class in America, which would probably have Kossacks begging Buddhist monks to self-immolate on the Capitol steps. What’s good for the liberal goose, however, isn’t good for the conservative gander in this corner of the political world.

“We cannot allow the next generation to be denied their basic right to education!”

And on it goes.

MANY KOSSACKS NOW SEEM TO BE asking, as Robert Redford’s Bill McKay did at the end of The Candidate, “What do we do now?” At the “Holding Congress Accountable for a Progressive Agenda,” one confused soul asked, “If we’re going to hold Congress accountable to a progressive agenda, how do we define progressive?”

“At this point it’s 180 degrees from what we’ve had the last six years,” panelist Pam Spaulding answered. “That’s pretty broad,” someone in the audience shot back.

“Yeah, it is pretty broad,” Spaulding admitted. “There are all kinds of issues. Um… living wage, health care, getting out of Iraq… energy, the environment. Just about anything that has been put on hold, stomped on… I mean, saving our Constitution. Just the basics at this point.”

The default position for Kossacks who in victory can no longer define their own purpose is to return to the ramparts. In part, this means putting the enemies they just celebrated vanquishing on life support. To wit: A roundtable led by Chip Berlet, Frederick Clarkson, Susan Thistlethwaite entitled, “Is the Religious Right Really Dead?” set to discuss “the current status of the religious right” began at 1:30 p.m. An hour-and-a-half later, a few doors down, the same exact panelists promised to offer advice on “What to Do About the Religious Right.” The program synopsis intones, “Let’s get over it. The Religious Right will be around for a long, long time.” Let’s get over it? The panelists themselves weren’t over it two hours ago! This is how forward-thinking the netroots are: They can divine the ultimate answers to their questions before they even ask them, and then magnanimously go ahead and ask them anyway, no doubt to rebuild public faith, take back our country, save our democracy, and feed poor, starving kids.

Yet the furnaces fueling those fights seem to have gone cold. Sure, there were booths at YearlyKos where near-manic middle-aged women would try their damnedest to sell Articles of Impeachment Against George Bush or “Goodbye, George!” wall calendars. It wasn’t as if Dubya were suddenly popular or inconsequential. The preoccupation writ large, however, was with left-wing loyalty. During “Framing the Debate,” a panelist implored progressives to remember, “FDR wasn’t FDR when he was elected. They had to keep pushing him further and further and further and further.” Whom to push was not always so clear. “I look around this room and I kind of think what my friends of color say all the time, which is, ‘When did the progressive movement become so white?'” a former organizer of Puff Daddy’s Vote or Die campaign sniffed, as if broad appeal were somehow nefarious.

Meanwhile, the strong independent ladies of “Blogging While Female” heaped accusations of misogyny on not only the progressive blogosphere in general, but DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas as well for suggesting in online posts, sans any consideration of the patriarchal hegemony, that women who couldn’t “handle a little heat in their e-mail inbox” should “try another line of work”-gasp!-as well as criticizing what he termed, “a small, extremist set looking for signs of female subjugation under every rock” after complaints appeared on DailyKos about ads for the reality show The Real Gilligan’s Island that depicted a bikini pie fight. Double gasp!

“When we blog we also bring some things from our personal life into it,” YearlyKos organizer/DailyKos personality Gina Cooper lamely argued on behalf of her boss. “And so you have to look at him not only as a political leader but as a human being. When he wrote that particular blog post he had just had a baby girl. He hadn’t slept in two days. His in-laws were there…” We know how frequently DailyKos has looked at, say, George W. Bush as not only a political leader but a human being as well.

OUT OF THIS CACOPHONOUS, confused milieu comes a single actual demand from the crowd: Acknowledge us as legitimate. And so the politicians take their cue. Bill Richardson declares, “The blogosphere is the last free medium in this country.” John Edwards confides, “You are so important in making this democracy work.” Wesley Clark thanks “you Kossacks” for bringing “intelligence to this debate.” A representative of the NEA gushes, “Our members spend their lives getting students to think and speak for themselves everyday and I know that’s what you in this room do as well.” Congressional candidate Eric Massa compares DailyKos posters to Thomas Paine and roared that those who challenge them are “insulting the people who made this country great over 200 years ago by exercising citizen journalism and bringing about the greatest democracy and democratic revolution this world has ever seen.”

Even Hillary Clinton, who would be mercilessly booed a couple hours later, opened her YearlyKos break-out session by thanking Kossacks for “being so involved in helping us create a modern progressive movement in America,” insisted she not only read blogs but tried to “find a way” to work some of the better ideas she read “into an argument I’m making or legislation I’m drafting,” and finally mused, “I only wish we had this active and fighting a blogosphere 15 years ago.”

Gina Cooper prattled on at a press conference about how important it was for the candidates to accept the “net roots” as a real constituency. There was never any discussion, however, over who was really being co-opted here. Was it the candidates, who lavishly praised Kossacks, but did not shift their positions towards them in any fundamental way? Or was it the Kossacks themselves, who so desperately seeking respectability, started holding press conferences and carrying themselves like any other interest group?

Everyone wanted to stake his claim. Even Sidney Blumenthal waxed philosophic about how the DailyKos “phenomenon” reminded him of “the earliest days when I first got into journalism in the early 1970s,” back before the alternative press was “monetized and commercialized.” Actually, truth be told, Blumenthal suggested, he did it even better. “There were no computers. There were no blogs. There was no Internet. But we were a genuine force journalistically, socially, and politically.” With typical modesty, Blumenthal explained how he and his friends carried “a light into dark corners, but by doing so we intended to change the perception of the reality we were showing. So we were generating a reality by our journalism.”

Generating reality? This was the raison d’etre Kossacks had been seeking!

THE THREE TRACTOR-TRAILER TRUCKS were parked on the massive concrete terrace of Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center in such a way as to form a mini-amphitheater. Lake Michigan opened up as a backdrop. Slogans such as “The Rights Which Labor Has Won, Labor Must Fight to Protect!” adorn truck sides, but so too does the disclaimer, “Private Carrier Not for Hire.” These, it seems, are the equivalent of a birthday party pony in our host’s arsenal.

Around the outskirts of the amphitheater, long lines of people slowly snake their way past four grilling stations. Free hamburgers, hot dogs, and drinks abound. Light reggae mingles with the smoky scent of summer food. Let’s start a union/Calling every human. Revelers spread far and wide until their host begins to badger. “We can’t start the program until everyone moves over here,” he says, but even when they come closer he isn’t satisfied. “Come on, everybody, scoot in.” He shoots a look back at the photographers and videographers lined up on a riser. He gets a thumb’s up. He motions for a lackey to straighten the blue and yellow fabric draping hung along the podium platform. Finished, she jumps on stage to smooth out a doublewide column of union workers, rearranging some by height, turning others just so, putting American flags in the hands of still others.

“Wave it,” she instructs, not unkindly.

The engine of a truck cordoned off to the side begins to rumble, and the host asks, with a mischievous grin, “Anybody seen Markos? Anybody seen Jimmy Hoffa?” Loudspeakers blare the opening strains of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” The truck lurches forward. Photographers scramble for better angles. The truck rolls perhaps 50 feet and then off jumps Markos Moulitsas. Teamsters president James P. Hoffa is not far behind.

“Here I am, a skinny nerd on a computer, and I get to drive in on one of those,” Moulitsas enthuses. “I’m 12 again.”

Welcome to the Teamsters Cookout at YearlyKos 2007. The photographers and videographers in their embroidered Teamsters shirts follow Moulitsas’s every move. The Teamsters arrayed behind him smile winningly. The crowd, as is its frequent wont, adores.

“It is critical to our people-powered movement that we reach people wherever they may be,” Moulitsas, in dark jeans and a blazer, shouts. “Whether it’s online or whether it’s people who are working getting their hands dirty everyday. My hands are pretty clean but a lot of people get their hands dirty. They’re not at a computer. We need those people!”

LABOR’S ATTEMPTED COURTSHIP of the netroots at YearlyKos 2006 was not nearly as successful as it was this time. They’ve gone from behaving like awkward kissing cousins to impassioned newlyweds. Last year not more than 35 people showed up to the “Labor and Power” panel. When one of the speakers asked the crowd who among them was involved with a union, virtually every hand shot up. “We can’t win unless you win and you can’t without us,” Chris Chafe of Unite Here said, but everyone recognized the room was all “we’s” and no “you’s.” “I don’t think most of the folks at this conference appreciate just how big [unionized labor] is,” activist/professor Joel Rogers groused.

Not long after the conference In These Times quoted the panel’s moderator Nathan Newman thusly, “The labor movement actually took YearlyKos very seriously, contributing money to help subsidize costs and sending top leaders to attend the sessions…. I know that the labor leaders were a bit frustrated that their interest in the blogosphere was not reciprocated.”

So where was the disconnect?

Labor’s primary problem last year was that it attempted to arrive on its own terms. Look at all we’ve done and how indispensable we are, labor tried to say. This is not a message Kossacks have the slightest interest in. Show up, kiss the ring, look deep into their eyes longingly, and tell them you’ve never met anyone like them. Snuggle up to their collective electronic ear and whisper how ecstatic you are they’re running the show now. This is what they want. And Hoffa? He turned out to be a real crowd pleaser.

“A lot of you don’t know anybody in the labor movement,” Jimmy Hoffa told Kossacks. “But that is why we’re meeting today, so we can start getting to know each other…. You are the voice that has come up and risen out of nowhere. The new voice of America.”

Hey, if Democratic presidential candidates are groveling, why shouldn’t the ever-weakening heads of Big Labor? Forget puffing out your union chests and trying to regale computer kids with tales of union glory you yourself can barely recall. Hoffa’s crew and the other unions, like the Democrats, have learned their lesson. Sorry, Teamsters, Kossacks don’t want a flash drive with downloadable union stats on it. But Working Class Blogger T-shirts? That’s more like it. The YearlyKos program this year included a painting of bloggers on a long electronic bridge in hardhats. It’s so noble, so gritty, so… fake. If it weren’t fake, Kossacks would not be lined up for gimmicky dog and pony show type stuff like Take Your Picture With A Teamsters Truck. Even better. There is people power in a blogger’s union? Get up and say “Amen!” Just don’t mention Teamsters’ steadfast support for drilling in ANWR or you’ll get growled at like Hillary Clinton incarnate.

“You guys are tough on everybody and you know what?” Hoffa continued. “Good for you. Keep being tough. They don’t like you out there because you make their life uncomfortable. Well, you’re doing something right when you make their life uncomfortable…. Does anyone here think the system is working right?”

“No!” the crowd shouts.

“Hell no!” Hoffa roars back.

Yet, if the unions have time and cash to fete the leisure class, the idea of a working class in jeopardy becomes more difficult to buy into. Did the late James Hoffa Sr. ever have a gig so easy?

CONSIDERING THE COMPANY he was keeping at YearlyKos, it probably comes as no surprise that Hoffa was not the worst panderer on hand. “Let’s hear it for the working men and women of the Teamsters!” Bill Richardson shouted. “Let’s hear it for the new major force in the Democratic Party — the bloggers!” Must we even note the audience applauded more loudly for themselves? Yawn. “This is a natural alliance: The new Democratic Party — the Internet and the bloggers — combining with the great old Democratic Party of labor unions. This will be a grand coalition.”

The “natural alliance” line was a familiar one. A woman from the NEA had used the same words while introducing columnist Harold Meyerson (“one of the most poignant critics of the Bush regime,” she assured us) and Andy Stern for a lunchtime conversation. The Service Employees International Union clearly learned the lesson of YearlyKos 2006. Last year its reps were focused on describing the tough physical conditions of service employees. This time Stern, its president, spent much of his time cramming union jargon into the mold of netroots’ philosophical proclivities and prejudices. He praised the Chinese government for its progressive unionization policies (“Our multi-national, pro-democracy, pro-freedom corporations go over and fight democracy in China and workers rights the same way they fight it in the United States”), took the requisite dig at Rupert Murdoch, (jokingly) suggested a voting moratorium for white males (“the worst progressive voters around”), and, ultimately, claimed to cheers that unions are “just a way to redistribute wealth.”

Back at the BBQ, Hoffa’s repeated praise of John Edwards — who wasn’t on hand — during his introduction of Bill Richardson seemed to stick in the New Mexico governor’s craw. “Mr. Hoffa and Teamsters,” Richardson said. “Ask John Edwards if he’d do this: I will have a union member as Secretary of Labor.” Big cheers. “If you behave yourself it might be one of you here.” Even bigger cheers. “I will be a president who will push for the unionization of the American workforce and the federal government.”

Mike Gravel, on the other hand, didn’t care; even in a space where all he had to do was invoke Bill O’Reilly’s name to get applause, Gravel demurred. He was just going to talk about abolishing the federal income tax and creating a national initiative system, whatever anyone said. “Revolution, baby!” a Kossack on the press riser next to me snickered as Gravel spoke about the national initiative. Through sputtering laughter he added, “Power to the people!” It might be better treatment than Hillary got, yet it is nevertheless a bit disheartening to watch a crowd of self-proclaimed revolutionaries, so fervent in the belief that they are bucking the system, dismiss the one person who shows up and actually does say buck the system in a fundamental/foundational way. Not vote for him, mind you. Just hear him out. Oh, well. Eye of the beholder and all that jazz.

Hoffa mostly smirked at Gravel during his speech, even though when Gravel was a senator from Alaska the Teamsters had few better friends than he. (Two very profitable words for the Teamsters you probably couldn’t say without Mike Gravel: Alaska Pipeline.) Sorry, old friend, it’s a new day. Hoffa — like the candidates, panelists, and the myriad interest group representatives — was looking for a ticket to KosWorld, whatever the price. According to those in-the-know, after all, it’s sexy, it’s savvy, it’s the future.

Like so much else at YearlyKos, this “grand alliance” was all artifice. Philosophical kinship is not in the Kossacks’ DNA. The entire platform of this supposed shadow convention was a celebration of Kossacks’ historic importance and an unmitigated rage at any and all who may discount their importance. How such navel-gazing self-adulation can sustain a movement over the longterm is anyone’s guess.

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