A Brief History of Obama and the Political Blogosphere

[Ed. note: This is my first attempt at writing a history of the relationship between Obama and the netroots. A couple notes: (1) It’s a draft, still working on it, and would love comments re: what I’m missing; (2) There’s a problem with the term “netroots,” as there is no monolithic group — they (we) don’t all follow the great orange you-know-what. That said, until I figure out how to deal with that, I’m using netroots as a short-cut.]

The most significant event of this week was the culmination of what blogger Matt Stoller calls Obama’s “accountability moment“: his willingness to support the current FISA bill, and the blogosphere’s reaction to that statement.

The reaction in the press has been one of surprise — here is Barack Obama, the “online” candidate, facing backlash from the “netroots” (the left-leaning political blogosphere). The reason for this unexpected reaction is really the conflation of two aspects of the 2008 primary campaign: the continuing growth of the influence and power the netroots has within the Democratic Party, and the success of the Obama campaign using social networking tools effectively during the election. The two, though, are not the same, and a brief history of Senator Obama’s relationship with the political blogosphere can shed some light on the difference.

Perhaps the first exposure the netroots had of Barack Obama was back in 2004, when kos from the Daily Kos website called the soon-to-be Illinois Senator a “patron saint“:

There’s no doubt that Obama is a special candidate — a great orator, accomplished, great life story, and hails from a state where he can be as progressive as he wants to be. He has clearly captured the imaginations of Illinois voters, who gave him a resounding victory in a crowded Democratic primary field. He is African American, but his support cuts across ethnic lines.

A month later, kos remarked on the significance of Obama’s now famous 2004 convention speech, noting an ability to bring “the convention’s rhetorical theme of “unity” to life. And he did so not by seeking the center, but by defining what it means to be a Democrat better than any Democrat since … I don’t know.”

This goodwill, though, did not last long. In 2005, the netroots were incredibly active around the John Roberts hearings. Obama sent out a press release stating he would be voting to confirm Bush’s appointee, and included what many called a “scolding” to the liberal blogosphere, who were at the time heavily criticizing Sentator Leahy’s decision to also confirm. Obama said:

I was deeply disturbed by some statements that were made by largely Democratic advocacy groups when ranking member Senator Leahy announced that he would support Judge Roberts. Although the scales have tipped in a different direction for me, I am deeply admiring of the work and the thought that Senator Leahy has put into making his decision. The knee-jerk unbending and what I consider to be unfair attacks on Senator Leahy’s motives were unjustified. Unfortunately, both parties have fallen victim to this kind of pressure.

A debate began to rage on Daily Kos about his statement, enough to prompt Senator Obama to take the blog plunge. He signed on to DKos and posted for the first time, arguing Democrats need to be open to all points-of-view (introducing to the netroots his theme of inclusive politics; a theme, as we’ll see, he continues later on…):

But to the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, “true” progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward. When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive “checklist,” then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems. We are tying them up in a straightjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted.

The post received 843 comments. While many were supportive, some of the most highly-rated comments were not:

blockbuster: With all due respect, and this is to Sen. Obama, welcome to politics in the early 21st century… Did you stand up, loudly and clearly, to defend Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry – did you ever express anger at the people who made these wild claims [i.e., political smears from the right wing]? If you, or other Democratic “leaders” ever did, the occasion was certainly not a memorable one. You come back and talk to us because we are the ones who provide you a forum to do so. But on the national level, Senator, the other side owns the microphone. What will you do for us to gain access to that microphone so that we no longer have to shout?

native son: With regard to Democrats’ reasons for supporting Roberts… How can we take seriously ANY Democrat who gives Bush the benefit of the doubt? At this stage of the game, after all this country has seen from this president, how in the world can ANY Democrat use this particular rationale to support Roberts?

adigal: Now, to say that one should not attack one of our good guys on the basis on one vote I agree with. But to say that we need a “kinder, gentler” tone, I think will encourage the republicans to continue to kick us in the teeth and the electorate to view us as wimps.

RenaRF: Senator Obama, I have the deepest respect for you and great hope as to the future of the Democratic party as a result of your being a part of it. However – our country can’t wait until that Democratic party matures and I fear I see the same reticense and determination to appear “statesmanlike” that caused our party to be trounced at election time.

The second significant interaction between Obama and the netroots came in June, 2006, when he made a speech at the Call to Renewal conference. In many ways, it was The Washington Post’s description of the speech that set things off:

Sen. Barack Obama chastised fellow Democrats on Wednesday for failing to “acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people,” and said the party must compete for the support of evangelicals and other churchgoing Americans.

This drew ire from the netroots (see here, here, and here), essentially for playing into and perpetuating the strawman “Democrats Hate Religion” meme.

In 2007, early in the President campaign, came the third clash between Obama and bloggers:

At Barack Obama’s gospel concert here last night, more than 2,000 black evangelicals were singing, waving their hands and cramming the aisles — most enthusiastically when Donnie McClurkin, the superstar black gospel singer, decried the criticism he has generated because of his views that homosexuality is a choice.

…His inclusion had drawn public criticism from gay activists who wanted Mr. Obama to cancel his appearance. Mr. Obama did not, but issued a statement a few days ago saying he strongly disagrees with Mr. McClurkin’s views and that he has tried to address what he called the homophobia among some black voters.

The event foregrounded the essential nature of the differences between the netroots and Barack Obama — political partisanship and principle versus the politics of inclusion. The point of view from the netroots was very clear:

So, in the end, Obama let his “best” and “favorite” artist slam gays to thousands of African-Americans, in his name, and neither he nor his hand-chosen white gay preacher said anything in response. Class act, that Obama campaign. For them, creating a “dialogue” means the gay-basher gets to spread his bigotry to thousands while the candidate and the token gay STFU.

The argument from the Obama team at the time was about inclusion:

Privately, Obama aides say they believe Obama is a candidate of real, transformational change, and that uproars like the McClurkin controversy are necessary speed bumps on the road to bringing people with opposing viewpoints together to air their differences.

This isn’t to say Obama had no support from the netroots; in fact, as the 2008 Presidential campaign drove on, and as it became clear the contest was between Obama and Hillary Clinton, the liberal blogosphere began to split along these lines. Obama supporters (despite whatever differences they had) began to coalesce around sites like Daily Kos and Open Left and TPM Cafe, while Clinton supporters drifted over to MyDD and Talk Left.

This split within the netroots came to a head when a member of Daily Kos went on “strike,” to protest what s/he perceived as an increasingly dismissive and belligerent stance against Clinton:

I’ve decided to go on “strike” and will refrain from posting here as long as the administrators allow the more disruptive members of our community to trash Hillary Clinton and distort her record without any fear of consequence or retribution. I will not be posting at DailyKos effective immediately. I will not help drive up traffic or page-hits as long as my candidate – a good and fine DEMOCRAT – is attacked in such a horrid and sexist manner not only by other diarists, but by several of those posting to the front page.

…Sadly, the majority of the administrators have allowed this hostile environment to develop in our online community for anyone who isn’t planted firmly in the Obama camp. They’ve routinely ignored personal attacks and allowed disruptive, spam-like posts to go unchecked whenever anyone expresses support for Hillary or challenges something their candidate has said or done…

As a result, our community has become little more than an echo chamber with an attitude that harkens back to the early days of Dubbya’s administration – yer either with us or yer a’gin us, heh!

The blog strike gained national prominence, including a write-up in The New York Times. And while not every blogger chose to take sides, the split was significant enough to set many of the netroots in their respective political camps for the remainder of the campaign season.

So, returning to the “Obama accountability movement,” if we look back at the history of Obama and the netroots, it is not surprising there would again be a rift between the two. And yet the Obama team’s success at running a campaign built largely on harness the power of new, online, social networking tools gave the appearance that the netroots had uncritically lined up behind the candidate. The Nation magazine noted how, beyond Obama’s success with tools like MySpace and Facebook, the site called my.barackobama.com helped created an online “wide net“:

Obama’s aides have not simply been riding a wave of hit websites; they also built their own social networking portal to connect and empower activists. Chris Hughes, a 24-year-old co-founder of Facebook, joined the Obama campaign to build MyBO, which invites users to network, blog and promote grassroots events. Unlike many campaigns that treat web politics as a separate silo, Obama’s field program is tightly integrated with MyBO. Iowa organizers were required to post all their events on the site and encouraged to write MyBO blog posts, vetted by the campaign, about local efforts. And the campaign trusts supporters to post whatever they want, from house parties to fundraising ideas to blog commentaries. More than 350,000 people have already created MyBO accounts, posting more than 10,000 grassroots events offline, including 1,000 gatherings where supporters simply wear Obama buttons and do community service in their neighborhoods. No other campaign has a decentralized program like it.

Obama’s success at using these types of tools branded him the “online” candidate, yet at the same time perpetuated the notion everyone online was behind him. When the FISA issue recently came to the foreground, the news media noted how this “irked” the netroots, how they felt “jilted.”

The political blogosphere, though, has never been uncritical of Obama; indeed, the history of the Obama and the blogosphere reveals a contentious relationship, one that demonstrates how bloggers today are continuing to do what they do best — put political pressure on elected officials.

This pressure continues today, as bloggers have organized to protest Obama’s intention to approve the latest FISA legislation. The protest, in fact, marks a significant turning point — while the 2008 campaign saw an unprecedented use of social media, it turns out, social media can work in reverse. Just as the Obama campaign provided the tools to allow supporters to organize and help him win the primary, his supporters have turned the tables and are using my.barackobama.com to attempt to push and shape his political positions.

As Mark Pesce writes, we’ve entered the age of hyperempowerment:

For the first time, we have a political campaign embracing hyperconnectivity. As is always the case with political campaigns, it is a means to an end. The Obama campaign has built a nationwide social network (using lovely, old-fashioned, human techniques), then activated it to compete in the primaries, dominate in the caucuses, and secure the Democratic nomination. That network is being activated again to win the general election.

Then what? Three months ago, I put this question directly to an Obama field organizer. He paused, as if he’d never given the question any thought, before answering, “I don’t know. I don’t believe anyone’s thought that far ahead.” There are now some statements from candidate Obama about what he’d like to see this network become. They are, of course, noble sentiments. They matter not at all. The mob, now mobilized, will do as it pleases. Obama can lead by example, can encourage or scold as occasion warrants, but he can not control.

Control, of course, is a prime directive of any political campaign — message control, most importantly. Today, we’ve entered uncharted territory: the “mob” (not the most flattering of terms…) can now do what it pleases.

The political blogosphere has always been a part of this mob, and, since the Dean campaign, has been a growing force in American politics. Today, the Get FISA Right movement, which includes many bloggers, is demonstrating that what started years ago in the blogosphere is maturing, and the tools and technology used to organize and activate people is growing beyond blogs to include wikis and Facebook and other social media.

The FISA protest is only the start.

[Update — things to add]

– The Rev Wright controversy

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7 responses

  1. Well done Carlo. This is well researched and contains a thoughtful narrative, and more nuanced approach than most. Two “events” I would add here. One the TechCrunch interview when Arrington interviewed all the candidates and Obama received the highest rating among Dems. Second would be the strategic choice to rely on “crowd funding” because Hilary had already tapped the large donors, creating a connection between Obama and “net funding” that was just as much out of necessity as of ideology.

  2. Carlo Scannella | Reply

    Thanks Dave! I appreciate it!

    I’ll definitely run down those two events…both worthwhile additions.

  3. Carlo, this is excellent. One thought: is there a term you could use that would acknowledge the narrow range of blogs that come under netroots or political blogosphere? Maybe something like “well-known and highly ranked Democratic and progressive political blogs” or “small group of influential Democratic blogs that have crossed into the msm”?

    Also, is there any way I can read the two papers you mention on the sidebar? Full disclosure: Geert and I are working on a book on blogging; of course I’ll be sure to cite you etc.

  4. Carlo Scannella | Reply

    Jodi,

    Re: terminology, that’s always been a problem, and I don’t really have an answer. I’ve generally used “liberal blogosphere” or “liberal political blogosphere,” and more or less tried to acknowledge the fact that it’s an oversimplification of what’s out there.

    To deal with this, I’ve just tried to focus primarily on Daily Kos — on one hand, it’s short-changing everything else in the liberal blogosphere, but on the other, because it’s the largest and probably most influential (esp. in terms of shaping how the MSM “sees” blogs and bloggers), I think it’s warranted.

    PS, I can email you the papers…

  5. great, Carlo, thanks.

  6. […] post, A Brief History of Obama and the Political Blogosphere, will be used as a way to introduce the topic, and frame out “the politics of […]

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