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Crashing the Gate: A Review

Mar
3
2006

Five years ago, the Republicans took over the government through nondemocratic means.

The first sentence of Crashing the Gate is a hard one to get past. It’s a whopper of a lie even if its intended reference — the 2000 election of George W. Bush — is accurate. (It’s not, of course: the judicial interventions at all levels in that year’s Florida recount were each meant to protect the integrity of the democratic procress rather than supplant it.) Republican majorities in the Congress are hardly “undemocratic,” and by all accounts, the conservative majority (which is, to the book’s authors, synonymous with “Republican majority”) on the Supreme Court was installed in the accepted manner. Hard to get past or not, it’s a sentence worth reading, and a telling opener for the book-length debut of Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong. Barely four years ago, they were nonentities: today they stand athwart the American left, yelling, “Go!”


To their credit, beginning with a sloppy assertion that despite this — or perhaps because of it — plays directly into the self-pity and paranoia of that movement, they try to lead the way. Crashing the Gate is their thesis of what is wrong with the American left and its principal vehicle, the Democratic Party — and how to fix those wrongs. It is a work informed by their peculiar status as pioneers and even visionaries in the field of online political activism: and it is a work ultimately brought down by that same status. Surveys are difficult, and few are so ill-equipped to write them as direct and narrow participants in the subject at hand.

Full disclosure is in order: I was an early participant in the initial flowering of the political blogosphere with tacitus.org, and back in the day, my site and the then-nascent DailyKos, Moulitsas’ vehicle, were peers of sorts. Since then, the latter has taken off to become the single most popular website extant (a testament to the singular hard work of its founder and a singularly fortuitous historical moment on the left), while my own peripatetic career has taken me ever further from blogging. I therefore have some observations on the character of the book’s principle author — and rest assured, this book would not sell as it does were it solely a Jerome Armstrong production. (Armstrong is not, in my limited experience, the brightest bulb in the box.)

Moulitsas is a genius, and probably the genius, of his field. That field is, strictly, the construction and maintenance of influential left-wing online communities. It is no small thing. Does it confer expertise and authority beyond itself? Moulitsas believes so. Hence Crashing the Gate. But the evidence outside the book is thin: beyond his principle arena, he has been consistently thwarted — by himself. The public record is one of chronic foot-in-mouth disease, apparently spurred by hubris and a nasty vindictive streak. Most famously, his denigration of dead Americans in Fallujah in April 2004 almost destroyed his site. (That it survived and flourished thereafter speaks to the patriotic character of the American left — a subject for a different essay.) Most infamously, he mocked the Santorum family’s method of grieving over a tragic miscarriage. Then there was his foray into electoral endorsements in 2004 which ended in a 100% failure rate for his candidates.

And then there was the radio show he and I were on (warning: large MP3 file) with Ana Marie Cox and Glenn Reynolds several weeks back, in which he gave his version of his site’s genesis. It’s worth quoting at length for an insight into the man’s mind:

When I started blogging back in 2002, it was a very difficult time for people who were liberal. This was right after the Afghanistan war, kind of the lead-up to the Iraq war. And it was a very politically confining time for liberals. Any kind of criticism of the Administration was considered to be treason or un-American. So it was in that environment that a lot of liberal bloggers came out. It’s one of the few places you could get liberal voices.

….I came from this environment in which I didn’t hear my voices (sic) being spoken about in the run-up to the Iraq War. I wasn’t allowed to criticize the President — not even on domestic issues, because that was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And I served. I wore combat boots. Nobody was going to tell me what I could and couldn’t criticize, because I knew what the Constitution said. And therefore I started my little blog, at a time when very few people were blogging, and not a lot of people were reading them, just as an outlet for those frustrations.

It’s a deeply silly exegesis of the events in question — any bets on how often Moulitsas found himself “silenced,” pre-blog, in Berkeley? But it is revelatory for this: it reveals him as an archetype — an American leftist who cannot understand why his party is in the minority, who grasps at resentful myths like the martyrdom of Max Cleland and the theft of Florida 2000, and who conjures up an imaginary quasi-fascist society in place of the actual America in which to set anecdotes of persecution. This man, and his friend, want to fix the Democratic Party. As a Republican, I can only urge that party to take them up on the offer.

Good prescriptions spring from good analyses. The analyses in Crashing the Gates veer wildly from insightful to awful.

The chapter on political consultants, “The Gravy Train,” is flat-out the best in the book, and the only one deserving serious consideration from both sides of the aisle. The authors give a good overview of the inside-baseball nature of the campaign-consultant milieu, and drive home their argument that inept consultancies and back-scratching financial dealmaking (and especially their attendant effects on media strategy) are a major drag on Democratic efforts. I learned a great deal from it: as a single long-form essay, it would have made an excellent study on a subject that deserves far more exposition than it gets. It’s a true pity that the rest of the book does not display the same level of dispassionate rigor.

Moulitsas and Armstrong are frank proponents of outright mimicry of the mechanisms of GOP ascendacy. Alas that the book’s assessment of Republican successes and governance is risibly simplistic: a catalogue of cartoonish betes noirs and unexamined myths ranging from villainous “theocons” to assigning the blame for the flaws of the Katrina response on the wars in Iraq — and Afghanistan. Mistakes are made that belie even a passing familiarity with American political history: the era of LBJ is lauded as a golden age; and Richard Nixon is described as having “legitimate conservative credentials.” Especially stupefying is the mystified response to America’s historical turning-away from leftism after c.1970:

Historians can argue over how the backlash began: whether it was a bad economy or corporate hostility toward expanded government services, or the northeastern/southern divide over race and civil rights, or the emergence of the religious right and its cultural war against social progressives.

It’s touching, in its way. An activist should be true and pure of heart. If ignorance is the price to be paid for this, so be it. I am thankful to be of a generation that only dimly recalls the nadir of the 1970s: but I regret that many of my generational peers do not.

In fairness, four-fifths of the book focuses not so much on what Republicans have done as what Democrats should do. And here, Moulitsas and Armstrong are on more substantive ground. They know this milieu, having been part of it, having shaped it, and having tried to work with it for the past four years. Among their targets are the “single-issue groups,” as they term them: the activist organizations that push one cause above all else, and hence lose sight of the larger goal of Democratic victory. It’s an interesting argument, and it has some merit inasmuch as it doesn’t make sense — to appropriate one of their examples — for NARAL to endorse a pro-abortion Republican when the totality of Republican control will act against their cause.

But the authors give short shrift to the causes as such: they have no time for the principled in a party they describe as “stand[ing] for nothing.” American leftists may surely need to learn to work together — but surely the prerequisite for constructive cooperation is not the abandonment of belief? Were they the students of GOP success they attempt to be, they’d know it’s a thesis that has found sad currency in modern Republicanism. Thus erstwhile conservatives find themselves defending Medicare Part D, political speech restrictions, Nixonian secrecy paranoia, and Wilsonian foreign policy as the price of governance. Moulitsas and Armstrong think this is the price of victory: but when Republicans finally suffer a serious electoral reverse, it will be the cause of their defeat.

It is these single-issue groups, then, that bear much of the authors’ blame for Democratic electoral fortunes. “[E]ven in the minority, even as their world crumbles around them, even as they keep losing ground, they retain a certain amount of power — or at least a facade of it.” These groups force Democratic candidates to demonstrate fealty to their causes, thereby weakening the Democratic cause by — well, apparently by existing. The authors’ logic here doesn’t withstand scrutiny. If a candidate is weakened by being beholden to a group espousing X, that weakening does not occur by virtue of being beholden, but because X is unpopular. Moulitsas and Armstrong list single-issue groups on abortion, guns, the environment, and labor as being problematic in this manner: but they cannot and do not acknowledge — because it not not occur to them? — that the harmful effects of these groups on electoral prospects may stem directly from their fundamental unpopularity with the American people.

We then go into an exposition on the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. And here, again, we delve into the realm of the absurd. Let’s accept that there is a network of right-wing and libertarian think tanks in America. I know, because I work for one. Let’s further accept that they do possess a certain efficacy that has, at points, served the conservative cause well. But that’s not the whole story: these institutions, ranging from the Heritage Foundation to Cato and beyond, were founded to level the playing field rather than solidify a preexisting dominance. Academia, the media, and the political elite were perceived — rightly enough in most cases — as being bastions of leftist thought. In the first two of those three, that’s still true.

This situation bears no resemblance to the world-view of Moulitsas and Armstrong. We know that they view the media as hostile, for reasons having more to do with the psychology of frustration than an objective reality. Academia, presumably, is a “single-issue group.” And so they buy into the mythos of the VRWC with tendrils extending into every corner of public life, because a malevolent monolith is a powerful motivator — not least to oneself. Paradoxically, a primary source of their information is the organs of the VRWC itself, which of course are going to tout themselves handsomely. The authors aren’t being uniquely naive: we got a left-wing hit piece done on my own organization a few weeks back. It was some of the best PR copy for us I’ve ever read.

The bottom line is that the authors don’t really understand think tanks or their role in the political process. Think tanks are de facto single-issue groups, not meaningfully different from the advocacy organizations they denounce, devoted to the promulgation of ideological fidelity on their chosen issues. Moulitsas and Armstrong seem to think of them as factories, in the dark bowels of which victory is made. “[T]his new movement is not ideological,” they write. But if they wish to emulate the institutions of the VRWC — and they do — then ideology is at the core of the work of those institutions.

So what’s the solution for the Democratic Party according to Crashing the Gate? What would two professional web consultants and bloggers recommend for the renewal of the vehicle of the American left? Unsurprisingly, they recommend following the lead of web consultants and bloggers. The rise, flameout, and second rise of web-consultant-and-blogger favorite Howard Dean is lovingly recounted. The power of the “netroots” is extolled. And doubters are excoriated with all the fury of those who have seen the future — and in it, seen themselves.

Our message is simple: You can get out of the way or work with us. Trying to stop us is a losing proposition.

No doubt. If you’re a Democrat, facing off against the irate masses of the online left is a losing proposition. They may lack perspicacity, and they may lack equanimity: but they do not lack noise. For all the rhetoric about the power of the netroots, new paradigms, and empowerment, Moulitsas and Armstrong do not — or cannot — acknowledge that this is the fundamental source of their power, and the power of the dispersed tribe they have gathered to seize the Democratic Party, and eventually America itself. Irony of ironies: they have a Noise Machine. If Crashing the Gate is any indication, that’s all they have — and they don’t fully understand it.

That’s why there is one group for whom trying to stop them is not a losing proposition. That group is the Republican Party. That party — my party — has veered dangerously from its core principles. It bears responsibility for a poorly-executed war. It has overseen a tepid economy. It has plunged the finances of the United States into deficit spending that will eventually prove ruinous. It has moved a long, sad way from the ideals of 1994.

And it has crushed the Democratic Party for three election cycles running. Even now, it looks to retain power in the dismal circumstances of George W. Bush’s final midterm.

Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong look to the lovely thing they have built — their movement, as much as they disclaim leadership — and they are justly proud. But there’s one thing they cannot take pride in: a single electoral victory. Crashing the Gate is exculpatory as much as prescriptive. It makes the case that this is not their fault. But the truth, now, in 2006, is that it’s as much theirs as anyone’s on the American left. They are kingmakers now, because, within their movement, trying to stop them is a losing proposition. The only questions are: At what point will they accept responsibility for the state of affairs? And at what point will someone bring some sense to the noise?

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 1:15 AM | Permalink

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