Netroots Rising-The Book Review

Today I offer part one of my Netroots Rising review and analysis.  Part one will be a book review, and part two will use the book as a starting point to take a look at what blogs are doing, can be doing, should be doing, etc., in this campaign season.

Netroots Rising is the recent book by Lowell Feld and Nate Wilcox detailing the rise of the “progressive blogosphere”-what they call the netroots.  It is a book that reads well as history, as a political manifesto, and as a notice that a new way of doing business in American politics could be just over the
horizon. 

If you walk away from this book with one thing-let it be this.  Lowell and Nate regularly-and accurately- pound the fact that blogging and Internet access have given access to multitudes of people who did not have it before.  Want to make your opinion known?  Start a website, blog, facebook account, etc., and let your political flag fly.  Maybe you get noticed, maybe you don’t, but you can make an impact via techniques and technology that did not exist or were not recognized as recently as five years ago.

However, I came away feeling like an opportunity was missed to analyze why netroot participation seemed to serve as a participation multiplier, as well as a chance to offer a wide view of the political blogosphere. 

Lowell and Nate do a marvelous job of recounting how the internet was used by democrats to overcome GOP edges in technology.  Circa 2003 the GOP enjoyed a technology edge as seen (a) in fundraising via extensive databases and direct mail efforts; (b) talk radio; and (c) a better internet presence.

A variety of democratic activitists, frustrated with the moderate Clinton “triangulation” method of campaigning began to take to the internet via blogs, email, websites, etc., to allow them to directly connect with others having the same desire to participate and make an impact while circumventing what they saw as a calcified party process.

It was not easy at first, and initial efforts in Texas fighting Tom DeLay’s inexcusable redistricting efforts, drafting Wes Clark, supporting Howard Dean and then promoting John Kerry were not as successful as hoped for.  But these efforts laid the foundation for more successful netroot impact in the Virginia gubernatorial elections in 2005 and US Senate elections in Virginia and Montana in 2006. 

The step by step description of the Virginia campaigns in 2005 and 2006 is especially interesting, but perhaps because I lived through both as an interested observer it does not have the novel like quality of pace that others have attributed to the book.

A continuing thread is that of cooperation and conflict between the netroots and the more traditional Democratic Party structure.  This is not a new theme in american politics, but typically the insurgent side finds itself using the same tools as the establishment and is consequently outgunned.  The new tools employed by the netroots means an intra-party conflict where each side is potentially using not only different weapons (email v. tv advertising) but weapons that might be embraced by one demographic (i.e. younger voters) and ignored by another (i.e. older voters).

The new fight as described in the book takes on an old fight in a new light. Using the examples of Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, a political fight often means going after the people who will then turn around and persuade others. In the old days, it was done with patronage and perquisite-an external set of values that is addressed one at a time. The internet means that like can find like faster and in larger numbers.

The book concludes with an analysis of the future of the netroots, and asks “will the netroots continue to rise?”  Lowell and Nate suggest that the netroots will not only continue to impact campaigns, but they will also impact collateral areas of campaigns including advertising.  They examine the possibility of the netroots taking on an establishment hue of its own, or fragmenting into more focused areas of interest.  They also offer a final riff on the establishment v. insurgent that laces the book.

As history, manifesto, and a first swipe analysis of a current wave of participation-and one that is not likely to go away soon-this is an excellent book.

By the same token, there were a few things I would have enjoyed seeing. Some are substantive, some are stylistic, and others may have been eliminated due to cost or other pre publication issues, but here they are…

The authors sometimes spin the impact of the netroots effort to the point of overstatement.  For example, they suggest that George Allen’s “Macaca” moment was a “forced error” because had the netroots not gotten Webb into the race, Allen would not have been in The Breaks but instead campaigning elsewhere seeking the GOP nomination for president in 2008. 

I don’t understand their logic.  First, he would have been opposed in the Virginia Senate race-Webb did have to win a primary to get the nomination-so he would have been campaigning in Virginia anyway.  Second, Allen came up with this gaffe on his own.  He was not forced into it.  His own sense of ego caused him to insult Mr. Siddarth, and his sense of hubris prevented him from trying to recover from what he had done. These are hardly forced errors.

The netroots “score” was not in forcing the error, or even in creating the atmosphere to create an unforced error.  What the netroots did was to make the blunder widely known exceptionally fast-something that would not have happened had the Webb campaign followed their own counsel…and in doing so created the atmosphere where more errors-forced and unforced-were made.

The authors made a stylistic decision that frankly drove me crazy.  When discussing the Kaine and Webb campaigns, Lowell Feld is regularly refered to in the third person, typically as “Feld”.  I imagine this was because the book had two authors, and using they feared using “I” as opposed to proper names would cause confusion.  While I understand the decision, when I see “Feld” used more than a dozen times over two or three pages…well, it doesn’t add to the flow of the writing.

By the same token, the authors face the same problem that Frank Atkinson did when he wrote “Virginia in the Vanguard”.  Frank was a player in many of the events described, and perhaps as a result did not include  various interviews and personal details of the type used in “The Dynamic Dominion”…there is a great difference between writing as an observor than as a participant.

I also wish the authors left more of a personal fingerprint on the book.  I could find no pictures of them in the book.  The third person treatment is used on their bios at the beginning of the book, and while old “Kos” signs his foreword in the style of a published book, the authors do not do the same with the acknowledgements. They don’t offer details of meetings or encounters or people that could make the stories come alive. 

The netroots are people, and instead of the brief bios offered on pages xxi-xxiii in the intro, spread their stories throughout the book…and not just what they did, but the little details of life that would make them come alive.  It is a pity that the various interviews on the netroots rising web page were not included in the book in toto or in block quotes as sort of an oral history.  This book is in part a story of passionate people finding a cause, but I found primarily facts and little fire in the writing.

There were analytical opportunities missed that would have more fully illustrated the theme.  I think the book would benefit from a fuller discussion of the differences between the Democratic blogosphere and the GOP blogosphere.  A comparison like this would go far to illustrate why the the netroots have prospered vis-a-vis the opposition.

I also think an opportunity was missed to use the George Allen campaign to more fully illustrate the changes in mindset among traditional politics, the netroots, and Virginia demographics.

On page 142 of Netroots Rising: 

“One undercurrent about George Allen that had never been fully explored despite Allen’s tenure as Virginia Governor and US Senator was his questionable past with regard to racial issues.”

Lowell and Nate go on to note the media had not dug into the issue in previous elections…but apparently neither had the Democrats.  Allen had been through two state wide elections, not to mention some fierce legislative confrontations, and this was never made an issue. 

Why? 

Did the media not see it as an issue?  Were Mary Sue Terry and Chuck Robb somehow unaware of the decor of his law offices?  Did the makeup of the Virgina electorate change so much between 1993 and 2006 that what were once acceptable affectations are now character flaws?  Were questions not asked because the focus was more on “racial attitude” and less on “racial issues”?  A fuller discussion would help reveal fault line differences between the establishment and the netroots.

I say all this knowing that the style and analysis concerns, for instance, may be things that were whacked by editors or that were felt to be outside the realm of the book…but you know the drill-my blog, so I get to ramble.

The bottom line?  If you want to stay on top of Virginia politics, you need this book.  Likewise if you are interested in politics in general, use of technology, demographic shifts, communications, media relations…the list goes on.  The book scores as history, manifesto, and analysis…but it also serves to tell the story of people who wanted to make a change and got in the fight to do so…and that is the kind of book we should all be interested in.

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4 thoughts on “Netroots Rising-The Book Review

  1. Pingback: Renaissance Ruminations Reviews Netroots Rising | Netroots Rising

  2. Great review, Bwana. I spend a lot of my life glomming off reviewers and not reading the book, so I appreciate the challenge of doing a fair and informative review.

    I agree heartily that Allen’s gaffe was in the “unforced error” category. I’m really surprised that someone as tuned in to Virginia politics as Feld would have to paint that lily. You’re quite right that the influence of the blogs was not in making the incident happen, but in putting it out where a lot of people could get at it very quickly.

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