Matt Bai, Michiko Kakutani, and the Netroots

Cross posted from Daily Kos in slightly modified form at Big Tent Democrat's suggestion. Thanks for giving me the opportunity, Jeralyn. You run an excelent site.


This week Big Tent Democrat discussed Ron Brownstein's review of Matt Bai's new book, The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, saying

Brownstein is a very good reporter and observer, but it seems to me he accepts some [of Bai's] conclusions that are faulty.

By coincidence, I read Michiko Kakutani's review of Bai's book in the New York Times just before Big Tent published his observations, and took issue with a similar problem.


I sent the following letter:
To the Editor: Re "Democrats Face Online Diagnoses, but No Cure Yet" (Aug. 28):
In her review, Ms. Kakutani reports uncritically Mr. Bai's assertion that "the way the netroots saw it, the more you knew about Democratic politics before 1998, the less relevant you actually were."

To the contrary, the netroots is acutely aware of the importance of history. I have seen extensive essays published on Daily Kos and other sites discussing the relevance of everything from 19th century electoral politics, to Franklin Roosevelt's coalition strategy, to the political aptitude of Bill Clinton.

Perhaps Ms. Kakutani ought to familiarize herself with the netroots more thoroughly before she next reviews a book on the subject.

Naturally, I had no expectation that the letter would be published. However, because history is my academic concentration, and because I spend a considerable amount of my time at Daily Kos hectoring diarists and commenters on their misuse and misunderstanding of history, I could not let Kakutani's reporting (and by inference , Bai's, though I admit that I have not read his book yet) go unchallenged. I shared my letter with Big Tent Democrat earlier this week, and he suggested that I elaborate on it in a diary.

 As I say in my letter, there is a good deal of history used at Daily Kos, both on the front page and in the diaries. One need only look at the history tag in order to get a picture of this.

To be sure, not all of the history telling on Daily Kos (or in other corners of the blogosphere) is good or even accurate, but with some of it does happen to be very good indeed. For example, earlier this week Yellow Dog Woman published a very good diary on the history of woman suffrage (as one commenter notes astutely, the amendment making that possible was ratified four score and seven years ago). To give a small taste, Yellow Dog Woman writes:

Until August 26th, 1920*, it was legal to deny the right to vote to the majority of the population of the US -- women!  

Just 8 days before, on August 18, the Tennessee Legislature, in one of the most divisive votes in TN history, ratified the Amendment by just 2 votes.  And what an interesting story that was: Harry T. Burn, young TN Representative from East Tennessee, had been counted as a vote against the amendment by both the suffragists and the antis.  He walked into the chamber that day wearing a red rose (the yellow rose was the symbol of the suffragists; antis wore/carried red roses).  The vote was too close to call -- but when his name was called, he voted "aye!"  The suffragists realized they had won by just 1 vote (legend has it that in his pocket he carried a message from his mother, urging him to do the right thing).  Ladies sitting in the gallery shredded their yellow roses and a shower of yellow rose petals showered down on the chamber floor.  Can you imagine that scene?!  

In a recent diary, I noted that one of my personal reasons for signing up to post and comment at Daily Kos in the first place was the use of history for political context. I cited a Bob Johnson diary titled It's the Jews, which had a historical discussion both in the body and the comments. Indeed,  Big Tent Democrat himself (then posting as Armando), gave an excellent discussion of political strategy in his diary series on Lincoln 1860.

For every point there seems to be a counterpoint or alternative interpretation. eugene, for example  commented in a diary by Unitary Moonbat

[W]e also needed a Whig 1854 strategy. For the North to be that unified in 1860, they needed to have utterly abandoned the compromise, sell-out politics of the first half of the 19th century. They needed to reject those politicians who counseled anything but strident opposition to the Slave Power. In short, they needed to make a break from the Whig Party.

It took a dramatic act for that to happen - the Northern Whigs' willingness to go along with the abhorrent Kansas-Nebraska Act, which undid the 1820 Compromise and allowed slavery into the free territories, as well as allowed a stronger Fugitive Slave Act.

It should not take a PhD to see the parallels to our own time here. During the 2000s basic rights have been sold away, and freedoms are as imperiled now as they were then - probably even moreso.

And yet our own representatives, the Democrats, behave just as the Whigs in 1854 did. When the Slave Power demanded new slave territories and a new Fugitive Slave Law, the Northern Whigs gave it to them.

Surely this does not comport with Bai's assertion that we are suspicious and ignorant of pre-1998 history.

As I note in my letter, one of the most discussed figures on Daily Kos is Franklin Roosevelt. Consider Doc Twain's diary ("I Welcome Their Hatred") on FDR's 1936 speech. "Where is our FDR?," asks the diarist. Rhetorical, yes. But I think it would be unreasonable to argue that this particular diary lacks historical context. Indeed, it goes to the very heart of the point I tried to make in my letter to the editor: historical context is an essential component to our understanding in the netroots of modern political events and trends.

I could go on, but the universe of good Daily Kos (and netroots) history is quite large, and generally pretty good. I hope, with what I must admit is a degree of arrogance,  that Bai and Kakutani will reevaluate their positions.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Naturally, Daily Kos focused (5.00 / 5) (#1)
    by andgarden on Thu Aug 30, 2007 at 12:23:59 PM EST
    But while we may not all be Jerome Armstrong, most of us do place an emphasis on truth.

    Heh (5.00 / 3) (#2)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Aug 30, 2007 at 02:20:46 PM EST

    I juist blasted Bowers at MYDD and Richardson too.


    Thanks (none / 0) (#3)
    by andgarden on Thu Aug 30, 2007 at 02:38:33 PM EST
    Saw your post at MyDD.

    I think I saw Stoller use the word "whip" again today.


    Heh (none / 0) (#4)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Aug 30, 2007 at 02:40:10 PM EST
    The netroots (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by hellskitchen on Fri Aug 31, 2007 at 08:46:12 AM EST
    may have started out as the lone bird singing in the forest, but we are now the canary in mine.  And we are being heard.

    I think one of the biggest mistakes (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by andgarden on Fri Aug 31, 2007 at 03:26:47 PM EST
    we can make is to assume that our concerns will be addressed just because there is a general awareness that we exist. Given the recent supplemental and FISA fight, I am far from convinced.