The Emergence of a New Progressive Conventional Wisdom

The production of conventional wisdom is undoubtedly one of the most important factors in the ebb and flow of the American political scene. While it is certainly not the only factor that determines political outcomes, investing in the political infrastructure that has the ability to shape and alter conventional wisdom within the DC political industrial complex in a manner favorable to your cause can result in an almost immeasurable return on your investment. When the vast majority of talking heads on television and radio, along with the vast majority of elected officials and high level consultants seem to repeat your talking points and voice your desired appraisal of the political environment at any point in time, in many ways you have won any political battle before it began.

For example, we all saw this last week when almost everyone in DC, Republicans and Democrats, elected officials and political commentators, staff members and political consultants all agreed, long before any polling data came out, and even before there has been any substantive public debate on the topic, that Feingold's censure move was both motivated by his desire to run for President and highly unpopular nationwide. It was astonishing to witness how almost every single establishment voice in DC immediately agreed with these two basic ideas. The conventional wisdom almost immediately closed around Feingold in a strongly negative fashion, and polls on the subject demonstrate the impact this had. In particular, look at the Newsweek poll on censure that came out this weekend:Newsweek Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. March 16-17, 2006. N=1,020 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3 (for all adults).

"As you may know, Senator Russ Feingold has called for Congress to censure, or formally reprimand, President Bush over the issue of his warrantless wiretapping program. Censure is a way for Congress to express strong disapproval of a President's actions without going so far as impeachment. Would you support the censure of President Bush by Congress, or not?"
(Support / Wouldn't Support)
All: 42 / 50
Dems: 60 / 30
Inds: 42 / 51
Reps: 20 / 75

"Do you think Feingold and other Democrats who support censuring Bush are doing it more for partisan political advantage, or more because they believe it is the right thing to do?"
(Partisan / Right Thing to Do)
All: 53 / 33
Dems: 33 / 51
Inds: 55 / 31
Reps: 79 / 14 This is one of the most illuminating polls I have seen in a while. First, it shows that Feingold's censure resolution wasn't nearly as unpopular as the pundrity implied. While the country was slightly more against it than for it, in the same poll Bysh's job approval rating was 36% approve, 58% disapprove. In other words, Feingold's move was more popular than Bush

Second, and more importantly, the poll shows just how effective DC conventional wisdom on a breaking news story is at shaping public opinion. While those opposing censure held only an eight point edge on those favoring censure, those believing that Feingold acted to bolster his standing with in the Democratic Party have a twenty-point edge on those who believe he acted out of conscience. Because those who buy into the DC conventional wisdom have tremendous control over the communication apparatus that helps to create the national conventional wisdom, their cliquish beliefs that Feingold was acting to bolster his 2008 prospects quickly became the national CW. In fact, this message was so powerful that over 20% of the people in the poll who support the censure of Bush also believe that Feingold was acting primarily to bolster his 2008 prospects. With both Democrats and Republicans, consultants and staffers, elected officials and pundits all simultaneously voicing the same opinion on Feingold's motives, the narrative triangle was closed around Feingold, and DC conventional wisdom became national conventional wisdom. Suddenly, perhaps the most principled man in DC became yet another merely calculating politician, all because that is what a small clique of people in DC thought of what he did..

However, at almost exactly the same time, I noticed something else of great interest. In my frequent talks with other bloggers, and in the immense amount of time I spend reading other blogs, it finally dawned on me last week that the netroots has developed its own, entirely separate conventional wisdom. Almost universally, people were in favor of Feingold's action. Almost universally, we discerned that the Democratic strategy in DC was simply to step aside and let the Republicans implode. Almost universally, we agreed that was a really poor strategy. It surprised me how quickly we were all on the same page on virtually every facet of the censure issue. We have developed out own ability to manufacture and alter conventional wisdom, and to transmit that conventional wisdom within our own little confined world: the netroots and the blogosphere.

Much more on this in the extended entry.
In many ways, it reminded me of my first reaction on reading Crashing the Gate. At several different points when going through the book, I thought to myself "this is like 100 seminal blog posts combined. It is the collective wisdom of the progressive political blogosphere that has developed over the past three years, and it has been distilled into a single 177-page book." I stand by that assessment, and if anyone ever asked me for a ten second review of the book, I would simply say that if you want to understand the main line of thought on the contemporary political situation within the progressive blogosphere, read this book. Crashing the Gate will tell you what the progressive political blogosphere thinks.

I don't know how this happened, or when it happened, but it has happened. Somehow, through all of the blog posts we have written, all of the conversations we have joined in the comments of those posts, all of the email list-serves we have joined, all of the conference calls we have organized, of the link exchanges we have maintained, all of the informal meetings and Meetups we have attended, all of the campaigns where we have worked together, and all that we have done in this four year conversation that just started with just a few of us banging out our own, disparate thoughts on lonely keyboards has somehow developed into a fully-blown counter-conventional wisdom on the direction the progressive movement needs to take. In my assessment, the leaders of the progressive blogosphere now all appear to be on more or less the same page on what direction we need to move as a party and as a movement of progressives. Generally speaking, that conventional wisdom is detailed, based on significant research and experience, and stands in contrast to the conventional wisdom of Democrats in DC.

As just one example of this, from about 11:30 am until 1:50 pm today, I wrote an article entitled Are Democrats Doing Better in 2006 Than 2004?. Apparently, when I was almost exactly halfway through writing that post, kos posted an article entitled The GOP advantages in 2006. Even though kos and I haven't talked about this subject well, ever, either over email, phone or in person, and even though neither of us was aware of what the other person was writing before we posted, somehow the pieces ended being remarkable mirrors of one another. I started my piece with an indictment of the Democratic "step aside and let Republicans implode" strategy, just as he did. He emphasized that Democrats are doing a lot better in objective measures of election status, which was the focus of my piece. We both emphasized how we still believed that we could blow this huge advantage. The only difference was in content emphasis, as I emphasized how much better our opportunity was, and he emphasized the many ways we could still blow it. It was as though we were sharing the same mind. And it was a lot like other pieces that a lot of other high profile bloggers have been writing lately.

These two sets of conventional wisdom are in active conflict with one another, both in DC on in the netroots. There are a minority of progressives in DC who subscribe to a reformist vision for the progressive movement very similar to the one espoused online, as there remains a minority online who ascribe to what I have termed the DC establishment view. Neither "camp" is monolithic, there are of course a large number of variations within each line of thought, there are no officials "centers" of either school of thought, and there are also several other schools of thought both online and in DC with a smaller number of adherents. Even so, any regular viewer of the political scene can see a number of major disagreements between these two schools of thought being played out on a regular basis:
  • Long term fifty state strategy versus short term selective targeting;
  • Being a partisan Democrat versus an ideological Democrat of some sort;
  • Directly challenging Republicans versus letting Republicans self-destruct;
  • Changing progressive infrastructure versus changing progressive policy;
  • Altering the conventional wisdom versus accepting the conventional wisdom.
These are the main conflicts now taking place in the battle between the established progressive conventional wisdom and the emerging progressive conventional wisdom. Almost every time when the netroots has encountered interference with the progressive establishment (and the media establishment) has fallen into one of the five conflicts I listed above. I am actually rather stunned at how quickly we have made progress among many influential progressives in these five conflicts, which might indicate that the netroots is a lot more influential than we sometimes believe. However, the struggle over Feingold's censure resolution made it painfully clear last week just how many influential progressives we have utterly failed to sway. As we move forward into 2006 and beyond, it is important to remember that no matter what election results take place, the struggle for the direction of the party will continue, and that it will center around those five ideas. Whether or not we are in power, we are only going to build a lasting, natural governing majority unless we win the battle over those five ideas. I wouldn't characterize this as a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party or the progressive movement, but I would characterize it as a struggle over the strategy of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. No matter what happens in elections, in order for us to once again become a natural governing majority, this is a battle we will have to continue to fight until we have achieved near-total victory.

Tags: Democrats, Media, netroots (all tags)



Re: The Emergence of a New Progressive Conventiona

I'll see your meta and raise you one more meta. . .  oh forget it, I'm too tired.

Seriously, all frivolity aside, I think this is an excellent set of observations.

There is an online CW that has some organic elements but is increasingly more coordinated, or at least congealed through collaborative discussion, online and off.

I would be interested in hearing you describe more about when you have been surprised by netroots CW popping up in the establishment, and to what you attribute such success.

Is it a function of our steady, cumulative drumbeat - conquest by erosion, as it were - or is it more a function of the ability of some among our ranks to develop better communication channels with the establishment. . . or both?

Fundamentally, I'm asking, when we are successful, what drives our formula for success?  Or is this even knowable at this point?

by Pachacutec 2006-03-20 01:30PM | 0 recs
Goog post Chris

I see one of the role of the Blogosphere as challenging and countering the CW that is pumped out by the Beltway folks. We provide an alternative to traditional media sources that often parrot the conventional wisdom that the "professionals" are so confident of.

But as usual, we are playing catch up as the Blogosphere is still quite young, and the traditional media chanels that pump out CW are quite established.

But I believe we can have an effect. I'll write more on this after tomorrow when I've got more time.

by michael in chicago 2006-03-20 01:55PM | 0 recs
Re: The Emergence of a New Progressive Conventiona

I think the problem with the early part of this post is that you accept the Feingold myth as a given. That Feingold's censure resolution was unfairly characterized as shrewd political movement rather than a selfless stand for principle was more due to "D.C conventional wisdom" being spread & predominantly accepted as given rather than consider the evidence against that. I could even point you to outlets in the progressive blogosphere & not just the DLC types who expressed skepticism of Feingold's motives.

That he might be "The Most Principled man in Washington" doesen't mean he isn't averse to personal political calculation.

by Epitome22 2006-03-20 01:59PM | 0 recs
Re: The Emergence of a New Progressive Conventiona

I think Feingold just might be lucky in that the censure resolution represents both principle and good strategy. In fact, I think it's good strategy for his presidential run. It's good strategy for broader Democratic goals. It's also the right thing to do, or at least one of the right things to do.

It'll be awhile before we know how this actually plays out.

My suspicion is that Feingold will come out smelling like a rose.


by phatass 2006-03-20 02:49PM | 0 recs
Re: The Emergence of a New Progressive Conventiona

Josh Marshall said something a while back to the effect that while there's nothing wrong with strategizing per se, the Congressional Democrats are just utterly godawful at it. So they'd be better off standing on principle, if only because once in a while they might end up making the strategically correct decision as a result.

by danC 2006-03-20 03:05PM | 0 recs
Fun part

The fun part of that poll is that 1 out of 5 Republicans think Bush should be censored.

by COBear 2006-03-20 02:10PM | 0 recs

Did you mistakenly swap the republican numbers for partisan/principled? Or do 79% of the republicans admire Feingold?????

by AndyG 2006-03-20 02:18PM | 0 recs
Re: Typo?

He did switch those numbers. I checked the source.

That is a telling number, anyway.

The perceptions of Feingold are pretty stark. I would guess that just about any move from any politician will be pretty similar.

People do not like politicians. They do not trust them.


by phatass 2006-03-20 02:54PM | 0 recs
Re: Typo?
by Chris Bowers 2006-03-20 07:57PM | 0 recs
Crucial distinction in the censure question

Note that the Newsweek censure question mentions "warrantless wiretapping" but doesn't specify that American citizens were wiretapped. The ARG poll said this:

Do you favor or oppose the United States Senate passing a resolution censuring President George W. Bush for authorizing wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining court orders?
3/15/06     Favor     Oppose     Undecided
All Adults     46%     44%     10%
Voters     48%     43%       9%
Republicans (33%)     29%     57%     14%
Democrats (37%)     70%     26%       4%
Independents (30%)     42%     47%     11%
Based on 1,100 completed telephone interviews among a random sample of adults nationwide March 13-15, 2006. The theoretical margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points, 95% of the time.

People need to pound on this until someone gets around to doing a new poll with questions specifying that citizens have been wiretapped without a warrant or court supervision of any kind.  A lot of respondents don't know that small detail. Being so informed makes respondents more likely to support censure, I'm sure.

by sean in iowa 2006-03-20 02:22PM | 0 recs
Awesome, Chris...

This may be my favorite thing you've written...

You've written great stuff before, of course, but I'm absolutely obsessed with the big "M" Meta-Blogo-Media CW-Strategy-Discussion...

"Altering the conventional wisdom versus accepting the conventional wisdom" and "Directly challenging Republicans versus letting Republicans self-destruct," are really what separates our CW from Barack Obama, for instance...

Obama's the bellweather, it seems to me. If he begins to adopt the netroots CW, then we'll know we've really accomplished something, I think...

The only thing that I'd question is a point you and many have made before -- "Being a partisan Democrat versus an ideological Democrat of some sort."

I think that's certainly true of me, and of the CW creators in the netroots... But I really don't think that the "netroots is not ideological" statemet is really true...

I really think that they're are at least two camps in the mix - both a pragmatic and an ideological wing in the netroots, it seems.

Some like me, and you I gather from your writing, lean toward the pragmatic, regardless of our own often far-left core beliefs. I really think there's a sizable segment of the netroots who, while savvy about the organization potential of the web, are far more unwilling to make ideological compromises.

by Vermonter 2006-03-20 03:09PM | 0 recs
'Ideological' v. 'Partisan'

I agree that this is the one part that's not right.  It's also the one part that I think Markos gets the most wrong, even though his basic instinct is right.

As I see it, this is not about ideology, it's about national, Beltway-centric organizations that have survived while their grassroots counterparts have relatively withered.  This happened for a variety of reasons, but the end result was an insider-skewed organizational culture, which is not best described as ideological, except as a rather sloppy--and ultimately misleading--shorthand.

Markos is spot on in making the point that these organizations are living in a world that no longer exists--a world in which it works to work both sides of the aisle.  This world actually ended in 1994, so it's hard to overstate how out-of-touch these folks strategizing is.

Yet, it's similarly out-of-touch to label them as ideological, when they actually represent the most pragmatically-oriented face of ideologically-motivated politics.

Frankly, I myself--just like you and Chris, I surmise--am all three: ideological, pragmatic and partisan.  What's more, I no longer think I'm such an odd duck.

The left in America has never had the sort of organizational strength it has had in Europe or other settler democracies. But it has had inspired pragmatists who found progressive causes where they could play catalytic roles in bringing together a diverse range of less ideological, less progressive forces to accomplish fundamental social change.   It's been this way since at least the late 1800s.  Usually, these folks work outside the party system, but their activism has profound impacts on party politics as well.

Now, however, we find ourselves in an extraordinary time where the pragmatic situation demands a strong partisan united front.  And those like us with sufficient historical perspective have no problem at all supporting conservative Democrats whose partisanship is staunch.  Indeed, we have no problem saying that they often act with greater fortitude than others who are significantly more liberal on paper.

It  doesn't make me any less ideological to say this.  For me, after all, ideology is a way to make more coherent sense of the world--and that is a project that is only served by embracing the facts, whatever they may be.  The notion that ideology equals closemindedness is just one of the oldest lies that lies at the heart of centuries-old CW.  It's true of some ideologues of course--particularly the ones that the CW likes to talk about the most. But since when has the CW ever worked differently?

by Paul Rosenberg 2006-03-20 06:26PM | 0 recs
Re: Awesome, Chris...

The "progressive" netroots Chris is describing is somewhat ideological--it is progressive.  What it tends not to be is dogmatic.  It is principled, but flexible enough to take winning seriously.  But not at any cost, at least not where a progressive alternative would have a real chance.

Another key example of what Chris is talking about was the Schiavo mess last year.  The Beltway types, coming off their CW that the "values" (read Christian) voters had swung the election, thought Schiavo was a winner for the GOP.  How wrong they were.  By the time the first polls were taken it was clear that an overwhelming majority was horrified at the intrusion into a family's life and understood the need to respect Michael Schiavo's decision under the circumstances.

All it would have taken was some common sense on the part of the DC types to see that people weren't going to be capitavted by the idea that one side of a family could enlist politicians and crazies to stop the side with the legal authority from doing what they felt was right under the circumstances.

When  Newsweek introduced the "CW Watch" some years they included the admonition that the CW is always wrong.  Many people forget that.

by Mimikatz 2006-03-20 06:31PM | 0 recs
Thought-Leader, thought-leaders

In the past six months or year, the serious bloggers have improved the quality of their writing and analysis. Even the comments sections have also become more intelligent. You see fewer trolls and fewer "dittohead".

I have no stats, but I'm absolutely certain we are getting a lot more readership these days from mainstream journalists and even the beltway insiders. One piece of evidence for this is seeing of occasional but steady references to blogs in the mainstream media.

Our conventional wisdom has been that our audience is the general public, that we are a democratic medium, a resource capable of bypassing or competing with the mainstream media. But, I'll bet our penetration is much greater with traditional thought leaders, meaning that perhaps we are becoming "thought-leader, thought-leaders".

Nailing one more board into the foundation of the VLWC?

by MetaData 2006-03-20 03:27PM | 0 recs
The CW could have been different with our input

Chris: I am actually rather stunned at how quickly we have made progress among many influential progressives in these five conflicts, which might indicate that the netroots is a lot more influential than we sometimes believe. However, the struggle over Feingold's censure resolution made it painfully clear last week just how many influential progressives we have utterly failed to sway.
(emphasis added)

Feingold has been critized for not having notified the Dem. Senate caucus first.  I'm part-way in agreement with this.  But...

I'd criticise him far more for not having notified the liberal blogoshere in advance.  I believe we could have greatly influenced the conventional wisdom (on the Dem. side) if we knew of this in advance, reached the same consensus we now have on censure, and set up our calls to Senators, etc.

The Senators were blindsided, and they reacted without input, thereby creating a CW that was anti-censure, believed this was a partisan trick for Feingold's benefit, and could and should be swept under the carpet.

You are correct that the polls reflected the CW to some extent.  That CW could have been different on the Dem. side with smarter tactics by Feingold - involving the party base.

by JimPortlandOR 2006-03-20 03:29PM | 0 recs
Re: The Emergence of a New Progressive Conventiona

Because those who buy into the DC conventional wisdom have tremendous control over the communication apparatus that helps to create the national conventional wisdom, their cliquish beliefs that Feingold was acting to bolster his 2008 prospects quickly became the national CW. In fact, this message was so powerful that over 20% of the people in the poll who support the censure of Bush also believe that Feingold was acting primarily to bolster his 2008 prospects.

While I agree with most of what's said here, the above statement is a classic example of a causal fallacy that's pervasive among political consultants, pundits, and observers.

Review other polls that pose the "partisan advantage v. principle" question.  In most cases -- especially when it comes to legislative tactics such as judicial fillibusters -- the majority will say "partisan advantage".  It has nothing to do with micro-narratives profferred by the MSM and everything to do with the general cynicism about politicians.  

Russ Feingold's name ID is probably not over 25% of the American population.  Most voters don't know who he is, much less know about his Senate record.  An average voter gets asked a question about a Democrat trying to reprimand President Bush.  The average voter thinks, "okay, maybe Bush deserves the reprimand but the Democrat probably is doing it for partisan purposes/political reasons.  Isn't that what all politicians think about first?"

Isn't MyDD where the "most voters don't know which party controls Congress" discussion took place?  The majority of voters don't watch news programs and don't read newspaper stories.  A lot of people are working long hours and trying to raise a family.  They have no time to get into the tendrils of legislative process.  Others would rather spend their free time watching sports, hiking, or what have you.  These voters are not responding to media narratives but to their own gut reactions.  

And those gut reactions will likely be one of reflexive cynicism about politicians' motives.  It's probably the correct stance to take, truth be told.  

by PigsandBattleships 2006-03-20 03:50PM | 0 recs
The 'Who the fuck is Russ Feingold?' question

I'd welcome a serious psephological analysis of these Feingold censure polls.

Because here's one gaping gulf (seems to this layman) that doesn't seem to be discussed.

Even if they don't lurve Feingold, everyone who posts here knows who he is. Most folks out there (perhaps more than 75% even of likely voters) don't know him from a hole in the ground.

90%+ couldn't pick him out of a lineup, I suspect.

I sense that a lot of these censure poll questions are bullshit questions - but I can't properly explain why!

Hence the plea for some professional guidance.

by skeptic06 2006-03-20 04:33PM | 0 recs
Re: The 'Who the fuck is Russ Feingold?' question

Pretty rare I get rolled on a latin-root word.  For those who suffered a similar fate: =psephological

by hoose 2006-03-20 06:08PM | 0 recs

It was astonishing to witness how almost every single establishment voice in DC immediately agreed with these two basic ideas.

I wasn't astonished at all to see ossified DCDEMS distance themselves from and even denigrate anyone who makes waves in their happy little pond.

by Sitkah 2006-03-20 04:07PM | 0 recs
Re: The Emergence of a New Progressive Conventiona

To me, the key difference between the netroots ethos and the "Establishment Democrat" ethos is in their approach to the winning over the swing voter.

The netroots believe that the swing voter will side with strong, assertive, confident politicians who will take a stand over weak politicians who adopt positions that the swing voter favors.  The netroots believes that the swing voter can be persuaded through disciplined messages.  In a way, the netroots borrow from the GOP model: look strong, and repeat your message until it sticks.  

The Establishment believes that the swing voter is more persuaded by affinity on the "issues" rather than "strong stands".  So the Establishment prefers to poll-test and focus-group every issue and come up with positions that maximize their popularity on the issues, even if it risks incoherence.  Because Establishment Dems above all fear "alienating swing voters", they prefer a milquetoast, play-it-down-middle strategy, with carefully designed and unobjectionable policies that specifically pander to certain demographic profiles.

In other words, the Establishment wants to pander to the swing voters' preferences and biases, while the netroots believe a better strategy is to shape the swing voters' preferences and biases.  This fundamental difference in the "persuadability" of the swing voter is at the heart of the netroots/Establishment split.

The other difference is that the netroots place a greater priority in tending to the base than mollifying the center.  But that's another topic of discussion.  

by PigsandBattleships 2006-03-20 04:22PM | 0 recs
Point Taken, Let's Chalk Out A 10 Point Program

Let's do it the netroots way, let a thousand flowers bloom. Let many people come up with their own versions, and then let's debate until we can come up with a list all of us can agree on. More than anything else, success in 2006 hinges on this, I think.

Long War
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker
The Spectrum On Gender

DFNYC, 100,000 Strong, Scalable Organization

by paramendra 2006-03-20 04:38PM | 0 recs
Speaking of Feingold and Progressives...

Hi Folks,

Ever get the urge to drive Republicans mad? Are you ready for some March Madness?

Following on my suggestion (<elvis>thank you, thank you very much </elvis>) the Gillibrand campaign has started an internet fund raising campaign and come up with a March Madness theme in honor of the Dean bat!

Click the linksthen look for the basketball graphic on the right. While you are there help us drive the republicans mad by contributing a few bucks to Kirsten Gillibrand's campaign!

Drive the Republicans mad by helping us drive John Sweeney from office, take a seat that shouldn't be in play but is, and take back the House of Representatives at the same time!



Oh yeah!

While you are at it click my name here to go to Russ Feingold's Progressive Patriots Fund and vote for Kirsten Gillibrand in his Pick a Progressive Patriot contest!

by Andrew C White 2006-03-20 06:55PM | 0 recs


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