Ill Communication: Progressive Youth and the Netroots
by Mike Connery, Fri Sep 21, 2007 at 09:52:13 AM EDT
At Open Left, Matt Stoller is picking a fight with the Young Democrats. At issue is a letter sent by YDA to its membership, thanking the Democratic Congress for achieving progress on many issues of concern to young voters (as cataloged in a report by Speaker Pelosi). Stoller's issue is that the letter was sent at the same time that the Democratic Senate was Sista-Soujaing MoveOn (and by proxy, the anti-war movement) for an ad it published leading up to testimony by General Petraeus.
Stoller's beef is that this demonstrates a lack of coherent strategy on the part of YDA, and that their "letter to congress" represents an unhealthily sycophantic allegiance to the Democratic Party. In a pretty over-the-top move, he's calling for their funding to get cut. That's a huge overreaction and Stoller's argument is narrow in that it is limited to this one event and misses the fact that, while many YDA members are against the war, YDA as an organization has different goals and objectives that only partially overlap with those of MoveOn.
The Young Democrats main objective is not to carry water for MoveOn, but rather to engage young people in Democratic politics, keep those members excited and engaged, and to push the Democratic Party to pay attention to young people. This has been unphill battle for YDA, and for many youth institutions. It's hip and popular to talk about the power of Millennials and the civic engagement of young voters these days, but even a year ago most Democratic Party insiders were extremely skeptical as to the value and reliability of the youth vote. Despite our contributions and gains in 2006, that is still the case in some areas where YDA chapters fight with the local parties.
Earlier today, I spoke with Tony Cani, the Political Director for the Young Democrats about the issue.
Cani acknowledged that the lack of progress on the war is disappointing, but, given the mission of the Young Democrats, it was important to send a message to their members about the many positive policy outcomes of their work (in helping elect a Democratic congress, and in particular on the Cost of College Reduction Act). The fact that the Speaker's report specifically targeted young voters was in itself a big victory for those who are organizing Millennials on behalf of the Democratic Party, and one that can serve as a strong motivational tool for members of the Young Democrats who will be out walking canvasses, making phone calls, and pulling levers at the Ballot box for Demcorats in 2008. These are important developments if your goal is to strengthen the power of young people within the Democratic Party.
That said, YDA made a communications gaffe here. I don't want to deny or minimize that. This was a strategic error in so far as YDA should be on board with the progressive movement, and supporting MoveOn should be a no-brainer for an organization whose constituency is vehemently anti-war. But this incident is part of a larger problem: There is very little cross over and coordination between the netroots and progressive youth institutions. Not just on the war, but in general. This lack of coordination is the real concern here, and we're not going to make any headway on it by having the blogosphere muttering "damn those idiot kids" or by pulling funding from a youth organization that has done excellent work in turning out young voters and raising the profile of youth within the Democratic Party establishment, has made huge strides in building infrastructure for young people in Democratic politics across the country, and begun to revive what was long a stagnant and moribund brand among young people.
Right now, we in the blogosphere shouldn't be pointing fingers, but rather asking ourselves why so few young people participate in our online discussions and why this gap exists between progressive youth institutions and the netroots.
Right now, youth are clamoring for change in Washington and flocking to the candidacy of Barack Obama. Yet very few of these young progressives seem to realize or care that such a movement for change began years ago precisely with the rise of MoveOn and the Netroots. Why? One reason might be tone and tactics - young voters today, while they support Democrats by large margins, are tired of partisanship, and the blogs are engaged in partisan bloodsport with the GOP and recalcitrant Democrats like those who voted against MoveOn. In contrast, Obama's "post-partisan" rhetoric appeals deeply to Millennials and they would rather throw their weight behind that effort than throw their lot in with the bloggers. Another reason, suggested by Cani during our conversation, is that the blogosphere itself, despite its open forums, may till be too linear a medium for a demographic that prefers much more open and social forms of online communication.
Whatever the reason, both sides need to do a better job reaching out and coordinating with one another. Bloggers like Stoller and others who are nodes in the netroots communications network should be asking how they can make sure that groups like the Young Democrats are on message next time something like the MoveOn resolution fight emerges. And groups like YDA need to do a much better job of monitoring what's going on with the netroots on a wide variety of issues, not just the war, and connecting their members to that activism. If we are not all talking to one another, there's very little chance that our message will be strategically coordinated.