Netroots, “Progressives,” and Matthew Kerbel

This is a transcript of the chat I had with Matthew Kerbel about his new book celebrating the "netroots," including groups like Daily Kos and Open Left which he considers to be part of "the Left." In this chat I tried to pin him down more specifically about what he meant by "the Left" and "progressives." First I’ll post the Firedoglake summary so you can get more of an idea of what his book is about, and then the chat.

For members of the Firedoglake community, I expect Matthew Kerbel’s Netroots:Online Progressives and the Transformation of American Politics will prove to be equal parts familiar and insightful. The familiarity comes from the rich descriptive account he provides of the netroots community itself. Unlike many of his contemporary academics, Kerbel has clearly done the legwork of getting to know progressive blogging communities like FDL, DailyKos, OpenLeft, and others. In offering a detailed account of the goals, values, and achievements of this community, Kerbel portrays the netroots as it is; rather than perpetuating the easy stereotypes so often provided by defensive political pundits and the like.

The insights come from the broader academic framework he provides. In chapters that compare the netroots to previous technologically-mediated social movements in American history, compare the progressive netroots to the conservative “rightroots,” and discuss the netroots community as a venue for social capital-building, Kerbel provides a scaffolding of sorts for viewing the very activities that Firedoglake participants are engaged in, yielding valuable insights in return. I highly recommend the book.

One particularly refreshing element of Kerbel’s work is his decision to focus on the netroots as a social movement rather than focusing on blogging more generally. For several years now, academic researchers have gotten stuck in an intellectual cul-de-sac of sorts, asking what impact blogging in the abstract has on politics or equating all blogging with the rarely-defined term, “citizen journalism.” Firedoglake provides a fine illustration of the flaws in this framework: FDL features both high-quality journalism from Marcy Wheeler and company, and cutting-edge political advocacy through FDL-action’s Whip count tool. FDL is a hub for a political “community-of-interest,” and that makes it different from a random wordpress blog. Some blogging (but not all) offers an alternative venue for journalism. Some blogging (but not all) has a real impact on elite decision-makers and public narratives. By focusing on the political Netroots rather than the abstract architecture of blogging software, Kerbel is able to add considerably to our knowledge of the substantive achievements of Netroots progressives over the past several years. I expect it’s going to be an important book for years to come, specifically because of the serious attention he pays to the actual achievements of this community.

His focus on netroots achievements yields an immediate result in the opening chapter, which offers a series of pithy insights that receive elaboration over the course of the book (and probably provide good starting points for our discussion with the author):

* “Technology facilitates political change – eventually”
* “The power of the internet rests with the ability to understand and use its decentralized structure”
* “The Left is better situated than the right to take advantage of open source Internet politics”
* “The progressive blogosphere is neither particularly ideological nor extremist”
* “The netroots are an elite movement”
* “The Internet does not need to penetrate society in order to be a politically influential vehicle”
* “Netroots activists oppose the Democratic establishment as strongly as they opposed the Bush administration”
* “Netroots activists oppose mainstream journalists as strongly as they opposed the Bush administration and oppose the Democratic establishment”
* “Netroots activists gauge their effectiveness on how well they influence political outcomes, media narratives, and political engagement”
* “There is evidence that the netroots are making progress toward their political objectives”
* “There is only limited evidence that the netroots are making progress toward influencing mainstream media narratives”
* “The evidence of netroots community building is strong”
* “Netroots bloggers practice and seek a politics of community facilitated by Internet interactions”

The book is engaging, readable, and not-too-long (158 pages). Chapter 2 offers a look at the deep historical roots of the moment we now find ourselves in. Kerbel demonstrates that, throughout American history, moments of technological change have been accompanied by dramatic changes to the practice of American politics. Chapter 3 discusses how the “vertically-integrated” conservative blogosphere, relying as it does on earlier institutions of movement conservatism, is less well-suited to the decentralized structure of the web than the their “horizontally-integrated” progressive counterparts. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 then provide a detailed look at netroots achievements based on the community’s own stated goals of affecting political outcomes, media narratives, and developing a strong progressive voice within the democratic coalition. It is in these chapters, and in the concluding seventh chapter, that FDL community members are most likely finding themselves shaking their heads in familiarity at events that they themselves helped make happen.

Some FDL members may have already heard Matt talk about his book at a Netroots Nation panel this past summer titled “academic studies of the netroots.” Chris Bowers, the chair and coordinator of that panel, memorably described it as “the meta-panel to end all meta-panels.” I think that’s a good lens for us to view the book, and to think about this book salon. Matt Kerbel has decades of experience observing how technology affects political communication, and his newest book tells us how the netroots are moving America into an era of “post-television politics.” For the next couple of hours, let’s put our meta-blogging hats on and see what we can learn about the netroots social movement that we are ourselves engaged in.

Welcome, Matthew Kerbel!


Now for the chat. These are the relevant parts (full version here).

khin November 1st, 2009 at 3:14 pm

I’m hoping to get some clarification of this statement:

“The Left is better situated than the right to take advantage of open source Internet politics”

My experience with Daily Kos has been that, on the economic issue of health care, the editors are in fact not left wing compared with the general public. But on social issues, my guess would be that they are left wing.

So I’m hoping that Mr. Kerbel can clarify what, exactly, he means by the Left in his statement above.


Matthew Kerbel November 1st, 2009 at 3:19 pm
In response to khin @ 99 (show text)

One of the points I try to make in “Netroots”, khin, is that the Netroots cannot be understood in traditional ideological terms, despite the ever-present characterization in the traditional press that there is a kind of ideological purity online that represents an out-of-the-mainstream, far-left perspective. I would apply this characterization to the broader progressive blogosphere, too — not just the editors at Daily Kos. When I use the term “left” I’m simply making a distinction that follows the linking pattern of political blogs, whereby the “left” blogosphere can be distinguished from the “right” blogosphere by their networking patterns.


Dave Karpf November 1st, 2009 at 3:23 pm
In response to Matthew Kerbel @ 104 (show text)

Right, I really like how you handle that in the book. The progressive netroots are an identifiable network of people, organizing through new media to affect the political process. They don’t always agree with each other on policy preferences (anybody hang out on MyDD during the primaries?), but they do agree on some of the major ways that politics should be opened up, and they work together to accomplish those ends.


khin November 1st, 2009 at 3:25 pm

Thanks for your response, Mr. Kerbel. So, if I understand you correctly, your usage of the term “left” denotes a certain type of more democratic networking pattern, and is not actually related to political ideas?


Matthew Kerbel November 1st, 2009 at 3:30 pm
In response to Dave Karpf @ 108 (show text)

Exactly. And I think it’s useful to contrast Dave’s characterization with the power dynamic I was talking about earlier. Dave’s distinguishing policy from process, and at its core the progressive netroots wants to change the way politics is done in order to make progressive outcomes possible. I think that’s the best way to understand what’s happening with the healthcare debate. There are people on progressive blogs who advocate for different policy outcomes (single payer, for instance), but the overarching dynamic is about getting a bill that will benefit individuals rather than insurance and drug companies. And that can’t happen without changing the political process.


khin November 1st, 2009 at 3:43 pm
In response to Matthew Kerbel @ 114 (show text)

That is an interesting comment about policy and process. My understanding of the term “progressive” was that it is a policy term; so process is necessary as a road to policy, but the definition is in terms of policy. What I wonder is whether Mr. Kerbel’s definition here is in agreement with that, or is it defined more in terms of process?


Thanks in advance for your response, Mr. Kerbel.

Dave Karpf November 1st, 2009 at 3:46 pm
In response to khin @ 126 (show text)

Progressive is both a policy term and a reference to a historical movement. So I guess an offshoot of your question that I’d pose to Matt is “how do today’s netroots progressives compare to some of the historical movements you study in the book?”


Matthew Kerbel November 1st, 2009 at 3:49 pm
In response to khin @ 126 (show text)

One of the observations I make in the book is that progressive policy objectives follow from a politics of community, so in that sense while progressives may (will) disagree on particulars, a politics of community would both mirror the communities that progressives have built online and would further progressive ends. It’s a variant of the old adage that good politics makes good policy.


khin November 1st, 2009 at 3:53 pm
In response to Matthew Kerbel @ 136 (show text)

I’ll have to admit that I can’t quite understand how that answers my question. I’m sure if I read your book I would get your terminology better.

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