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How influential are political bloggers?

Check out Peter Daou‘s thought-provoking essay “The Triangle: Limits of Blog Power.” It’s an interesting analysis of what kind of real effect bloggers are having on politics.

How influential are bloggers?

It’s a difficult question to answer. First, there’s no consensus on metrics. Second, blogs serve many purposes, some of which are more social than political. Third, the use of the Internet in political campaigns cuts across so many areas that it’s easy to confuse netroots influence in the communications and messaging realm with other Internet-based political applications such as organizing and fundraising. Fourth, “influence” is a hazy term.

It might be easier to approach the question by setting a more specific, and admittedly somewhat arbitrary, definition of political influence: the capacity to alter or create conventional wisdom. And a working definition of “conventional wisdom” is a widely held belief on which most people act. Finally, by “people” I mean all Americans, regardless of ideology or political participation.

…Looking at the political landscape, one proposition seems unambiguous: blog power on both the right and left is a function of the relationship of the netroots to the media and the political establishment. Forming a triangle of blogs, media, and the political establishment is an essential step in creating the kind of sea change we’ve seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Simply put, without the participation of the media and the political establishment, the netroots alone cannot generate the critical mass necessary to alter or create conventional wisdom. This is partly a factor of audience size, but it’s also a matter, frankly, of trust and legitimacy. Despite the astronomical growth of the netroots (see Bowers and Stoller for hard numbers), and the slow and steady encroachment of bloggers on the hallowed turf of Washington’s opinion-makers, it is still the Russerts and Broders and Gergens and Finemans, the WSJ, WaPo and NYT editorial pages, the cable nets, Stewart and Letterman and Leno, and senior elected officials, who play a pivotal role in shaping people’s political views. That is not to say that blogs can’t be the first to draw attention to an issue, as they often do, but the half-life of an online buzz can be measured in days and weeks, and even when a story has enough netroots momentum to float around for months, it will have little effect on the wider public discourse without the other sides of the triangle in place. Witness the Plame case, an obsession of left-leaning bloggers long before the media and the political establishment got on board and turned it into a political liability for Rove and Bush.

Influence is not something you can easily measure, but the former netroots emissary for John Kerry has some thoughts regarding how the Right and the Left differ on their approach to obtaining and controlling influence through the netroots.

Working within the triangle construct (netroots + media + party establishment = CW), bloggers and netroots activists on the left and right have very different strategic imperatives.

With a well-developed echo chamber and superior top-down discipline, the right has a much easier time forming the triangle. Fox News, talk radio, Drudge, a well-trained and highly visible punditocracy, and a lily-livered press corps takes care of the media side of the triangle. Iron-clad party loyalty – with rare exceptions – and a willingness of Republican officials to jump on the Limbaugh-Hannity bandwagon du jour takes care of the party establishment side of the triangle. The rightwing netroots, therefore, is already working within the triangle on most issues. Their primary strategic aim is to prevent the left from forming its own triangle, as occurred with Katrina. It’s a defensive posture, with the goal being the preservation of the status quo. Which explains why the right is profoundly hostile to dissent and why the pretense to libertarianism is common: “independent thinkers” don’t like to be seen as defending the powers that be.

The triangle construct also explains rightwing bloggers’ relentless attacks on the “MSM” and on anyone who contends that the media is conservative. In a nation dominated by shrill rightwing voices, with all branches of government in the hands of Republicans, and an ineffectual press corps, the “liberal media” myth is so absurd that it requires no rebuttal. But the right desperately needs to keep the media from doing what they did in the aftermath of Katrina: tell the unvarnished truth. They need to block the left from building the kind of triangle that Katrina generated, where outspoken left-leaning bloggers are joined by leading Democrats and reporters who have no choice but to describe the catastrophic results of Bush’s dismal leadership. The result in Katrina’s case is a major political crisis and a dramatic shift in public perceptions, a body blow to the long-standing conventional wisdom of Bush as a “resolute leader” and a protector.

I think his analysis is spot on regarding the formula (netroots + media + party establishment = CW), and the Right’s charge to keep the triangle from forming on the Left. They’ve done an excellent job, and headily feed on disagreements on the Left to bolster their fraudulent positions. As you stated, dissent is squashed on Right-leaning blogs (no comments enabled, or banning when dissent is expressed — Free Republic is a good example.)

The weakness on the Left that I notice, is the schism in the lefty blogs between men and women. By and large most big bloggers don’t cite female political bloggers often — Peter doesn’t cite any in his piece either (though he does a whiz-bang job of promoting women on the Daou Report). I noted to him that bloggrrl Shakespeare’s Sister deserves equal visibility with many of those male bloggers he mentioned (Kos, Digby, Oliver Willis, Atrios — you know, the usual go-to guys), because her political writing is second to none. This lack of inclusiveness of female political bloggers is reflected in what seems to be the eternal conflicts on gender issues such as reproductive freedom and gay rights issues, which are seen by many larger, male lefty bloggers as political liabilities if discussed, let alone promoted.

It’s certainly a phenomenon that I don’t know how the Left blogosphere can address, when it’s clear that the Right benefits from promoting its Michelle Malkins and, have mercy, Ann Coulter, keeping them highly visible (it hurts to even type those foul names) to deflect charges of sexism. They do the same with their black Republicans columnists and paid-off pastors, trotting them out as tokens to deflect charges of racism. On the Left, it’s more about fighting for visibility at all, so there’s a ways to go.

It’s all about getting a notch in the “Win” column, the move toward the political center, appeasing the middle rather than educating the sheeple. They seem to forget that these sheeple have been carefully molded by the Right — by the political party, Faux News and right-wing radio. This didn’t happen overnight, but the Right was persistent. The Republicans have built an excellent good spin-down machine in place to deflect the Left.

Katrina was a prime (and tragic) example of an issue that the Left could galvanize and build upon to point out the political disaster that is the Bush Administration. This event merged social and economic issues that could be successf
ully and easily blogged on the Left that the Right couldn’t dismiss. It’s actually kind of sad that an event of this magnitude is what is able to uncover the incompetence and malfeasance that the Bush Administration has papered over for years. But that’s where things stand now.

Head over to Peter’s Daou Report to read more.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding