netroots-rising-lowell-feld-nate-wilcox.jpgStop me if you’ve heard this one…

A lesser-known candidate attracts a small following of dedicated supporters by the promise of being different than your usual Washington DC elected officials. Taking advantage of these supporters’ talent in getting the word out over the internet, scheduling meetups of other potential supporters, raising funds and generally building up a wave of enthusiasm that carries the candidate to national prominence, that same candidate starts taking on the trappings of traditional politicians—consultants, pollsters, campaign managers from inside the Beltway—and slowly, but heartbreakingly surely, the candidate moves away from those netroots supporters that got him where he was.

Sound like anyone you know?

Well, to Lowell Feld and Nate Wilcox, authors of Netroots Rising: How A Citizen Army Of Bloggers And Online Activists Is Changing American Politics this is altogether too familiar a story. Lowell and Nate are veterans of several netroots campaigns, such as Wesley Clark, Jim Webb, Tim Kaine, and Mark Warner. Netroots Rising documents instance after instance where candidates are profoundly grateful for the support and work of the netroots only to distance themselves after surrounded by those desperate not to change the status quo of the power circles.

In 2006, Time Magazine named as the Person of the Year the great masses populating the internet and its social networks. Suddenly, you didn’t need to be a well-connected politico in DC to make a huge impact on shaping races but also the political dialogue. Likening it to the Wild West, the netroots changed the power structure and candidates came to see the potential, not only for the getting their face seen and their message out, but for all-important fund raising as well.

But there is a downside for riding a populist wave to front-runner status. Howard Dean, for example, was arguably the first candidate to fully appreciate the power of the netroots, using his "Deaniacs" to build a movement that made even Beltway insiders sit up and take notice, ultimately could not overcome the more traditionally organized Kerry campaign. And viewed as an outsider, Dean did not have the infrastructure to combat the bad p.r. when the "Dean Scream" began to make its endless loops on the cable news shows.

Jim Webb also rode into office, thanks in no small part to his band of netroots supporters, including Lowell Feld, and the man widely believed to be a likely Republican candidate for the 2008 presidential race went down. The intersection of the "top-down" political campaign and the "bottom-up" netroots was not always an easy one. Despite the Webb campaign’s ultimate success, there was a significant amount of tension and misunderstanding, and the authors don’t gloss over this issue. One example of how the more "wild and woolly" netroots didn’t always mesh perfectly with the more restrained and cautious "professionals" was the campaign’s reaction after Lowell essentially called George Allen a racist following the "Macaca" incident (and several other bizarre comments by and revelations about George Allen). Instead of defending him, Webb’s communications director was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, "Well, you know, Lowell doesn’t speak for the campaign." This, despite the fact that Lowell was writing dozens of articles a week, speaking to the press, etc.

Over the years since Dean’s ill-fated run for the presidency and Webb’s successful race for the Senate, the netroots has grown and organized their voices. ActBlue, the online fundraising PAC, has raised more than $56 million dollars since 2004. FireDogLake, Crooks & Liars, and Down with Tyranny’s joint PAC, Blue America, has raised more money on ActBlue than any other PAC, save John Edwards’. And in Washington, money means power and it means access. For this election cycle, Blue America has championed the notion of "more and better Democrats" to help push a more progressive agenda, after some disappointing (but if you read Netroots Rising, entirely predictable) responses from candidates we helped get in office.

We’re still learning…and we’re still trying to get the power elite in Washington to understand that old school politics aren’t going to be enough anymore, a lesson that they are digging in their heels to keep from learning. But what Lowell and Nate have done is give us a primer of the birth of a new power faction, one as yet completely untapped, uncontrolled and treated somewhat suspiciously as only a new power can be and suggest where we have yet to go.

So join me please in welcoming Lowell Feld and Nate Wilcox and let’s discuss how we can raise the awareness and respect of the netroots and how we can get our voices heard.

Nicole Belle

Nicole Belle