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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Eric Boehlert, Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press

eric-boehlert-bloggers-on-the-bus.thumbnail.JPGOne of the hardest things to understand about our politics is that there’s always two struggles going on, and they don’t match up neatly. There’s the grand and permanent struggle between parties and ideologies, between left and right, Democrat and Republican; and underneath, around, and in between the pixels of that more visible conflict is another: the struggle between insiders and outsiders.

These fights pit the people at the center with the money, the official positions, the institutional power, the responsibility to decide and the career imperative to stay inside against those who may be of the same party or political wing but…. they have no piles of money, no official position, no institutional power, none of the burdens of decision-making and no career imperatives to weigh before deciding what they think.

So there’s right vs. left, Democrats vs. Republican, the party in power vs. the loyal opposition– and that’s politics! But there’s also gay Americans waking up to the shitty job their leading advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign, did around Proposition 8 in California. Insiders vs. outsiders– that’s politics too. Unless you keep track of both simultaneously, you can’t really understand the shifting political scene at any given time and it’s really hard to understand big changes over time.

The profession of political consulting began in the 1950s in California. The first people to get paid for advising candidates on how to reach voters through the media emerged from the advertising business in our largest state. California was fertile ground because so many of the voters were from somewhere else. By uprooting their lives and moving to California, they had loosened their political loyalties and party affiliation became weaker. They were far more "up for grabs," as we would say today, and harder to reach through machine politics.

But they were reachable by radio and television. Candidates had to learn how to use broadcast messaging to influence voters whose party attachments were weak, and this is the skill the early consultants traded on. They were insiders hoping to profit within their game by delivering the outsiders–or their votes–to other insiders via mastery of the new communication channels. (The story is told in this book.) The rise of the consultant class further weakened the party bosses and empowered individual candidates who could reach the voters without the party.

Which illustrates a key fact about the relationship between insiders and outsiders: it is mediated by–what’s the word….? oh yeah–the media! Meaning: all the available means for connecting people to politics, linking center to margin and conducting a political discussion that somehow includes both. This includes professional journalism, political talk on television, the arts of messaging and marketing, the broadcast system. And in this respect the Internet scrambled the scene far more dramatically than the professional players in politics cared to recognize at the time. For it empowers the outsiders and connects them to one another; then it equips the newly connected to act as a group and criticize the people at the center. This affects politics; it affects journalism, and it really disrupts the coziness between the two. As I wrote in my post from January, Audience Atomization Overcome:

In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.

In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a following and serve demand. Journalists call this the “echo chamber,” which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.

Eric Boehlert’s book excellent and entirely necessary book, Bloggers on the Bus, tells a tale that readers of Firedoglake are intimate with: the rise of the Netroots, the liberal blogosphere as a force in American politics. But what it’s really about is drama and upheaval in that second story I located for you in between the pixels of the first. The political relationship between insiders and outsiders is vastly different today than it was in, say, 2000 because there’s been a power shift and a loss of exclusive authority at the center. Bloggers on the Bus nails these truths with cold facts and colorful stories– at least for the "blue" side of the system. (The situation on the right is similar in some ways and entirely different in others.)

"The netroots" and "bloggers" are the common names we have for this dramatically altered condition. But they are abstractions. The great value of Boehlert’s treatment is that he brings us the outsiders as people, and he shows just how far the Internet brought them, to the point where the Beltway insiders–operatives, candidates, fundraisers, journalists, TV hosts–simply could not ignore what the bloggers do. There are portraits here of FDL’s Jane Hamsher, Digby, Howie Klein, Glenn Greenwald, Mayhill Fowler of OffTheBus and a handful of others. Each one is shrewdly chosen in the sense that the person’s story illuminates how the outsiders have caused the insiders to freak out, shaking up politics, changing the way it is reported and talked about, and de-controlling what is treated as a legitimate issue– as with the FISA debate, which forms one of the Boehlert’s best chapters.

As I said, Firedoglake readers are already intimate with much of this story. But that does not mean we know the story. We may think we know, just as we think we remember what happened during the long and amazing campaign of 2008. But do we really? Here’s Boehlert in an earlier interview with The Left Coaster, commenting on another key chapter about internal tensions within the Netroots between Clinton and Obama supporters.

I’m still not sure why the debate from the spring of 2008 generated into what it did, and I’m not sure many bloggers today really want to look back and search for answers to that question. I don’t think there’s any question that the blogosphere, at least for a while there, became unrecognizable in terms of walking away from the high intellectual standards it had set for itself in previous years. Obviously, the campaign season was going to create various splits since the blogosphere was not going to automatically coalesce around one candidate. And as I mentioned in the book during 2007, the split was between Edwards, Obama and Clinton and the debates online were mostly rational and earnest and intelligent. But then Edwards got out of the race in January, 2008, and pretty much all hell broke loose right after that and the old blog rules sorta went out the window. Today, online backers of Obama and Clinton say the other was to blame (i.e. they started it.)

Today we can "look back and search for answers" to lots of things because we have the author with us to answer our questions. And with that, let the Salon begin! Please welcome Eric Boehlert to The Lake.

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