Taking on the System

How does “Kos”, the founder of the vast DailyKos web-based liberal community site, think about online organizing? Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in the Digital Era is Markos Moulitsas Zuniga’s manifesto, a self-concious descendent of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for radicals.
It seems counterintuitive, but much of Kos’ methodology for online organizing is about using digital tools for storytelling and advocacy to affect traditional broadcast media. Where 60s radicals got the attention of the mass media with colorful street protest, those tactics have worn out much their usefulness. 21st century organizers use the net to bring stories to the mainstream media and keep stories on the air; like Trent Lott’s support for segregation and Virginia Congressman George Allen’s “macaca” racism.
Kos’ thinking is much like a mass media political consultant; he thinks in terms of creating compelling narratives with heroes and villains, suspense and victory. He takes lessons from the right wing think tanks in terms of “working the referees” by providing prepackaged opinions and spokespeople for progressive ideas. And he has tactics for political combat, such as “punch up, not down” – making powerful political enemies can be an advantage if it brings fame and credibility.
Kos is proud to be more partisan than ideological. He believes with some justification that the weakness of the left has been the focus on ideological purity and individual causes above pragmatic victory. So environmental groups and womens groups would support moderate Republican candidates, even though a Republican majority would be on the whole much worse for the causes of the environment and reproductive freedom.
But a tactical, pragmatic, narrative-oriented approach could also lead to winning battles but losing the overall war. Without an overall progressive vision, it’s hard to say which compromises to make. It’s one thing to help get candidates elected; and other thing to monitor that the candidates are actually better once elected.
Kos’ tactical focus on influencing the existing mass media is effective and powerful. It is only counterintuitive from the perspective of naive techno-determinists. At the same time, the tactical focus leaves for others more ambitious efforts to “be the media.” The “talking heads” shows will continue to be influential, and placing new and different speakers is needed to change the terms of debate. Meanwhile, over at TalkingPointsMemo, Josh Marshall gradually builds an alternative model literate, partisan, rigorous journalism.
Taking on the System avoids what I think is the worst weakness of Alinsky’s work. Alinsky conceived of political organizing as enabling the powerless to confront the powerful. By definition, the organizer works behalf of those without power; it would be a contradiction in terms for the powerless to win. Kos doesn’t have any trouble thinking about winning; it may not be fast or easy; but it is possible and desirable to pass civil rights legislation for gay people and to staff Congress with progressive democrats with backbone. Where Alinsky led protests, Kos leads efforts to get candidates elected and and unelected.
But an attraction to power can lead to co-optation. It has been exciting to see NetRoots Nation, the conference for progressive bloggers, draw the presidential candidates and many congressional leaders, showing that the netroots have become an influential constituency. But it was disconcerting and distressing that while NetRoots nation was under way in 2008, while bloggers were hobnobbing with legislators and party honchos, Congress passed an extension to the FISA legislation that legitimized warrantless wiretapping. Liberal bloggers were partying while the Democratic congress helped mortgage the constitution; the netroots didn’t or couldn’t use the access of Netroots Nation to demand adherence to the constitution.
Kos’ pugnacious partisanship appears to be a stark contrast to Barack Obama’s vision of transcending red and blue America, though, in standing up for himself against attacks and proactively defining his opponents, Obama is demonstrating the desired backbone. Time will tell whether the postpartisan rhetoric and zealous partisan advocacy are complementary, with the partisans creating air cover for the post-partisan success; or whether they are opposed, with an outcome of cross-party harmony, or progressive victory with victors setting the terms. My guess is that they are complementary; a guess bolstered by the Obama campaign’s late unleashing of 527s to help with campaign defense.
Kos himself focuses largely on media and message; he pays much less attention to the nitty gritty of getting out the vote, fundraising, and lobbying once the candidates are elected. Which isn’t to say these things aren’t important; the large Kos community is a platform for much fundraising, cheering and support for volunteers doing canvassing and voter registration; and some legislative advocacy too. I don’t think that Markos himself would argue that his interests are the only important aspect of organizing, and would be glad to acknowledge these complementary disciplines.
In a few places, Kos’ wisdom comes across as a bit facile. In one chapter, he exhorts entrepreneurial organizers to boldly reach beyond their previous experience and not ask for permission to lead. The organizers of Netroots Nation taught themselves how to coordinate a conference and then recruited pros. Eli Pariser taught himself the brand new art of email advocacy. In another chapter, he encourages activists to stick to their knitting, and not to go beyond their area of core strength, as when Cindy Sheehan attempted unsuccessfully to play a larger role as global peace activist. Stick to your knitting and dare to dream are both fine aphorisms, but how to tell which is which? Kos doesn’t really say.
Overall, Kos’ book is a strong contribution for those who want to participate in online organizing, and those who want to understand the role of DailyKos and the Netroots. Clay Shirky’s Here Come’s Everybody was light on how new digital tools will be used for organizing. Taking On the System provides a rich picture of a critical set of tactics and methods for organizing online.

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