December 13, 2004

Tipping One's Hand, or The Problem With Open-Source Politics

Via Ezra Klein, Digby has a brilliant little essay on what liberals need to do to combat the Republicans. (Namely, combat the damn Republicans!) Good stuff. But here's the thing: I've seen plenty of these sorts of essays in the weeks following the election. Hundreds of them. And I imagine I'll be reading even more of them—and nodding at their collective brilliance—for years to come. But what I haven't seen, and what I don't expect to see anytime soon, is anyone actually taking these scraps of wisdom to heart, tucking them under their arm, and going out and putting them to good use.

Here's what I mean. The liberal side of the commentariat—let's include blogs, think tanks, op-ed writers, television pundits, and flagship political magazines—is enamored of meta-commentary. We all just love to analyze the State of American Politics Today, come up with our grand theories, and dish out clever advice. Indeed, the mark of distinction these days falls on whoever dishes out the most clever advice, rather than on whoever uses the clever advice most effectively for political ends.

So we have lots of brilliant bloggers suggesting: "Pit American liberalism against Islamic Fundamentalism." Or: "Let's get in the habit of calling Republican moral elitists." But no blogger's thinking to themselves, "Hell yeah, I'm going to put that into practice every single day, even if I think it's kind of silly, because it's going to work!"

Or take a more substantial issue—take Social Security. I may have missed it, but I never saw a protracted period of conservative wrangling over how best to "frame" the Social Security debate. All I saw was the Heritage Foundation and Sean Hannity and David Brooks out there, unfurling their canvas paeans to private accounts, talking about how liberals are afraid of the market. It's as if they sat down in private, figured out how they wanted to present the issue, hammered out the details, and then came out in public with their strategies coordinated and battle-axes sharpened. Meanwhile, on the liberal side of things, I've seen Josh Marshall, Atrios, Marshall Wittman, The Washington Monthly, The American Prospect, The New Republic, and even the Democrats themselves publicly hemming and hawing over ingenious schemes to win the rhetorical battle. (Let's leave Mother Jones out of this because, um, that's my fault.) Paul Krugman is an important recent exception—but only, I think, because he's had a lot of practice on this. His earlier columns on Social Security had just as much "Here's how we should all think about this debate" as actually wading into the debate and duking it out. Too much "Let's do it this way." Too little: "Yeeeeaaaargh."

What I'm getting at is that the liberal side of the commentariat is very analytical, even philosophical, about politics. There's of course nothing wrong with being analytical. It's the spice of life. The problem is that it's the main mode of liberal discourse. Liberals send out their strategists to fight these public battles when they should be sending out the 1st Infantry Division. At least.

And yet, at least among the liberal side of the blog-world, this isn't likely to change. Liberals seem to like musing and analyzing. Even Atrios, who surely ranks as the top warhorse around these parts, does a lot of meta-analysis about liberal strategy and the like. Yet we almost never see this thing on the Corner, or on PowerLineBlog, or on Hugh Hewitt's site. They seem to keep their meta-musings to themselves, using blogging not as a form of exploration, but as a form of combat. They seem to grasp better the various perlocutionary effects of Thinking Aloud to Oneself—namely, that it's a form of weakness, in some ways.

So how to fight this off? Or, to reply to Mark Schmitt's post about trial balloons, who do we really expect will fight these battles?

Unfortunately, success here would probably involve turning a lot of liberal thinkers and commentators and bloggers into hacks. The change, I'm afraid, would be drastic. Consider, for a moment, Peter Beinart's "A Fighting Faith". As brash and ill-considered as some might think it, was still essentially a meta-commentary. He called on Democrats to consider purging the MoveOn wing of the party; he did not directly say "you're outta here" to MoveOn. There's a difference, morally—but also strategically. No one really wants to see the New Republic or the American Prospect become hack party organs. We want them to telegraph liberal weaknesses, and hem and haw over strategy, because we're interested in that sort of thing. I know I am.

Still, it's a problem that this hemming and hawing is very much done out in the open—splashed across op-ed pages, criss-crossing the internet, barked out in various forums and conferences. Ideally, liberals would have some central planning committee, do all its framing and meta-analysis and pondering there, and then palm off the finished product on a few foot-soldiers.

Obviously I'm exaggerating somewhat, but this is the advantage, I think, that the Republicans have. They really have those central planning committees, or something approximating that sinister ideal. The Tuesday morning meetings with Rick Santorum and K Street lobbyists provides one such instance. The cozy overlap between D.C.'s conservative think-tanks provides another. (From what I've heard, Heritage is particularly good at the two-step maneuver: crafting its messages in private and proliferating them in public.) Media is yet another: Reporters in the media may be liberal Democrats, but the news chiefs and producers are quite often Republican. More to the point, the conservative media outlets coordinate their messages better. Look at the Fox News memos—this sort of centralized command is vastly more effective than a hundred liberal reporters all "spreading their liberal agenda" separately, each to his or her own drummer.

Now, I promised a talk about open-source politics in my post title, so here it is. The future of the Democratic party, we're told, lies with the internet and bloggers and all the wonderful and brilliant commentators on Daily Kos. In one sense, this future is bright as can be—barring groupthink effects and the like, a swarm of internet denizens will be very good at analyzing What Ails the Left and producing apt solutions. Less clear, however, is their ability to use those solutions on the battlefield. In other words, if you want to produce good ideas, unleashing the wisdom of the crowds is the way to go. If you want to fight a war, however, you want a more rigid command structure.

Now maybe the solution is simply to employ these sorts of hacks—covert "man on the street" types who go on TV and shamelessly hawk partisan positions. Maybe what seems like a deep structural dilemma—as I've tried to portray it—is nothing more than a need for better organizational tactics. I don't know. Maybe after a good night's sleep I'll be able to crank out 1000 more ponderous words on this. Because frankly, I'm just a meta-commentator without much aptitude for actually doing something.

UPDATE: As Oliver Willis points out via e-mail, I forgot to mention one obvious (and, I think, quite brilliant) exception.
-- Brad Plumer 3:29 AM || ||