A composite of the words “Internet” and “grassroots,” the term “Netroots” refers to the coordinated activism of political leftists via blogs, podcasts, newsletters, message forums, wikis, and social network services. Having helped to bring “the Democratic Party back to power” in the 2006 and 2008 elections, the Netroots now seek “to elect not just more Democrats, but better [i.e., left-wing] Democrats.” Many Netroots activists personally volunteer for, or contribute money to, Democratic Party candidates, and they commonly urge their readers to do the same.
The term “Netroots” was first popularized in December 2002 on the webpage “Netroots for Howard Dean,” which was featured on Jerome Armstrong’s blog MyDD (My Due Diligence). Allowing readers to post their own commentaries, MyDD emerged as an effective locus of activism for supporters of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.
Netroots-affiliated bloggers generally regard one another as friends or allies united in what they term “the people-powered movement” or “the progressive movement.” And while these bloggers generally do not object to any of their brethren refusing to toe the Democratic Party line on a given social or political matter, they have no patience for those who withhold their support for a Democratic candidate because they disagree with the candidate’s position on a single pet issue. In short, the Netroots are passionately multi-issue; their larger goal of helping Democrats secure ever-increasing governmental influence overrides any single-issue disputes that may arise. So large a following have their combined efforts attracted, that Jonathan Chait of The New Republic has called the Netroots “the most important mass movement in U.S. politics.”
Committed to working within the two-party structure, Netroots bloggers eschew street demonstrations and scorn third-party candidates (such as Ralph Nader) whose election bids may siphon votes away from Democrats and thereby weaken their cause. In the process of helping Democrats expand their influence, the Netroots seek to move the Democratic Party ever-further to the political Left. (According to one survey of Netroots members, some two-thirds wanted the Democratic Party to become more left-wing.)
Confident that they represent a political philosophy that would naturally win a majority of Americans’ support if only Democrats would not be timid about verbalizing it, the Netroots have pressed the Democratic Party to adopt a more openly adversarial tone in its battles against Republicans. As MyDD’s Matt Toller wrote in 2006: “Hiding from progressives and the left will lead to Democratic losses in 2006. Running as a progressive will lead to victory.” Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the Daily Kos weblog, put it this way: “If we [Netroots] do our part to support the new generation of Democrats, the opposition doesn’t stand a chance. Because all the money, all the name ID, all the connections don’t stand a chance against a real people-powered movement.”
Netroots bloggers (like Zuniga) tend to be young, most often in their twenties or thirties. Many developed a strong interest in politics only recently. They commonly cite the Florida recount controversy in the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore as the galvanizing event that sparked their current activism. According to The New Republic, Zuniga’s and Jerome Armstrong’s 2006 book Crashing the Gate is “the closest thing to a manifesto of the [N]etroots movement.” Armstrong’s book begins as follows:
“Five years ago, the Republicans took over the government through nondemocratic means. Establishment Democrats, for the most part, stood back and watched as a partisan judicial body halted the counting of presidential votes [in the Gore-Bush election]. While conservative activists led the charge on behalf of their party, there was nothing happening on our side. That was the spark. Fed-up progressive activists began organizing online. Fueled by the new technologies — the web, blogging tools, internet search engines — this new generation of activists challenged the moribund Democratic Party establishment.”
Zuniga, who in 2001 and 2002 was a frequent guest commentator on MyDD, cultivated a considerable following of his own and went on to create the aforementioned Daily Kos, which now spearheads the Netroots movement. In Zuniga’s calculus, the major purpose of the Netroots is to “have a unified message in the face of a unified conservative noise machine.” In a December 2005 interview with Newsweek magazine, Zuniga characterized the Netroots as “the crazy political junkies that hang out in blogs.” Their task, according to The New Republic, is “recreating the Democratic Party in the image of the conservative machine they have set out to destroy.”
Netroots activists commonly utilize a technique known as “blogswarming,” whereby they flood the Internet with commentary on whatever particular issue or event they deem vital to the Democratic/leftist cause. According to writer Jonathan Chait:
“It is a formulation that assumes that establishing the truth about an idea matters less than phrasing the idea in the most politically effective way and repeating it as much as possible. As Ed Kilgore (a moderate liberal blogger with a complicated relationship to the netroots) has put it, this wording ‘reflects the strange belief that politics is all about noise and narratives’; whoever makes the most noise or gets the most Google hits is going to win, regardless of objective reality.”
The blogswarmers have also proved to be very effective fundraisers for Democratic candidates. Says The New Republic:
“They have raised significant sums of cash for politicians, organized volunteers, and brought together like-minded activists. This has, in turn, created an alternative power center for recruiting candidates for office. Before the net- roots, potential candidates who wanted the national party to take them seriously needed to raise large sums from familiar donors. Now they can raise money on the Internet and approach the national party from a position of strength. ‘They have totally changed the equation for what makes it possible for somebody to be a viable candidate,’ notes Mark Schmitt of the New America Foundation.”
As of mid-2007, the second most influential Netroots blog was Eschaton, written by Philadelphia economist Duncan Black under the pseudonym “Atrios.” Other notable Netroots affiliates include Americablog, Crooks and Liars, FireDogLake, Media Matters for America, MoveOn.org, the New Politics Institute, and an e-mail list called Townhouse.
The Netroots blogs have played a major role in numerous political happenings, such as: drafting General Wesley Clark into the 2004 presidential campaign; supporting Ned Lamont in his 2006 primary victory over Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut; and drafting Democrat James Webb to run in the 2006 race for U.S. Senator from Virginia. Netroots subsequently helped Webb win a close election over Republican incumbent George Allen by giving wide Internet exposure to an allegedly anti-Asian remark made by the latter.
Netroots efforts also focused immense attention on:
Some allegedly racist comments made in December 2002 by then-Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott at a birthday celebration for Senator Strom Thurmond
A 2006 sexual scandal involving Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Florida
Because of their ever-growing political sway, the Netroots are now taken very seriously by the Democratic political establishment. Zuniga, for one, consults regularly with influential Democrats in Washington, DC. Some presidential candidates (most notably Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, and John Edwards) have hired popular Netroots bloggers, or courted them with private dinners.
In June 2006, a number of leading Democrats traveled to Las Vegas to attend Yearly Kos, the first annual convention for hundreds of bloggers from Daily Kos and many other Netroots websites. In August 2007, some 1,500 bloggers and activists gathered in Chicago for the second Yearly Kos convention. Among those who attended were Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid. In 2008, Yearly Kos was renamed “Netroots Nation,” to better reflect the growing influence and membership of the Netroots as a whole, rather than just Daily Kos.