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November 16, 2006

The Internet Election and Youth with Power - Reasons to be Optimistic

-- by Chris Thomas

During a Black Rock Desert sunrise, I asked a 60+, self-proclaimed former hippy what the progressive movement could learn from the experience of the 1960's. He contemplated and finally said, "I think maybe we were too angry." I wasn't quite sure what he meant or if I agreed with him, but, in-light of what I've seen in my three year immersion into national politics, maybe now I do.

It took years for the US public to stop the Vietnam War. The movement, as usual, was based in our county's youth. A popular motto of that time was "don't trust anyone over 30." It will take us less time to get out of Iraq. Again, the youth will lead, but this time, absent that motto, the rest of us will be with them.

You don't win people over with anger; a movement requires people. The 1960's anger was justified, but that didn't make it constructive. In our information age, youth are more technically savvy than older folks. They are less intimidated - perhaps even trusting, and, therefore, more inclusive than their hippy predecessors.

I have a great deal of hope right now. My hope lies in the unique bond between youth and information technology. Youth, with their ever-present ability to speak truth to power, information technology because: 1) youth are its masters, and 2) its anonymity breaks lines of class, race and even age.

Who Won this Election? Hint: What was New?

There is considerable discussion within political circles about who should take credit for the Democrats' landside. Everyone should take and give credit, but anyone who discounts the influence of the netroots and the blogging community is simply intimidated by it.

Many of the netroots most important players are quite young. A good example is Eli Pariser, the Executive Director of MoveOn, with 3.2 million members, who is 25. Tracy Russo who blogs for the DNC is 24. When I went to Vegas in June for the initial YearlyKos bloggers conference and found that competent writers Jonathan Singer and Matt Stoller, who blog for myDD were 22 and 28, I was floored. Markos Moulitsas, who founded the popular blog, DailyKos, for which the convention is named, is 35. Together, myDD and DailyKos get over 20 million visits per month. My 43 year-old (perhaps a little jealous) self got the same uncomfortable (perhaps a little jealous) feeling I had when I watched the self-important 20 something dot commers descend on San Francisco and make $80 K out of college in the early '00s. My feeling back then was that cleverness was king and self-reflection, self-doubt, and inclusiveness (or in other words - wisdom) were nearly absent. As I watched Markos buddy up to then potential 2008 Presidential candidate Mark Warner at the top of Las Vegas' Stratosphere Casino, I was worried that these young folks, sniffing power, would be swept up into the auction that is our political system and be neutered like the young dot com CEOs before them.

However, because many of the movers and shakers in the bloggosphere were young and respected, YearlyKos was perhaps the first truly cross-generational professional conference I've ever attended. (The large cadre of retired age online activists pushed the age spectrum both ways.) YearlyKos was also one of the first times that the bloggoshere physically appeared out of the ether. What appeared were folks of all different ages, genders, and varieties. (Not a lot of race diversity, but that's coming.) It was only after people stood up in sessions and announced what name they blogged under that you knew what they looked like or how old they were. As long as the blogger had a reputation for writing with good intention, good ethics, and good etiquette, it didn't matter who she was, how old she was, or what she looked like.

As I've started to get to know some of these young on-line politicos over the last several months, they are quick to point out that it's not about the bloggers, it's about the blogs. DailyKos is the world's leading political blog with 700,000 visits a day because Markos set it up to be a market place of ideas influenced only by its readers, not by advertisers, not by owner editors who have to worry about not pissing someone off or paying a mortgage.

As bloggers are primarily volunteers, the majority are young and these young folks started their blogs a few years ago because they were mad about a lot of things (as young people usually are) and for good reason (as there usually is). The two things that irked them most - 1) George Bush and 2) the invasion of Iraq.

So they wrote about it. They dug up stories that the mainstream media eventually picked up. They promoted Robert Greenwald films on Iraq, Walmart, and Iraq again. They made money talk. They supported candidates who came out and declared that they were STRONGLY opposed to the Iraq invasion (yes, I refuse to call it a war). The ripple effects of their tireless efforts were felt through out the country.

2006 Was All About Ned Lamont

In a unique special election in the summer of 2005, the netroots rallied support behind an Iraq veteran anti-invasion Congressional candidate in Ohio, Paul Hackett, who narrowly lost in a Republican strong-hold. The netroots then pushed hard and helped anti-invasion Howard Dean become head of the Democratic National Committee. Then it was support of anti-invasion candidate Francine Busby in special April 2006 election in San Diego. She didn't win, but the pressure forced the Republican Party to pour $5 million dollars into the election and start the bleeding of the big red machine. There are many other examples of important netroots actions, but the unprecedented Primary upset victory by anti-invasion Ned Lamont over the entrenched incumbent and former Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman was the most important of the 2006 election.

It doesn't matter that Lieberman went on to win as an independent in the general election. Joe sheepishly salvaged his Senate seat because the Republican Party told Connecticut Republicans to vote for him. If Republicans want to support moderate Democrats for awhile over their own right-wing candidates, that's fine with me. Lamont and his nation-wide netroots supporters put Iraq at the forefront of the political debate. The people of Connecticut, as well as the rest of the country, responded by saying they wanted us out of Iraq. Other Democrats, as well as the institutions like the DCCC and the DSCC who fund them (and eventually even Joe), were then pushed to publicly take a firm stand against the Iraq occupation. Lamont led that charge and vetted the concept which allowed others to follow.

I could give many other examples of how the internet and the netroots influenced this election, the George Allen "Macaca" statement captured on video and spread via YouTube, guerilla internet ads, MoveOn's Call for a Change program that organized seven million phone calls nation-wide. The point is, the powerful internet had an influence, and it gives me a great deal of hope for the progressive movement. The internet offers an important by-pass around corporate media channels - an extremely useful tool for a democratic society within a market economy on steroids.

What's Next? Even More Inclusion!

I was talking politics with a 23 year-old artist, he claimed, "Isn't it almost a gift how bad these guys are?" With their unbelievable arrogance, Bush and his colleagues have energized a movement. That is a gift. The UK's Lancet estimates that 650,000 Iraqis have died as a result of our invasion. Add to those 3,000 US casualties on 9/11 and 2,900 US soldiers (1% of the Iraqi total). That's how much that gift has cost so far. What are progressives going to do with this gift?

I worry that the star bloggers and the "new left", as they gain fame, have kids and need to pay mortgages, will be gobbled up by the main stream political infrastructure. I worry that young college-educated mainly-white bloggers have spent little time talking to people in this country's disenfranchised communities or the good organizations, such as ACORN who work with them. I worry that, when at Take Back America Conference last June, author Barbara Ehrenreich gave a keynote speech about racism and classism, the crescendo of salad forks on lunch plates demonstrated the progressive audience's denial. I worry that our country might tolerate another generation of politicians who ask "God Bless America," and by default suggest "…over people in other countries."

But most of all, I worry that the internet will go the way of TV and radio and become little more than a tool to sell products. Luckily, I think young people are worried too, and they know more about the new technology than I do.

The internet has changed society. November 7th was an example of how it's changing it for the better, by enabling us to have an inclusive discourse about what type of people we want to be. Throughout history, youth have had the luxury to lead that discussion, but the internet allows all of us to be a part of it.

I expressed some of my above worries to Matt Stoller in a bar in San Francisco in early October. To my delight he said something like, "When everyone is on-line, that's when it will get interesting." A little different than, "don't trust anyone over 30."

Inclusion, curiosity, equality, integrity, compassion, respect for all people, no matter where they were born or who bore them - that is what progressivism means to me. These were the values of the youth who lead the progressive movement in the late 60's. They are the values of many of the young progressives I see now, but unlike previous generations, their work is elevated by a tool that enhances self- critique and inclusion - a free internet.

History is a series of three steps forward and two steps back. We live in the initial Superpower of the Information Age. While this technology is still unfettered and in young hands, we all have the opportunity to make these next three steps the biggest the world has ever seen.

Posted by Chris at November 16, 2006 3:03 PM

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