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How Influential Is The Netroots? or, You Want Links?

by Scott Winship

Over the past few weeks, the blogosphere has been debating the influence of the netroots on the Democratic Party, mostly inspired by the Lieberman/Lamont race. (For examples, click on any word that’s in this sentence.) At issue are two questions: how influential will the netroots be in elections, and will it help or hurt Democrats at the ballot box? I was going to follow up on yesterday’s post, but I couldn’t resist the urge to examine these questions with some data. Disclaimer: I’m not taking sides here and I claim no expertise on the netroots or the ways in which it exercises influence. Should snark, disdain, profanity, or sacrilege proliferate as a consequence of this post, I claim no responsibility.

I’ve located a few surveys of the netroots that are quite interesting. But the data geek in me began drooling when I learned that the Pew Internet & American Life Project lets anyone with access to statistical software download the raw data. I – like so many other people – spent yesterday evening creating crosstabulations on my laptop as I rode the bus home from my gym.

Moving right along, how influential can we expect the netroots to be? For my part in this debate, I’m going to just look at its size as one indicator. I’ll (mostly) leave it to others to elaborate on how my findings do or do not affect the influence the netroots wields. Using a post-election survey from 2004, I defined “the Democratic netroots” as those adults who “regularly” get “news or information” from “Online columns or blogs such as Talking Points Memo, the Daily Kos, or Instapundit” and who are either self-identified Democrats or liberals. Blogs were one of twelve media sources that were asked about, and each of the twelve was a separate question (so respondents didn’t have to choose between competing sources). Rather than answering that they consulted a source “regularly”, respondents could say that they did so “sometimes” or “hardly at all”. Everybody happy?

What does your gut tell you when you think of the percentage of adults that can claim membership in the Democratic netroots? The answer, according to this survey, is 1 percent. One percent of adults translates into 2.24 million people. At first glance, one percent may sound pathetic. But let’s provide some context. Since one strand of the blogosphere debate has compared the netroots with various special interest groups, it might be instructive to consider how large those groups might be. But first we need to isolate the activist subset of the Democratic netroots so that the comparisons below are apples-to-apples. Take a look:

• Democratic netroots members who either attended a campaign rally, donated money to a campaign, knocked on doors, or worked a phone bank – 1.6 million adults (0.7 percent of adults)

• Union members – 15.7 million

• NOW – 500,000 contributing members

• NARAL Pro-Choice America – 900,000 members of their “Choice Action Network”

• Sierra Club – 750,000 members

• National Resources Defense Council – over 1 million members

• ACLU – over 500,000 members

• Human Rights Campaign – nearly 600,000 members

It’s difficult to make comparisons because these groups do not include all activists in a given issue area. Plus there’s obviously substantial overlap among the groups. But it’s safe to say that there are more Democratic netroots activists than civil liberties or gay rights activists, at least as many as there are feminist activists (and hence probably minority activists), but fewer than there are environmental activists or (especially) union members. Given the influence these groups have had on the Party, it seems reasonable to conclude that the netroots really is a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, these interest groups draw their strength from the popularity of their mission. I would argue that the netroots’ “mission” is to elect candidates who are as uniformly liberal as public opinion in the relevant electorate allows. If I’m right, then mobilizing popular support for an across-the-board liberalism is likely to be significantly more difficult than assembling support for a liberal position on a single issue.

I’ll try to address whether I’m right or not tomorrow. But no big promises that it'll be possible.

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Scott,

Any idea what the growth in the group of self-identified liberals who read blogs, etc. since 2004. My guess would be that it has been significant. I'm sure alterman, kos, FDL, TPM or donkey rising could give you some raw data on hits-per-day. I know I never read much if any of this stuff until recently.

Off topic -- sorry -- but there is no excuse in 2006 for having a font this absurdly tiny. You want only people with 20/20 vision reading?

Read a series of postings on the risks associated with the netroot efforts in the Lieberman v. Lamont race and what impact the outcome will ultimately have upon the movement and the ability of the Democratic Party to win this coming November...here:

www.thoughttheater.com

a different but somewhat related argument is found here.

and to quote an old time blogger friend of mine: interest groups think of themselves as devoted to the issue, but the netroots is devoted to being a party.

the more serious of us out there have nothing less than a takeover of the party in mind, a ground up movement that removes the corrosive and failing influence of "centrist" DLC types who've relied far too much on advice from professional (and apolitical) paid consultants. we want to replace it with the new politics, which is basically just another way of saying populist driven, and make it responsive to the issues that a majority of americans outside beltway (cocktail)party circles care about most.

we have other goals, but like the Gay Agenda, if i told you i'd have to kill you. ;-)

you should check out mark's work at TPMcafe and mydd too, they've done a lot on this.

if there's one thing i have learned of late, it's that small numbers mean a whole lot less when contextualized in the greater mass of "who is getting it done." at the local level, and often higher up as well, the number of people "making a difference" can be shockingly small. perhaps it's worth your while to toss in some numbers relating to things like fundraising, and party membership, and similar groups of movers and shakers.

The key to influence won't just be a correlation of size. Rather progressive bloggers and their readers will influence political discourse to the extent that our concerns reflect those of the people.

The right wing has influence because it serves corporate profit and not because it either reflects or doesn't reflect public opinion on an issue.

I.E. on the right, money is a substtute for accurately reflecting what people want. Mainstream corporate media continually tell people what they "should" want rather than what they do want.

The left-blogsphere may be small but it's influence will depend on how closely it mirrors what people want, talks authentically to people about their real concerns and enrolls them in creating change, because we cannot compete with the right in terms of pure $ power.

An example is the single-payer health care issue. A majority of the people in this country according to the latest polls actually want the government to take over and provide health care, and are actually willing to see a tax increase to pay for it.

But this idea simply isn't remotely on the agenda. No politician is even talking about it and there is never an article in any mainstream media promoting it. Corporate elites are opposed, therefore the very idea is a non-starter - "not viable".

This morning's NYT article provides a good example why this dynamic continues despite being opposed to what a majority of the American people want:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/12/nyregion/12donate.html

Once an Enemy, Health Industry Warms to Clinton
"Senator Clinton has received $150,600 in contributions from insurance and pharmaceutical companies, which she accused in 1993 of 'price gouging' and 'unconscionable profiteering.'”

Politicians' need for money for campaigns makes them toe the corporate line. Hilary now says to her corporate sponsors“We tried to do too much too fast 12 years ago, and I still have the scars to show for it,”

The American people who are still waiting for affordable health-care would hardly agree that "we tried to do too much", but they don't count. This statement is Hilary's acknowledgment that she made a mistake in trying to buck corportate opposition to her health care reform.

What's changed over time? Hillary is now just another cog in the system, so they give her money. "Mrs. Clinton is receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from doctors, hospitals, drug manufacturers and insurers. Nationwide, she is the No. 2 recipient of donations from the industry, trailing only Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a member of the Republican leadership."

Why has the health care industry warmed to Hillary?

"The rapprochement partly reflects how Mrs. Clinton has moderated her positions from more than a decade ago, proposing legislation to increase Medicare payments or stave off cuts in payments to doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, managed care companies and home health agencies."

In short, she now supports increased industry profits rather than any real change in the broken health care system.

Hillary Clinton is hardly unique, and the point isn't to single her out.

Nothing will change unless people organize and demand change. On-line commmunity is just one way. But it will only continue to grow if people see it as an access to power for change rather than an on-line debating society or cheering section.

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