Whether or not one agrees with the political views of Markos Moulitsas, there's no getting around the fact his website has become not just a powerful force in the blogosphere, but is also shaping the Democrat Party.
This raises an important question: Why isn't there a conservative website like Daily Kos?
Barnett accurately frames the issue (emphasis added throughout):
Some people on the right fear that the left has developed an insurmountable advantage in harnessing the power of the Internet. While the Daily Kos, YearlyKos, and other bastions of online liberalism have clearly become power players, conservatives have no comparable entities. The right-wing blogosphere doesn't hold conventions, doesn't win the attention of candidates, and more important, doesn't move voters the way the progressive blogosphere does. The progressive blogosphere is a hotbed of activism; the most prominent outposts of the right-wing blogosphere stick to punditry.
The Netroots are passionate and in your face. They may not know what they like, but they know what they don't like. Their turn-offs include Republicans, conservatives, and George W. Bush. Their turn-ons are politicians and pundits who don't shy away from exposing and excoriating these turn-offs.
Barnett was making an important point, namely, the liberal blogosphere generates readers and action with antagonism. Whether it's anti-war, anti-Bush, anti-Lieberman, or anti-Conservatism, there typically is an anti- in front of any Netroot cause. This is a key point we'll get back to.
Moving forward, another reason the leftosphere and rightospheres differ is that for the most part, they serve different functions. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit fame makes this point well in Barnett's piece:
"Different needs produce different approaches," he says. "People on the right think their political machine works, but that the media is out to get them. Hence rightish blogging is more about punditry and reporting, and they've succeeded--note the paucity of lefty bloggers embedding in Iraq, while the number on the right is extensive enough that I can no longer name them all. People on the left, on the other hand, know the media is basically on their side, but feel that their political machine stinks, so they've focused on building a new one. And they've succeeded, too."
Reynolds is 100 percent correct, and hit on another key difference between left and right bloggers that will be addressed further in a moment. Before we get there, here is Weigel's take:
The "netroots" grew because a bunch of people with day jobs built sites with extremely democratic bulletin boards (not that much different from what Plastic.com did half a decade earlier) and left-liberals found them to be fun places to hang out. The "rightroots" are, so far, a bunch of top-down blogs with moderators and old-fashioned, FreeRepublic-style "threads."
Is it really so hard to grok why one of these models is popular and one isn't? How big would YouTube have become if Chad Hurley and Steve Chen decided that they needed to bring in a bunch of established web stars to "run the place" and strict guidelines for posting videos? OK... so, why would the world of political blogging work any differently? The web rewards randomness and openness, not big names and five year plans.
Weigel does have a point, although we're not sure it's the real reason for Daily Kos's success. There are a few others that seem more likely to us.
First, both of these articles ignored how Daily Kos got its start virtually at the same time America was discussing going to war with Iraq in 2002. Irrespective of the poll numbers at the time favoring an invasion, the anti-war crowd is always active, vocal, and easily incited.
However, the press, understanding the public sentiment and eager for a sensational high-tech story, used to be far less skeptical of the war than they are now. This left quite a vacuum for anti-war expression in the media. ABC News filled it in the television world -- its ratings went up while it was the lone ardent anti-war establishment media voice.
On the web, Kos filled the gap.
After the March 2003 invasion, as presidential candidate Howard Dean's anti-war cry began to get noticed, he hired Moulitsas as a technical advisor, and started an Internet fund-raising campaign that was not only far beyond what other candidates were doing, but rather revolutionary for its time.
The ancillary benefit for Kos was that it drove traffic to his website comprised largely of Dean supporters opposed to the war. In reality, much of the focus and content at Daily Kos has indeed been anti-war, which is a huge part of his success, especially once the Democrats and their media minions reversed course and became doves in 2004.
Apart from that, another issue not touched upon by Weigel or Barnett was the underdog posture Kos has been able to exploit up until now. Unfortunately, the party in power has a tendency to be a bit lazy, while those seeking to regain control can be more easily motivated. This also translates at the grassroots level since people are much more willing to mobilize to "stop the bad guys" than to cheer policies from their own side which they may not fully support.
With that in mind, the Democrats' stunning mid-term defeat in 2002, combined with the anti-war fervor, provided a fabulous raison d'etre for Daily Kos unlike anything available to conservative bloggers. This put Kos in a wonderful position as not only an anti-war activist and liberal political consultant, but also encouraged other office holders and seekers to utilize his website in order to garner votes.
To drive this point home, just look at this list of "Prominent Contributors" to Daily Kos which are either current or past elected officials including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), etc. This has given Kos a huge advantage over all bloggers on the right side of the aisle as such "prominent" guest postings must drive an enormous amount of traffic to his website.
Does any conservative blog have such a list of prominent guest contributors? Not even close. Besides the occasional posts by Republicans at Free Republic, Red State, and Captain's Quarters to name a few, the GOP leadership has been unquestionably shy about making such guest appearances, a fear they likely should overcome if they want to ever see a conservative Daily Kos.
That said, getting back to Reynolds's point concerning the differing roles of left- and right-wing bloggers, the reality is that most conservatives feel there is a huge vacuum in conventional reporting inasmuch as the mainstream outlets are typically either misinforming or "unreporting." What this means is the vast majority of conservative bloggers see themselves as being disseminators of information that the drive-bys either got wrong, or thought not newsworthy. This is why websites such as the Drudge Report, NewsMax, and WorldNetDaily are so popular.
As such, leading conservative blogs like Instapundit, Power Line, Little Green Footballs, Michelle Malkin, and Captain's Quarters are all providing information to their readers they believe is not being offered by mainstream outlets. The proprietors of these sites see themselves less as activists and more as educators. NewsBusters falls into this same group, especially as it's operated by a non-profit educational organization.
Yet, the differing focus is hardly just a mental construct. When you compare the main victories achieved by rightish bloggers -- the ouster of Dan Rather, the exposure and resignation of CNN's Eason Jordan, the various fauxtography-related firings, the Scott Thomas Beauchamp affair -- with those of liberal blogs -- booting Trent Lott from his Senate GOP perch, the George Allen macaca "scandal," greater online fund-raising prowess -- the pattern becomes clear: liberal bloggers attack Republicans while conservative and libertarian blogs attack the media establishment.
While it is true that rightish blogs would focus more on attacking a Democratic president's policy agenda should one be elected, the huge demand for non-liberal reporting and commentary created by the establishment media's leftward slant would ensure that left-wing blogs still have more leeway to focus their attacks on the war, the president, and Republicans.
As a result, since Kos and his compatriots can rely on the media being friendly to candidates and positions they support, he and his crew don't have to spend a great deal of time battling misinformation emanating from the press. In fact, they can feel comfortable cutting-and-pasting articles from the New York Times and other liberal organizations because their reporting virtually always fits Kos's agenda.
All that remains is to enforce the "correct" ideological viewpoint. These calls to arms in turn produce a different kind of reader, one who is looking to "get involved," not just get informed. Such readers are much more likely to come back many times during the day to "support the cause."
Of course, an important element of this "community" is its free-wheeling nature. As Kos has made clear, he and his team don't do a lot of editing of either the diaries or the comments. This allows for a more "lively" discussion than most conservative websites will tolerate. Though folks on the right might find such comments abhorrent, the reality is their existence and tolerance has to add to the number of readers and members looking for this kind of expression.
Fortunately, the advantage Kos currently enjoys is not dire. As Barnett accurately points out:
Let's conclude with a further note of consolation for conservatives, who might be panicked over their missile gap in the virtual arms race: Markos Moulitsas has frequently said his biggest asset isn't the size of his audience or the amount of money he can raise, but rather the soapbox that his prominence has granted him and likeminded lefty bloggers. Conservative bloggers have the same kind of soapbox available to them, but use it differently. Nevertheless, when the Republican party power-structure tag-teamed with Ted Kennedy to shove an atrocious immigration bill down Congress's throat, the "RightRoots" as personified by the conservative blogosphere and talk radio played a major role in killing it.
This is an important point conservatives shouldn't ignore. And, despite the Netroots' seeming lead over the RightRoots, it has yet to translate into tremendous success at the polls.
Sure, the Democrats just had a huge win in November taking back both chambers of Congress. However, despite assertions by Kossacks and others in the media, this kind of a victory is quite common in the second mid-term election of a two-term president, and is not the historic, epic event that's been advertised.
Furthermore, if not for "macaca," George Allen would have been easily reelected in Virginia thwarting Democrat efforts to win the Senate. The leftosphere failed also to unseat Joe Lieberman.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Democrat office holders and seekers are indeed more comfortable with utilizing the blogosphere for their campaign efforts than Republicans, and this certainly helped them in 2006.
With that in mind, given how close elections are these days, it seems imperative for Republicans to stop ignoring the power of this medium, and immediately not only increase their accessibility to bloggers, but also start posting at conservative websites in much the same way their brethren on the opposite side of the aisle do. Undertaking a proper net-based fundraising operation couldn't hurt either, nor could realizing that the best way to mobilize bloggers is with an active opposition response team.
In short, it's time to move into the new millennium.
Update 09-08 14:12 | Matthew Sheffield. Lots of interesting reactions to this post: News Corpse, a liberal blog, accuses NewsBusters of having "Kos envy," reiterating Weigel's point that the leftosphere is more popular because it is more democratic in nature. That is somewhat correct as a description of Daily Kos (although not entirely since the site is quite intolerant of stray moderates, conservatives and libertarians). The rest of the top left blogs such as Huffington Post, Atrios, FireDogLake, RawStory, etc. are not democratic in the slightest. That argument also totally discounts the free-flowing nature of FreeRepublic (so long as you aren't a strong Giuliani supporter). The top-down approach is not self-defeating as far as building a web infrastructure goes. The success of NewsMax, ThinkProgress, WorldNetDaily, Townhall, and other sites prove that you can build huge audiences without relying on user-generated content. The successful launch of Huffington Post also showed that this is still possible in the age of Web 2.0.
(Aside: NC is laughably incorrect about the media being pro-war. They, like many leftists are just upset that the media in this country are establishment liberals and not Chomsky-spewing mouthbreathers.)
In his response, Patrick Ruffini also discusses FreeRepublic, making a strong case that FR can indeed be considered the conservative Kos although not quite: "[T]here is a conservative Daily Kos, that’s it’s Free Republic, but that it doesn’t really 'count' since it’s not a blog, and more critically, it won’t play nicely with the rest of the movement and it doesn’t worship candidates like Kos does."
Ruffini is correct in saying that FR will never completely fulfill the same role for the right that Kos does on the left; he's also correct that FreeRepublic is more independent-minded than Kos. This is mainly due to the fact that FreeRepublic is run as a noncommercial, non-partisan, conservative web site. That very much sets it apart from DailyKos and the rest of left-wing blogosphere which is hyperpartisan and highly commercialized.
FreeRepublic's different nature has prompted many GOP politicians and PR staffers to write it off as not useful to the cause. This is a huge mistake. In my eight years of being on FreeRepublic, I can say that Freepers can very readily be persuaded to enlist in worthy conservative causes. Almost every day there are Freepers out and about protesting left-wing Democrats, demonstrating against nutjob protestors, and representing the right in online polls and forums. I've had them help me out with a number of projects.
Freepers are some of the most energetic and involved members of the political web. The key to understanding and working with them is to realize that they're not Republican robots. In that way, they are very much representative of the GOP base as a whole. The main reason Freepers won't work with GOP politicians is the same reason Republican voters haven't turned out for them: the Republican party has not sufficiently worked with them. If GOPers want Freepers to turn out and help the cause, they need to stop kowtowing to the liberal elite media, explain their policies to the public better, and come to a strong conclusion as to what center-right means for the Web 2.0 world. Once that's done, the Freepers and the conservative base will turn out in droves.
Matthew Sheffield is president of Dialog Media and executive editor of NewsBusters. Noel Sheppard, an economist and businessman, is associate editor of NewsBusters.