How to build a vast left-wing conspiracy

The man behind Daily Kos talks about Obama's chances, his new book and why Palin is the gift that keeps on giving.

Published September 4, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

"Two years ago, Palin was part-time mayor of a village of 6,000. Today, she's supposedly ready to step in to run this country in the eventuality that Sen. McCentury can no longer perform those duties? Right. This was a sop to the Right, which was unwilling to accept a pro-choice Republican on the ticket, and a pathetic and hilariously desperate effort to grab the 17 holdout PUMAs (who are fake Democrats already willing to vote for McCain anyway)."

For those even remotely familiar with the liberal blogosphere, the author of those words needs no introduction. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, aka Kos, isn't one for rhetorical ambiguity. Since he began his blog, Daily Kos, in 2002, with the aggressively direct statement "I am progressive. I am liberal. I make no apologies," Moulitsas has been a tireless, blunt champion of the liberal progressive movement. The site has become an online juggernaut, attracting millions of visitors each year, and Moulitsas, once an anonymous blogger and political outsider, has become a frequent contributor to Newsweek and an influential political player. Such a brand is Moulitsas that in 2006, he lent his name to the YearlyKos convention (now known as Netroots Nation), an increasingly formidable annual gathering of progressive activists that all but one of the Democratic presidential candidates attended in 2007.

"Crashing the Gate," the 2006 book Moulitsas co-authored, became an influential guide to online progressive advocacy. His new book, "Taking On the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era," exhorts readers to use new technologies to successfully effect systemic change. Today's savvy radicals realize that text messaging, meet-up groups, blogs and social networking are more effective methods of catalyzing systemic transformation than the mass street protests and "flower power" of '60s activism. While the book's aphoristic advice ("Advance and hold enemy ground"; "Work your niche"; "Aim for the gut, not the brain") can at times seem too rosy and simplistic, Moulitsas makes a compelling case for the democratizing power of contemporary technology.

Recently, Salon spoke with Moulitsas on the phone about the Palin pick, Obama's chances to win in the fall, learning from the vast right-wing conspiracy, and his new book.

How do you see McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential nominee affecting the race going forward? There was so much discussion when the pick was first announced that McCain was deliberately going for the disenchanted Hillary Clinton voters, but do you think this pick is going to end up hurting McCain or giving him a boost?

Obviously, I'm not a woman, so it's tough for me to sort of understand the mind-set of many Clinton supporters. But I think it's telling that Gallup just released a poll today that showed Obama has done a fantastic job of solidifying his support among Hillary supporters. And my wife is a blogger, and at her site, she has definitely seen hardcore Hillary supporters so offended at the notion that McCain thought that putting a pair of breasts on the ticket was going to be enough to win their support, especially when Sarah Palin is so far removed ideologically from Hillary Clinton. Not just on choice, but she's a book burner. We just found out today, she was banning books at the Wasilla Public Library. She's virulently anti-choice. Go down the list, it's pretty crazy stuff. Clearly, if that was a ploy to lure Hillary supporters, it's not working. The data doesn't bear it out nor does the anecdotal evidence.

Do you think Barack Obama responded correctly to Sarah Palin's daughter's pregnancy?

Yeah, of course. It's not his job to be digging into that. If the Republicans are going to be all high and mighty about people digging into the lives of candidates' families, all I can do is laugh, given the treatment that Michelle Obama has been given by Republicans -- maybe not John McCain proper, but every surrogate beneath him.

Ultimately, when it comes to Bristol Palin, the issue isn't, oh well, she's a bad girl. We're progressives; we don't care if she got pregnant. That's between her and her family and she's got to deal with it; and in fact, progressives believe in having the services available to make her life better and to help her in what's going to be a very, very difficult journey ahead. The issue is, of course, that Sarah Palin is a strong supporter of abstinence-only education. Here we have a situation where they claim that abstinence-only will prevent teen pregnancy when her own daughter has gotten pregnant. There are legitimate policy questions that go beyond the fact of Bristol Palin to the kind of governor [Palin] would be, the way she would help govern this country were she the vice president. And I think that is obviously, legitimately fair game.

Do you think the Palin pick was a game changer, whether good or bad, and how do you think this will affect the election long-term?

There's no doubt that it was a game changer. All you have to do is go to Daily Kos and see that we haven't written about McCain in a week now, right? It's a singular obsession with Palin. She's the gift that keeps on giving. To me, it seems pretty obvious that McCain wanted [Tom] Ridge or [Joe] Lieberman but he's too weak within his own party to get the candidate he wanted, so he had to go with someone to appease the right wing.

They saw that Obama was going to be able to rally the Clinton supporters with Hillary Clinton's help. They probably saw Obama's speech and saw how incredible and dynamic and how powerful it was and realized that a safe pick wasn't going to give them any hope of victory in November so they had to shake things up. They threw a Hail Mary with Sarah Palin, they didn't vet her, so they had no clue who she was. They saw that she was attractive and very popular in Alaska -- remember, Alaska is actually a swing state. It was in play; Obama was competitive in the polls. So they locked down Alaska. And she's clearly popular with the right and they've embraced her because of her radical right-wing views on the role of religion in government, and it completely, utterly, on that Friday, took Obama off the airwaves.

The Palin nomination directed everyone's attention away from Obama. So in that, at least, the selection was effective.

But it's mind-boggling to me. In the middle of Labor Day weekend, I had the highest traffic day of my existence. This is higher traffic than the 2004 federal election. Higher traffic than the 2006 general election. Usually on long weekends, people disappear. They hang out with family and friends. No one wanted to do anything but [talk about] Sarah Palin.

Now, I don't think she's turning out the way they expected it; they expected people to be excited that there was a woman on a ticket and all that. Now people are thinking this was a gimmick and instead of putting country first, he went for someone who would actually knock Obama off the news cycle. So she was a news cycle pick. It bought them a day or two. But now that people are really starting to look into who she is, there are a lot of unpalatable things about her and her record, and I think it's turning into a nightmare pick for them. Will she stay on the ticket? The Christian right loves her. They've decided she is practically the second coming.

Isn't that a good thing for McCain?

It is a good thing for McCain, but it means they've completely abandoned the center and they're not going to get any Hillary supporters out of it. We're in an election where the number of Republicans is shrinking, the number of Democrats is growing and they cannot win on the base strategy alone. We can. For the first time, we can win on the base strategy. We're not running that, but we could. They're running a base strategy when Republicans are becoming an extinct species.

And you can't get rid of her. To take somebody who's been so warmly embraced by the Christian right and then to dump her for somebody who's more palatable to the center? Talk about open warfare. It would be worse than having picked Lieberman from the start. To me, it's fantastic, right? He's boxed himself in, he can't get out. So they're left having to defend somebody. And let's not forget another important point that I almost forgot because it's so obvious, is that they've completely negated the experience argument. That was probably the only argument against Obama that had any salience.

You don't think that there's anything to the argument on the experience front that she would be the vice president while Obama would be the president?

Well, we're talking John McCain who's, you know, 200 years old, and suddenly his age has become even more of a factor than it was already. It's pretty amazing because this pick single-handedly makes his age a factor and eliminates the experience argument. It absolutely matters; it's not like there's on-the-job training as V.P. for the president's slot. We're not talking shift manager at Burger King. To me, it's a crazy pick. But he was going to lose anyway and I think there was an understanding that he was going to lose and they were going to go for broke -- throw that Hail Mary. If it gets intercepted, who cares? They were going to lose anyway.

You think there was an understanding that he was going to lose within his own campaign?

Oh yeah, absolutely. The numbers have been terrible. As much as the press has talked about the tightening national numbers, the state-by-state looks bad for McCain. And the underlying dynamic, the anger of the electorate against the Republicans and the incumbents who have dragged this nation to where it is today, is palpable. Pretty much the only task left for Obama is to more closely tie McCain to George Bush and the failed Republican policies. And that really isn't a hard sell at the end of the day.

You just published your second book, a guide to radical change. The methods you advocate may surprise some people. In Chapter 1, "The New Insurgents," you write that "this is not an era for street protests," and you seem to have a strong aversion to many elements of '60s-style activism in general. Why is that?

Well, I'm not necessarily against street protests -- I actually write about the Jena 6 protests in Jena, La. And I also write about the Orange Revolution and the immigration protests.

And Cindy Sheehan's protests at President Bush's Texas.

Yeah, and Cindy Sheehan. The issue isn't street protests equals bad. The problem is when the street protest is the activism. As in, the only component. At this point, all effective street activism has a very strong message component where you build up the protests, where you use other media, whether its blogs or text messaging or ethnic media in the case of the immigration protests to sort of build a narrative, and have a single, unified, clear and direct message that can break through the media clutter. So in the immigration protests, you didn't have people running around with "Legalize Hemp" and "U.S. out of Palestine" and all that usual crap that muddles up your typical protest to the point where you don't even know what people are protesting because of the cacophony of noise.

So it's not that I'm averse to the protests, I'm averse to the let's everybody get on the street and make a lot of noise and somehow that's supposed to change people's minds. It hasn't worked that way in a long time.

But doesn't some online activism run the risk of only reaching people who already agree with the message?

Clearly the most effective online activism is the stuff that jumps offline or jumps into the traditional media. When you're trying to change society, you need to change people's opinions or you need to influence the gatekeepers. You either convince the gatekeepers to change their behavior or you build enough popular support that they have no choice but to change their behavior or you can bypass them. Online, obviously, there's a small constituency, but a lot of what we do is designed to get gatekeepers to change their approach.

A recent example is McCain's housing issue. How many houses does he have? That was spurred by blogs writing about it and Brave New Films releasing a video online about McCain's eight houses. Or -- I don't know, no one seems to know how many houses he has. So we were able to influence the traditional media into suddenly following a story. And then once McCain screwed up the answer, of course, it became a big, national cross-media phenomenon. That started online.

But does that always actually lead to real systemic change? You discuss Jim Webb's victorious 2006 Virginia Senate campaign versus George Allen as an example of effective bottom-up mobilization. You strongly supported Webb and also Claire McCaskill in their 2006 campaigns. But have they been effective senators for progressive causes? Both Webb and McCaskill voted in favor of the new FISA legislation that gave retroactive immunity to the telecom companies. So how much change is actually being brought about by the efforts you describe?

Systemic change is a long-term process with lots of setbacks. I have a whole chapter on how you have to take baby steps. And little by little, you start building the foundation for the change that you want to effect. The netroots helped a lot of Democrats get elected -- five in the Senate, or six. But the people that we really focused on, that were really our candidates, were Jon Tester and Jim Webb. We're talking two out of 100. That's just the Senate; we're not even talking the White House, the Supreme Court and the House. Unless you have an outright revolution, which doesn't happen nowadays, any kind of real systemic change is a long-term process and the people who understand that and work with that are the ones who I think have been really successful. Just like the conservative movement. For them, it was a 30-year process to take control of the government. And had they not been so corrupt and incompetent in running the government, you know, we'd still be playing catch-up.

You also write with respect for many of the campaign strategies Republicans have successfully employed over the years. How much of the book's advice was inspired by the tactics of Karl Rove and Tom DeLay?

I think a lot of my activities, the way I've organized and built my little operation, have been predicated on the right-wing example. I have immense respect for and even jealousy for what they've done. And so now we're finally getting around to building our own version of a vast right-wing conspiracy. We're starting to build our own vast left-wing conspiracy. It's a long-term process and we're getting there and we're building it a lot quicker than they did because they built theirs on a foundation of bricks and mortar while we get to build ours on a digital foundation. Media Matters can go online and in a year pump out information on a daily basis, while the right-wing media criticism operations are still writing white papers that come out quarterly about how liberal the media is. The longer it takes for them to realize that they need to innovate and update their machine, the better it is for us.

Is there a risk, though, when you elect someone like Jim Webb, who people had a great amount of hope for and he votes against the progressive position on key issues like FISA, that the progressive base or the activists might start to lose faith with the movement?

The goal is to build a governing progressive majority on any given issue. So we need 51 votes or maybe 60 votes given the filibuster. So, with Jim Webb, obviously, we have 90 to 95 percent of what progressives want in a Democrat in the Senate, as opposed to George Allen who would have been 0 percent. So it is incremental change. And there is nobody in the Senate more populist on economic issues than Jim Webb.

No one's going to be 100 percent because us progressives can't agree on everything we agree on. And at the end of the day, you got to remember that a senator or congressman represents his or her constituents. I can't, in Berkeley, Calif., be demanding a certain ideological purity out of somebody who represents North Carolina or a conservative district in Illinois or whatever. There's got to be a certain amount of realism to how we approach this.

In the "Feed the Backlash" chapter, you write that "stroking the flames of controversy brings visibility to your issues, raises your profile and effectiveness, and begins a cycle of ever-increasing attention that you can use to your advantage." Doesn't that lead to substance-free politics and meaningless controversies?

You know, a lot of things lead to substance-less politics and that's the least of it. Look at the supposedly high-minded and respected journalists on Sunday morning talk shows who are wondering if Obama's too thin to be president. I have less of a problem with a partisan going on and saying some partisan things than I do this so-called respected and unbiased reporter saying the kind of stupid shit they say on almost a minute-by-minute basis in our political press.

You endorsed Barack Obama early on, but do you feel he's really reached out to the netroots? On certain issues, he seemed to have distanced himself from progressive positions. So has online liberal activism really affected the presidential campaign?

A couple of things. I didn't endorse Obama; I supported him. And that may be a weak distinction, but there's a reason for it. Because I didn't tell people how to vote, which is what an endorsement is. I just told them how I approached it. But to the second part of your question, what the netroots really is is anyone who engages in politics online. So blogging is really a tiny component of the broader netroots. You have MoveOn as part of the netroots, you have the YouTube bloggers; I'm part of the netroots, people who have a Google group and e-mail their family and their friends political headlines. They're part of the netroots.

Now I think Obama's campaign would not exist without the netroots. The online component has been huge. Just look at the fundraising alone, which makes the case very clearly, right? But beyond the fundraising, the organizing tools on are really stellar to the point where his supporters were able to organize a campaign against him on his Web site. And, Obama went on that site, responded to this directly. He was going to disagree with them, and that's OK, but he made clear that he had listened to the concerns, understood them, and that when he was elected president he was going to do what he could to assuage some of those concerns. To me, that's what's critical.

And what do you think Daily Kos' role has been so far? How would the election have been different without the site?

I'm not going to sit here and pretend that we're making or breaking people. Like I said, the netroots is a big place. And DailyKos, as big as it may be, is a tiny component of the blogosphere. I think it's very clear that people are becoming engaged and going online to become active participants in their politics. This is fairly new to the level that we're seeing this year and how they feel ownership of this campaign. They're not out there just waving signs or whatnot. They're finding their own roles, things that they're good at and they're applying them to a campaign that is very much self-organized. I don't think Obama could have beaten Hillary Clinton without this culture of participation that's been bred and spawn by the netroots.

You are known for your predictions. Do you think Obama will win, and what do you think of the Democrats' chances in the congressional elections this fall?

I think Obama wins and I think he gets over 350 electoral votes. I think Democrats pick up, it's easier to say four or five, but I'll go out on a limb and say they pick up eight seats, seven to eight seats in the Senate. And about 20 to 30 seats in the House. I think it's going to be a huge, huge Democratic wave.

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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