What's the future of the liberal blogosphere?

A spat over Matt Yglesias' blog raises some important questions about the way the genre might change during the Obama administration.


Alex Koppelman
December 23, 2008 6:05AM (UTC)

On an otherwise slow news day Monday, there was a bit of controversy in the liberal blogosphere that's worth noting, if only for its implications regarding the future of blogging on the left.

On Friday, Matt Yglesias said something that, at the time, seemed comparatively innocuous about a Democratic organization, Third Way:

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Third Way is a neat organization — I used to work across the hall from them. And they do a lot of clever messaging stuff that a lot of candidates find very useful. But their domestic policy agenda is hyper-timid incrementalist bullshit. There are a variety of issues that they have nothing whatsoever to say on, and what policy ideas they do have are laughable in comparison to the scale of the problems they allegedly address. Which is fine, because Third Way isn’t really a “public policy think tank” at all, it’s a messaging and political tactics outfit.

Now, Yglesias used to blog for media outlets like Atlantic Monthly. But now his blog is hosted by another Democratic organization, the Center for American Progress. (A pretty influential organization, in fact -- its head, John Podesta, is currently in charge of the Obama transition.) And CAP itself didn't agree with what Yglesias had written. So on Sunday night, Jennifer Palmieri, who's serving as acting CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund and who has been discussed as someone who might become an administration spokeswoman in some respect, responded with a post of her own on Yglesias' blog: 

Most readers know that the views expressed on Matt’s blog are his own and don’t always reflect the views of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Such is the case with regard to Matt’s comments about Third Way. Our institution has partnered with Third Way on a number of important projects - including a homeland security transition project - and have a great deal of respect for their critical thinking and excellent work product. They are key leaders in the progressive movement and we look forward to working with them in the future.

Palmieri's action has prompted quite a bit of discussion in the blogosphere, much of it sharply critical. And the comments to Yglesias' blog, from what I've read, were overwhelmingly negative.

I contacted Yglesias, who declined to comment. He has put up a post addressing the situation, however:

I wish the guest post from Jennifer Palmieri that I put up Sunday evening had been handled differently in a variety of ways since just sticking it on the blog and then going to bed seems to have given people a lot of misleading notions about the site being somehow “hijacked.” But when you get right down to it, all she was doing was reiterating what’s always been the case -- I’m posting un-screened posts on an un-edited blog and covering every issue under the sun. Under the circumstances, it’s better for me, better for CAP and CAPAF, and better for everyone to understand that I’m writing as an individual not as the voice of the institution. Pointing that fact out isn’t contrary to me having an independent voice, it’s integral to having one. Nobody has deleted my post criticizing Third Way, or forced me to retract those criticisms, or prevented me from following up with a more substantive critique of something they wrote.

In an interview, CAP's Faiz Shakir hit similar themes. "There's been a lot of criticism that this is a sign that we don't have editorial independence... what this controversy shows is quite the opposite," Shakir said. "There was a disagreement with Matt's post internally. And rather than allowing that internal disagreement to squelch dissent, Matt was able to voice his own view, and then we provided an opportunity for the institution -- through Jennifer Palmieri's voice -- to give its opinion. It's a great indicator that we're allowed to say things that not everyone here may always agree with. I think that's the cost of doing business in the way that we do do business."

I'm interested to know what War Room's readers think of that, especially as I'm of two minds on it.

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On the one hand, this sort of thing is something institutions like newspapers do all the time, and a think tank is certainly under no ethical obligation to publish anything that contradicts the organization's stance.

But CAP's explanation feels to me like a bit of a cop-out, especially since Palmieri's post isn't really the kind of thing that encourages free expression. Seems to me like it's much more likely to chill speech, actually. It's one thing for an organization to do this routinely, and have some sort of definitive rules on it. But doing what Palmieri did, suddenly jumping in to a blog on what seems like a random basis, conveys a message not just of organizational disagreement but organizational disapproval.

I think there's a bigger question that's been raised here, though, about whether the mainstreaming of the liberal blogosphere will affect the culture of it. In my interview with him, Shakir observed, "Progressives are now trying to find their voice in the Obama administration... In this new era, there are going to be intramural fights. Those disputes are best resolved when we air them and when we're transparent about them."

The left side of blog world formed in opposition, not just to the Bush administration but to the power centers within the Democratic Party. Now, liberal bloggers aren't in the opposition anymore. Howard Dean ran the Democratic National Committee, Barack Obama is the next president and the new Congress will be exceedingly Democratic (though of course it will likely still find a myriad of ways to frustrate and infurate people on the left). That means liberal bloggers will be closer to power, as will think tanks like CAP. And they're not likely to throw that opportunity away in order to remain on the sidelines -- as Markos Moulitas (Kos), once observed, "We said we wanted to crash the gates. We never said we weren't going to come in."

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It will be interesting to see how liberal bloggers respond to the new reality, whether liberal bloggers become more careful about what they say. And, judging from the horrified reaction of the commenters on Yglesias' blog, it will also be interesting to see how readers who are used to an anti-establishment position, perhaps even attracted to the blogs by it, react.


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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