Looking at the announcements of the new Edwards hires, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan
, I am struck once again by the ongoing exodus of prominent players in the netroots to professional positions as campaign, congressional, and consultant staff. At this point, I now personally know multiple people working as Internet / netroots staffers for Edwards, Dodd, and Draft Obama. I know at least one person working for Vilsack, Richardson, and Clinton. Additionally, I know people who work for all party committees, for Harry Reid and for Nancy Pelosi, as well as for a number of individual Senators and Representatives outside the leadership, including Louise Slaughter and Russ Feingold (and droves of freshmen). I have known people not working for any of these candidates or members of Congress who worked netroots for Kerry, Dean and Clark in 2003-2004. I know several netroots coordinators for advocacy organizations, including the various unions, ACLU, PFAW, Media Matters and the Center for American Progress. There are also people who are employed by netroots organizations, such as Democracy for America and MoveOn.org. There are also those who operate as netroots consultants for Internet based consulting firms like Blue State Digital, @dvocacy, Wired for Change, and, until recently, Echo Ditto. And the list goes on and on.
By this point, netroots activists have spread to virtually every corner of the professional Democratic and progressive ecosystem. In most cases, they have been co-opted into existing infrastructure, although frequently that is in order to perform a new task (netroots and / or Internet) that existing staff is unable to perform. There are also some, though fewer, cases where netroots activists have been able to build up their own, new infrastructure, such as ActBlue, the Progressive States Network, and MoveOn.org. Whether inside or outside, whether filling existing staff positions or creating new ones, it is now entirely possible for someone to have a full-blown career as netroots-focused political professional. This is because, to virtually the same extent as areas of focus such as communications, field, fundraising, and policy, "netroots" and / or "Internet" has become its own department within any large political operation. Commensurate to this development, a new group of political professionals has emerged, one that is drawn largely from independent netroots activists, and from younger, "junior staff" politicos who were originally from a different area of focus in professional politics, but who engaged and participated in the progressive netroots during its formative stages.
This change is perhaps the most interesting development in the world of professional politics since the rise of Wingnut Welfare in the form of the Republican Noise Machine starting in the 1970's. Quite a bit needs to be written about it, and I would like to start with these questions and thoughts:
- As a potential agent of change, to what extent are the netroots and the progressive movement helped or hindered by its professionalization? Certainly it always helps to have "people on the inside," but if your main source of employment comes from existing institutional structures, inevitably your ability and willingness to challenge and change established structures is reduced. Perhaps the questions is better rephrased as follows: with "outside" elements joining the "inside," who will change more, the outside or the inside? Also, are the netroots better served by creating their own institutions and campaigns, or by continuing to join existing ones? These last two questions are always important for any successful avant-garde movement to answer once it reaches this level of maturity.
- To what extent is a "professional" and "amateur" divide emerging within the netroots and progressive movement? If there is such a divide, will those people who live as full-time movement operatives develop competing interests with the largely part-time, volunteer activist base? Specifically, I am wondering if there might be a danger that a new "netroots elite" will end up holding the same dismissive attitude the "serious pundits" currently hold toward the activist base, or if the activist base community will turn away from the "professionals," in disgust at the sell-outs.
- Will the netroots community be able to continue to function as a semi-coherent entity with so many of its members working on behalf of competing candidates and campaigns? While everyone was on the same side in 2005-2006, the potential for dilution and division certainly seems ripe to me in 2007-2008.
- How long will it last? Will there come a point where the netroots is so familiar to Democratic infrastructure, that rather than being a separate department of large political operations internet and netroots instead becomes blended into every other department? Will there be new technological developments that make current "netroots" staff obsolete? Will the new political professionals just decide to move on to new careers in different fields before long?
- Finally, what happens when these junior staffers and new political professionals continue to age and move up in the ranks of the progressive and Democratic ecosystems? What cultural differences are there among this new professional class that will result in an overall cultural shift in progressive politics once the participants involved move from being junior staff to senior staff?
So many questions, so few answers right now. I don't even know if the average reader of MyDD will find this development the least bit interesting. It certainly connects to what I wrote last Thursday, about the one-way flow of progressive movement money
. This could be yet another way in which the netroots are reifying established infrastructure, rather than changing it. It's not like I am free from this either, since I have been a consultant for varying campaigns and organizations over the past two years.
This is a pretty wide-open post, mainly because I am not sure where to begin this discussion. Hopefully, just by raising these questions, we can find ways to start narrowing the conversation, and developing a better sense of the issues involved. The outside is becoming inside, and vice versa. What does it all mean?