netroots and grassroots

A couple weeks ago I did the following rough work-up analysis on a dry erase board at a meeting of California bloggers. I'd like to expand on that analysis here so that folks nationwide might be able to use/debate/add to these insights.

I hope you find them useful.

When wearing our "blogger strategy" thinking caps, it's crucial to break down the political playing field and understand the different zones that folks are working in. From a blogger's point of view, we can break down the U.S. political playing field into three broad categories, or zones. I'll cover them in reverse order, as I did on the dry erase board, micro to macro, from Zone C to Zone A

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Zone C: The Democratic grassroots and local political environment

The Democratic grassroots, or Zone C, is everything that happens politically offline. It is the micro political environment.

Included in Zone C are Democratic clubs. Democratic State and County Committees. Advocacy and community organizations. Included here are also, for better and for worse, the networking infrastructure of local Democratic politicians, or "electeds," and the base of Democratic activists and donors who make up the local and state infrastructures of the Democratic party.

What's critical to understand about the local Democratic grassroots, or offline infrastructure, is that it exists and has existed regardless of the web, of the netroots or of any change in technology that has impacted politics. The micro, or local, level is where U.S. politics happens and where it has always happened. Local politics is about knowing people and working with them face to face. From the time of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln forward, this is American politics in its purest form...ie. we're talking politics in the America that DeToqueville described: neighbor to neighbor, town to town, politics where character and reputation tend to govern who holds office and who get's kicked out. Ultimately, this is where the national parties succeed or fall.

In this regard, we should also keep in mind that the United States is the most "represented" and "governed" nation on Earth, with governmental structures on the federal, state, county, municipal and even community levels impacting all of our lives. However sexy and important the national stage, core changes in politics in the U.S. occur, and have always been rooted, on the local level. In truth, local politics in the United States is really not micro at all. For our virtual "dry erase board" purposes, we can call this Zone C.

Zone B: The Local Netroots

This is the domain of local, state, and regional blogs and online organizations of all sorts. Any blog or website that pertains to local and state politics is part of this zone.

This is the exciting territory that so many of us began to pay attention to in 2005 and 2006. This is the online activism covering all those local races that, from New Hampshire to New Jersey to Tracy, California, came of age in the 2006 mid-term elections. Whether it was Square State or Blue Jersey or Blue Granite or Say No Pombo, local blogs...and activism by locally motivated and focused bloggers and grassroots activists...played a critical role in the 2006 elections.

What I'd like to emphasize here is that this zone is epitomized by a dual nature: it is online and offline. Zone B is about knowing people, but it is also about meeting people offline who you initially contacted or met online. Quite often the very same folks doing the local blogging and online activism are also centrally involved in a "hands-on" way in local politics. In fact, here in California there were online organizations like Left on 580 and the Blue Bridge Project and Take Back Red California that epitomized a new hybrid relationship between Zone C and Zone B.

In sum, from a blogger's point of view, Zone B is where local online and offline activism meet, it's a middle place...the local netroots.

Zone A: the national Netroots

National blogs emerged in 2003/04 and played a quadruple role over the last two national election cycles:

  1. national blogs serve as a place for political junkies to meet and trade information
  2. national blogs serve as a zone where Presidential politics can be debated and covered in a new way.
  3. national blogs, with their ability to cover breaking stories instantly and critique the press and political parties with similar speed, serve as a kind of national peanut gallery and fact check on the national press and political parties.
  4. national blogs, by harnessing the donation power of tens of thousands of online activists, impact the playing field of campaign contributions. (not so much in total $$ as in critical and first dollars.)

In sum, national blogs, whether Firedoglake, MyDD, Dailykos or Atrios, have joined the national press and cable media, and emerged on the scene as long-standing and important players in the national political discussion. These are the virtual communities where, literally, hundreds of thousands of this nation's most politically active, and obsessed, activists get their news and interact with the meta and national politics of the day. National blogs, and to a certain extent, an emerging "star system" of bloggers, are now part of the media narrative.

Now, the above synthesis is pretty patently obvious to all of us bloggers. In fact, the assumptions behind these categories are so obvious we tend to take them for granted. What I'd like to convey are three simple, and less obvious, axioms that underly these assumptions that we all would do well to pay attention to.

Three Axioms

Axiom 1:

Zone C and Zone B intertwine, and will, over time, become synonymous. ie. Local political activism and local netroots activism will become the same thing. Zone B will subsume into Zone C. (As a corollary to this, I predict that eventually Zone A, the national blogs, will subsume into the national media, but that's another topic.)

Over time, local activists will learn how to use the tools of the web and incorporate online activism into their local grassroots politics. Further, over time local netroots activists and bloggers will become more and more integrated into the local political environment; they'll meet more people. Ultimately, people who call themselves "netroots" activists and the people who call themselves "grassroots" activists will wake up one day and realize that they are, more or less, exactly the same people working the same territory.

This is something that I said to the very first meeting of California bloggers. We local bloggers are simply grassroots activists who happen to have come of age in the era of blogging. As time passes, and the novelty of blogs and "blogging" fades, this will be more and more clear to everyone involved. We're not doing anything new online; we just have new tools to apply to old-fashioned politics. We local bloggers are simply working the territory of DeToqueville's America in the digital age.

Axiom 2:

Everything that is "sexy" and "immediate" about national blogging attains and applies to local political activism and blogging, most folks just don't know it yet.

Whether it is serving as a meeting place for local political news mavens, or as a place for candidates to raise early $$, or as a zone to fact check the local press, every function of the national blogosphere can and will be replicated on the local level over time, it just won't happen with the numbers or prestige that occurs on the national level on the national blogs.

That does not mean that what does happen locally in Zone C/B won't be just as significant, or, in the case of races with national import like the Webb and Tester Senate campaigns, involve politics of real consequence. In fact, it is only when, for whatever reason, a national need is met by local political blogs and grassroots activists, that most folks will appreciate the presence, or lack of, local grassroots/netroots infrastructure. ie. As usual, the 50 State strategy is only relevant to most of us when it's "needed" in a particular locale...but then, of course, it's very relevant.

Axiom 3:

Zone A, the national netroots, is where, naturally, like everything national and presidential, the bulk of the early attention and focus on blogging has gone. Zone A is immediate and broadly popular; like the cable media, the national netroots has an emerging star system of voices and commentators. It's, let's face it, sexy.

Axiom three states, however, that the real and deep potential of the blogs to impact U.S. domestic politics is inhibited by the fact that there is currently no easy way to go from Zone A to Zone C, from the generic, "hot" national point of view, to the mundane, pedestrian, "boots on the ground" local point of view. In fact, it's a weirdly counterinuitive reality that activists working in Zone B find it frustrating both that many grassroots folks see/understand/conceptualize blogging and online activism as relating strictly the national political front and, likewise, that many national blogs fail to understand the needs of local activists and bloggers.

This has happened naturally. The strength of the web is that it brings together people at a distance. The internet levels access to information and builds on common interests. It is natural that folks built structures on the meta or national level first and then tried to harness those structures to work locally. At the end of the day, who wouldn't like to be read by thousands of readers about the burning issues of the day?

As someone who has tried to use the platform of diaries at Dailykos to impact local political activist turnout, however, I can state that there is no substitute for the interaction between local grassroots and netroots activists on locally-rooted websites; there is no substitute for face to face politics. In fact, however inevitable it is that Zones C and B eventually merge, I am convinced that building this local netroots infrastructure and popularizing it is the central challenge for the netroots movement going forward. Our success, or lack of it, in this effort will be the measure of the netroots over the long haul. This is truly the task at hand for those concerned with the 50-state strategy, the reform movement in Democratic politics and the future of netroots political activism.

We need to find ways to channel the thousands of folks currently participating in strictly national political discussions into local and regional blogs and websites, and hence, locally-rooted, face-to-face activism as well. To use my dry-erase board model, we need to find ways to help folks who are exclusively grassroots activists in Zone C or readers of national blogs in Zone A transform themselves into local netroots/grassroots activists in Zone B too.

That is the challenge that I posed to the local California bloggers meeting here in Berkeley three weeks ago and the challenge I am posing to the national netroots right now. Your ideas and comments are welcome below.

Blogs United

One task at hand for local bloggers nationwide is to network, to meet up and to build the personal connections and interactions that create a nationwide networking infrastructure of local bloggers and netroots activists that we can then build on.

The conversations we are having in CA are, I'm sure, happening all over the USA. Let's leverage that!

To that end, along with many collaborators, I've built an organization that is open to all local and regional progressive bloggers called Blogs United. The mission of Blogs United is simply to be useful and relevant to local and regional bloggers. Our goal is to provide a broadly inclusive place to meet and trade info.

If you are interested and have a URL you blog at, please send me an email at kidoaklandactivism@comcast.net.

Tags: blogs united, grassroots, local blogs, netroots (all tags)

Comments

6 Comments

Re: netroots and grassroots

Kid Oakland efforts and Blogs United has been very helpful as we begin to setup the first community blog in Utah.

Wasatch Watcher has made great strides in just over two months in filling Zone B in Utah.

...50 states means 50 states...yes even Utah...

by Marshall 2007-02-17 04:15PM | 0 recs
Re: netroots and grassroots

We've got West Virginia covered.

by Carnacki 2007-02-17 06:15PM | 0 recs
Re: netroots and grassroots

new york checking in. i'm bookmarking this post to return to later because there is just so much i want to say and i just don't have the time to do so properly at the moment.

let me just say that it's an excellent post, k/o, as per usual.

by lipris 2007-02-18 06:31AM | 0 recs
Re: netroots and grassroots

Great post.  However, I would rebut Axiom 1 with this observation: many political blogs (both local and national) are not activist in nature and instead grew out of the observational/journalistic roots of blogging.

The Nevada political blog scene, for example, is great and offers a lot of insight, but with few exceptions does not actively participate in effecting change in the state.  By far the two biggest progressive blogs, the Las Vegas Gleaner and Reno and its Discontents, almost never ask their readers to do anything or report on their own activism.  (This was to my great frustration when working in Nevada last year.)

Hopefully, this project can help to 1) spur some blogs into action, and 2) get more activist blogs the support they need to become successful.

Sarah

by Sarah R Carter 2007-02-18 12:02PM | 0 recs
Re: netroots and grassroots

"Local bloggers are simply grassroots activists who happen to have come of age in the era of blogging."

This observation is useful for activists (both online and offline) to understand how they relate -- and even more importantly, it's an important way of selling the progressive blogosphere as part of a larger mainstream phenomenon rather than a fringe element.  

To those skeptical about whether bloggers are "normal", I often explain that the conversations you see online are just like the conversations you'd overhear in coffeeshops, PTAs, and kitchen tables all over the country -- it's just that the former are much easier to listen in on (and join) than the latter.

by brahn 2007-02-18 09:24PM | 0 recs
Graphs!

This is good stuff man; I think visual aids would help out a lot.

I've been thinking a lot about what it takes to get these pieces working together, addressing the problem of axiom #3.

It's long work, because being able to scale-shift requires some kind of coherent national language and sense of priorities. It also takes a level of humility (or at least the ability to check ones ego temporarily).

I think we're making progress though, both in base-building and in turning the page from consistency (hitting the talking points) and into coherency (making sense).

by Josh Koenig 2007-02-19 04:03PM | 0 recs

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