Jay Bevenour

Crashing the Gate
by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga
and Jerome Armstrong
(Chelsea Green) $25

The top liberal blog in this country, DailyKos, is run by an activist named Markos Moulitsas Zúniga. His site gets more than a million unique visitors every day, a number greater than the circulation of most major daily newspapers in America. Traffic at DailyKos grows by 5 to 10 percent every week, and at that rate, the number of daily visitors to the site will soon dwarf the weekday circulation of the New York Times (currently about 1.1 million). If one looks at the entire liberal blogosphere, which encompasses DailyKos and about 70 other well-trafficked progressive blogs, one finds an apparatus that is now capable of reaching more people than the Democratic National Committee.

It is, therefore, not an idle threat when Zúniga and his coauthor, Jerome Armstrong, the founder of the liberal blog MyDD.com, write in their new book, Crashing the Gate, that Democratic leaders had better listen to what the laptop liberals are saying.

"Our message is simple," the pair write, addressing party leaders in D.C. "You can get out of the way or work with us. Trying to stop us is a losing proposition."

What Crashing the Gate advocates is essentially a bloodless coup inside the Democratic party: a sidelining of the high-paid consultants who have advised Democrats straight into minority status; an eviction from the party's inner circle of the shrill single-issue advocacy groups (like NARAL Pro-Choice America) that demand absolute fealty to their positions, even if it means losing an election; and an influx of new ideas (and cash) into the party via the "netroots." At a time when Democrats are floundering, shut out of power at the federal level and mocked even by their own leaders for lacking a coherent message, it's hard to argue with this program for change.

Politics, like other pursuits that rely heavily on mass communication, is being refigured by the rise of the internet, a transformation whose beginnings Armstrong and Zúniga experienced firsthand. They were at the forefront of the online assault on traditional politics, using their blogs to help propel the tech-savvy presidential campaign of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Although Dean's quest for the Democratic nomination imploded in early 2004 (with a lot of help from frightened establishment Democrats, according to this book), the progressive blogosphere kept on growing as liberals, dismayed by John Kerry's eventual loss to President Bush, went online.

Blogs like DailyKos pushed to have Dean elected chairman of the DNC, and won that fight, to the dismay of the Democratic establishment. Now, with their man on the inside they have turned their attentions to a broad transformation of the party.

Asserting that the right's message machine has overwhelming advantages in size and organization, Armstrong and Zúniga call for a sustained effort to build a "Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy," a network of liberal think tanks, training centers, and mega-donors that would eventually rival the powerful network that has given Republicans such a firm grip on the federal government. It's not a new idea, but the two bloggers give it compelling voice, and show how this type of institution building could work in tandem with the new influence of the blogosphere to bring the Democrats back to power.

What is missing from this plan is a solution to the Democrats' most glaring and immediate problem: the party's lack of a cogent message. "The Democratic Party stands for everything, yet stands for nothing," the authors write, a complaint that is hardly unique. But at the end of their smart advice on strategy (the think tanks, the sidelining of self-defeating interest groups, etc.), they fail to produce a recommendation for what the winning Democratic message should be. The same duo that declares, in their first chapter, that they have "a simple message" that must be listened to by the national party, doesn't, by the last chapter, provide the one thing Democrats most need: a campaign theme. The closest Armstrong and Zúniga get is a quote from Brian Schweitzer, the newly elected Democratic governor of once-red Montana. They ask Schweitzer what he wants the average person on the street to be thinking about the Democrats, and Schweitzer replies that he wants people to be thinking the Democrats "are the party on our side."

It's a wish, not a message. But it's a start.

The authors read on Fri April 7 at the Seattle Labor Temple, 2800 First Ave, Hall 1, 7 pm, free.