The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, by Matt Bai (Penguin Press, 316 pp., $25.95)
Matt Bai’s The Argument is the most significant book to date on the upcoming 2008 elections—not because it has anything to say about the horse race for the Democratic nomination, but because it offers an account of the people who constitute what Howard Dean calls “the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.” Bai writes regularly on politics for the New York Times Magazine, where some of this material originally appeared. He has been sharply critical of George W. Bush and the Republican Party, and sufficiently sympathetic with the sentiments of the Deaniacs to win their confidence; further, his connections to the Times (and his own ingenuity) made him privy to their private meetings and offhand remarks. Bai has a novelist’s eye for the details of the two-way flow between politics and personality, and his extraordinary book is an exposé of sorts, revealing the emotional underpinnings of the new wave of liberal activism that’s reshaping the Democratic Party.
The liberal billionaires, such as George Soros and Peter Lewis, and the bloggers, such as “blogfather” Jerome Armstrong, are certain of what they’re against, Bai demonstrates. They are passionate in their hostility to the Republican “dictatorship,” the reviled George W. Bush, and his war in Iraq; they despise the evangelical “lizardheads” who live in “Dumbfuckistan”; they detest the Clintons as compromisers whose strategy of triangulation has turned the Democrats, as they see it, into me-too Republicans chasing after the middle-class vote; they loathe the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and, as famed Hollywood liberal Norman Lear puts it, “Joe ‘Fucking’ Lieberman”; and they are sure, insofar as they give it any thought, that the war on terror is largely a scam that has been sold to the “morons” of middle America.
Their problem is deciding what they are for, other than more power for people like themselves. The “argument” of Bai’s title refers to the long, futile search to develop a positive agenda, beyond support for abortion and gay marriage, that would articulate “some compelling case for the future of American government.” Discussing the political virtue of conveying deep convictions, one member of the Democratic Alliance—the billionaires’ organization funded by Soros and Lewis, among others—has to ask, “What are ours? . . . once we know them, we can frame them for voters.” The better informed among the billionaires and the bloggers understand that they can’t go back to New Deal liberalism. Says Andy Stern, the one major labor leader connected with the Democratic Alliance: “I like to say to people who want to return to the New Deal that we are now as far from the New Deal as the New Deal was from the Civil War.”
But what to do? The billionaires funded John Podesta’s Center for American Progress, but its proposals, while thoughtful, were on far too small a scale to represent the new paradigm that they wanted. Seeking a “path to a new economic agenda,” Stern conducted an online contest in which ordinary Americans, competing for a $100,000 prize, submitted their policy ideas to a panel of experts. “But the entrants,” notes Bai, “offered the same old approaches.” When Bai attends a brainstorming session held by the activist organization MoveOn to develop an affirmative agenda, he finds that the participants, after suggesting such innovations as “fair wages” and “a foreign policy that wins friends,” repeatedly slip into expressing their hostilities. “Remember, this has to be positive,” the frustrated convener admonishes them.
The very idea of politics—the need to accommodate competing but legitimate interests—seems alien to the Democratic Alliance, whose members are sure that their business expertise, which they generously donate to the public, can make America once again acceptable in their own eyes. “One of my friends who’s a billionaire says the thing about being rich is that you can do what you want,” explains reinsurance fat cat Steven Gluckstern, a onetime leader of the Alliance. How do you accommodate differences among people whose wealth tells them that they are always right? The Democratic Alliance, says Bai, turned into “the political version of a nightmare condo association” because the members assumed that “their wealth conferred on them great vision.” Rather than serving as a financial vehicle for politicians, they thought that politicians should serve as the vehicles for their brilliant ideas. “You know what they say about the difference between a terrorist and a billionaire,” quips Judy Wade of McKinsey & Company, who succeeded Gluckstern as the organization’s chief and was, like her predecessor, deposed. “You can negotiate with a terrorist.”
But why should the billionaires compromise? “The strange truth was that the billionaires had come to see themselves, however improbably, as the oppressed,” Bai writes. “They knew what was right about what was best for the country, and if the voters didn’t see it as clearly as they did, then it could only be explained by some nefarious conservative plot. They imagined themselves to be victimized and powerless, kept down somehow by the Man.” Here is the post-materialist politics of resentment with a gilded vengeance.
The MoveOn crowd, composed heavily of refugees from the 1960s who feel isolated in their suburban, apolitical neighborhoods, harbors similar sentiments of victimization. MoveOn was formed in opposition to Republicans’ foolish attempts to impeach President Clinton, but the enemy of its enemy became only its temporary friend. As a group, notes Bai, MoveOn never assimilated the adaptations of the Clinton years. For them, it was “in some ways, as if the Clinton Presidency had never happened.” MoveOners, as Bai describes them, are members of a political Lonely Hearts Club, their activism a salve for shared feelings “of exclusion and anxiety.”
The bloggers, for their part, are as emotionally stunted as the billionaires, but as inhabitants of “a fantasy game inflected world,” far less literate: “The Daily Kos and other blogs resemble a political version of those escapist online games where anyone with a modem can disappear into an alternate society, reinventing himself among neighbors and colleagues who exist only in a virtual realm.” Bai adds: “One of the hallmarks of the netroots culture was a complete disconnect from history—meaning basically anything that happened before 1998.” Unlike the radicals of the 1960s, who knew something of the anti-Stalinism that had preceded them but dismissed its significance for their time, the bloggers take pride in their ignorance. In the eyes of the bloggers, “the more history you knew,” explains Bai, “the more bogged down and less relevant you were likely to be.”
But if they were short on learning and thinking, they were long on “profanity, hyperbole, and conspiracy theories.” America, the bloggers believe, yearns to be governed by Deanlike Democrats, but is thwarted by so-called moderates willing to compromise with the Republican foe. Like sixties radicals, the bloggers see moderates as the real enemy, but unlike them, they have no positive ideology. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of the influential Daily Kos blog, insists, “I’m not ideological at all, I’m just all about [Democrats’] winning.”
Bloggers like Moulitsas view swing voters, such as those who drove the outcome of the 2006 elections, as “mythical creatures” that the diabolical Clintons invented to disguise their actual method of success: cowardly capitulations to corporate interests. Hillary Clinton was stunned when her call for a cease-fire between the bloggers and the DLC prompted a barrage of abuse. Moulitsas declared her middle-class agenda “dead on arrival,” saying: “It’s truly disappointing that this is the crap Hillary has signed on to. More of the failed corporatist bullshit that has cost our party so dearly in the last decade and a half.”
The book’s weakness is that Bai, despite his obvious gifts, seems to know very little about the history of modern liberalism. In a section that he needn’t have included, Bai argues that it was the deindustrialization of the late 1970s that laid liberalism low. Oddly for a book published on the 40th anniversary of widespread urban rioting, The Argument makes no mention of crime, riots, racial preferences, school busing, and the welfare explosion of the late 1960s, all of which helped drive much of the white middle class out of the Democratic party.
The book ends on what appears to be an unintentionally ironic note, with neo–New Dealer Mario Cuomo—the same Mario Cuomo who is still giving the 1984 Democratic National Convention speech that made him famous—addressing the Democratic Alliance on the need for new ideas. It turns out that the search for “the argument,” the new paradigm, has been fruitless. But it has been politically momentous. The billionaires and the bloggers have both helped remake the way campaigns are run, and strangely enough, given their hostility to the Clintons, they may well help elect Hillary president in 2008. Many of them will surely be enraged by the more centrist positions that she is likely to take if she wins the nomination, and that will give her an opportunity to distance herself from the Left. In effect, their opposition will allow her to appeal to a considerable number of swing voters, those mythical creatures whom the fantasy-gaming bloggers are too clever to acknowledge.
The new left-wing activists are a subject so rich in fraught personalities as to be a treasure trove for a novelist. Until that novel comes along, though, the uncanny characters that Bai has brought to life will do very nicely.