Bit "socialist" for America, but it has plenty of fans...
One of my favourite blog sites on the net is Daily Kos. I was a religious reader of the material in the run up to American elections in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Inbetween then, I still check up on a regular basis. Primarily because US politics interests me, but also because the site fascinates me greatly.
The fragmented, bottom-up nature of American politics is why a site like Daily Kos can thrive. For the uninitiated, it is a site with a very strong “liberal” (American definition) bent, run by a benevolent dictator known as Kos.
Kos contributes one or two posts a day, but a team of others each day (new posts usually emerge at least every half hour) write most of the content. Most of them are volunteers who have worked their way up through the site community. Users are free to churn out their own posts, known as diaries, each of which can be featured or promoted in some way. In some respects, it is its own blogging platform, only the chances of getting noticed are quite generous, and the community are very much prepared to engage with you.
The reason this site grabs my attention so much is that it is a powerful tool of grassroots activism, and has been recognised as such by numerous Democratic politicians and figureheads. Senators, representatives, wannabe politicians, party bigwigs… even Michael Moore… huge numbers of these people have accounts on the site. And, all the while, it has retained its distinctive identity. Writing diaries on Kos, somehow, in no way makes the site feel institutionalised. Unlike, say, when Cameron writes on ConHome, or Nick Clegg writes on Lib Dem Voice.
How did it achieve such a unique position? Its success has partly flowed from its good timing and beneficial political culture. American politics, due to its federal nature, has always been dispersed. Every four years the parties attempt to unite to put together a Presidential platform, but the marriage of Southern conservative Democrats with liberal elites from Massachusetts is most peculiar. The net result is that, until recent decades, there had always been an absence of national political leadership.
Now, however, sites like Daily Kos can consistently articulate a philosophy across the entire nation, uniting Democrats under the same banner – and with the same vision – for the very first time. Presidential campaigns, on the other hand, have always been uneasy coalitions, forced to compromise their values for the sake of what they perceive to be electability, in the eternal quest for the middle ground.
American politics had been crying out for arenas in which people could work the disparate threads together into a shared policy framework. Daily Kos achieves that; and its goal was made even more possible by the presence of George W. Bush in the White House.
Yes. Nothing beats getting people to rally round your cause than being in opposition. Even better when that person is so bitterly hated and has done all he can to wind you up that you’re just itching for the opportunity to get even.
Then, there was the final piece of the jigsaw: money.
Money makes American politics go around. And, by George, they need lots of it. How fortunate, then, that this new network of grassroots activists are also rather generous. So much so that, by tapping into their conscience, one can release great streams of micropayments.
This is where the site truly excelled, and why Democrats had to sit up and take notice of it. Never before had it been so easy for a liberal Democrat in deepest Alabama to pony up some cash for an obscure fellow Democrat in Ohio to win the race for a state office previously of no great concern to anybody. It was, in effect, a great way of supporting your party despite knowing full well that they’d never win in your area.
Now, all of a sudden, Democrats across the country had a much wider cause to support. And with so many races to choose from, the competition of who could be the best, most worthy Democrat for all that cash meant the site could continue being fiercely loyal to its principles. At last, there could be one truly united wing of the Democratic Party, fully supported by real people, not a mere artificial creation of lobbyists and corporations.
In some respects, all of this makes Daily Kos more like a pressure group. It isn’t a political party. It doesn’t run for office, instead trying to influence those who do. Power without accountability.
Only, it is accountable. The internet age means everything can be fact-checked easily, words can be requoted endlessly. You can’t hide from your record.
But there’s just something more to it than that. The level of activism on the site is impressive. And you can bet that for every active user there are hundreds, if not thousands, of readers – each of whom has at least some interest in the project. There aren’t many pressure groups that can boast of such a highly engaged membership.
How’ve they done it? There is a well developed sense of community at its heart. That, at last, there are “people like me” all over this vast nation. But not just politically, on a personal level too. The user-generated nature of the diary section means that great emotional stories: of unemployment, of hardship, even of sexual orientation, mean the site has a remarkable community ethos, one completely missing on any British political blog. Just as the human-interest story is a powerful way to command audiences on TV, so too it is on the web.
As the site has grown stronger, it has expanded into an entire portal which even had its own election results service and now a regular polling feature done by an independent research agency. Success breeds success.
As an outsider, the way the site has evolved in such an organic manner is truly impressive. None of it feels forced or fake. It’s grown from one man’s blog to an American media empire, and yet one that still has its feet firmly on the ground – perhaps helped by its humanity.
Even with a Democrat in the White House, the project is not complete, and never will be. Now it’s all about holding Obama to his promises. And even then, there remain plenty of other offices throughout the nation Democrats don’t hold. Even if they do, there are often better Democrats who can be put in their place.
That’s why it will always have a role in American politics.
Will there ever be an equivalent here in Britain? I mused a few days ago that it seemed rather unlikely.
But tomorrow I’m going to go into the reasons why I think that. How enthralling…