Five Minutes With
The mere mention of the name makes youthful lefty web activists and aging ex-hippies swoon while catapulting their right-wing counterparts into fits of rage.
As the founder and lead writer of Daily Kos, the most popular political weblog in the United States (if not the world), Markos "Kos" Moulitsas Zuniga has become an almost mythic figure in the blog world. Kos sits atop the Pantheon of online commentators, casting blogposts as Zeus once cast thunderbolts.
With a twitch of his pinkie finger upon his qwerty keyboard, Moulitsas can raise a war chest for progressive candidates; or—as he tells it in his and co-author Jerome Armstrong’s new (non-e) book, Crashing the Gate—plunge contenders for the DNC chairmanship who aren’t Howard Dean into a despair so deep that they cast themselves, Aegeus like, into the dark seas of political has-beenship.
True, there’s a good chance that if you aren’t a progressive activist or an online political junkie, you’ve never heard of Kos or his blog. But, as Kos and his cohort of top-tier bloggers may well determine which candidates you can vote for in the upcoming elections, or what toothpaste you use when you get up in the morning, you would do well to hearken now.
Mr. Moulitsas temporarily assumed mortal form recently to speak with Campus Progress about books vs. blogs, fluffy stuff, and looking further ahead.
So, was it harder to write a book than to write a blog? Did you go into it with different intentions?
Absolutely. Blog-writing is immediate. If I write a post, I’m done in a few minutes. If I need to make a long argument, I can link to the premises of the argument or information that supports the argument so I don’t have to spell it all out for the reader. So it’s very short, very concise, very fast. I had no idea what to expect when I started co-writing this book, it was quite a shock … It was a dramatically different experience. It was very difficult for us to try to make that adjustment. It was tedious and it never ended and it felt like having homework 24/7.
Having come out on the other side with an actual bound product to show for your hard work, are there advantages to the book over the blog format?
Yeah… For example, I write a lot about the special interests in the book and how they are harming the Democratic party. But a lot of times on the blog I don’t write out the full argument and there are times that rubs somebody the wrong way and they get all upset because they don’t quite understand where we’re coming from and what the whole argument is. I’ve gotten a lot of people who said, “I didn’t understand what you were talking about with special interest groups. Now that I read the book, I understand where you’re coming from and now this makes a lot more sense.”
The subtitle of your book is “Net Roots, Grass Roots, and the Rise of People-powered Politics.” Can you define netroots in a nutshell?
Netroots is this new generation of activism that’s happening all online where people are using MoveOn, they’re using the blogs, they’re using the Wiki, they’re podcasting, and using websites to communicate, to educate and to organize political action. So, at the end of the day, what we’re trying to do with the netroots is generate grassroots activism. Ultimately, we want to get them off the computer and on the ground, but net roots is the place where we can motivate people and organize people to do offline grassroots organizing.
I and many other young progressives are definitely excited about the opportunities that online activism offers, but at the same time, I’d say our biggest concern is the issue of race, class, and gender diversity online. Percentage-wise, as a Salvadoran blogger, you’re one of very few prominent non-white bloggers. Women are also disproportionately unrepresented in the blog world, and class-wise it probably leans a little affluent, too. Do you see that as an issue in the long run? And if so, how do you build a more populist “netroots” movement, by bringing those groups in?
Well, class is the only issue here I actually worry about. There is obviously a class issue. People who have to work for a living and work three jobs don’t have time to sit online. Clearly, that’s the bigger picture. But the way to reach these people, who’re never gonna be on a computer anyway—you’re going to have to have traditional grassroots organizers talking to these people about the issues they should care about and getting them activated, and they can still use the netroots to organize that type of activism. So, we don’t necessarily need to have these people online. We need to have people who are talking to those people online, being educated, and organizing.
|"I’m Latino and I have the biggest political blog in the country by a factor of four or five. So, I’m not going to sit here and worry about ‘there has to be certain representation.’"|
As far as for the sex and race thing, it’s a lot more diverse than people think. It’s a meritocratic medium. Half the time people don’t know what color you are, they don’t know whether you’re male or female. There are a couple of very prominent bloggers that people think are male who are actually female. They keep that not necessarily secret, but they don’t make a big show of it. And, I’m Latino and I have the biggest political blog in the country by a factor of four or five. So, I’m not going to sit here and worry about ‘there has to be certain representation.’ I think if people are good – and there are many, many bloggers of color and female bloggers, and more are emerging on a monthly basis – then it has nothing to do with what color you are or what sex you are. It’s whether you write in a way that people like.
In the book and on your blog you have a reputation for advocating what one might call aggressive progressive politics. You talk in the book over and over again about various things that the conservative movement has done well, that the Left should consider emulating. At one point, you even bring up Republican redistricting schemes in Texas and Georgia and suggest that perhaps progressive politicians should have responded in kind. How do you do that and go forward as a progressive movement without just turning into left wing Tom DeLays?
Well, you don’t have to be corrupt and sell out to special interests to be politically effective. You have to realize that the other side is playing hardball. They’re using tactics that solidify their control. They’re not democratic tactics. They’re structural tactics. And you have to realize that we can’t sit here and try and keep some higher ground or say ‘we’re better than them’ and expect to win. They’re kicking us. If somebody’s punching you in the face, you don’t say, ‘violence is no good, it’s better to be nonviolent’ while he’s still punching you in the face. You have to actually defend yourself at some point and respond in kind and, to me, it’s like dealing with a bully: When you show force and stand up to a bully, that’s when they back down. We’re like the battered wife who keeps taking it and taking it and taking it, thinking that things will get better, but it won’t. And until we start standing up for ourselves, they’re not going to change. Why would they change? They’ve been winning precisely because of this. If it works, why change it?
I think a lot of people might associate these aggressive tactics as going hand in hand with some of the extraordinary corruption we’ve been seeing lately.
Corruption is corruption and I guess it shows its face in many ways but there’s nothing inherently corrupt about redistricting. There was a tradition that it was only done at the end of a decade and Republicans broke that tradition. But there’s ways to be politically aggressive by speaking out about certain people or by using aggressive rhetoric that have nothing to do with corruption whatsoever. I mean I just don’t see how being politically aggressive has anything to do with having fat-cat lobbyists over for $10 000 a plate dinners where they buy and sell favors.
One part of the book that really resonated for me was the idea of fostering young leadership and creating opportunities, something that Campus Progress is trying to do. Do you have any advice for us in terms of effective ways to do that and raise a new generation of progressive leaders?
|"Conservatives always look 20 or 30 years in the future and we’re always looking at the next election."|
You know I actually don’t think it’s on you guys. The desire and the passion and the eagerness to work for a better country already exists. It’s there. What we need is a donor community that recognizes that there’s value in our young leaders, realizes that we’re not going to have a future as a movement unless we train a new generation of progressive leaders, and starts putting money into them. I mean, we have two organizations working on this while Republicans have about eleven organizations that focus on high schools and colleges and spend upwards of $45 million a year. Our best and brightest end up in the private sector where they can actually make enough money to live, while the conservatives retain their best talent and nurture them and create their next generation of leaders. So I don’t think there’s anything you guys can do—you guys are doing everything you can. It’s the people who actually pay the bills, people who’ve been around for awhile.
Conservatives always look 20 or 30 years in the future and we’re always looking at the next election. So there’s nothing that young kids can do really in the bigger scheme of things to help win in November 2006. Knock on some doors or whatever. Now, obviously there’s a lot that you guys can do in 20 years cause you’re gonna grow up. Its on the progressive movement and on people like me who are trying to educate donors that they need to plan really, really far ahead into the future.
I don’t want to just give you guys a pass, but in this case, honestly, you guys aren’t the problem. It’s the movement itself.
Some people who might be interested in getting involved may hesitate when they see how vicious the back and forth can be in the political world, both online and offline. You’re someone who has been subjected to some pretty vicious attacks. Some of us, I think, are hesitant to put ourselves out there wondering if anything we say now online will be used against us in ten years. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement on how to put ourselves out there?
Obviously, playing in politics is a contact sport. It’s not for people who don’t like to be criticized or are afraid to be criticized. …[T]hat should be obvious. But, like I said before, nobody online cares whether you are a woman or a man or black or white or Latino—they also don’t care what your real name is. So I would definitely encourage people to use pseudonyms when blogging because…you’re gonna gain a following based on the strength of your arguments, not based on what you look like or what your name is. There’s absolutely no reason to use a real name and in fact it’s obviously dangerous to, because people are gonna Google you and they’re gonna find what you said and it may affect your job search in the future, or some crazy stalker will find you and find out where you live and stuff like that. So it’s not a generally good idea unless you get to my level where this is my job and it will be my job for a long time so I don’t have to worry about getting a job in the future. Now, it’s safe for me to have my name be public; but if I were in college or if I were a young progressive I would definitely not use my real name. And you don’t have to, that’s the beauty of the medium.
Are there any right-wing bloggers that you kind of enjoy?
Oh my god I don’t… I hate ‘em all. Now, there are right-wing writers that I appreciate. A lot of the people over at the national review online I actually dig, people like Byron York. and I actually like Bob Novak. So there are conservatives I like, but the right-wing blogosphere is like the sewage of the conservative movement. They’re all absolutely terrible.
For those of us who have blogs or journals, its always interesting to see what our friends and family end up thinking about what we write. Do you have relatives that read your blog? Was that a strange thing when they found out you were the most popular political blogger in the U.S. ?
All my relatives, other than my brother, live outside the country and very few of them speak English, so they have no clue what I do. When people ask my mom what I do, she says “he does something with computers” and that’s the end of it. So other than my brother who’s also fairly politically engaged, really, my family have no clue what I do.
I see. Is that the way you’d prefer it?
Yeah, probably. [Laughs] It’s nice to be able to hang out with family and not be compelled to talk about politics. You know one of the things that kind of sucks about me is that it’s getting harder and harder for me to get away from politics. When people find out that I’m Markos from Daily Kos they want to talk politics. But when I’m out socially, especially, I’m looking away from what is essentially my day job. Sometimes I don’t want to talk about politics, I want to talk about fluffy stuff.
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