The Argument
Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics
By Matt Bai
The Penguin Press, New York, 2007

Matt Bai was one of the first traditional media figures - and especially one of the first elite journalists - to begin to comprehend that there was something going on, on the blogs and in the Democratic party more generally, that merited attention.  He wrote a New York Times Magazine article about Howard Dean early in Dean's rise as a presidential candidate; he wrote the first major story about YearlyKos in 2006.  In between, he attended MoveOn house parties, spent time with Jerome Armstrong and Markos on their book tour, and followed the development of a group of wealthy donors to Democratic causes, drawing on all of this research for The Argument, a book about "the first political movement of the Internet age."  Given that prescience and the access he obtained to a fascinating moment in history, it is unfortunate that the book that emerged is yet another entry in the "some Democrats are angry! I don't like it" genre.  

After introducing many of the book’s key figures in its initial chapters, Bai gets to the crux of his argument:

Of course, those who actually read Don’t Think of an Elephant! should have been struck by a small aside at the bottom of page 23.  "One of the major mistakes liberals make is that they think they have all the ideas they need," Lakoff wrote.  "They think that all they lack is media access.  Or maybe some magic bullet phrases, like partial-birth abortion.  When you think you just lack words, what you really lack are ideas."  Lakoff seemed to be suggesting the party needed more than a few new phrases; it needed an argument.  But the Washington politicians who invariably pressed Lakoff for his version of the Democratic "bumper sticker" – the few words that would concisely explain the party’s vision as effectively as "lower taxes, less government, strong defense, and family values" did for Republicans – seemed to skip right over this minor point.  They were looking to rebrand the party, not reinvent it.

And the non-Washington-based movement of MoveOn, bloggers, and the Democracy Alliance, Bai lets us know at almost every turn, are no different: looking for the quick, shallow fix to hide their lack of ideas.

As it happens, there are a few overarching problems with Bai’s own ideas.

First, despite his repeated invocations of an "emerging grassroots movement" or, incessantly, a "new progressive movement," Bai actually has very little to say about a movement, focusing instead on a few extraordinary people characterized by great wealth, strong voices, or sheer, outstanding willpower.  That Bai had the sense to see something remarkable in Gina Cooper well before other members of the traditional media is to his credit; that he considers her essentially as an individual and not as someone very much shaped by or enmeshed in a movement is a sign of the shallowness of his vision: he talks about a movement but truly sees only elites and leaders, extending what he sees as their failings to the faceless masses he drops in on only occasionally.

The closest Bai comes to looking at ordinary people – the basis for any movement – are a couple of scenes at MoveOn house parties, which provide a typically shallow view of what motivates them, what they think they’re trying to do.  In his recounting, the people who give over their homes to gatherings of strangers in an attempt to change the nation’s politics come off as buffoons, obsessive in their anger at Bush but politically ignorant, possessed of no real principles and unable to see their own privilege, preferring to revel in imagined oppression.  I read this and wonder how any of the bright, passionate, politically sophisticated people I know here at Daily Kos would look to Bai – would their anger be all he saw?  Would he mistake their snark for vapidity?  Would he be able to credit the serious policy discussions taking place here every day?

Nor is it clear that the disparate groups the book covers are any kind of unified movement.  Bai, who makes much of unacknowledged contradictions in other people’s thinking, apparently sees no problem with grouping one set of people – essentially limousine liberals, described in full stereotypical glory -- who he depicts as stuck in the past, wanting only a return to pre-Reagan politics, ignorant of the fact that globalization has made this an impossibility, together with bloggers depicted as not caring at all about the past, ignorant of their history.  Both groups - those stuck in the past and those who dismiss it - are to Bai part of one movement: angry Democrats with no ideas.

Second, Bai is a relentless enemy of any empiricism that reaches beyond his own cynical view of the world or of his major subject, the Democratic party.  Jon Chait describes this in his takedown of Bai’s review of Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, a book by the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson:

Bai, the Times Magazine's lead political reporter, tends to undergird his arguments with either sweeping generalizations or narrow anecdotes, rather than the rigorous sort of data that Hacker and Pierson prefer. Moreover, he's deeply committed to the conventional view of American politics.
--snip--
Bai seems unable to engage with the book in any way. Its arguments hit him in the forehead and bounce straight off. Hacker and Pierson document why unpopular policies are enacted without consequence. Bai complains that they "can't seem to find any significant fault among Democrats at all," and that their thesis simply confirms the desire of Democrats to confirm their own popularity. But Hacker and Pierson present a lot of pretty compelling evidence that Democrats' domestic policies are popular. Bai sees this as self-evidently false. To Hacker and Pierson's claim that Democratic domestic policies are popular despite the fact that they're losing, Bai retorts that: the Democrats are losing.

In other words, the man is simply not able to diagnose the problems Democrats face, or to comprehend even that he is in the presence of evidence about what’s going on in American politics if it does not agree with his own pre-conceptions.

In this book, written after Democrats had won a fairly significant electoral victory, Bai replaces "the Democrats are losing" with "well, ok, the Democrats won, but not due to anything they did right."  Believing himself to be applying Lakoff’s maxim that when you think you lack words, you really lack ideas, he sneeringly relates efforts by people ranging from Democratic leadership to donors to attendees of a MoveOn house party to come up with catchy slogans for principles such as universal health care, better jobs, or clean energy.  These things are not presented as meaningful ideas, but catchphrases to be sold as cynically as Republicans have sold fear of gay marriage, and if the people at MoveOn house parties come off a little better than Democratic strategists, it is only briefly, and only because he does not seem to see them as bright enough to engage in cynical manipulation.

This feeds into another major gaping hole in Bai’s ability to write about politics.  At base, he seems to find it difficult to believe that anyone really cares about any of this.  Take this scene, from a meeting between Mark Warner and selected bloggers at YearlyKos 2006:

"I've heard Pakistan described as Iran in 1978, except it's Iran with a nuclear bomb," Marcy [Wheeler, aka emptywheel] retorted, as if she'd just stepped off a plane from the region.  There were nods and murmured assents all around.  "Maybe I'm crazy."

"I hope you're crazy," Warner said testily.  This had caught him completely off guard.  He had just given the most confrontational, partisan speech he knew how to give, and he had expected the bloggers to appreciate it.  Instead, he was getting hammered on Iran.  Why were they seizing on this one line?  What he didn't understand was that this was the one place in his speech where he had agreed with Bush on something, and thus it had to be probed.  To the bloggers, if Bush said the sky was blue, then it was green.  If he said the world was round, it had to be flat.  And if Bush thought Iran was the most serious threat out there, then no Democratic candidate could think that too.  Warner was clearly buying into the right-wing spin.

It is, apparently, inconceivable that the assembled bloggers might have political views based on knowledge and motivated by something other than knee-jerk opposition to Bush’s policies – that Marcy Wheeler might simply think that for the U.S. to go to war with Iran on a pretext, just as it went to war with Iraq on a pretext, would be a bad thing even if someone other than Bush advocated it.  Principle has no place in Bai's view of politics, so he can't see this most basic of points.

(And it is not, I think, an unfair aside to ask if Bai’s descriptions of Marcy suggest a revealing piece of who he is as a writer: In an appearance lasting about half a page, Marcy is rendered more negatively than probably anyone else in the book, which will come as something of a surprise to anyone who has ever met her – unless, of course, they remember that she posed some particularly difficult questions to Bai when he spoke on a panel at YearlyKos 2006, leading him to give a frankly embarrassing answer.  It is difficult to read his string of unflattering descriptions of her as anything other than bitterness at having been publicly shown to be a bit of a fool.)

Unable to see principle, or the mass of participants who give a movement its depth and power, or evidence that the world does not fall into the  "sweeping generalizations or narrow anecdotes" he favors, in the end all Bai can see is the very surface of Democratic organizing.  Fundamentally disdaining the Democratic party (a disdain observable in much of his published writing on the subject), he is predisposed to see only failure, or to predict it where even he cannot yet claim its existence.  That would tend to impoverish a book that claims to be about a movement battling for the direction of the party.