Golconde (Magritte, 1953)
The Weekend Review
The Revolution Daily Kos Refuses To Be
Candide's Notebooks/January 1, 2006
At last check this week, Daily Kos was getting an average of 426,000 visitors per day, almost 3 million per week. Not bad for a three-and-a-half-year-old web site by “an extremely smart, irascible, self-contradictory, often petty, always difficult, non-practicing [34-year-old] attorney and web programmer with no real political experience,” as Benjamin Wallace-Wells describes him in the January/February Washington Monthly. But the lavish profiles and pandering glossy suck-ups that usually trail after celebrities haven’t yet reached Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, better known as Kos (as his army buddies used to call him), still better known as the host of the world’s most popular blog, a liberal melting pot — not of opinions and ideas so much as tempers and, sorry to say, the sort of manichaeism that characterizes so much of the conservative blogosphere: Everything Ours Good, Everything Theirs Bad. Newsweek deigns to give Kos some attention, but in its online editions only. Established media are treating him much as they treated Drudge in the late 1990s, at fearful arm’s length. Sometimes the tactic is valid. Drudge was and remains a one-man phenomenon of muck for muck’s sake. Kos is only the leader (for now) of a trend that’s remaking the way a generation gets its information and shapes its perceptions. The traditional media are flummoxed by it all. They’re constantly playing catch-up. They’re panicking. That’s not to say that the blogging movement knows any better where it’s headed. Part of its charm and intractability is that it cannot control itself, just as Kos can’t control his fate without an overriding vision of where he wants to go. Which he apparently doesn’t have. He knows it, too. He’s not interested in a vision but, like the blogosphere’s only clearly definable modus operandi, in the absolute here and now. So his currently enormous strength are also his future liabilities, if he doesn’t want to be a spectacular flash in the pan.
Not surprisingly Kos is not into policy but just “winnerism,” the notion that what matters most for Democrats now is to win at all costs. He’s not into ideas, platforms, philosophies. Just tactics. But isn’t that Karl Rovism in liberal clothing? Isn’t it the sort of Mayberry Machiavellism John DiIulio witnessed, to his horror, when he was briefly Bush’s director of faith-based initiatives in 2001? (“There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus,” he told Ron Suskind in a January 2003 article. “What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”) That’s how the country has been run into the ground. So the liberal solution according to Kos is to take over where the Republicans left off, to run the Democratic party as a brand: “I’m hoping that as we build our machine and repair the Democratic brand,” he tells Newsweek, “people will start voting for Democrats because they want to vote for Democrats and not just because they want to vote against Republicans.” But you don’t do that by focusing primarily on image. Not even on message. Content matters. Ironically, the blogosphere’s biggest weakness is precisely that: the lack of original content. Its agenda is not set by itself, but by what the traditional media churn out. Running the Democratic Party as a reactive echo chamber won’t improve its chances. For now, that’s how Kos and his disciples do it: “The simplest fact about American politics,” Kos tells Wallace-Wells, “is that Republicans have a noise machine and we don’t.” Daily Kos has turned into that noise machine. It’s needed, even necessary, but not to the exclusion of the idea machine—which for many years the Republican machine could count on previously (less so now).
The blogosphere could be a terrific idea machine, but the medium is as if designed to stifle ideas in favor of short-attention-span reactionarism and invectives, making it ideal for what goes for political discourse these days. Still, Kos is powerful enough to command weekly chats with Harry Reid, the Democrats’ Senate minority leader, and the odd congressman. He’s invited to Capitol Hill and other capital lairs to give advice. He has refused, for the last six months, to get on television (a sign of health, unless driven by ulterior motives). But he has a knack for picking losers in Democratic races. He’s nuts about sports, has started a Kos-like community for baseball fans, and he’s quite aware that his lifespan on the blog is limited: “There are technologies that are coming out there that I just don’t get—I try, but I just don’t get them the way I got blogs,” he says. “So the point is I know I have only a certain amount of time like this, and I’d like to make sure I do something useful with it.” It’s not fair for Wallace-Wells to end with his clever kicker (“The only nagging question is: What?”) Kos having achieved already quite a bit by virtually inventing the blogosphere. It’s not his fault that the technology is moving more rapidly than anyone can keep up with. But he wouldn’t be the first man to take advantage of a new technology, become its brief beneficiary, then disappear from the scene as more savvy and complex practitioners move in. In sum, Kos is enjoying one long blog swarm, but even from his own admission—and judging by his unwillingness to go beyond the reactive—he is naturally progressing toward flame-out. The fascinating and truly revolutionary consequence of the blogosphere is yet to come in its second-generation practitioners, those who learn to combine the medium’s current strengths — immediacy, pluralism, self-correction — with substance: Depth, originality, wit.