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Book Review: The Bloggers on the Bus

I was delighted to be sent an advance copy of this book about a month ago and then promptly fell headlong into a combination of blog burnout and exercise exhaustion.  What I thought was going to be a short primary season when I started this blog in January 2008 stretched into a mega marathon of almost continuous political commentary that has carried long past the election results.  The reasons for this are obvious: the party itself changed last year and we at The Confluence were there to witness that change, document it, comment on it and have felt the full effects of it.

In his book The Bloggers on the Bus, Eric Boehlert takes a survey of what will go down in history as one of the most important elections of our lifetimes and the effect, if any, that the blogosphere had on it.  The book is well written and fairly well balanced.  Boehlert profiles many well known bloggers on the left such as Big Tent Democrat, Jane Hamsher and Digby as well as some friends of ours like Alegre of Alegre’s Corner.  Through these profiles, Boehlert traces the emergence of the left blogosphere from the depths of the darkest days of the Bush Administration.  Then he follows the trajectory of commentary through the 2007-2008 election season and documents how that blogophere’s good intentions ended with a whimper.

The Confluence doesn’t have a starring role in this book but we are mentioned at several points.  Boehlert seems to not quite know what to do with us.  We were pro-Clinton bloggers but although we continued to advocate for Hillary until the convention, since the RBC hearing we had advocated for ourselves, the disenfranchised voters of the Democratic party.  At one point during the discussion of sexism, he refers to us as “parisan”, by which I think he means advocating strongly for one faction.  But he lumps us in with Taylor Marsh whose 180 degree switch from Clinton to Obama was dizzying and disconcerting to her readers.  We stayed faithful to our Democratic principles while those who were labeled partisan along with us swung with the wind. How did we end up in the same category?

PUMA he touches on hardly at all.  I understand he had to cut out quite a bit of material but the grassroots PUMA movement, which was virtually an online phenomenon  (pun intended), did have a small but significant impact.  However, PUMA was a viral movement and there are many incarnations of it, some of which did not reflect the intentions of the originators.  The unParty, as I like to call it, was bound to change and evolve after the election, but our goals are still to advocate for accountability, enfranchisment, Democratic principles and the election of more women to political office.  I can understand Boehlert’s sin of omission with respect to PUMA.  It’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.  The lines were blurred, sometimes deliberately, and without sounding too conspiratorial, perhaps by forces we don’t even know. Better to just not mention it at all.

What many readers will find fascinating about this book is the section dealing with the blog wars of 2008 and the response of the blogs to the overt sexism and misogyny of the high profile bloggers.  I don’t like the term “A-list” bloggers because some of these blogs have abandoned their former principles in pursuit of the Machiavellian goal of pushing their candidate over the finish line by any means necessary.  Oh, sure, it worked all right.  But the trail of destruction that it left behind in the party is going to take a long time to heal.  The effect on the left blogosphere is even more profound.  Boehlert does an admirable job in underscoring the parties responsible for the demise of Progressive Blogosphere 1.0 when he concludes this chapter with a quote from Paul Krugman who insinuates that he will never trust Markos Moulitsas again.

At some point in the book, Boehlert says that no one saw the ferocity and emotionalism coming.  I beg to differ.  I was present at the candidate’s forum sponsored by YearlyKos in 2007 in Chicago.  I went to the convention an Edwards supporter and left  a committed Hillary supporter.  I’ve documented before how impressed I was by the depth and breadth of her responses at her breakout session.  But what really nailed it for me was my observation of how John Edwards was able to manipulate the crowd during the forum itself.  It dawned on me at that moment, while the bloggers around me were booing and jeering everything Clinton said while mindlessly applauding everything Edwards said, that DailyKos and other blogs like it had become the equivalent of a giant focus group, one that the Edwards’ campaign, and subsequently the Obama campaign, data mined relentlessly for the words that would trigger the desired response.  Edwards struck me as a one-trick pony, insincere and unscrupulous.  What I witnessed was no less than the priming of a mob.  The next day at the breakfast open mic, I brought up my concerns and cautioned my fellow bloggers to be careful of people who appealed to the emotion.  It’s too easy to lose your sense and ability to think rationally when you’re in the midst of passion.  Kos, McJoan and the others squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs on the dais while I spoke.  I’m sure they got the point but they didn’t intend to act on it.  You can look it up, Eric.  I’m sure the session was taped for posterity.

Other blogs have commented on Digby’s admission that she was “chicken shit” at fighting off the tsunami of Obamamania that headed her way in 2008.  It wouldn’t be fair to single her out.  I’ve always thought Digby was one of the best writers the progressive blogosphere ever had.  But she had an opportunity to lead last year and she blew it.  That goes for Jane Hamsher as well.  Those of us who were caught up in the madness and escaped to stake a claim on new, remote asteroids of the blogosphere can state with confidence that being out here in no-man’s land wasn’t so bad.  The rejected found each other and rallied.  We didn’t give up our principles.  We understand why Digby did it, or, shall I say, we understand the excuse.  Yes, the misogyny was intense, but I have always maintained that blogging is the perfect medium for women.  Those mean, misogynistic comments are nothing but black dots on a monitor.  They can not hurt you.

They *can* hurt your ad revenue though.  This, I think, is one of the reasons why the blogosphere fell apart last year.  When someone else has control of your livelihood, it’s much harder to take a principled stand.  We saw what happened to Josh Marshall.  At one point during his kidnapping, all of his blogs were plastered with Obama campaign ads.  Obama paid for the TPM music and it, in turn, played what Obama had written.  Who could blame Josh?  He had two toddlers and college to think about.

DailyKos was another story altogether.  The blog format was too easily manipulated and the administrators took a hands-off approach to settling disputes.  I take that back.  They settled disputes by purging the site of Clinton supporters, yours truly included.  One of the reasons this blog doesn’t have a ratings system is because we have seen how easily people can become addicted to reward and praise for saying the right thing.  Conversion diaries dominated the recommended list and the newly converted were love bombed with recognition.  Those who didn’t fall into line were threatened with expulsion from the fold.  Those of us who grew up in fundamentalist religious families recognize these cultlike behaviors for what they are- emotional manipulation.  When we saw it happening to our blog homes, like DailyKos, MyDD and DU, we were right to be concerned.

But we are not at all suprised by Boehlert’s conclusions.  The progressive blogs have become feckless.  The left blogosphere was co-opted by the Obama campaign.  It would be incorrect to say that Obama didn’t reach out to the blogosphere.  It most certainly did, with relentless astroturfing, paid trolls and sophisticated psychological tricks that I recognized as being lifted directly from the manuals of the Personal Power courses that I have taken at work.  Boehlert and his colleagues at Media Matters have employment security in the future.  They now have to split their time between watching traditional media as well as the propagation and dissemination of propaganda through the reshaped progressive blogosphere.  This book is a good start at getting a grip on where it all went wrong.

Highly recommended.


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