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Friday, April 15, 2005


I wrote this short little piece for In These Times about the difference between the right and left blogosphere. It is a very superficial sketch of how the two spheres operate differently. It evoked the expected furious response from the usual suspects because I quoted from Garance Franke-Ruta's investigative piece on the right wing blogosphere.

The first thing that seems to bother people is my description of what I believe to be the main difference between the right and the left blogospheres --- which is that the right is a fully engaged part of the Republican party infrastructure while the left is a unique political constituency. But, except for the fact that Republicans are indulging in dirty tricks like the Thune bloggers (and it looks like others coming down the pike) I'm not really making a value judgment about those differences. Indeed, I have my doubts about both systems and wonder if the Democrats wouldn't benefit from a bit more message discipline.

Be that as it may, let me answer some of Mike Krempasky's specific criticisms. First he comments that I have the FEC controversy completely bass ackwards when I say this:

Because of these successes, some progressives believed that the recent efforts by Republican members of the Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) to regulate blogs as paid political speech may have been motivated by partisanship. As it turns out, the new proposed FEC rule changes, still subject to public comment, continue to exempt blogs from regulation.

With all of the potential for fundraising, “guerilla activism” and massaging, perhaps neither party wants to unduly inhibit their sector of the blogosphere.

First of all, I was incorrect in my characterization that Republicans wanted to regulate blogs, (although not wrong in stating that liberal bloggers believed that.) What Republicans wanted to do was give the impression that they had to regulate blogs. It is a small but important distinction and I should have been more precise. However, I stand by my assertion that this entire controversy was perceived to have been a partisan move and indeed, I think it was. The Republican commissioners who were so verklempt about the Democrats' failure to appeal the decision are the same Republicans who want to take another bite out of McCain Feingold and this was an opportunity to do that.

The whole thing began with this interview with Republican commissioner Bradley Smith on C-Net called "The Coming Crackdown on Blogging". He claimed that because the Democrats on the panel refused to appeal a judicial ruling that said that the internet had to be addressed under McCain Feingold, the sky was falling. It was a hysterical and overblown interview coming from a guy who does not believe in the FEC to begin with. Via Waldo-Jacquith here's this about our intrepid blogging advocate, commissioner Bradley Smith:

Brad Smith, a law professor at Capital University Law School, has devoted his career to denouncing the FEC and the laws it is entrusted to enforce in precisely those strident terms. He believes that virtually the entire body of the nation's campaign finance law is fundamentally flawed and unworkable "indeed, unconstitutional." He has forcefully advocated deregulation of the system. And, if the James Watt of campaign finance had his way, the FEC, and its state counterparts, would do little more than serve as a file drawer for disclosure reports.

These are not stray and ill-considered comments. Rather, Brad Smith has become the single most aggressive advocate for deregulation of campaign finance in the academy today. Ask any scholar of campaign finance who has spilt the most ink denouncing our current campaign finance laws; the answer will be Brad Smith. Ask any enemy of campaign finance laws to identify the most sought-after witness to make the case to Congress; Brad Smith, will be the top answer.

Now, I have no idea if Bradley Smith truly believes that blogs have an absolute right to free speech. I give him the benefit of the doubt and say he probably does. However, it seems pretty clear to me that his zeal to appeal that lower court's ruling was primarily because he wants to whittle away at McCain-Feingold if he can. There was no reason to assume that you couldn't get where he wanted to go through new regulations or legislation that clarifies the issue.

As for whether the new proposed rules, which are still in the comment stage, specifically exempt blogs, well, I'll leave that to the lawyers. But at the time I wrote this article, the press certainly seemed to think that the proposed rules exempted bloggers. Certain well known right wing blogs also indicated that the situation was not dire.

The Democracy Project wrote this headline:

FEC Draft Rule Looks Good for [Non Corporate] Bloggers

Wizbang wrote:

Today the members of The Online Coalition received the FEC's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking [PDF - Word], which we're still looking through. The mood is cautiously optimistic.

Election law expert Richard Hazen said:

At first glance, the Federal Election Commission’s draft proposal for regulating Internet-based election activity is good news for the blogosphere.

Professor Bainbridge praised Hazen's analysis.

Eugene Volokh had said earlier:

It would be good to clarify FECA to make clear that Weblogs and online magazines are exempted. But I think that, properly -- even literally -- interpreted, "other periodical publication" already includes blogs (except perhaps ones that publish intermittently and very rarely).

Pardon me for concluding that the proposed rules were not, in fact, going to end blogging as we know it.

To Mike Krempansky, however, they apparently are. And he seems to be making progress in creating an ongoing furor, based partially on a leaked early draft (to him, conveniently)of the proposed rules which are supposed to show the draconian Democratic attempt to have government shut down free speech on the internet. Luckily, the blogging masses, with a heads up from Bradley Smith, came to the rescue of America once again and saved the day. God bless bloggers.

"We are not the speech police," said FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat. "The FEC does not tell private citizens what they can or can't say on the Internet or elsewhere." FEC Commissioner Danny McDonald, another Democrat, said: "I've never seen so much ado about nothing at this stage of the process."

Among bloggers and political commentators, the reaction to the FEC's proposed regulations ... was mixed. Mike Krempasky, a contributor to conservative Web site RedState.org who attended the meeting, said: "Don't believe Ellen Weintraub when she repeats her mantra of 'Bloggers, chill out!'" Krempasky said the draft rules, if finalized, would create a "regulatory minefield" because they give individuals greater leeway than corporations.

I do not quarrel with the fact that there exists a regulatory minefield --- a topic which could not possibly be dealt with in a short 700 word essay. But it is clear that the intent was that the average blogger be exempted from the proposed regulations.

For the record, I'm not in favor of regulating speech on the internet in any way. I'm a free speech absolutist. But I also see the brave new world of right wing "guerilla internet activism" as a very handy way to conduct their patented dirty tricks and funnel big corporate and individual money into campaigns, thus thwarting the McCain Feingold rules. But, it was ever thus. Money is like water in politics. It will always find a way in. The internet is too unknown and growing in too many different directions to know as yet whether it will corrupt the political system more than it enhances it. I say leave it alone and if that means that congress should write a law specifically exempting it, then I'm for it.

As for throwing my lot in with Mike Krempasky, however, I think not. I believe that he is sincere in his work on this issue, but he is a right wing political operative trained by slime-meister Morton Blackwell. He's not just another libertarian, open source internet kinda guy. Somehow, I don't think he has my best interest at heart. Caveat emptor, bloggers.

Oh, and as far as Krempasky's little fit of the giggles that I said Morton Blackwell is finding the blogosphere "useful" I can only link to this web page from Blackwell's "Leadership Institute" that advertises its "Internet Activist School."

Apparently, Krempasky teaches some of these classes:

For example, Krempasky told “a conservative firefighter” that he should write about firefighting because that would be of interest to readers. Using that angle, he could build an audience. And if push ever came to shove, he could respond to an online dogfight from the unassailable position of being a firefighter -- and not as just another conservative ideologue. Krempasky then offered to help all the attendees set up their own blogs.

Call me crazy, but that seems like something that would be "useful" to the Republican Party, which Morton Blackwell has devoted his life and career to advancing. I never said he was a blogger. But he sure as hell is a legendary political operative and I have little doubt that his Leadership Institute is quite "useful" to the cause in many ways.

Again, I am not agitating against all this. But the thrust of my piece was simply that there is nothing like this on the left. There are no operatives running "blog schools" to teach people how to be activists. There is no rich partisan left wing media infrastructure that can pay for bloggers to write books and hit the lecture circuit and live off of nice sincures at think tanks.

Commenters at ITT claimed that Kos and Atrios fit that category, but that is patently not true. Their blog activism long preceded any involvement with the party and their clout today stems from their massive readership and ability to deliver money and votes to the party. They are the leaders of a constituency that operates as a pressure group and a grassroots organizing operation. None of them worked as political operatives before they became bloggers. The blogging came first.

There are some like Yglesias, Drum and others who also write for liberal magazines. But none of them can be guaranteed a book deal or a radio show or a fellowship to support them, because no network exists that trains and supports lefty writers, thinkers and public relations specialists in Democratic politics. It just isn't there.

But hey, I never said we shouldn't have such a thing or that it was wrong to do it. Indeed, I think we should. But that does not change the fact that we don't have it yet. (I do draw the line at dirty tricks schools, though. Not a good way to go.)

I hope, however, that the leftwing netroots maintain their activist independence to at least some extent. It's a valuable source of energy, new ideas and organization. As we are out of power and fighting for our political lives, keeping close contact with the people, even if the netroots are representative of only a small activist faction, is important.

I suspect the right would like to have some of that too which is why guys like Mike Krempasky are teaching conservatives how to be spontaneous grassroots activists. (Their people tend to respond best to direction from authority which is why the churches are so effective.) It's going to take a little bit more work for them to create a vital netroots. But they will probably do it. They take this stuff seriously. Luckily, we are beginning to do the same.