Reading Review: Bai

What’s the difference between a progressive and a liberal? According to Matt Bai, author of “The Argument,” the answer is “not much.” Both progressives and liberals are Democratic at heart and have a grassroots mentality. Both believe in the democratizing power of civilian and online activism. And neither, he states, is responsible for the Democratic party’s recent “revival” after more than a decade of ineptitude. What I don’t understand, though, is how Bai–in the face of surging liberalism in the media and support for Democratic ideals among the general population (a majority of America is now for gay marriage, for example)–can be so unwilling to give progressives credit for the Dems’ rebirth in the new millennium. It’s especially confusing given his description of how perfectly receptive the country has been to social media and what horrible shape the party was in during the ’90s with detached power-players running the show.

After the Clintons’ heydey in Washington, Democrats reeled. They were aimless, leaderless. Powerful middle-aged men and women who had become Democrats in the ’60s, inspired by a zeitgeist of change, had begun to self-destructively ignore their own ideals in me-first money hunger. These Baby Boomer Democrats gathered in private restaurants and the homes of billionaires and other special places to contemplate their party’s downturn and to grasp at straws for how to reverse it. The problem, explains Bai, is that these Dems didn’t see anything fundamentally wrong with themselves or with their campaigns and ignorantly assumed if they only raised more money or found more charismatic leaders, they’d be all right. Meanwhile, they couldn’t even invent a good slogan because they had no idea what their philosophy was. This myopia is demonstrated in “The Argument”‘s opening chapter, which details John Kerry’s failure to be elected President even though he had record sums of campaign money, celebrity backing, and a country that hated his rival. Kerry’s defeat stung not just because Kerry lost, but because it showed the Democrats’ faltering power was part of a greater trend. So how was this trend reversed? Not through any action taken by progressives–but because America woke up one day and realized it was angry. Or so Bai says, pointing to opinion polls.

It’s a thesis I don’t really buy. Bai spends his entire book detailing the strategic failures of the Democrats and the perfect storm that enabled social media to take off only to conclude, somewhat patronizingly, that the “new progressives had, at the very least, turned out some additional votes.” While he admits there may have been some merit to the claims that progressive bloggers, phone-callers and online activists made a difference in Dems’ getting some “despised adversaries” unseated and gaining 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate “without losing a single incumbent–an unprecedented feat in American politics,” he suggests the shift had more to do with civilian outrage at the GOP than with grassroots organizers doing anything. How near-sighted! Surely some of this outrage was fueled by the blogging revolution that Bai himself acknowledges “wasn’t some fleeting political fad.” Bai gives three reasons why blogging captured the American consciousness in the Naughts: it lets people (1) feel connected and (2) speak like experts (3) without having to change out of their pajamas. We’re to assume these factors played no role in the Democrats’ ascension from the ashes? I enjoyed Bai’s accessible storytelling, but I think he is far too dismissive of the power of blogging.

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