Pulling Up Roots and Moving to Pittsburgh | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pulling Up Roots and Moving to Pittsburgh

In the days ahead, Pittsburgh will host a gathering of some of the world's most incisive thinkers and powerful politicians -- people who have the power to shape the future of our country and planet.

And a few weeks after that, the G-20 is in town. 

From Aug. 13-16, Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center hosts Netroots Nation, a gathering of online activists, politicians, pollsters and progressives of every stripe. (Click here for a preview of some of the events at Netroots Nation.) First held in 2006, Netroots Nation is a spinoff of the Daily Kos, one of the best-known blogs in the country. Established by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga in 2002, Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com) now boasts more than a dozen regular contributors and 2 million unique visitors a month.

And what the hell are "netroots"? They're the online equivalent of grassroots organizers -- an online, open-source community of progressive bloggers and activists trying to put out the progressive message. (Click here for discussions about Netroots panels on the division of Church and State and Green Economy.)

On a recent Monday -- a day in which he wrote three blog posts totaling more than 1,300 words before noon -- Moulitsas took some time to talk to City Paper about the state of online activism, media, and why Arlen Specter deserves to lose his re-election bid. 


Sen. Arlen Specter and his Democratic challenger next year, Rep. Joe Sestak, will speak at the Netroots convention, and you have blogged about this race repeatedly. Why is it so important to you? 
Democrats have a nominal 60-seat majority [in the Senate] which supposedly is filibuster-proof, and it allows them to push their agenda. But what we've found, predictably, is that there are Democrats who are too interested in grandstanding and pushing their own agendas at the expense of the country. Few senators personify that more than Arlen Specter. 

You can track how he is going to vote based on the poll numbers. He was a very squishy Republican, then he got a strong Republican primary opponent, and he became one of the most solidly dependable Republicans. [When Specter first changed parties], he was a squishy Democrat. So Sestak challenges him, and polls are showing it's a competitive race. And suddenly Specter is the most dependable Democrat in the Senate. 

But this is likely Specter's last run for office: He'd be 86 at the end of that term. And we've seen that when he's not worried about re-election, he's a 50-percent kind of guy. Given the needs of our country, Pennsylvania can do better. 

Sestak [a former Navy admiral] has a lifetime of service to the country. He was able to win a House district [that skews Republican] and defeat an incumbent, which is always difficult. He's not somebody you take lightly.  


In the early days of Daily Kos, Republicans were ascendant. Now Democrats control Congress and the White House. Has your mission changed now that you're on the winning side?
Every year, the political situation changes. If we didn't change with it, we'd be like the Drudge Report -- stuck back in 1997. Clearly, having Barack Obama as president is better than having George Bush, so we're not so obsessed with the executive branch anymore -- although we're still very critical on issues like Guantánamo and spying on American citizens. 

But before the Democrats took the majority, our mantra was "more Democrats." Now that we have these dominant majorities, we've evolved to [a mantra of] "more Democrats, better Democrats." We can be a little choosier about the Democrats we support. We're not going to tolerate corrupt and milquetoast and corrosive Democrats -- the Joe Liebermans of the party. We don't need them any more.

If Specter had switched back [when the Senate was divided 50-50], we'd probably leave him alone, because we'd take anybody we could. 


What would you say Obama's biggest success and biggest failing have been so far? 
It's still too early. I'm particularly interested in immigration reform, and I'd love to see that pushed to the front of the line. But his agenda is incredibly ambitious. It's a once-in-a-generation agenda, and the fact that he's only been in office for six months makes it impossible for me to give him any grades. I think in a year I'll have a better idea, once we know what health-care reform looks like, what immigration reform will look like. Once we know about cap-and-trade, and if the economic stimulus worked.

I guess one failure, though, was Obama thinking he could get Republicans to play ball with him. They have zero incentive to play nice: If things improve, Obama will get the credit, so they're going to obstruct every chance they get. But for too long, we had stuff watered down for the sake of "bipartisanship."

He's getting away from that now. So maybe his biggest failure was not realizing early on that Republicans are hostile to him -- and one of his biggest successes has been finally realizing, seemingly, that they're here to destroy his presidency. 


In your 2006 book Crashing the Gate, you wrote that we needed a "vast left-wing conspiracy" to match right-wing groups like the Heritage Foundation and Fox News. Has that network been created yet? 
We're in pretty good shape. When we wrote that book, [liberal think tank] Center for American Progress was in its infancy. Now it's solid, and it's putting out a lot of great policy. On the media front, in 2006, blogs were a fraction of where they are now: We didn't have the Huffington Post; Talking Points Memo wasn't where it was today. MSNBC had Keith Olbermann, but he had low ratings, and we didn't have Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz. 

I still think we don't come close to the combined might of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, but we're growing. It took them a generation to build their machine; we've only been building ours since 2004.

And we have ActBlue, [an online fundraising network] which allows us to aggregate small-dollar contributions for candidates. Republicans still don't have something like that. They're waiting for Richard Mellon Scaife to write the big check, as opposed to using grassroots organizing, which we've gotten pretty good at. 


Speaking of Western Pennsylvania conservatives, you're coming to one of the few areas outside the Deep South where Republicans actually did better in 2008 than in previous years. What can netroots activism do about that -- or do some places just resist an Internet-based approach to politics?
Internet penetration is a factor, obviously. But the key to netroots organizing isn't that everybody is online. The idea is you have a few organizations who are online, and they're developing the tools and techniques. But then you go offline and talk to real people. If you depend on a bunch of computer nerds to change the world, it ain't gonna happen. 

It comes down to talking with people where they live, and not thinking that writing blog posts is going to change the world. 

It's a long-term project. Where you're at -- or in places like Utah or the middle of Texas -- it ain't going to happen as quickly as it's happening in the suburbs of Philadelphia.


One panel discussion at the convention will discuss the question, "Is the death of newspapers a threat to democracy?" You've often criticized newspapers on the blog -- what's your answer? If you were in charge of a paper, what would you do?
Talk about a thankless job; I don't know if I'd take it. But if I had been running the news industry 10 years ago, I would've pushed heavily for a Kindle-like [electronic reading] device and taken the paper digital. It may be too late for that now. 

Newspapers are saying, "We don't get as much money from advertising on the Web," and that's true. Advertisers have a lot more places to go online, and you don't have a monopoly anymore. Newspapers have gotten a little too fat. And the stuff they HAVE cut is their reason for existing -- like investigative reporting. There's still some of that in newspapers, but not what you used to see. They run a lot of crappy wire stories, and you have a really boring, vanilla product.

I don't weep at the thought of newspapers dying. What scares me is the thought of that information going away. But I'm heartened that there are news sources growing up to fill that niche. The transition may not be seamless, but as long as there's a market for information, somebody will provide it and find a way to make it work financially.

click to enlarge Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas
Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas
click to enlarge Interconnected: Attendees at an earlier Netroots convention
Interconnected: Attendees at an earlier Netroots convention

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