Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: 'Netroots Rising: How a Citizen Army of Bloggers and Online Activists Is Changing American Politics' by Lowell Feld and Nate Wilcox

Review by Susan Gardner

Netroots Rising: How a Citizen Army of Bloggers and Online Activists Is Changing American Politics 
By Lowell Feld and Nate Wilcox 
Praeger Publishers 
Westport, CT: 2008 

230 Pages, $39.95
... we believe that once people get a taste of activist, netroots democracy it will be difficult--if not impossible--to convince them to return to mass media passivity.
When Lowell Feld and Nate Wilcox speak, political activists everywhere should listen. And luckily for us, they've come together to share their vast online organizing experience -- Feld as the founder of Raising Kaine, Wilcox as premier online communications director for various national campaigns -- in the splendid Netroots Rising, a chronicle of war stories and lessons learned from the trenches of the nascent online movement.
Make no mistake: This book is simply the best account of the origin and mission of the netroots out there, bar none, in any medium.
It's a terrific read on every level. First off, it's simply storytelling at its best. Feld and Wilcox manage to juggle different storylines--the Draft Clark movement/campaign, the Draft Webb movement/campaign, Texas redistricting, just to name a few--and write about them with an immediacy and clarity that keep you on the edge of your seat ... even when you know how it ends. The glimpses behind the scene of the personalities, frustrations and debates over tactics are revelatory and gripping, even for high-information political junkies. The authors bounce back and forth between the different storylines fairly easily, keeping a chronological feel to the work as a whole even as they face the difficulty of jumping from Texas to Virginia, from national to local. This is no mean feat, and while some of this switching is slightly jarring, it's hard to see how the information could have been structured any differently and still come together as a coherent whole.
Secondly, the authors, between the two of them involved intimately with a wide variety of campaigns, still manage to walk that thin line between idealism and pragmatism that we all try to straddle. They document the nitty gritty of working a netroots campaign, trying to get a voice inside tightly structured operations, fighting for a larger voice in the top-down, old-fashioned hierarchy of traditional campaigns. Yet they also manage to retain enough objectivity to realize the netroots, citizen-based-only model is not the entire answer to political intractability, and that a pro-am approach is best. And the problem of integration of bottoms-up forces with professional strategists is one of the primary focuses of the book, as it happens.
With the Draft Clark movement, they say, we witnessed what happens when the people-powered aspect is completely shut out once the candidate commits and puts himself in the hands of the "experienced." The Draft Clark movement was remarkable for its early energy and astounding accomplishments, yet the citizen army that evolved around it was completely dismissed once the whole deal became real, respectable and "serious."
In contrast, the Draft Webb movement (spearheaded by Feld, who amazingly quit a long-term career to throw his lot in with the campaign), did a better job--though still far from perfect-- in channeling the energy and commitment of its passionate volunteers. This relationship between traditional politicking and the new brand associated with the rise of the modern people-powered movement is tracked and revisited repeatedly in Netroots Rising in all the various instances the authors address.
The work also excels in its conscientious reportorial standards. The opinions and experiences of Feld and Wilcox alone would be worth hearing, but what pushes the book into "must read" territory for the practical progressive is their interviewing prowess with all manner of people associated with both the netroots and traditional campaigns. Volunteers who'd never dreamt of activism tell their own tales of political awakening alongside political professionals, like Glen Maxey of Texas, state legislator and long-time activist. Both the Clark and Dean campaigns, of course, were hothouses for early grassroots and netroots activism, with lineages reaching deep into the current blogosphere, and many familiar names pop up with spot-on observations: Jerome Armstrong, Matt Stoller, Markos and a host of others. Even operatives from the "other side" are interviewed, like Jon Henke, the unfortunate soul in charge of George Allen's online campaign who faced the infamous onslaught of the Virginia liberal blogosphere in the wake of "macaca." The diverse opinions and experience the authors sought out really lend a richness to this book that would have been lacking otherwise.
Further, the writers' total immersion in the culture and aims of the netroots allows them to articulate its passions in a way that outsiders covering the phenomenon simply fail to do (as evidenced in the succinct blockquoted bit that opens this review). Both strategically and linguistically, they roll out sentence after sentence, chapter after chapter, that perfectly captures the ethos of what the netroots is committed to accomplishing: the tactic of inflicting "forced errors" on a weak opponent, of leading the traditional media to a story and making it drink, of tapping unexpected talents wherever they may arise and connecting them to the larger progressive infrastructure.
Above all, the book is handbook of practicality—and it doesn’t end at giving you tips on what works, but actively illustrates success with examples and explanations so that the reasoning behind it is apparent ... and more readily replicable.
Most importantly to the future of the modern progressive movement, Feld and Wilcox are able to objectively examine what goes right and what goes wrong when professional staff, grassroots volunteers and netroots enthusiasts come together. It's a new frontier, one fraught with possibilities for failure, jealousy and misunderstanding, but these two netroots veterans manage to keep a level-headed balance between realistic expectations and inspirational goals. While they consistently take pride in the success of their wired part of the movement, they recognize that in order to fulfill its full potential, an integration between institutionalized politics and people-powered movements must occur, and that blogs--in all their gradations of variety, activism and different shades of serving as media--are still in an exciting phase of evolution. Their authorial insights are invaluable, thought-provoking and constructive.
Netroots Rising is a tour de force--comprehensive and interesting, full of character, personality, passion and commitment--not unlike the actual movement its authors are documenting, a concrete resistance to "mass media passivity" that cannot be more strongly recommended.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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