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Requiem for a Lightweight

Markos Moulitsas was once the face of American progressivism. That shouldn't happen again.

Markos Moulitsas in 2010. JD Lasica / Flickr

For most people, the natural reaction upon learning Markos Moulitsas had penned a blog post titled “Be Happy for Coal Miners Losing Their Health Insurance. They’re Getting Exactly What They Voted For” probably went something like this:

“What is this? This is awful.”

“Hmm. That is awful.”

Or, perhaps, “Who? What is this website? This is awful to me.”

Twelve years later, and it feels like we are a much longer way away from the halcyon era of the Howard Dean campaign. It is baffling to think the losing Democratic primary campaign of a yelping pharma shill in the pay of a violent Iranian cult could be some high-water mark for liberals. But to at least one rapidly graying liberal clique, it is.

Such is — was — the mindset of Markos Moulitsas, or “Kos,” as he is insufferably known: an un-person already, at the youngish age of forty-five.

The Markos Moulitsas of 2016 uneasily lingers on from those heady Netroots days, like some errant looping transmission from a long-lost spaceship — a hologram still beaming from some distant spot in the galaxy, screeching about a Borg attack that claimed his life many lightyears ago.

Frankly, it seems in poor taste to bring up Moulitsas’s name in any volume above a whisper, in the somber way the Irish might refer to a relation who never wrote after leaving for America. When, as with Moulitsas, one’s working assumptions and grand strategy have been pulverized again and again and again and again and again — an entire life’s work rendered as laughable as a small hat on a big dog — well, it seems unnecessary to stamp the dirt down harder.

And yet. Two months out from the shock demolition of the Democratic Party, the most faithful acolytes are not getting it. Someone like Moulitsas, an irrelevancy himself, can only be a real, pressing threat when marching in lockstep with the rest of a vast zombie horde — a sea of dead flesh which somehow is still upright, clogging the highways, trapping those still alive and trying to break out, in a waking nightmare without end. It is the only way of explaining a Democratic Party, from Markos Moulitsas to Cory Booker to Rahm Emanuel, cheering the demise of decent health care as a going concern for many Americans.

The Rise of the Blogosphere

It’s hard to believe now that, at the height of his prominence, Moulitsas was as far to the left a figure as could be fathomed by most of the mainstream media. But in the dim, dank confines of the Bush years, he got himself a ticket to the big time.

Like the official introduction of sushi as a Sizzler salad bar item, Moulitsas’s mainstream inclusion as a pundit in the those years was a grasping, clumsy attempt by corporate forces to keep up with the times. That in all of his appearances, Moulitsas inevitably resembled a teacup poodle, yapping endlessly at passing mailmen, was immaterial. He had tapped into something new, something fresh. This man blogged. This man blogged, online — on the internet.

It was the right time and place to be writing online. Kos, along with a lot of other people, was well positioned in the early 2000s to exploit an emerging technology that the big boys didn’t quite understand yet. It’s easy to forget now, when the president-elect can liquify share prices with a pissy tweet, that political blogging was once a novelty. Within a few years of blogging’s established viability, it was ubiquitous enough for everyone to be doing it, such that by the time Obama came along, even fameballs like Pat Sajak were blogging about politics (in a welter of truly diseased arch-right screeds that I of course highly recommend reading).

But there was a period in which a host of these well-scrubbed blogger types gained purchase in the media landscape by doing what nobody established had been able to do online yet. Moulitsas was among them, as he organized some nascent liberal blogging activist vanguard. But along with him came a coterie of yuppie types with a knack for turning out reams of clean, wonky prose, paeans to entitlement reform that absolutely could not withstand a second reading.

Not that anyone ever would reread any of the works of Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, or Ross Douthat. That wasn’t the point of all that scribbling. In the words of Jeremy Irons’s Wall Street wraith in Margin Call, if you want to succeed in the market, “be first, be smarter, or cheat.” The class of 2004 was first, not smartest.

We are still stuck with many of them — tenured by now, flush with money, and not one lick less stupid. And for a time there, it looked like Moulitsas might be one of them.

On the Right’s Turf

The war in Iraq turned into a violent quagmire. American liberals mostly contented themselves with righteous opposition — whether in the ultimately feckless Jon Stewart court jester vein, or the more stentorian Keith Olbermann style, with his affected anti-McCarthy histrionics. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, such opposition “proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high.”

Then as now, with the election of Donald Trump, liberals seem more interested in perfecting their Edward R. Murrow impression than in offering a compelling and relevant alternative vision of how life in America could be. Politics is the determination of who exercises power, and how — a no-brainer for Republicans, who believe such powers to be theirs by right, and a continually mystifying assertion to Democrats, who profess to be happier losing than winning if the cost is behaving any less genteel than the droids populating “The West Wing.”

The admonition that “when they go low, we go high” must go down like a mug of warm cocoa for liberals — one they’ll sorely need on the cold morning of Trump’s inauguration.

Funnily enough, it was Moulitsas and his “Kossack” followers who fashioned themselves as street brawlers upending this tendency. To their credit, this was true, insofar as liberals of that era were about as threatening in their rhetoric as the Snuggle fabric softener bear — unless the target of their ire happened to be the unwashed freaks actually protesting the war.

Kos’s schtick was always as a tough guy, a truth-teller with little regard for the niceties of most liberals. While he wasn’t very good at it, at least he tried. His 2010 book, American Taliban, a naked attempt to ape the polemical bestseller style of a Jonah Goldberg or Ann Coulter, was very dumb, but with its titular thesis in the hands of a more fearsome writer, might’ve gotten at some dark truths.

They view themselves as ardent liberals who extracted real concessions from the Democratic Party, rendering the GOP impotent, as recounted in a 2014 victory lap which seems unhinged the more you think about it. Even at their most resolute, norms regarding illegal warfare, addictive militarism, free-market greed, and vicious social conservatism were more or less accepted by Netroots liberals as unimpeachable political realities to be snaked around rather than confronted head-on.

It is the only way to explain their resulting strategies, and might very well define the boundary between liberalism and leftism. By surrendering so many of the terms of the debate to modern American conservatism — a far more revolutionary, farsighted, and politically astute project that can plausibly claim its Leninist streak — much of the most strenuous liberal activism that seemed to be in opposition to Bush was, in truth, pointless at best. At worst, it was indistinguishable from that of the Republicans themselves.

Unsurprisingly, Kos and his cohorts don’t see it that way. I imagine it would be genuinely shocking and enraging for someone like Moulitsas to hear that he’s hardly removed from a Democratic bete noir of that era like Joe Lieberman.

The thinking went something like this: the “loyal opposition” would alternate between rolling over to play dead on every insanely violent foreign intrigue offered by the GOP, or seek to court the same ideological adherents, but in a kinder, gentler way. The early 2000s was not a shining era of democracy. Any voices of sanity were not going to be getting through the Democratic door. Americans were sick, and swollen with fear. People wanted to kill the Dixie Chicks. This country was entirely deranged.

Subscribers to that favorite canard that politics is “the art of the possible,” a formulation that exists less in the service of political transformation than in making excuses for its obstruction, the Netroots focused their energies on getting Democrats elected in districts that would ordinarily go Republican. Any Democrats, really.

While they evinced a progressive profile, politics dictated they not recruit anyone too left-wing to run in places like Kentucky or North Carolina. Thus it became that seasoned militarists would advance antiwar principles on behalf of the Democrats, and by dint of their past hawkishness, do so with political cover — an Orwellian formulation which somehow became the conventional wisdom for defeating Republicans. And so it was that their putatively antiwar energies flowed seamlessly into advocacy for crooks like Representative John Murtha — a pork-barrel baron, FBI sting target, and avatar of everything one might think was wrong with the party.

The “Netroots” existed in a surreal realm, embodied in a contradiction they were incapable of seeing: while defining themselves as being in rabid opposition to the Blue Dog tendency in Democratic politics, they instead choked off any left-wing influence from being felt upon the party.

In his otherwise amusingly idiotic book, The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America — a title I’d wager Abraham Lincoln might have disliked — centrist pundit Ron Brownstein nevertheless accurately identified this apparent incongruity:

Kos wasn’t as reliably liberal as the MoveOn community. Although he opposed the Iraq War, he supported the invasion of Afghanistan. His favorite Democrats were not Eastern cultural liberals like [John] Kerry but Westerners who combined economic populism with libertarian views on social issues like gun control. He disdained the conventions of identity politics among Democratic interest groups. In a book Moulitsas co-authored with [Jerome] Armstrong, the two suggested that Democrats were too doctrinaire in demanding support for legalized abortion.

Such was the strange logic of Moulitsas: the (admittedly odious) senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was an enemy to be crushed, while Virginia’s Mark Warner — venture capitalist, telecom millionaire, and Wall Street–financed deficit hawk — was keynote speaker material for Moulitsas’s interminable yearly convention.

This was an era in which General Wesley Clark — a lunatic and war criminal who nearly started World War III over an airport in Kosovo — was somehow drafted by Moulitsas as not merely an alternative to Bush, but as an antiwar standard-bearer. The 2004 presidential candidates wound a strange dialectic of proving their antiwar bona fides by trying to sound more martial and hawkish than Bush; even Howard Dean, the least offensive of this bunch, would demand Saddam Hussein “disarm” himself of non-existent weapons, while advancing the stalking horse of Afghanistan as the “good war” to be fighting.

That such actions could be considered estimable for the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party” says something about how delusional these people were.

And when the Democrats responded by nominating a decorated Vietnam veteran, subscribing to the notion that such a figure could beat Bush on his own turf, they were shocked to see John Kerry libeled and smeared, the kryptonite that was his valorous war record turning in midair and cutting the candidate to ribbons. It was almost as if they didn’t really seem to understand how this country works.

If you “crashed the gates” of the Democratic Party of this era, it probably wasn’t actually as great an achievement as its practitioners triumphantly crowed. This was one of those cases where, as a famous German might have put it, the abyss was gazing back.

Moulitsas trod a route through this Bush-era thicket which did not challenge the broader insanity that had reached a fever pitch in America. He would never have thought to do such a thing. “Progressivism” in the Bush years was about conforming to a set of realities fixed by the darkest, most violent urges of the American mind, sloping downward on the outermost bell curve of this chaos.

Moulitsas and those like him were Democrats first, and identified strongly as such, despite any protestations to the contrary. To fathom life outside the banal strictures of the party would be to court irrelevance. And so, like Hungry Joe in Catch-22, in that post-9/11 dark age, Moulitsas enjoyed the individual battles of a nonsensical war — which meant that he too was totally insane.

Even the Netroots favored designation, “progressives,” was a punt — a surrender to the feeling that Republicans had made the very word “liberal” a dirty word, requiring a rebranding. They weren’t leftists; such a thing might’ve indicated a belief system that existed a posteriori, beyond the demands of the party.

To his credit, Kos and his “Netroots Nation” were correct in believing the Democratic Party would need to be taken over to effectively challenge the right wing. As such, Moulitsas was able to force the Democratic establishment of the Bush years to pay homage to him.

It was a kiss of death, then and now — a catch-22 of its own. If your political beliefs — such as those of Bernie Sanders — pose even a mild threat to the corporate and ideological interests that dominate the Democratic Party, then you will be ruthlessly shut out, lest you make any progress in trying to turn it into a party of the people. If, however, establishment Democrats can make peace with you and let you join the club, then you are not really a threat at all to “history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party.”

Moulitsas and those like him did not challenge this — they never talked in really sharp terms of anything as unseemly as class conflict because, useful idiots that they were, they didn’t see it. Worse, they seemed to actually believe in the Democratic Party as a good institution — one perhaps in need of a tune-up, but fundamentally a sound body.

It was a dead end, a sinkhole. But Democrats like Murtha, an ex-Marine who had spoken out against the Iraq War (after voting for it), were catnip for these blogger types, enamored as they were with somehow defeating the Right, but on terms set by the Right. For all their talk of advocating for progressive policies, they sure seemed easily gulled into getting right-wing Dems elected.

Take this interminable 2007 Meet the Press debate between Moulitsas and then-Democratic congressman Harold Ford Jr, a particularly soulless Blue Dog who is now a Wall Street investment banker. In an important sense, even after watching it, I’m still not sure what the two disagree on. While the segment is clearly framed as a clash of left and right flanks of the Democratic coalition, Moulitsas speaks proudly of his and his cohorts’ efforts on behalf of candidates that, in the eternal phrase, “fit their district” — candidates like, well, Harold Ford Jr. Directly pressed on which policies he most wants to see espoused by candidates he supports, Moulitsas digressed instead on the need for candidates to speak “authentically,” not as talking heads.

Cool. But uh . . . who gives a shit? Who cares at all about that? A non-entity like John Edwards can crow all he wants about “two Americas” on the campaign trail and seem as earnest as a deacon while doing so. But it matters more that he hewed to an anti-union, pro-war line when it actually fucking mattered.

Moulitsas’s indifference to the only meaningful distinction of each individual politician — which policies they will support when it matters most — was best embodied by his inability to name any of anti–Iraq War Lieberman primary opponent Ned Lamont’s other beliefs. It was an ineffably blinkered political project, compromised from the beginning, unable to offer any truly effective resistance at a time it was sorely needed. It was damned to be fleeting. And yet Moulitsas somehow claimed victory.

And so it was that these New Coke Democrats, once elected, did — well, what exactly? Going by the numbers, the top answer would be, “lose office in a reelection bid.” For all their showy disdain for the Rahm Emanuels of the world, Kos sure seemed to come to mimic his worst thinking — right down to laughing at the loss of health care by some despised underclass opponents.

And so it is the Netroots Revolution seemed to die as soon as it started. Where are the snows of yesteryear? Where now the horse and the rider?

The Hangover

Despite being totally discredited by the course of events, Moulitsasitis seems to continue plaguing the Democratic Party.

The aforementioned blog post, cackling at the plight of Trump-voting coal miners, was published on December 12 on Daily Kos — a website which, like Citizen Kane’s crumbling mansion, improbably remains standing years after most people considered it derelict. It is a short post of workmanlike prose that is entirely unmemorable, probably written in about twenty minutes.

Nevertheless, it is worth quoting in its entirety, to get a full sense of the smug banality, casual cruelty, and reality-defying cluelessness which characterizes the Democratic Party’s courtiers in the wake of their stunning, disqualifying failure this November.

Hillary Clinton won the election, but a system designed to let a powerful minority override the will of the majority selected some asshole.

Hillary Clinton did not win the election. Hillary Clinton very much did not win the election. Some newspapers covered this event. Some even might go so far as to say she lost the election. The electoral college is antidemocratic to the hilt, an insult to the idea of democracy, a banana republic institution. It was also the only game in town, and everyone knew that in the march to November.

For now, we have to deal with that bullshit reality, and lots of good people will suffer serious consequences. But don’t feel sorry for the ones who enabled this nightmare by voting for the incoming Trump-Putin administration. For example, why should we weep for the retired coal miners who will now lose their health insurance thanks to the GOP majority — despite the best efforts of coal-state Democrats to change the outcome?

In Moulitsasitis’s cosmology, voters betray Democratic senators — not vice versa. That is: well-financed machine politicians are betrayed by the lowly participants in electoral democracy. Fealty is owed in only one direction, and that is from the public to the public servant. The public servant’s sins are not to be discussed here. This is how democracy should work.

Yes, this will be a terrible outcome for a group of people who have really drawn a shitty lot in life. But how sorry should we be for this crowd?

The use of “but” as a qualifier in this way should never be allowed in political writing. Ever. It is telling — the Cain’s mark of an amateur who lacks enough respect for the reader to state what the writer actually believes. Whatever sentiment precedes the use of “but” is something the author does not really believe or care about, but must, for reasons of good taste, appear to at least consider.

What Moulitsas is actually saying here, in his weaselly way, is: fuck ‘em!

Compare Moulitsas here, with his insincere, mealy-mouthed concession to liberal pieties, to the pure-flowing arsenic of National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson, who quite openly and viciously blames the underclass for their own travails. Who is more honestly and lucidly communicating their beliefs here?

Coal country swung hard for Donald Trump, winning 70 to 80 percent of the vote in some of these counties.

Maybe coal country swung hard for Donald Trump at least in part because he went there and asked for their votes, and Hillary Clinton did not. But what do I know. That’s just how politics has worked since 44 BC.

Don’t weep for these coal miners, now abandoned by their GOP patrons.

“Don’t weep for these coal miners” might mark the final 180-degree turn from where the modern progressive movement began in America. That such a pox was pronounced by a rich little shit sitting at a laptop also seems relevant. If Moulitsas dreamed he saw Joe Hill last night, it would have been in a nightmare.

They are getting exactly the government that they voted for. Democrats can no longer offer unrequited love and cover for them. And isn’t this what democracy is all about? They won the election! This is what they wanted!

Moulitsas is finally having some fun here. Like Chuck Schumer’s infamous assurance that “for every blue-collar Democrat we lose in Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs,” the idea of discarding a broad swath of the working poor as an interest group to be catered to is greeted with glee. This theory’s only possible flaw was the idea that openly denigrating swing state voters might have poor consequences in an election.

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin, Sherrod Brown, and Joe Donnelly got to stand up for those miners, reminding their coal country constituents who is really looking out for them. But when you elect a Republican majority, that’s the government they’re going to get.

Exactly as they hoped.

Far be it from me to doubt the motivations of a liberal star like Joe Manchin. But what did Democrats do for the working poor in their time in office, precisely? And those few good things they did do — did they ever campaign on them? This is the rotten fruit he spent a career not only helping to grow, but pontificating endlessly was the only possible harvest.

Who’s more credulous here: Moulitsas, with his disbelief that America would not conform to his expectations, or Trump voters?

Any legacy which can be encapsulated within the breadth of the Facebook memes your liberal uncle might post from pages like “Democrats for SANITY” or “Jon Stewart for President” or “Liberals United Against Underwood (L.U.A.U.)” is not a legacy worth having. Much less telling anybody about.

What then for the future?

Leftists must remake the Democratic Party, from the grassroots up, in order to combat the juggernaut of capital, warfare, and racism wracking the country. Let Moulitsas, and the diminishing returns his brand of principle-impoverished liberalism offered, serve as a warning of how not to do it. Only when the Democratic Party stands for estimable political action — and it’s a long shot, given the entrenched decadence of American political corruption — can calling oneself “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” constitute something of which anyone can be proud.

More doing — less blogging.