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The Agitators: Notes From Day One of YearlyKos

Bloggers aggregate attention to politics. Therefore they get attention from politicians. The press lives off politics, these Kossacks liveit.
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Chicago, Aug. 2: My favorite part of Yearly Kos last year was the instant and spontaneous standing ovation (with full throated yells) that went to Gina Cooper, who organized the whole event, sweating all the details that go onto bringing 1,000 people together for a weekend of Net politics.

She got another O this year, perhaps less spontaneous but just as heartfelt, for bringing to Chicago 1,500 attendees, 200 experts and speakers (of which I am one), 120 volunteers, and the top five Democratic candidates: Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Richardson and Dodd, who will all appear at a candidates' forum Saturday. Plus a sold out press gallery.

While it may seem that Yearly Kos is a tribute to Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, and a celebration of his rise to power broker status, the crowd knows that it is Cooper and her volunteers who have the vision and do the work. And I don't mean for a second that Kos is the CEO with the ideas and Cooper the efficient aide who carries out those ideas. Cooper is CEO of this event; Markos helps her out. The cool thing about it is the Markos knows this.

Forces of resistance

Howard Dean addressed the crowd last night, and he said something that showed why the top five candidates, the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader came to Yearly Kos. He was talking about the importance of HR 881, the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007, which would require a paper trail for every voting machine. (It's still being negotiated and may come to a floor vote this summer.) Dean told the Kossacks that we need all of you, "meaning yourself and every person who pays attention to you on the Net ... " to make noise about the bill.

And there you have it. Bloggers aggregate attention to politics. Therefore they get attention from politicians. The press lives off politics, these Kossacks live for it. And it's this logic -- not paying their respects to Boss Kos -- that brought the candidates and Dean to Chicago.

I found Dean's appearance dense with cross-references, for he would never have become chairman of the Democratic Party if the beyond-the-beltway forces known as the Netroots had not demanded that the party choose someone who thinks differently -- Kos included. This was apparent when Dean slyly said to the crowd that, while the Internet was forcing politics to become more two-way, "there are forces of resistance even inside the Democratic party."

True. But those forces are a lot stronger within the Republican party, a story the national press is just waking up to. (Though Jose Antonio Vargas of the Washington Post has been keen on it: Online, GOP Is Playing Catch-Up; see also Zack Exley at OffTheBus, and Vargas again on this year's YearlyKos) To me this is the vital subtext of the Chicago convention for watchers of the 08 campaign.

Putting your ideas at risk

As I was walking around the conference Thursday, ducking into panels and training sessions that started even before the official opening, I kept thinking about a famous passage from Christopher Lasch, the great social critic and historian who died in 1994 -- before the rise of the Web. In the Revolt of the Elites, he said we learn more from argument than from information, not because opinions are weighter than facts, but because to argue for your ideas (in public) puts those ideas at risk. And that is how we learn.

Gina Cooper at her diary on Daily Kos: "While I support sending the same bill back to the President, I'm not a foreign policy expert and, so, I accept that I could be wrong."

Lasch in his book:

If we insist on argument as the essence of education, we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment ... small communities are the classic locus of democracy -- not because they are "self-contained," however, but simply because they allow everyone to take part in public debates. Instead of dismissing direct democracy as irrelevant to modern conditions, we need to re-create it on a large scale.

And then he wrote, "From this point of view the press serves as the equivalent of the town meeting." But that was pre-Web, and too simple.

Today we can see that it is not the press that "extends the circle of debate as widely as possible," but its great disrupter, the read-write Web, along with read-write communities like Daily Kos, Open Left and It is not the press (or the parties) but the open Web that allows every active user to take part in public debates.

Information's predicate

Professional journalists think of argument as a derivative good made from news; information -- new and accurate -- is the thing of value, they say. Lasch thought they were wrong, and the Daily Kos community shows why he was right. For it is their passionate involvement with the arguments in national politics that causes the Kos people to seek out information, chew it over, or piece the story together themselves when the news media won't do the job.

Participation is information's predicate. During the age of big media our journalists lost sight of that fact. It took the Web to make them face it again. The open platform approach of OffTheBus--I'm co-publisher with Arianna -- says to contributors: participate in democratic politics by helping us cover the campaign, and you can make the front page of Huffington Post. (Curious? Come to our meet-up at Yearly Kos: Friday, 2:30 in 106B of McCormick Place.)

"I know you think we failed you."

Matt Bai, who writes about politics for the New York Times Magazine, is going to co-moderate the big candidates' forum Saturday with Joan McCarter, a Daily Kos contributor known on the site as mcjoan. This pairing is itself unprecedented -- a journalist from the one-way press and a diarist from the read-write Web quizzing the candidates with questions supplied by the Kos community. I was on a panel with Bai at last year's convention, and there was a moment in it that I will never forget because it has not been repeated since.

Bai, the only representative of the traditional press on the panel, was taking a bit of heat for the performance of his colleagues under Bush. (Almost all panels with bloggers and journalists on them become bloggers vs. journalists panels, even though we know that conflict is over.) At one point Bai, who was sitting at the far end of the table that sat six, turned to us and said, "Look, I know you think we failed you." There was no "but."

Almost every political journalist will by now concede that the press failed in its duty during the run-up to the Iraq war. But what Bai said was different. We the press failed you, the people whom Bush actively misled. We failed by not stopping him. I have felt for some time that the press corps is making a gigantic error that will be paid for in future fuck-ups by not apologizing more completely and searching its soul more carefully for the reasons why it collapsed under Bush -- and thus failed the American people. They have let outside critics do the job.

Matt Bai, who is younger than most of his colleagues at the Times, is not a part of that mistake. This, I think, is what landed him on the stage for Saturday's forum. (Along with articles like like "The Inside Agitator", about Dean at the DNC.) The seeds of that invitation were sown at last year's panel. It also helps that he has a book coming out this month titled, Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.

Actually that's the subtitle. The title is ... The Argument

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