I first met Matt Bai, political writer for the New York Times magazine, in Iowa, December 2003. We were following Howard Dean, the presumptive Democratic nominee. What we had in common was a deep affection for Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, which I carried with me everywhere that year. We didn’t talk much, but since meeting him I’ve followed Matt’s long, insightful articles on the political process. He has a generous affection for his subjects, particularly for the young political activists changing the nature of politics online. But that doesn’t prevent him from saying what he thinks. He’s not afraid to criticize the young idealists, even while wishing them well.
His first book, The Argument, is a compelling account of the birth of the new progressive movement, and the twin engines of that movement—the billionaires and the bloggers. Despite the book’s title, it is not an argument, but rather a story of the new century, a time when the Internet is coming of age and ignored populations are seizing the reins of political power from the people who failed to represent them. What these groups will do with this power, what they believe in, and if they’ll act any differently from those that came before them, are still open questions.
I met Matt on a rainy day in downtown San Francisco. He was on tour promoting his book, and he had cashed in his rewards for an upgrade to a room at the Westin. We talked downstairs, in the lounge.
TDA: “We have security guards and
they’ll escort you from the premises”
Bai: “That would be a very good
scene for the book I’m writing”
THE BELIEVER: Can you discuss the argument you’re referring to in the book’s title?
MATT BAI: The Argument refers to two things. It refers to the argument going on between progressive outsiders and Democratic insiders, and it refers to the argument that every great political movement or every great party has to put forth about how they want to change government and change the country. The history of American politics is not the history of the same old government solving new crises at pivotal moments. The history of American politics is about courageous leaders figuring out how to make the government evolve. You don’t face the next era by demanding the government of the last one. That’s not who we are.
The classic examples of political arguments are the progressives of the early twentieth century, led by people like Robert La Follette and the Mugwumps and a lot of other forgotten outsiders. They put forth an argument that the onset of industrialism is creating all this concentrated capital, and the government has to play a more central role in regulating markets and shaping American economic life. That started in the very early part of the century, evolved into Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, and culminated in the New Deal with Franklin Roosevelt. That argument created the American middle class and the greatest period of prosperity that any country has ever known.
An argument has to make sense in the moment. It doesn’t just tell you what’s bad in the country, it tells you why these things are wrong, what forces are shaping this new moment. It has to offer some theory for how government can meet the times.
There are two recent arguments in American politics. The first is the conservative throttlers of government—their argument said the decay in the cities, turbulence in communities, crime and moral slippage, divorces, substance abuse, was all a result of a liberal government that took responsibility away from the individual. What’s more, if we don’t stand strongly for those same personal freedoms and individual responsibilities all over the world, then we can’t flourish as a free-market country.
The second most recent argument is the Clintonian argument of 1992 and the Democratic Leadership Council. What they said was, No, the cities aren’t decaying because of moral turpitude, but rather, we are experiencing a fundamental economic transformation. This isn’t your father’s economy, or your grandfather’s economy, and those days aren’t coming back.
No one used terms like new economy or the information age before 1991. Bill Clinton stood on factory floors and persuaded people that we were living in a completely new age. That was quite a new argument and we’ve taken a step back from it.
BLVR: I hated Bill Clinton. I was too young to know what an improvement he was over Ronald Reagan. All I knew was that he was locking up a lot of people and more children were being tried as adults. Then Bush came along and made Clinton look like a saint. I felt checked-out when Clinton was in office. And I think a lot of people that have gotten engaged felt that way too. When do the Democrats shift? When does everything change for modern progressives?
MB: A lot goes back to the early ’90s and the emergence of Clintonism. For many Democrats who came into politics through civil rights and the Vietnam era, Clintonism never really made sense. They saw it as a tactical feint. They never accepted the governing ideal behind it, the notion that liberal orthodoxy had run its course and you had to reevaluate much of the twentieth-century liberal agenda if you wanted to modernize government. A lot of Democrats, including a lot of wealthy Democrats, just sat out the ’90s. They supported Bill Clinton, but they were uneasy with many of his decisions and policies, like free trade and welfare reform. They were uneasy with some of his stances on social issues, like guns, where he championed legislation but didn’t go as far as people wanted. They were uneasy with the administration’s language around abortion. These people came out of the ’90s thinking, Well, maybe this is what it takes to win, maybe I ought to go along with it. And then what did they get? They got the election of 2000, which they thought was stolen from them, and the party did nothing to stop it. They got the midterm election of 2002, which was catastrophic. And then the final blow—the vote on the war. They felt as if this Clintonian coddling of the centrist voter, that great independent Reagan Democrat, had led inexorably to the evisceration of all liberal principles. They were pissed.
BLVR: And with the Internet, these people had a place to express their anger.
MB: Anger animated the early blogs. Early bloggers looked at the way Democrats in Washington were trying to appeal to the center and they said, “Republicans don’t do that. Why should we?” And they had this new technology that enabled them to talk to each other, no matter where they lived, and to vent that anger. They didn’t really know a lot about the history of the party, about the ideological divides, or about what Clintonism had meant. A lot of the first bloggers were too young to remember any of that, or else they hadn’t really cared at the time. All they knew was that they wanted a party that held the line and stood up to Republicans.
And then came Howard Dean. Howard Dean became a vehicle for a movement he didn’t understand. Dean set out to run for president promising a balanced budget and health care. He was consciously mimicking Jimmy Carter, the centrist intruder in the Democratic establishment. He wasn’t that solidly anti-war—he was conflicted about it. But he had the luxury of being out in the country for a long time before the other candidates. He was a pretty malleable thinker and a very moving orator, so when he talked about the war, he was inspiring. He heard this thunderous applause and he became a different candidate. He became both the beneficiary and prisoner of a very traditional anti-war campaign. Dean himself will tell you that the failure of his campaign was the failure to make a transition to a broader, credible candidacy, to articulate a more constructive agenda for the country in a way that seemed reassuring to people. He was channeling so much fury that he was never really able to transcend it. And I think he regrets that. I know he regrets that. Nonetheless, the party that emerged from the 2004 campaign did not belong to John Kerry (though he thought it did). It did not belong to John Edwards or the Clintons. The party that emerged from 2004 belonged to Howard Dean.
BLVR: What about the other half of the equation, the billionaires? How did all this money start flowing into Democratic politics and what did these guys want out of it?
MB: In 2002, there was all this energy around the elections and the Iraq vote. While the community of grassroots activists was emerging on the blogs, Ron Stein created what became known as “The Killer Slideshow.” Stein was a mid-level Democratic operative. He goes online and obsessively aggregates all of this data to make the case that the conservative movement was designed and built by a group of highly ideological financiers. The purpose of his presentation was to demonstrate to wealthy progressives that they had to do the same thing. It’s actually a case Stein had been making since the ’90s, but he never had a rapt audience before.
The Killer Slideshow galvanized all these billionaires into the Democracy Alliance. There was a question about what it meant. One idea was to create something that would function like a venture-capital environment, so if you had an idea for some new Democratic startup or some new policy vision, you would come before these financiers and pitch them. And if you were persuasive they would give you money, much like the angels of Silicon Valley. And then there’s this other concept, which operates more like a foundation, or a late-stage equity investor, where the donors would pool their money in a fund and that fund would be used to capitalize certain shared investments. And in the end the Alliance became much more like the latter than the former. They became a foundation.
My own feeling is that was not necessarily the way to go. But it depends on what your goal is. One of Stein’s overarching goals was to create a community of wealthy democrats who would get to know each other around a common cause and be convinced to cooperate in their ventures. And he accomplished that. He created a community of incredibly rich people who like and trust each other, [which] didn’t exist before.
BLVR: You didn’t always get along so well with the Democracy Alliance.
MB: The book captures a two-year period in which you have this very nascent movement. But all of the entities profiled in the book are evolving. It’s worth remembering that the conservatives had a lot of infighting in their initial efforts. Before the Heritage Foundation became the Heritage Foundation, there was a big fight and a bunch of donors stormed out. You have to give these ventures room to grow. But there are aspects of the Democracy Alliance that I find disappointing—starting with the secrecy.
American politics can withstand a lot of money, and every American should be able to use whatever tools are at his disposal to engage in politics. If Oprah Winfrey wants to help Barack Obama, within the constraints of campaign finance laws, she ought to be able to. But what keeps the system viable is a certain amount of transparency. If you’re going to put $100 million dollars into American politics, you have to answer questions about it. If you make tin cans in a factory, be as secretive as you want, but when you’re talking about influencing the political system, you’re on my turf, and my job is to make sure people know what’s affecting their politics. I found it profoundly disappointing that an organization [that] made one of its stated goals the renewal of transparency in government felt too entitled by wealth and privilege to apply the same standard to itself. This doesn’t include George Soros, who has always made himself available to answer questions.
It got pretty tense at times. After being denied access to the first two conferences of the Democracy Alliance, I said I was expecting to be able to go to the third one in Austin, Texas. They said, No, some members of the board don’t want you there. So I said, Well, I’m going to come anyway. They said, We have security guards and they’ll escort you from the premises, and I said, That would be a very good scene for the book I’m writing. So instead, they hired the chief of crisis management from a huge public relations firm for the express purpose of dealing with me. This must have cost them tens of thousands of dollars, probably more. The poor guy had to follow me around like a minder. He was humiliated. What’s more, he was a Republican.
BLVR: There’s a part in your book where you mention that in 2005, Rahm Emanuel suggested the Democrats announce a declaration of independence from special interests and lobbyists. I’ve often felt disillusioned by the Democrats’ win-at-all-costs strategy. In 2004, a lot of Democrats voted for a candidate we didn’t believe in, a candidate that voted for war in Iraq, and we still lost. It was like we gave up everything and got nothing in return. If I’m going to vote with the Democrats, I want them to stand for something. I want there to be a line we can’t cross. Supporting candidates [who] voted for war would be one example. But it seems the only thing uniting progressives is hatred for Republicans, and George Bush in particular.
MB: The Bush era has been terrible for political dialogue. It’s brought out the worst in everyone, which is pretty much the definition of bad leadership. Bush thinks leadership is doing what’s unpopular and refusing to waver. In fact, leadership is about persuading some sizable number of people that you’re right. And he’s never done that. He’s never tried. Instead of continuing this conversation about how we adapt government to this post-industrial moment, Bush has simply polarized the extremes and driven everybody back to their ideological bunkers. We’re going to live with the repercussions of that for a long time. You can’t have a conversation in this country right now about, say, social security and how it’s financed and how it can be improved. Clinton began that conversation, but Bush has made it untouchable for many years to come.
Democrats have ideas. There are a bunch of health care plans right now, any one of which would be better than where we are. But specific policies and vague principles don’t define eras of American politics. Adding programs isn’t the same thing as rethinking the role that government is going to play. Some people would say we don’t need to rethink the role of government—the New Deal government is perfectly capable of guiding us through this moment—and I would disagree, because it was designed for an entirely different world. A party loses influence when it refuses to acknowledge its own excesses and shortcomings, and a country loses its preeminence when it refuses to modernize.
It’s possible to talk about how you win and how government changes at the same time. Instead of putting 95 percent of your energy and resources into figuring out how to win the next election, you could put 40 percent into thinking about the future of government. I think that conversation will happen.
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