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Firmly Forward

By
May 22, 2006

In 2004, Guernica contributing writer Mark Binelli spent two days with Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the creator of what has arguably become the most influential liberal blog, the Daily Kos. Nearly two years later, the Daily Kos remains more relevant than ever and Zúniga himself has a new book about blogs and grass-roots political activism, Crashing the Gate, co-written with fellow liberal blogger Jerome Armstrong. Below, Binelli revisits his visit with the Gate Crasher.

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Six months before the 2002 midterm elections, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga — at the time, a web designer for a San Francisco tech firm — got tired of ranting to his coworkers about the many offenses of George W. Bush and the Republican Party, about the equally infuriating impotence of the Democratic opposition, about the seemingly inevitable drive to war in Iraq — in short, about the state of the political world in toto. So he decided to start a blog. At the time, blogs were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are today. Moulitsas, though, had been blogging since the mid-Nineties when, as a law student at Boston University, he would rise every morning at six to hand-code a blog about Latino news, taking up to four hours to do what, with today’s technology, could be done in ten minutes.

Moulitsas called his new blog the Daily Kos, “Kos” (rhymes with “woes”) being his old Army nickname. In his postings, Moulitsas avoided the zine-like self-indulgence of most bloggers. He obsessively followed obscure Congressional races, printing polls and other practical-minded data. And though he ranted about Bush, his rants — unlike, say, Bill O’Reilly’s — always had links to the factual sources upon which they were based.

“If we had had a Democratic party that pushed back at Bush when the war actually started — I mean, the information was there. But it didn’t matter that people would die, because war was a political winner.”

By the height of the 2002 elections, the Daily Kos received about 8,000 hits per day. Today, that number has spiked to an astounding 600,000, and his blog is widely regarded as one of the liveliest, most trenchant bastions of liberalism on the net. As an Army veteran who narrowly missed serving in the first Gulf War, Moulitsas is especially critical of the President’s handling of Iraq. When Bush press secretary Karen Hughes attacked John Kerry’s role as a Vietnam War protester, Moulitsas suggested she have her 17-year-old son enlist in the military. “So how about it, Karen?” he wrote. “Ready to put your son where your mouth is? And if not, why should other Americans put their sons and daughters through the meat grinder on behalf of your boss’s botched war?” Another post during the 2004 election noted the irony of a split cover of U.S. News & World Report: “War hero John Kerry is depicted in a suit and tie. AWOL coward George Bush, who explicitly refused overseas duty and spent time playing all-day pool volleyball games with ‘ambitious secretaries’ is depicted in military dress uniform.”

“I’m a big fan,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network and one of the creators of the Clinton-Gore War Room. “The Daily Kos is fresh and raw and passionate. That’s the thing. What Markos and the bloggers have is passion. It’s arguably their biggest attribute. The dailykos is thoughtful, but it’s deeply passionate — you feel the passion by the number of entries, by the intensity of the back and forth. And the question is, how do you feel that kind of passion in politics otherwise? The establishment is missing all this stuff. Washington simply doesn’t understand how the media habits of voters are changing. They’re extraordinarily behind the curve.”

Indeed, after the implosion of the Howard Dean campaign, many in the Washington establishment attempted to write off blogs, which had played such a key role in Dean’s swift and surprising ascent. Says Moulitsas, who helped to architect Dean’s Blog For America website, “They tried to make it seem like it was another dotcom bubble that had burst. But actually, the net campaign was the only thing that worked perfectly. Dean as a candidate was the problem. But for the establishment, the Internet adds a factor they don’t understand and can’t control. And if Dean had succeeded that way, they would’ve been wiped out. They’d have all lost their jobs.”

In 2004, the presidential candidates remained cautious about their relationship with blogs. The official Bush campaign blog did not allow comments, which was a bit like posting a press release online and calling it a chat room. “The innovations on the Bush side are, ‘You can cut and paste our talking points and email them to your newspaper,’” Moulitsas says. “It’s like, ‘We’ll give you the message and you can help disseminate it,’ rather than, ‘Help us create what the message can be.’ But the conservative side in general is more top-down.”

The Kerry campaign never fared much better online; its blog was comprised primarily of regurgitated press releases and comments that seem vetted for anything remotely controversial. The campaign also had a leery relationship with bloggers at large, avoiding links to more outspoken bloggers like Moulitsas. “My friend Atrios raised $133,000 for the Kerry campaign on his blog,” Moulitsas notes. “Kerry never linked him. He’s never thanked him on a list of donors. If I was the CEO of Aetna and I walked in to the Kerry campaign headquarters with a check for $133,000, Kerry would spend hours with me. They’d wine me and dine me and treat me like a king.”

Though Moulitsas wholeheartedly backed Kerry, he describes the candidate as “the last gasp of the old establishment. He embodies the reasons blogs were started. If we had had a Democratic party that pushed back at Bush when the war actually started — I mean, the information was there. But it didn’t matter that people would die, because war was a political winner.”

Two years later, with the coming midterm elections, a number of politicians on the state and Congressional level have firmly come around to the idea of the Internet as a campaign tool, and many hope to replicate aspects of the Dean phenomenon. To that end, bloggers like Moulitsas have become hot commodities. In August 2003, Moulitsas quit his day job and now regularly flies to D.C. to work as a consultant for a number of candidates. He also continues to run the Daily Kos from his home in Berkeley, California. His short-term goal: to unseat as many Republican elected officials as possible, in the coming fall elections. Long-term, Moulitsas believes that blogs can be used to inspire a new generation of activists, ushering, he boldly predicts, “a new era of progressive electoral dominance.”

In person, Moulitsas does not look like a smart-money bet on someone who’d make it through week one of basic training. He is short and skinny — five-six and 111 pounds when he enlisted, now a bit heavier — with a precise, nasal speaking voice, short dark hair and dark eyes that tend to blaze when he becomes excited, which is often. He dresses like a programmer (cargo shorts, polo shirts, beat-up sneakers) and lives in a bungalow on a lush, quiet street with his wife Elisa Batista — a writer for Wired online — and their young son, whom Batista introduces as “Ari,” and whom Moulitsas quickly reintroduces as “Aristotle,” at which point Batista rolls her eyes and explains, “We had an agreement: If the baby was a girl, I would get to name her; if it was a boy, he got to.” Moulitsas grins. “I started out with a bunch of really heinous names: Socrates, Newton, so when it came to Aristotle, that seemed great.” He looks fondly at the baby, then adds, “I just hope he doesn’t turn out to be stupid.”

Moulitsas was born in Chicago on September 11, 1971. His family moved to El Salvador, his mother’s native country, when he was three. By the end of the Seventies, the violent civil war between the government and leftist rebels had erupted. One of Moulitsas’ earliest childhood memories is watching guerillas execute a group of student hostages on live television. Moulitsas’ family was upper-middle-class in a country with virtually no middle class, and so had little sympathy for attempts to overthrow the corrupt ruling party. “I’m still the family communist,” he says. At the time, though, Moulitsas was politically in line with his folks. The family fled back to Chicago when Moulitsas was nine, and he became a fanatical supporter of Ronald Reagan (who backed El Salvador’s government as part of his anti-Communist strategy), even working as a Republican party precinct captain in high school.

At 17, he enlisted in the Army — partly to pay for college (after leaving El Salvador, Moulitsas’ father worked as a janitor, his mother as a secretary) and partly because he harbored political ambitions and believed military service was a moral prerequisite if one planned on potentially sending others into battle. In the Army, Moulitsas met people from a broader spectrum of backgrounds, and his politics began to list leftward. “People think of the military as this bastion of conservatives, but there’s a heavy minority population — blacks, Latinos — and a lot of poor whites,” Moulitsas points out. “The officers are conservative, because they want funding, but the rank-and-file isn’t as conservative as people think.”

Moulitsas voted for Bush Sr. in 1992. Three months later, he became a Democrat. “You know what it was?” he says. “It was that Clinton trooper story. ‘Troopergate.’ I thought it was so nasty, and the fact that there were so many real problems in the country and they were trying to make that stick.”

When Moulitsas began blogging, he did so anonymously, mostly to keep his boss from finding out how he was spending his work hours. In late 2002, he began corresponding with another political blogger, Jerome Armstrong — Moulitsas’ current partner in the consulting business — whose site, mydd, inspired the Daily Kos. “We started talking about how we were both anonymous, so people really had no reason to take us seriously. But they were,” Moulitsas says. “Then we said, ‘Imagine what would happen if a candidate did this.” Around the same time, future Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi — then a senior adviser — gave an interview which Armstrong found to be idiotic, and he noted as much on his blog. “I think Trippi was googling his name, and he saw what Jerome wrote,” Moulitsas recalls. “Then he started reading mydd and the Daily Kos. Eventually, he contacted Jerome and said, ‘You think I’m an idiot. We should talk.’

“We thought the blogs would just be another tool in Dean’s toolbox — you know, this notion of talking to people directly, not filtering it through the press, humanizing the campaign,” Moulitsas continues. “But someone like Trippi, he had nothing to lose at the time, so he could be as creative as he wanted to be. They implemented the blogs in a way that was phenomenal.”

“I feel nothing over the death of mercenaries. They aren’t in Iraq because of orders, or because they are there trying to help the people make Iraq a better place. They are there to make war for profit. Screw them.”

Part of Moulitsas’ appeal, particularly to jaded younger voters who have been turned off by traditional politics, is the fact that he is not an insider, and therefore remains free to speak his mind. (He calls former California governor Gray Davis, for instance, a “selfish bastard” for not dropping out of the race and allowing a better candidate to run against Arnold Schwarzenegger.) But he’s also a self-described “very, very practical Democrat,” one with astute tactical ideas that go beyond the base-energizing red meat of his rhetorical skills. For instance, in 2004, he made the case that, even though then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was virtually guaranteed to win reelection, funding his opponent made sense. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to scare an incumbent,” Moulitsas says. “If we raise $100,000 for his opponent, DeLay will want to spend a million, and he’ll have to spend more time fund-raising for himself, instead of going out and fund-raising for the Party.”

As Moulitsas’ profile has grown, though, he’s found himself on the radar of the right. A posting he made in April 2004 on the brutal public killing of four Americans in Falluja drew the most heat. Moulitsas was incensed that the men who were killed, benignly described in most press reports as “civilian contractors,” were in fact well-paid armed mercenaries hired by private American companies to protect their own interests. The fact that five U.S. soldiers were killed on the same day and yet received far less press attention further infuriated Moulitsas, who wrote, “I feel nothing over the death of mercenaries. They aren’t in Iraq because of orders, or because they are there trying to help the people make Iraq a better place. They are there to make war for profit. Screw them.”

The post was buried in a thread of comments and never raised to major headline status. But a number of Daily Kos readers, feeling that Moulitsas had gone too far, made “Screw them” its own topic of discussion, and it caught the eye of right-wing commentators. The Kerry website had been linked to the Daily Kos, but they panicked and removed the link, posting the comment: “In light of the unacceptable statement about the death of Americans made by Daily Kos, we have removed the link to this blog from our website. As John Kerry said in a statement earlier this week, ‘My deepest sympathies are with the families of those lost today. Americans know that all who serve in Iraq — soldier and civilian alike — do so in an effort to build a better future for Iraqis.”

Moulitsas, who refuses to outright apologize for his comments, acknowledges, “I shouldn’t have taken it out on those four people. They have families, and at the end of the day, no one deserves to die. But having grown up in a war, I know it’s pure misery, and people who profit from it are scum. The fighting in Falluja over the past month all started when these four guys went someplace they weren’t supposed to be. These mercenaries are guys with wraparound sunglasses and guns sticking out the windows of their SUVs. They’re not there to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis. They’re there to protect whoever they’re hired to, and they don’t care who they walk over, and Iraqi civilians can’t tell the difference between them and U.S. soldiers and C.I.A. This isn’t just me, the anti-war liberal, saying this. It’s top U.S. generals. And so, to attempt to use their deaths politically, like, ‘Oh, they were just civilians’ — well, if your definition of civilian is anything non-military, okay. But then Al Qaeda operatives are civilians, too.”

But as with indie-rock stars who sign to major labels, fans wonder: will Kos, the militant outsider turned well-paid consultant, be co-opted by the Beltway powers that be?

Moulitsas remains firm in his belief that blogs are the ideal medium for engaging and emboldening progressives, and for raising money. Dean aside, Kos can point to a number of recent blog-driven phenomena, from the outing of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott as an apologist for segregation (his worshipful remarks about Strom Thurmond were first circulated on blogs) to the successful campaign of Kentucky Democrat Ben Chandler, who won a Republican House seat in a special election by vigorously attacking Bush in a state where the president’s approval rating was 68 percent. (Chandler raised over $80,000 in the last two weeks of the campaign through advertisements on blogs like the Daily Kos.)

“The idea is for blogs to breed a new kind of politician, like Chandler,” Kos says, becoming agitated the more he speaks about the status quo. “What Republicans have been doing is clearly right. What we’ve been doing is clearly wrong. I can come up with a million pejoratives to describe the Republican party, but one that I will never say is they’re fearful. You look at the Democratic party and it exudes fear. You have to approach each contest like the battle that it should be. Bush doesn’t give a shit. Talk about fearless: Bush was AWOL and he attacked Kerry’s war record. The voters described as ‘moderates’ are really just people who don’t pay attention. They just pick up on the zeitgeist. And if the zeitgeist is, ‘Republicans kick ass and Democrats are wimpy and afraid’ – nobody wants to go with the wimp.”

But as with indie-rock stars who sign to major labels, fans wonder: will Kos, the militant outsider turned well-paid consultant, be co-opted by the Beltway powers that be? So far, he seems to be resisting the temptation to sell out. After attending a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in 2004, he blogged the fact that he found himself in the restroom, urinating side by side with John Kerry, who was holding court, so to speak, with a steady stream of well-wishers and sycophants, none of whom were put off by the business at hand.

“For my part,” Kos wrote, “I kept my gaze firmly forward.”

G

Mark Binelli’s first novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, will be published in July by Dalkey Archive Press. He is also a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and lives in New York.

To comment on this piece: editors@guernicamag.com


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