New Breed Rising

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga is the founder and mastermind behind DailyKos, the most highly trafficked political blog in the nation. Every week, half a million visitors come to the site to catch up on news and opinions from a liberal point of view. DailyKos acts as an online forum for activists aiming to influence and strengthen the Democratic Party. The site was instrumental in promoting and channeling funding to several dark horse candidates who gained seats in November. I caught up with Moulitsas lounging in his Berkeley living room, which doubles as DailyKos headquarters.

Amy Kiser: In your 2006 book, Crashing the Gate, you had harsh words for environmentalists and their failed political strategies.

Markos Moulitsas: It’s clear that one of the reasons that conservatives have been so successful the past few years is that they worked together as a movement, pooling their resources to promote each other’s agenda, which is the overall conservative agenda. The “vast right wing conspiracy” supposedly has a budget of about half a billion dollars a year, which seems like a lot of money.

One of the things that shocked me as I was doing research for Crashing the Gate was the realization that the top six environmental organizations that focus on advocacy and promoting environmental issues had a budget of over 600 million dollars. Just the top six environmental organizations have more money than the entire vast right-wing conspiracy combined. So how can the right possibly be so much more successful with their agenda when clearly we have more money? It’s not an issue of money. It comes down to the fact that they all work together in concert on behalf of a broader conservative agenda while we are divided in our individual issue silos.

What has stood in the way of environmental groups working with other traditionally progressive interest groups?

It’s cultural, and it’s the way it’s been done for a long time. I’ve been at conferences where everybody is whining that their issue isn’t being discussed. Everybody wants to talk about their issue; they don’t want to talk about anyone else’s. It’s that myopia—that unwillingness to consider that a world exists beyond their particular concerns—that is so destructive. I don’t know if it’s a question of egos, or a belief that there’s a finite amount of funding available and the group that screams the loudest and is the most alarmist gets the money. At the end of the day, there’s an unwillingness to look beyond the short-term.

You may get short-term coalitions that form around specific campaigns, but it’s not anything like what the right does. What the right does is say, “The next couple of weeks we’re going to be focused on lowering taxes.” The NRA will start talking about lowering taxes, and the Christian coalition will talk about lowering taxes, and the tax groups will naturally be talking about lowering taxes, all the groups knowing that in a few weeks, a few months, or a few years, they will be called up to talk about protecting gun rights or the “family values” agenda.

The right is a lot more top-bottom, so it’s easy for, say, a Grover Norquist to say, “I’m the king of the heap, and I’ll decide what the agenda is and you all come along for the ride.” Clearly this will never happen on the progressive side because of a general distrust for authoritarianism and a who the hell are you to tell me what to do? kind of mentality. It can’t be done the exact same way the right does, but there has to be an understanding that we’re in this together and that we have to promote each other’s issues in pursuit of the greater progressive good.

A perfect example: Women’s groups and environmental groups were supporting Republican Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island. Had the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, NARAL, and NOW had their way, and Lincoln Chaffee had been elected to the Senate, right now we would have Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader—Mitch McConnell, who’s below zero on choice and other women’s issues and has been a disaster on environment issues. Who would be in control of the environmental committee? Senator James Imhoff, who thinks global warming is one of the greatest hoaxes in American history.

The fact is that these groups were not looking at the bigger, broader picture. They would say, “Well, Lincoln Chaffee is good on my issue,” not understanding that Lincoln is enabling a party that is absolute poison to everything that progressives care about.

Many people were surprised to hear President Bush utter the words “global climate change” during the last State of the Union address.

We knew this was coming. On Bush’s side of the aisle, the issue has been driven by the religious right. There’s a whole school of thought within the Christian right that the world is God’s creation, and we must protect it. That idea has taken root. Very viscerally, people understand the problem with climate change: they see it and they sense it. Everybody’s weather has been so screwy these past few years.

As Senator Jim Webb put it, this is the sixth SOTU address that Bush has talked about alternative fuels and then done zero to make it happen. It’s been a year that global warming has been high on the agenda, thanks to Al Gore. The Christian right is gunning for it, An Inconvenient Truth won best documentary at the Oscars, and the weight of evidence is so heavy. I don’t think that Bush had much of a choice. He can’t at this point promote an aggressive conservative agenda, because many of those issues have proven to be big losers with the public.

Of course, Bush couldn’t talk about alternative energy sources without lumping “clean coal” and nuclear energy in with the renewables.

I’m a big supporter of Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, who is one of the heaviest proponents of clean coal technology and carbon sequestration. Right now we’re dependent on the Middle East for a large percentage of our energy needs, and it’s clearly making us weaker from a national security perspective. It precipitated the horrid war in Iraq, and it may precipitate another one with Iran. Anything that weans us off that foreign energy and makes us self-dependent I think is a better thing in the short term. The Brian Schweitzers of the world are also heavily promoting wind energy in the Rocky Mountain West.

I hear that you’re formulating ideas for your next book, which will focus on a new breed of Democrat rising up in the Rocky Mountain West: the libertarian Democrat.

A traditional libertarian would say that government shouldn’t get involved in anything except maybe defense. Corporations can swoop down into public lands, rape the land, and leave it a disaster and that’s okay, because who is government to say they can’t do that?

The way I define Democrat libertarianism—or liberal libertarianism—is like this: people want to be left alone and to be able to enjoy their life. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: that’s what everyone wants at the end of the day. There are things that can infringe on that liberty: government can do it and corporations can do it, too. They can come in and destroy your land and foul up your air and water. Now, where traditional libertarianism has gotten into trouble has been when they’ve let private companies run roughshod over people, whether it is energy companies coming in and defiling the land in the Rocky Mountain West or governments and corporations accessing and sharing our private information.

Traditional liberal strategy has been more aggressive in calling for government intervention than I have become. I have a lot of faith in the market as being self-correcting, especially now that technology and the pace of progress has become so fast. Any monopolies are fairly short-term. I find that I’m a lot less likely to call for government intervention now than I was in the late ’90s.

During the last election, there were indications of a political shift amongst voters in the Rocky Mountain West. What is your take on this phenomenon?

It’s because their personal liberties are being infringed upon. In this case, it’s not by the government, which was their previous enemy. This time it’s the energy companies, and suddenly they’re realizing we can’t fight against these energy companies. The only entity that can fight for us is the government.

Clearly, things are shifting in the Rocky Mountain West politically, and there’s going to be a seismic shift in the next two decades. I don’t think that people in DC understand it. I don’t even think that traditional Democrats understand it. It’s an evolution in thought about what government should be. The world is changing, and I think that a lot of Democrats are still stuck in the 1940s and keep advocating the same things, not realizing that if we are to grow and prosper, we have to embrace those changes and start advocating and promoting new policies.

One of the things that I like about the rise of Rocky Mountain libertarian Democrats is that their issues are not incompatible with urban Democrats. The issues that are important to them might not overlap, but they are not mutually exclusive. The new libertarian Democrat may have a problem with rampant overspending or government over-regulating small businesses, but that’s a fight over the minor details. There’s a lot of common ground.

At the end of the day, what helps make that happen is that people in the Mountain West are realizing that okay, I guess it’s not just the government that can mess with my life. There are other forces out there like global capitalism that can strip away my liberties. We need somebody to protect us, and it ain’t gonna be the Republicans.

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