DemocraticUnderground and the Fracturing of the Democratic Grass Roots, Part I

A couple of days ago, I accidentally stumbled upon a fascinating American subculture I was not well aquainted with:  the prickly, stranger-shy cluster of rightist (though many self-identify as “liberal”) Hillary Clinton voters who were so enraged by the alleged (not to imply falsely alleged) chicanery between Team Obama and the DNC during the 2008 Democratic primaries that they picked up stakes and headed for any hill they felt sure Obama or the Democrats hadn’t defiled with their presence.

In my ramblings on the internet over the last few years, I have encountered many a Clinton supporter of the left who was driven to internet purgatories where other disaffected or disaffiliated Democrats gathered to share solace and critiques of Obama’s America with lefties (Greens, Naderites, Marxists) who had given up on the Democrats as the best hope for progressives long, long ago.  Indeed, I’ve lately felt much more comfortable with the left-wing victims of Obama’s serial betrayals than with Obama supporters, one of which I nominally was in 2008. But this was my first encounter with the radicalized centrists and center-rightists in the Clinton contingent who felt the sting of the Party’s betrayal.

Let me tell you:  radical centrism is a trip!  I’m sure my new friends in this subculture would find such an amused anthropological assessment of them annoying. To them I can only say, I’m sorry. I can’t help it. You’d be laughing at yourselves too if you could only see yourselves through my eyes.  But I’m going to try to set aside my amusement with them, which owes mainly to their strangely and almost uniformly vicious defenses against anyone not in their club–e.g., me, in my clumsy attempts to learn more about them–and try to focus on my observations about what this group tells us–tells me, anyway–about the Democrats’ prospects in 2012 and beyond. My main interest is in how the party’s recent past and future connect with the rise of #OccupyWallStreet. My hypothesis: The story of grass roots Democrats in the 21st century is one of numerous parallel threads of ordinary Americans’ political desires being thwarted by indifferent or even hostile political institutions, and this may be the beginnings of a new American Revolution.

I can best tell this story, I think,  by talking a bit more about my own experiences under the nom de guerre  Burt Worm on the internet message board Democratic Underground, from 2003 to 2010. Anyone who has spent time on an internet board knows that, in addition to providing a space for making friends, sharing ideas, debating issues, and just enjoying like-minded others’ company, these sites can’t help but develop some of the less pleasant aspects of social interaction–cliquishness, peer pressure, toadying, group think, high melodrama, and so on. DU was of course, no exception. In fact, by the time I was unceremoniously locked out one fine day in December 2010 for an unintentional infringement of one of its rules, DU had become the object of mockery of half a dozen or so copycat “undergrounds,” each made up of banned or disgruntled former members and other antagonists, and each with a separate “room” for tearing apart the old forum’s most unintentionally self-satirizing posts as well as the increasingly intrusive decision-making of its control-freak administrators.

I’m inclined to think the DU community has always had a ridiculously inflated sense of its own importance, but it does provide a view into the internet fracturing of the Democratic Party at the grass roots level from the galvanizing aftermath of  Bush v. Gore to the polarizing primary season of 2008. Significantly–and pointedly–DU was launched on January 20, 2001, (or shortly thereafter), as the stink of George W. Bush’s inauguration, following the sham “election” of 2000, was still dissipating in the air.

The sorts of emotions DUers and I were feeling in 2001–anger, outrage, alienation, self-righteous indignation–and the means of expressing those emotions  have clear parallels with those I’m seeing among the Clintonite right-wing, whose own forums are direct descendents of sites for disgruntled Democrats like DU.  An example: Note the use of scare quotes around “election” above. This is one of the many codes DUers used (others included intentionally disrespectful references to “president” or pResident Bush,  or just the Resident [of the White House]) to signal to other members of the group that they shared in the community interpretation of Bush v. Gore, i.e. that the Bush campaign, aided and abetted by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his four right-wing Republican colleagues, took advantage of the confusion and indeterminacy of the election’s outcome to effectively ditch the Constitution and established protocol and  improvise a means of installing George Bush illegitimately in the White House.

I was reminded of this language of codes as I had the Clintonite epithet Obot hurled at me again and again once I revealed to my new Clintonite friends my vote for Obama in the New York Democratic Primary in February 2008. The terms “Obot” and “Obamabot,” conjuring (ironically, in my opinion) mindless fealty to the candidate–were coined during the internecine warfare on sites like DU–plausibly even on DU–that spring or the previous fall. I’ll return to this and other parallels with DU culture later, but let’s return to the history.

I still share DU’s interpretation of Bush v.  Gore.  In fact, I believe firmly that unless you’re a die-hard Republican, who might see Scalia’s clumsy fucking with precedent as a mature and necessary intervention to maintain the continuity of the government, it’s difficult to look closely at that history and not conclude that Bush v. Gore was a brutally executed, shockingly naked power grab–in effect a coup d’état. For many of us Gore voters, watching what looked like a first-order crime unfold and knowing the perpetrators–justices for life on the Supreme Court–were going to get off scot-free did nothing to instill confidence in the institutions (government and news media primarily) that first permitted the crime and later pretended it never happened.

In May 2003, after five years of usually fruitless conversation with right-wingers on Usenet political groups dissecting the Clinton scandals, and  just after the next “president” had declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, I became an active member of  DU. For the next couple of years, it felt like a kind of left-wing paradise, where most of the conversations were polite (except for some deliciously rude ones in the Lounge) and everyone agreed that Bush was a dope, Cheney was evil and Gore was robbed. Heaven!  Oh, there were occasional tussles with Greens over Nader’s responsibility for the disaster in Florida that led to Bush v. Gore or with random trolls from right-wing haven Free Republic over everything under the sun. Israel-Palestine, Religion and Theology and Guns were contentious enough topics to warrant rooms of their own out of sight of the mainstream of the community.  But the worst argument I got into in those first two years was over the tortuously melismatic singing style that Mariah Carey’s far less-talented imitators were making standard in popular music. (It was not a pretty debate. I’m not kidding.)

Then came the primary season of 2004. The discord between Kerry and Dean supporters (especially) was so jarring to DU’s former peace that the administrators gave primary discussions the Guns and Religion treatment: a room of their own. That year I first noticed the rapid disappearance of certain of my fellow DUers as they were painfully and very publicly banned. Most of them, unless my biased memory is distorted, were Howard Dean supporters. Being a Dean supporter myself, I received an invitation by personal message to join an off -campus site where Dean people could freely trash our enemies on DU, but I had too many friends among the Kerry crowd back “home”  so I decided to stick it out. Nevertheless I was getting the sense, for the first time, that there was a bias among the administrators of DU and if you didn’t share it, your days were numbered.

To be continued…

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7 thoughts on “DemocraticUnderground and the Fracturing of the Democratic Grass Roots, Part I

  1. Pingback: Fractured Democrats, Part 2: Resisting the Right « Tragic Farce

  2. Pingback: Naomi Klein: Climate Science Deniers Are Right About One Thing « Tragic Farce

  3. I enjoyed reading your perspective, Burt.

    To me, the biggest change on DU came around May of ’09. That lines up perfectly with the creation of Rahm’s Message Discipline team. I suspect that whatever financial transaction went down to buy immunity for the BOG happened around then.

    The first “tell” I could find came during the healthcare debates. At the time, Dennis Kucinich was making some waves for single payer, and I started noticing that EVERY post concerning Kucinich was swarmed by the same group of people, using the same slurs and childish tactics we’ve all come to know and love.

    What struck me was how it was even more vitriolic than what was the norm for primary season, and we know how rough that was. Here it was, May of ’09. Dennis wasn’t running for anything. So why the bile that was worse than the standard Hillary/Obama fare?

    There was an article in the Boston Globe from ’07 that I found around that time that highlighted the practice of political firms hiring paid posters to troll boards, the same way companies hired people to post on Amazon, yelp, etc. I started posting it during that summer of ’09 during the healthcare debates. The guiltiest parties would come on to refute it, and deleted comments and locks were a-plenty. I suspect this is how I found my path to my tombstone.

    Once they stopped refuting it, the BOG turned around and accused Obama’s left critics of being right wing plants. As if right wing pay-per-post trolls were capable of articulating detailed, well sourced arguments for progressivism every day for years as a ploy to sabotage the President. Luckily, to most it is very obvious that the ones making the consistent, articulate arguments were the ones who were legitimate posters, and the ones hurling insult and bombarding with blue links were the paid hacks.

    Still, it’s a shame how many believe the BOG’s counter-accusal and one day I hope that whole process of how they ramped up attacks on Progressives starting in ’09 is exposed.

  4. Pingback: Fractured Dems, Part 4: The Rightward Drift of DemocraticUnderground « Tragic Farce

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