When Democratic Underground was first formed (for background, see Part 1 of this series here), it was an ideal refuge for Gore voters from the indifference of the news media and the outright hostility of Bush voters in non- or bipartisan forums, such as Usenet‘s political groups (alt.politics, talk.politics.misc, my own hangout during the late Clinton years alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater, etc.) . I was attracted by the subtle aptness of the new site’s name. It did, indeed, seem as though Democrats who believed Bush had been illegitimately installed as “president” had been driven out of the public discourse. We felt, without too much exaggeration, like a resistance army gearing for rebellion against a tyrannical regime.
DU became well known in certain circles for its weekly contribution to the national discussion, Top Ten Conservative Idiots, a satirical summary of ten of the previous week’s most stomach-churning (from a liberal point of view) acts or statements from right-wingers in politics and the media. Bush, Cheney, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh usually topped the list, which was often linked to on other boards around the net. Other DU staples were the Hate Mailbag, featuring actual letters from the enemy with all their misspellings and SHOUTING IN CAPITALS left intact; Questions for Auntie Pinko (I remember the name better than the content); and satirical ragings from an invented right-winger named Bob Boudelang. The front page often also carried an essay by someone on staff or a contributor. I had a couple of essays published there (including one just after 9/11) before I became a regular on its forums.
But DU wasn’t the only game on the left side of cybertown. It was just one of a thriving subculture of dissident websites that had actually grown up around reaction to the successful right-wing grassroots campaign to impeach Bill Clinton at the dawn of the world wide web. The left watched in mixed horror and admiration for the way their counterparts on the right used the fledgling internet to spread like wildfire every smear that had ever been formulated about the Clintons (many of which, it’s true, came from the hot medium of talk radio) to build a groundswell in the Republican party for getting rid of the Clintons by any means necessary. Truth didn’t matter, just effectiveness as a meme, to use a word that was just acquiring its imprecise shade of meaning as a viral idea that can literally be copied, cut, pasted and clicked on to move from one contaminated mind to the next. It was a sickening spectacle and a clear, disturbing sign of where the Republican base was moving in the post-Reagan era. It wasn’t toward reason or, least of all, reasonableness.
In response to this madness, people like me who weren’t particularly partisan fans of Bill Clinton, who were, in fact, consistently irritated and disappointed by his studied centrism, triangulation and apparent efforts to confuse independents into believing he was basically a Republican (sound familiar?)–people like me became his fiercest defenders on the internet. It wasn’t Bill Clinton and his half-assed liberalism we were defending. It was the principle that impeachment ought to be reserved for the very highest crimes and misdemeanors of a corrupt presidency–not phony trumped up charges to mask partisan political maneuvering beyond the ballot box, but real Constitution-flouting abuses of power against the republic and its democracy. In our minds, our ultimate opponent was not just the Republican Party but the debasement of the national discourse (which, of course, has always been and still remains a formidable opponent). The sad truth is, however, by resolving to fight fire with fire, the scrappiest on the left have always risked participating in the debasement.
Just as the Bush installation of 2001 was the proximate cause of Democratic Underground, the Lewinsky affair launched a whole bunch of liberal/left/Democratic websites designed to counter the right-wing impeachment stampede. Many of these are still going–for example, Bartcop.com, Moveon.org, Consortiumnews.com, etc. My personal favorite was the short-lived but highly influential MediaWhoresOnline.com, where I would go to read transcripts (this was pre-YouTube) from the previous evening’s broadcasts along with snarky, right-on-the-money commentary from the site’s anonymous (but highly informed) contributors. Regular visitors could submit their own candidates for criticism or even “whore of the week.”
As you might guess from the name, MWO employed a no-holds barred attack in its battle against what it viewed as the media’s complicity in the Republican push to demonize the Clintons, denigrate the Democrats, and push the national politics rightward. I viewed it as both trenchant satire and validation for the almost constant anger I felt watching network and cable news shows, whose talking heads, I felt, too often pursued relentless “balance and fairness” at the expense of accuracy and truth.
It’s no wonder, by the way, that Fox News uses “Fair and Balanced” as a slogan. Their showcasing of right-wing perspectives in a supposed effort to correct for the alleged left-wing slant of the other news media is actually just the apotheosis of the other media’s overcompensation for the bias that right-wingers loudly accuse them of concealing. (Suggested reading on this point: Eric Alterman’s Sound and Fury: The Making of the Washington Punditocracy is an excellent history of the media’s skewing to the right since the appearance of the notorious Powell memo to the US Chamber of Commerce of 1971, the memo that launched a thousand right-wing think tanks.)
But back to MWO and the other liberal/left “new” media at the turn of the century. What these sites provided for liberals who were getting their hands dirty in the Usenet battles over impeachment was a scrappy alternative to the hypersensitive, hyper sensitized identity politics that the left had been developing for decades, the type of politics that is still being caricatured as “political correctness.” Hard to imagine a lefty of the 1980s daring to hurl the epithet “whore” at anyone for fear of implying something negative about the sex workers of the world. In 2000, seeing this word applied to impeachment apologists like William Safire or Chris Matthews was shocking and bracing at once. More shocking were satirical artworks of these pundits wearing skimpy dresses, garish make-up, and knee pads. The shock was not the image or idea inherent in it, which was far from new in politics, but that it was liberals who were wielding such a brutal weapon after identity politics had criticized the implication that female sexuality or homosexuality is demeaning.
Tension between the desire to fight back in a way the enemy would understand and the desire to remain true to leftist ideals would continue to put stress on the always shaky left/liberal coalition in the 2000s, and the forums of DU provided a sort of laboratory where these stresses were put to the test.
To be continued…