The Agenda

Technocrats vs. the Netroots

In 2006, Markos Moulitsas, best known as the founder of Daily Kos and one of the architects of the netroots movement, published a short and not entirely convincing essay on the rise of “libertarian Democrats.”

There’s a whole swath of Americans who are uncomfortable with Republican/conservative efforts to erode our civil liberties while intruding into our bedrooms and churches; they don’t like unaccountable corporations invading their privacy, holding undue control over their economic fortunes, and despoiling our natural surroundings; yet they also don’t appreciate the nanny state, the over-regulation of small businesses, the knee-jerk distrust of the free market, or the meddlesome intrusions into mundane personal matters.

Keeping in mind Moulitsas’s self-definition as a libertarian Democrat, his opposition the Reid bill makes a great deal of sense. In a post titled, “Remove mandate, or kill this bill,” he writes:

My take is that it’s unconscionable to force people to buy a product from a private insurer that enjoys sanctioned monopoly status. It’d be like forcing everyone to attend baseball games, but instead of watching the Yankees, they were forced to watch the Kansas City Royals. Or Washington Nationals. It would effectively be a tax — and a huge one — paid directly to a private industry.

Without any mechanisms to control costs, this is yet another bailout for yet another reviled industry. Subsidies? Insurance companies are free to raise their rates to absorb that cash. More money for subsidies? More rate increases, as well as more national debt. Don’t expect Lieberman and his ilk to care. They’re in it for their industry pals.

And very astutely, he points to the higher education sector as a sign of things to come.

If you want a similar model, watch how universities increase tuition to absorb increased financial aid opportunities. And since the Senate and its industry-bought Senators won’t allow insurance premium caps or an end to the insurance industry’s anti-trust exemption (much less a public option to compete against them), there is nothing keeping those companies from jacking up rates to screw people. In fact, that’s been their modus operandi for years.

In a series of follow-up posts, Moulitsas has noted the failures of the Massachusetts model and argued that simply adding more money in subsidies won’t address the cost containment problem. He has also argued that stripping the mandate from the bill will make it less politically toxic for Democrats, thus placing Republicans in a bind. 

At the same time, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein have argued strenuously on behalf of the individual mandate. Yglesias suggests that progressives take a more patient approach:

Rather than trying to kill the bill, I think the following would be a better use of people’s energy—(a) work to ensure that as few public option opponents as possible are defeated in 2010, (b) work to ensure that some seats currently held by public option opponents are taken by public option supporters. Then see if that means the votes are there to add a public option in 2011. If not, then you need to do the same thing again in 2012.

And so bloggers once closely identified with the netroots have embraced a technocratic view closely associated with the dense revolving network of think tankers, lobbyists, and congressional staffers. In a sense, Moulitsas is striving to maintain a movement stance independent of the Democratic establishment. His interlocutors, who began as independent voices highly critical of said Democratic establishment, have come to see its virtues as they’ve gained access and prestige. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Moulitsas is substantively right, though he makes a decent case. Rather, it’s a mark of the continuing evolution of a political movement that, it turns out, wasn’t as distinctive or as important as advertised. As many conservatives argued at the time, the rise of the netroots didn’t really represent a genuinely new ideological tendency. It was and remains a vehicle for the revival of 1970s-style liberalism, which holds northern European social democracy as its lodestar.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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