For political cognoscenti, a day just isn’t complete without a Daily Kos fix.
That’s good news for new South Berkeley resident Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the creator of what has become one of the world’s most popular blogs.
Even better news for local activists, he’ll be starting up a new Berkeley- or Oakland-based training program for political activists, politicians and others.
A soft-spoken activist with intense eyes, Moulitsas has emerged as perhaps the country’s—and the world’s—preeminent political blogger.
Blogs—short for web log—have become the new medium for political activism, and Moulitsas, a soft-spoken army vet, has created a phenomenon that draws up to a million visitors day to dailykos.com.
New media activism
As an example of the power of blogs, he points to another Berkeley resident, Cindy Sheehan.
“The anti-war protests this year were completely useless,” he said. “The most impactful activism was Cindy Sheehan, and it was the bloggers who promoted her first. She gave the media a hook, a story to tell.”
And the protests which he said did count—the massive marches by immigrants across the country—were heavily promoted on the Internet.
“These were leaderless rallies, people with flags talking about fighting for their families. You had 80,000 people turn out in Salt Lake City, and principals locking down schools to keep their students from attending. Suddenly the media had a hook. And it didn’t hurt that they were on message,” Moulitsas said.
And now, paired with another blogger with a talent for political activism, he’s invading the turf of one of the oldest of the old media, books.
With fellow blogger Jerome Armstrong of Alexandria, Va.—creator of the MyDD.com blog—Moulitsas has written Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Democracy, a 196-page volume that has garnered serious attention from political leaders and big media.
And for Moulitsas, it even produced a graphic icon—a David Levine caricature in the New York Review of Books.
As unabashed liberal Democrats, the two bloggers see the Internet as a seminal tool in reshaping a Democratic Party that has become so enamored of high-priced consultants and so reluctant to confront the conflicting interest groups that make up the party that the once-powerful political machine has been reduced to a state of near-ineffectiveness.
“The Democrats have become a minority with absolutely zero input in Washington,” said Moulitsas. “The GOP has no interest in compromising.”
The Republicans haven’t always been implacably hostile to negotiation, he said. “Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and his party at least would listen and sometimes compromise. But those of us who have come to age politically after 2000 have never seen it.”
And the same goes within the groups that compromise the party establishment, he said. “They still think it’s 1980.”
While both parties represent coalitions of interests, Moulitsas said, the Republicans have been far more effective in wielding them into an effective machine.
“It’s amazing to me how myopic our side is,” he said. “The other side will work in concert with each other because they each know they’ll get their turn and wind up getting 50 to 75 percent of what they want.”
Democratic coalition groups, by contrast, engage each other in all-or-nothing battles.
The solution, he said, lies partly in changing the nature of the dialogue.
“People are willing to overlook their political difference if you talk about values. Bush talked in the language of values, so people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt,” he said.
Moulitsas said that, for instance, when Bush violated his professed values, as he did in the case of the proposed handover of U.S. port security to a Dubai firm and in the case of his response to Hurricane Katrina, “People started to say, ‘Holy shit! He really doesn’t give a damn about security or about the people in New Orleans.’”
For the next two years, Moulitsas plans to devote himself towards a single goal—helping the Democrats seize control of the political process.
“It took the GOP 30 years to build up their machine, and it will take 10 years to dismantle it,” he said.
East Bay institute
Moulitsas said he’s going to be working over the next year to help build a training institute for activists working in 21st Century online media. “It will be in Berkeley or Oakland, wherever we can find the space.”
The facility will provide training for politicians, activists, organizers and consultants.
“TV and online will become one and the same,” he said, with “blogcast” videos emerging as a new force, and TIVO video recorders set to capture online RSS media feeds starting in the fall.
“We’ll also do some old school media training, and teach how to present yourself on camera,” he said.
They’re even going to train consultants, the group he and Armstrong single out for scorn for their advice to the Democratic establishment.
“My job is to build the infrastructure for a new progressive movement to emerge,” he said. “I’m working to build a vast left-wing conspiracy to match the right’s very powerful political machine.
“I only see myself doing this for the next five years or so, and then I’ll do something completely different. What that may be, I have no clue.”
Road to blogville
Born in Chicago in 1971, where his Greek father and El Salvadoran mother met while attending college, Moulitsas was 4 when his family moved to El Salvador. They returned five years later, during that country’s bloody civil war.
“I’ve seen first hand how politics really can be a matter of life and death,” he said.
When he came back “to lily-white suburban Chicago, I was skinny and short, and I’ve always looked young for my age. I was miserable,” he said.
At 17, he enlisted in the Army: “My parents didn’t have a lot of money, and it was a way of going to college.”
Illinois offered free tuition for veterans, the only state that does.
After a hitch serving as an artillery fire director at the headquarters for a missile battery, he attended Northern Illinois University, winning dual degrees and majoring in philosophy, political science and journalism and minoring in German.
From there, it was on to Boston University, where he earned his law degree.
“I knew in law school that I never wanted to be a lawyer. It was a way to kill three years of my life,” he offered with a smile.
He could have become a reporter—there was a job offer from the Associated Press—and he did freelance for three years for the Chicago Tribune, “but I decided I didn’t want to live vicariously through other people’s lives.”
His memories of El Salvador and a fascination with politics propelled his interests in news. “When I was 9, I forced my parents to get subscriptions to both Chicago papers.”
To the Coast
He moved west to San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood in 1999, and began working for a Latino-themed Internet portal being developed by a web development shop in the city.
After his wife graduated from Boston University in 2000, they moved to Berkeley
“We were paying $1,800 for a studio in SOMA and we realized we could rent a house in Berkeley for a lot less. If we’d stayed in the studio, we would have killed each other,” he said, smiling.
In May 2002 he applied his skills to creating his own blog, today’s Daily Kos.
“It was mostly election stuff and I was writing about the war. I’m always good at staying within my own niche. That’s the great thing about the blog world—anyone can write about anything.”
He left the web development business in 2003, venturing into the world of political consulting.
During the following year, “I worked with [campaign manager] Joe Trippi on the Howard Dean campaign” with his fellow blogger and co-author Armstrong. “We realized we were good at what we did, and we got clients.”
After the Dean campaign ended, he devoted full time to his blog, having become one of the few practitioners of the art who can make a decent living at it.
Early on, blogging threatened to pose marital problems with spouse Elisa. “She hated it, but now she’s blogging too and she’s as addicted as I am.”
With three others, she blogs at mothertalkers.com, writing about motherhood and related issues. Son Ari—short for Aristotle—at two-and-a-half, is still too young to blog, though he’s already bilingual.
A blogger’s day
“I spend most of the day with my laptop grafted to my hip. I get up about 7:30 and check my emails until about 9,” he said—a daily deluge that, after winnowing, amounts to about 400 emails a day.
“By 9, the East Coast bloggers have most of their news up for the day, so I riff off that and blog heavily until about noon, when I get out of bed.”
Afternoons of late have been spent doing media promotions for the book, along with sending email questions to sources.
From 4 to 6 p.m. is family time, after which he tries to work in one or two more blog posts.
Then there are the long days on the road, promoting the book.
It was in the middle of his touring that the family learned of a chance to buy a home at a good price in South Berkeley, and the sale closed earlier this month.
“It was the worst possible time for us, but it was a great deal,” he said. “It’s the kind of house I can see myself staying in for the next 40 years.”
Moulitsas says the one political arena he hasn’t followed closely is the Berkeley municipal scene—something that is changing because of a new development planned not far from his home at the Ashby BART station—a project that has raised his concern.