Skip to content

American liberalism is (again) losing its way

20 years after political blogs organized a new generation of activists, American liberalism has again lost its fire.

18 min read

The liberal blogosphere sprang into existence in opposition to the Iraq War. There's no need for an extensive history of how and why; the short version is that emerging self-publishing technology was well positioned to allow it, liberal activists were beginning to embrace the internet as means of organizing, and the nation was, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, in the midst of a great nationalistic shudder in which public fear was used as the catalyst for a long-dreamed of neoconservative remolding of the world.

That remolding required the vainglorious incompetents of the George W. Bush administration to shift public attention away from the too-remote Afghanistan so that a predesignated, more useful enemy could feel America's military wrath instead. It was a ridiculous proposition that was met with much public fury—except in the press, which appeared to be swayed mostly by the prospect of getting to cover a new all-the-bells-and-whistles war rather than the plodding, on-the-cheap Afghanistan version. Opposition to the war was, during that period, both publicly fragmented and plausibly dangerous. It was a time when even top cable television hosts could lose their careers by challenging the war's premise and core assumptions. There were few notable anti-war voices either on the professional right or the professional left.

The American public had already adopted the internet as a new primary means of entertainment, communication, and consumerism, but on their television sets, Americans who opposed the war were dismissed as outliers or kooks. It's hardly surprising that those Americans would flock to the nascent online left to find reassurance that they were not out of their minds, and they were not alone in the nation, and that the people on television were, for certain, lying to them.

Twenty years later, another act of horrific terrorism has launched a new war, and once again a hard-right government appears to be less interested in combating the terrorism they face than in using those deaths to promote their own long pressed for "true solution." And there is damn little pushback, in many of the same places that made names for themselves opposing similar policies of maximal violence twenty years ago.

There is damn little pushback on anything.

There are many reasons, but two stand out. The first is that true liberal voices are, if anything, even less represented in American discourse than they were in post-9/11 years. Our new crop of corporate tycoons is even less tolerant of anything left-of-center now than then; they instead obsess over finding voices willing to defend Donald Trump's movement of rage, erraticism, and vengeance, keeping up the pattern of pitting centrists against Republican hardliners against members of the Republican crackpot fringe and considering their bases covered.

But the second reason is that after 20 years of "professionalization," many of those now-professional voices became what they themselves once railed against, back when bloggers operating under dozens of often self-deprecating pseudonyms voiced unanimous despair at a national media that chased sensationalism while ignoring scandals of any deeper consequence.

American liberalism has become increasingly flighty, and twitch-based, and almost entirely reactive. It has done so in in part of its own accord, and in part in desperation, and perhaps in part because that is the only version of liberalism that can be tolerated by donor classes that are not that put out by the threat of a new and shockingly vigorous American fascist movement—or at least, that find it no more or less alarming than the thought of new regulations that might dampen what has now become a new Gilded Age in which corporate monopoly powers put their teeth to the veins of every portion of American life until entire markets wobble in anemic malaise.

I am not so bold as to think I have the answers. But I sure as hell think we should be looking for them, because if you look the newest generation of American liberalism, you can make a strong case that the online liberal movement of 20 years ago has failed completely. It crashed no gates. It bent media not at all. It may have had a momentary liberalizing effect on Democratic Party politics—but now that momentum appears if anything to have reversed, with a handful of top elected figures like Sen. Elizabeth Warren pressing liberal priorities and the grassroots following sluggishly along, rather than acting as the initiators.

We are back to a landscape that looks worse than when we started, and we ought not to just moan and claim that we have been sabotaged by Facebook and by Google and there is simply nothing we can do. The whole point of grassroots movements is to maneuver around the obstacles thrown up by the companies and political figures looking to maximize their own powers. If we can't outwit the man who thought the future of business was legless eggs wandering through imaginary conference rooms, what are we even doing here?

The Twittification of discourse

I want to clarify something right off the bat: I'm not talking about individual authors or outlets here. There are still many, many writers in the, sigh, "liberal blogosphere" who are doing better work than ever, are tackling our most divisive issues, and who are not caving to broader media trends—but by and large, the movement has balkanized to the point where those individual authors have no avenue for nudging the broader discourse, and no power to press policymakers for actual change.

On the other side of the coin, there is certainly space in the movement for all of the satisfying daily sins I am alleging, so long as progressive thought does not appear to be made up exclusively of them.

And with that said, I'll reassert the statement: The single worst sin of our movement is that it has become flighty, and twitch-based, and almost entirely reactive.

This may be conditioned reflex, on our part. The shrinking of liberal spaces has resulted in much of the discourse that used to be in left-of-center blogs and news sites moving to Twitter and staying there. We can blame Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg directly for that narrowing of voices, thanks to a broader indifference to social harm that borders on the sociopathic. Facebook went from being a substantial traffic driver to, after Zuckerberg was pilloried for the company's role in relaying political falsehoods in 2016 and responded by tweaking his Algorithms to close off political conversation and reward the light and fluffy and stupid and cultish, a vapid nonentity. You can still get disinformation aplenty on Facebook; won't you won't get, in the new Algorithm, is any news that might debunk it.

It was Twitter that took on the new role of political homepage in the resulting diaspora. And on Twitter, The Algorithm rewards recency, and reactivity, and twitch. That is the whole point. It prohibits more than a sentence or two of thought, and lets little traffic out of its own walled garden; I've heard no company say they receive anything resembling a meaningful traffic stream from Twitter, even before it became the Elon-owned, hard-right "X", so the only utility for posting to Twitter is to gain valueless accolades on Twitter. It's not a business plan, and at this point liberal abandonment of the platform has rendered it an engagement ghost town.

The Twittification of discourse can best be seen in the impossibly shallow coverage of Every Damn Thing Donald Trump Burps Out.

The sin, however, was a Twittification of the much broader discourse in which twitch-based quips and half-takes were at some point deemed the proper way to Serve Your Audience, even off that horrid hellsite. And you can see it writ large in the obsessive and impossibly shallow coverage of Every Damn Thing Donald Trump Burps Out.

At this point, there is nobody in the liberal movement who is confused as to whether Donald Trump is an addlebrained, feces-flinging, anti-American crook. We know it. We also know that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is a public inanity that exists almost entirely for her own self-promotion, and that Rep. Lauren Boebert is the Walmart Great Value version of the same, and that insurrectionist hobo Steve Bannon now makes his living exclusively from encouraging the right to do criminal and anti-American things while basking in the public outrage it generates.

All four exist as media creatures first and foremost, and there is nothing that any of the four of them can say that will not be propped up on liberal frontpages in order to nudge loose the requisite daily outrage. We apparently think our audiences have now gotten so old that our primary purpose is to shake them awake in the morning and keep poking them throughout the day, lest they drift back to sleep on us.

We have become what we despised. We now obsess over the same 15-second soundbites that make up the majority of cable and network "news," and we, too, treat them as audience-baiting entertainment while largely brushing off whatever supposed issue or argument birthed them.

There is nothing wrong with warning Americans of omnipresent Republican crackpottery—but when Democratic lawmakers step up to combat it, who among the "online left" even bothers to notice? How many words have been spent on Rep. Jamaal Bowman, or on Rep. Jasmine Crockett's regular disembowelment of far-right House Republican drivel? Rep. Katie Porter became famous for her ability to clearly describe issues in clean, cut-to-the-chase presentations—and how many of those have even the most liberal readers seen or heard?

In recent years we have been blessed with the presence of two realtime archivists of far-right incoherence and hate, Aaron Rupar and Acyn. We do not all need to be half-assed versions of the same. Editors do not need to pressure every last one of us into seizing the latest Orange Man Said A Thing and turning it, as quickly as possible, into another analysis-free twitch piece.

If the purpose is to document the Republican collapse into fascist extremism, then by all means let loose: Media Matters has continued its years of work contextualizing the outbursts and their patterns. Journalist David Neiwert is a one-man encyclopedia of the extremist right, a man who draws the lines between the violent and terror-based far-right movements of past eras and of this one and can classify and subclassify each new racist outburst in Congress and tell you, with authority, which violent fringe movement the lawmaker is borrowing from; in his hands, a Marjorie Taylor Greene outburst might count as evidence, not spectacle. The conservative embrace of neo-Nazi "great replacement" theories, and their near-daily promotion on national airwaves, is worth a hundred such posts alone.

But if the purpose for others of us is only to provide audiences with the Easiest Possible Content, then again: What are we even doing here? Send your audience to Fox News, if your only point is to angry up their blood. At some point, promoting the words of conspiracy-touting self-promoters even to mock them is less a public service than an act of complicity. I have watched over and over as liberal "political" websites have rebuffed liberal maneuvers in Congress in favor of chasing the outrage of the day; it is insincere for those sites to claim there is room to cover both even as they focus on one to the near-exclusion of the other.

Adopting the worst habits of the national media we rail against

That brings us to the next sin of modern liberal discourse: chasing the ball.

We have all railed about it. It was comedian Jon Stewart who put it best, when he compared the national "journalism" compulsion to all follow the same kicked ball to the rote reflexes of preschoolers playing soccer, with every child blindly running to wherever the ball is and colliding with all the other children who are doing the exact same thing.

It is childish, it is ridiculous, and above all it manifests itself primarily in the press inability to hold even one damn thing in its head for longer than a news cycle or two—and that makes it dangerous. There is damn little contextualization, in political journalism. The preferred form of content relies on rote repetition of what some political hack says—and it is always the same political hacks, culled from a very narrow list of voices from a scant few hopelessly inbred sub-ideologies, and that is how a small set of political hacks have been granted the ability to mold news coverage of every last public issue, from war to climate catastrophe to the sudden insistence America is now in mortal peril due to (checks notes) drag queens.

Sometimes the hack is challenged by a quote from a counter-hack, and sometimes, if the hack says something that is provably a flat-out lie, the reporter will note the falsehood. And that is the end of it; by the next appearance of the hack in the next story there will be no mention that Shifty McLiepants has kept up a pattern of intentional deceit for the last six stories, six months, or sixteen years and should have long ago been reduced to pariah status for it.

That is how we move from the most consequential political event in any of our lifetimes—an attempted overthrow of the United States government by limpbrained slobs high of the fumes of a "presidential" rally demanding that overthrow—to it hardly rating mention in coverage of the seditionist's attempted return to political power a scant few years later. Is how The New York Times musters up an entire just asking subcategory of feature stories all premised on questioning whether transgendered Americans are fit enough to make their own life choices, a topic that emerged as supposed "issue" only because hard-right Republican politicians announced, out of nowhere, those Americans to be the nation's newest and worst enemies.

The problem with twitch-based coverage is that, by definition, it follows whatever news patterns the suppliers of the twitch want as pattern. How many House Republican quotes have racked up on liberal websites in the compulsive search for outrage fodder, and what were those quotes—whether mocked, critiqued, or passed along unmolested—about? Some alleged Biden crime, no doubt. Or some new pronouncement about "DEI," or some far-right burp in some politically motivated sham investigation that exists solely to assemble television cameras into a room where the burp can happen.

Even if Republican frothing is properly contextualized, it still amounts to chasing the ball to wherever the provocateurs have kicked it.

Even if those moments are properly contextualized, they still amount to chasing the ball to wherever the far-right provocateurs have kicked it. As I type this, eight of ten top stories on the homepage of one top liberal website focus on Republicans; Republican reactions to a news event, Republicans behaving badly, current Republican obsessions. The remaining two are breaking news stories lifted directly from mainstream outlets and presented without further commentary.

It seems the only way climate change, world-shaking international crises, the collapse of capitalism into something more akin to oligarchy, or the planned dismantling of democracy can receive attention in many wings of Our Liberal Movement is if some Republican says something quipworthy about them.

One of the primary assertions of the newborn liberal blogosphere was that what is now mostly-reflexively referred to as the "mainstream" media, meaning the top newspapers and the dominant gaggle of network and cable news programs, was so fixated on political claims, quotes, and twitching partisan punditry that all news coverage had become that and only that. There was no environmental issue, or economic concern, or natural disaster that was not treated first and foremost as an opportunity for partisans to give mudslinging and frequently dishonest quotes. Every "news desk" became an offshoot of politics and partisanship. Cable "news" content shriveled into pundits yelling at each other and only pundits yelling at other; the future of news was just endless iterations of the odiously vapid Crossfire, a pro wrestling version of journalism that left out all the journalism.

Those condemnations of the press feel a bit hollower now, as one-time debates about health care, infrastructure, use of military power, corporate monopolies, the oligarchic powers of the wealthy, and other major national concerns shrivel up in favor of bad person said bad thing not just on their pages, but on ours.

There's an argument to be made that it's of necessity. The Republican-held House has been nothing if not consistent in its insistence that no problem be solved, not even the hint of one. We are in a long stretch of time when we can expect nothing to be done about anything unless a left-of-center president and his staff scrounges up a way to do it theirowndamnselves. And there's no question: Donald Trump, that seditionist convicted felon ratbastard, has through no skill of his own managed to cobble together a new fascist coalition that would like to do away with solving anything, ever, in favor of Putin-inspired cronyism and criminality. Top Republicans could not fling themselves fast enough at Dear Leader after his conviction; any past reluctance at allying themselves with a failed violent seditionist is long gone. That is the story that will define all the others.

And why should America resist it, then? What are the arguments against it? Who are the fringe figures that have elevated themselves into becoming national dangers through the dull means of simply praising Trump more lavishly than anyone else, over and over again until the dimwitted buffoon finally registers their presence and names them his allies? How does the twitch of one day's news flow into the twitch of three days afterwards—what is the f--ing context of any of it?

Avowedly "liberal" politically-focused sites are not where the forward lines of liberal thought do battle, in 2024. If you want a proper dose of contempt for media fatuousness you can go to the less stridently ideological 404 Media, and if you want insights into how the latest species of vampire squids are eating us all alive you can find it on The Baffler, and searching out how our wealthy betters plan to sow the seeds of vapidity in a new generation of newsrooms will likely land you at TechDirt, for the love of God, because TechDirt has room for stories that are not exclusively about hard-right snots doing hard-right things.

And if you want the core premises of modern liberalism spelled out for you and defended aggressively, then go to YouTube and watch former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wear goofy hats, draw goofy pictures and explain it all with more clarity than you or I can probably muster.

Our own audiences may not know any of that, if we ourselves are so tied to the twitch of the day that we cannot muster up mentions of it. There was once a time when online liberalism acted more intentionally to cross-pollinate its own best arguments and draw out the common threads that connected them all. Now the emaciated remains of left-of-center outlets chase The Algorithms by frantically throwing out near-identical takes on each daily news twitch while all but ignoring talented peers.

Once again: Not All Outlets, and Not All The Time. But many, and often.

Fragmentation as survival tool; fragmentation as threat

I'm not keen on the term balkanization, though dictionaries note the word is a century old and that I should probably just get over it. Let's choose fragmentation as our proxy.

National journalism is collapsing. All forms of it, from the most milquetoast to the most radical. There is blame to be laid, there is so much blame to be laid, but it is what it is and progressive outlets of all sizes are drowning in that same bathtub, no more or less immune to market forces than any of the others. It has been a hard blow to see the "progressive blogosphere" influential enough to win White House meetings in the Obama years fade into a more skeletal presence in the decade after.

There is currently no dominant online liberal community or group of communities. You might at least expect that readers in one community would have likely at least heard of many of the others, but that is not often the case. Again, there is little cross-pollination—though within the still-microscopic reach of BlueSky, some of it appears to be perhaps ramping up a bit?—and by and large online communities appear to keep mostly to themselves.

The extent to which this fragmentation is actively enforced by progressive subgroups varies, but there are certainly (cough) sites that appear to chafe so mightily at having to link to a talented peer that it rivals the New York Times' notorious gatekeeping.

One imagines that this has come about as a survival strategy. It is The Algorithm, once again; there is a financial urgency to ensuring Google has your take on the story above the hundred other versions, and whether or not one of those hundred other versions has already said everything that needed to be said doesn't enter into it. There is no room for altruism when you are eating your own salted foot to ward off starvation, and the collapse of internet advertising has turned salted foot into the staple diet of nearly every media group in the country.

A consequence, however, is that liberal discourse appears again to be moving towards stratification rather than cooperation. The set of people who are Paid to opine is extraordinarily narrow, and much more so on the left than on the right, and the current barriers to entry for new voices are unquestionably worse than they were two decades ago.

Professionalization has led to timidity—and, sometimes, to cowardice

There is another phenomenon that has turned online liberalism into a shadow of what it once was. The movement professionalized. It was once made up of the most devoted rabble rousers, people who held down day jobs between posts, but as ad revenues began to came in a select few sites began to make enough money to have management layers, and quarterly reports, and fears.

Now we have two distinct layers of Being Online. The first is the one-author shop, sites fueled more by passion than ambition and which have stayed largely true to themselves over the years. Some are providing survival wages, and some are not. The second consists of outlets that have corporatized—and by that I don't mean sites that have sheltered themselves behind the minimal protections of an LLC, but sites in which authors and activists now exist under a layer of executive control that tells them what they can rabble-rouse about and what they can't.

We can't pretend that professionalization hasn't led to a new timidity in calling out the mistakes of political allies or in sheepishly dodging entire categories of news that are deemed unhelpful to bring up. And timidity is the polite word for it; there are a few others that might apply as well.

I will admit that what sets me off more than anything else right now is "professional" American liberalism's abandonment of the Israeli left. Israel's still-indicted current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, managed to cling to power by allying himself with far-right extremists who have repeatedly called for ethnic cleansing and other acts of violence. Netanyahu himself has spent the last 20 years trying to sabotage American liberalism and boost Republicanism's hard-right flanks; he was a loud voice goading Americans into embracing the Iraq War, vowing that the results would be a boon for the region.

There have been protests in Israeli streets demanding Netanyahu's resignation since the beginning of the war, but you wouldn't know it from American media reports. His cobbled-together collection of frothing extremists has proven more interested in pursuing brutality than security—that he would even dare to ally himself with the likes of Itamar Ben-Gvir is disqualifying all on its own. Families of Hamas-captured hostages have been among the most vocal in their contempt for Netanyahu's wartime incompetence—and again, you would not know it, if your only news sources were liberal websites that zipped their mouths and pretended none of it was happening.

But the same timidity percolates through other debates as well. Some of the same sites that were once eager to blast Democratic Party errors or capitulations have not so much to say about it now. Talk of potentially donor-irritating subjects like corporate regulation, environmental protection, and the continued sabotage of American prosperity at the hands of companies granted near-monopoly powers to do it have all gone a bit mushy, and if anything are more the focus of business and tech blogs than of "professionally" liberal ones.

Where we go from here

In what remains of the so-called mainstream media, things may actually be worse than two decades ago. We entered the Iraq War with a professional liberal class, in the papers and on the television screens, that was in majority more performative than earnest, and more self-promoting than principled. We now face an election that will decide between a democratic government and a fascist one—and, thanks to new and even more vapid media masters in most of the places where it most matters, are subjected to incessant hot takes that focus more on candidate age or whether or the insurrectionist candidate being convicted of felonies will help or hurt him with "the base."

I am not sure it is possible to invent a media more feckless than the current version, but we have said that before and been wrong every time.

I don't think that the foibles of "American liberalism," and I'll tell you straight up I'm not sure that term even has utility as a descriptor, given the lack of cohesion among any of its various subparts, are so dire. We're likely seeing nothing more than the natural cycles of political activism at work, the cycle of movements building and fading and splitting off into splinter groups that devote themselves more to battling each other than in doing anything of merit themselves.

Twenty years of our activism do not appear to have made a dent in media willingness to privilege hard-right rhetoric over plain facts.

But it is noteworthy that twenty years of our activism do not appear to have made a dent in the media willingness to privilege hard-right rhetoric over plain facts, and that in fact corporate media groups appear to be now putting their thumbs on the scales to make sure this new flavor of hoax-centric authoritarianism has as much of fighting chance as can be mustered.

And it is worth reflecting on whether that means something went wrong, somewhere along the way, or if it only means the job was too big and the our allies too few.

I will admit to being weird, in my own prescriptions for how liberalism can best recapture political relevancy. I have long argued that it needs to shun so-called professionalization, because media "professionalism" is just another word for abiding by the status quo—and the status quo has driven all of the "professional" media companies straight into the ground, good and hard. It feels incoherent to follow the business mantras of the very people who brought America to this point and expect the results to be anything more than a poorly pantomimed version of the same. It feels like an on-the-cheap attempt to rebuild Jurassic Park.

And I flat-out reject the notion that Americans are simply too Stupid nowadays to handle anything with more substantive than a two-sentence sound bite. Americans are quite successfully focusing on two hour movies, binge watching television shows, listening to entire songs, downloading podcasts, and buying e-books. If Americans are not focusing on what you provide them, it is not because they have somehow developed some new mental impairment that prevents it.

My own prescriptions are this: Re-embrace the cross-pollination of speech, then redouble it. Stop attempting to parrot the conventions of a feeble and collapsing press, and slap yourself for considering it. Treat the contemptible with contempt, and the mockable with mockery, and be angry, truly angry, with those who grant undeserved dignity to hacks and crooks and charlatans, because those are the people who are killing the world. Be gonzo; be foolish; when you have nothing to say, be silent.

And perhaps I am completely wrong, and perhaps the MBA crowd leading us into fascist rule is right. Perhaps the performative version of politics that editors love so very much, the Supreme Court version of discourse in which one side says a thing and another side says a thing and then everyone has a good laugh and goes to dinner together because nobody in the room is poor enough or disadvantaged enough to have the outcome affect them personally—perhaps that will unsink the ship and make us all look like fools. Wouldn't that be nice.

Hunter Lazzaro

A humorist, satirist, and political commentator, Hunter Lazzaro has been writing about American news, politics, and culture for twenty years.

Working from rural Northern California, Hunter is assisted by an ever-varying number of horses, chickens, sheep, cats, fence-breaking cows, the occasional bobcat and one fish-stealing heron.


We want Uncharted Blue to be a welcoming and progressive space.

Before commenting, make sure you've read our Community Guidelines.