By Jonathan V. Last

Does anyone remember the “Netroots”?

Once upon a time, the Netroots were a collection of liberal bloggers who terrified establishment Democrats. This was back in the early ’00s and you can see right away how things have changed: (1) There are no “liberals” anymore, only “progressives,” and (2) “Bloggers” as a class have disappeared almost entirely, either because they were co-opted by the mainstream media and or, in other cases, were displaced by Twitter. There are still blogs and bloggers around, but they have little impact on politics.

The Netroots places like Daily Kos and Firedoglake and Eschaton became prominent in the aftermath of Bush v. Gore and were further radicalized by 9/11, and later the Iraq war. They were enraged by the manner in which Democrats largely supported George W. Bush and the degree to which they were against military intervention in Iraq as a prudential matter was entirely overshadowed by their visceral opposition to Bush, whom they opposed partly on grounds of ideology and partly because they viewed his administration as, literally, illegitimate.

The Internet was still reasonably new to politics back then, and political people were taken aback by the relatively large audiences these bloggers commanded. By 2003 the Netroots were clamoring for a champion, and they found one in Howard Dean, the Vermont governor who curiously based his entire candidacy around opposition to Iraq. The Netroots went to work for Dean, sometimes literally, leaving their own blogs and going to blog for Dean’s official campaign website.

It seems crazy now, but Dean actually ran a campaign blog written by bloggers, with their own bylines, that operated almost like an independent opinion magazine. It was the first, and certainly the last, time a presidential campaign took such a freewheeling approach to its own communication strategy. But the reason the campaign let the bloggers run free is that they raised an enormous amount of money. The “Dean for America” blog raised tens of millions of dollars, almost entirely through small contributions, and the rest of the Netroots aided in their frequent fundraising drives. (Remember “Hit the bat“?)

This fundraising scared the bejesus out of the Democratic primary field as Dean came out of nowhere to lead national polls in the months leading up to January 2004. And you couldsay, with very little exaggeration, that it was the Netroots_this motley collection of bloggers_that forced the Democratic party to change its position on the Iraq war as John Kerry and John Edwards and every candidate not named “Lieberman” took to the Deaniac line by the time the voting started.

Further, you could say that those same Netroots were responsible for Barack Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2008. As a state senator in 2001, Obama had the luxury of being able to say whatever he wanted about Iraq: Because his opinion didn’t matter, he was free to be inconsequential. Senator Clinton, on the other hand, faced a … wait for it … hard choice. And in 2008 she paid the price because the Netroots had driven the party away from where she had been.

While their power has waned, the Netroots are like all institutions_they chug ahead long after there is any rationale for them to exist. Last weekend they assembled for their annual convention in Detroit and it’s possible that they may have shown one last gasp of relevancy.

Elizabeth Warren gave the keynote address at Netroots Nation and, by all accounts, she brought the house down. Her speech was a fighting speech, aimed at turning the Democratic party away from its corporatist lunge and numerating the “11 commandments of progressivism.” There’s now a “draft Warren” music video circulating. Believe it.

What’s so interesting about Warren as a political commodity is that, as an issue of policy, her natural constituency within the party should be the Hillary voters from 2008_blue-collar, traditionalist Democrats. But the energy supporting her seems to be coming from the same coalition that propelled Obama: a combination of elites, young voters, and progressive ideologues. If you had to put it in 2008 terms, you’d say that Warren’s current coalition would look like a Frankenstein comprised of Hillary’s Jacksonian voters, spliced together Obama’s liberals, academics, and youth vote. In short, she’s got everything but the minority and Goldman Sachs wings of the party.

And if she really does run, she’s going to be all kinds of trouble for Hillary. And the Netroots will have struck again.

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