Welcome to the inaugural installment of NPI at Netroots Nation 2022, a special limited podcast series recorded live from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. NPI staff journeyed to Steel City this past week to participate in the nation’s largest annual gathering of progressive activists.
As part of our conference coverage, we’re bringing you a series of conversations with key movement leaders and elected officials.
In this inaugural installment of NPI@NN, we’re honored to be joined by Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, which publishes news you can do something about. Press play below to listen to the audio, or read the transcript below.
Read the transcript
(Note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity)
CAYA: Welcome to NPI at Netroots Nation 2022, a special limited podcast series from the Northwest Progressive Institute from the David L. Lawrence Convention center in Pittsburgh. I am your host, Caya Berndt. We are glad to have you with us for this installment. We are thrilled to be joined by Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos! How are you doing, Markos?
MARKOS: Doing great. Thank you very much.
CAYA: Great, I’m really glad to hear that! So just to start this off, would you mind telling our listeners a little bit about yourself, your organization and what you do?
MARKOS: So I am the founder of Daily Kos. I started that twenty years ago. This is the twentieth year anniversary.
CAYA: Happy anniversary!
MARKOS: A big landmark, for sure! And, we all got older somehow. I don’t know if that was to be expected, but apparently didn’t have a choice. So twenty years ago, we started this in a world where – and by starting this, I started just blogging on a dinky little blog – it was 2002, and there was frustration in the progressive world because all the media voices were conservative.
Fox News was ascendant, Rush Limbaugh dominated the airwaves, the radio airwaves. There were no liberal voices. There was a show on Fox News called Alan and Colmes — sorry, Colmes and Hannity. Colmes and Hannity.
Alan Colmes was the liberal; Sean Hannity, which we know today, was a conservative. And Alan Colmes was your stereotypical weenie liberal who just got beat up by Sean Hannity. It was designed to make liberals look bad.
And so this was the environment in the rise of George Bush’s [presidency] after he basically stole the election. And then you have the warmongering towards Iraq and September 11th happens, and you use that as an excuse to launch an invasion against an unrelated matter, just because Bush Jr. wanted to, I don’t know, settle a score with Saddam Hussein from his dad’s presidency.
I mean, it was just this crazy world and there were no liberal voices. And you even had Joe Klein, [who] was a conservative columnist in Time Magazine, and he wrote something – and he was supposed to be the liberal! — and he wrote something like “all right-thinking people know that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.”
And then there were people like me saying, “Well, we haven’t seen any of the so-called evidence. They can’t tell us that there is such evidence and what they show us is clearly not evidence. So, no, this is not quite right. And so, I like to say that there’s a market need for strong, progressive, unapologetic, liberal voices.
That’s what Daily Kos sort of sprung out of.
And… what was it? It was 2002. So, just four years later, a bunch of the community members decided they wanted to meet offline. And that’s not my world — there’s a reason I’m a blogger. I’m not really comfortable in public settings. But a bunch of the community members wanted to meet in public.
And that’s what birthed the first YearlyKos, which became Netroots Nation a few years after that [after the second convention in 2007]. So it was the sort of collective environment gathering of liberals that didn’t have a home in those early — not early days relative to the world — but early days of this political era.
That’s the birth of what is now Netroots Nation, and it really fueled the use of online tools for political activism and political campaigning that is pretty normal today.
CAYA: Yeah, I was gonna say it must be really interesting, because twenty years, I mean, that’s not that much time. So it must be really interesting seeing how the news media landscape has shifted, where you were like a lone progressive or liberal voice online, to now, where we have this abundance of political voices to choose from.
MARKOS: Yeah. I mean, the problem is that those voices, you know, Facebook is dominated by conservative voices. You have, obviously, cable news is very conservative. Fox News is very dominant, talk radio [is] still very, very conservative. So there are places that liberal voices are more present, but we still don’t have any kind of sort of parity in media access to those liberal voices.
And it’s a wonder that liberalism has progressed. And a lot of that is because liberalism is very well represented in Hollywood and in our pop culture, right?
Conservatives in D.C. may be fighting a rear guard against abortion, against trans rights, against marriage equality, and, you know, we still have Clarence Thomas [on the] Supreme Court saying he wants to roll back those rights.
So that fight is still being fought in D.C. It’s not being fought in the rest of the country. I mean, when you look at polling on marriage equality, on marijuana legalization, on abortion, the American people are very, very liberal.
And so there’s this phenomenon that I’ve been taking note of: that when I started this, Republicans liked to say that this was a center-right nation. “Oh, this is Ronald Reagan’s center-right nation.” They’d repeat this over and over again.
They don’t say that anymore. They’ve given up.
They know that they’re not a majority of this country. They know that this is not a right country, it’s center-left. And so that’s why they’re really doubling down on voter suppression, on using the structural defects of our democracy, such as the Electoral College, the undemocratic Senate, unrepresentative Senate, gerrymandering in the House…they’re using those defects of our democracy to entrench minority rule, because not only have they realized that they’re not a majority of the American people, they don’t want to even try.
CAYA: They’re building a structure that’s almost almost fail-safe. I mean, that’s the purpose of redistricting and gerrymandering, too, is building these un-losable districts to try to secure their power.
MARKOS: Yeah. They can’t win a fair fight. They’re not trying anymore. They used to at least pretend, but they’re not even pretending anymore, now that they know they’re on the losing side. But this flawed structure of our democracy gives them an opportunity to entrench their power despite popular opinion.
But this is also where you’re seeing the rise of the fascist right, where even the idea of democracy is now a threat to them, because they can’t win on ideas, on their ideology… they can’t win anymore. So if they can’t gerrymander, if they can’t use the electoral college to retain power, they are reserving the right to use violence and other undemocratic means to retain power.
That’s what January 6th was all about!
CAYA: To bring back something you were saying a little earlier: I thought it was really interesting how you were saying that there are a lot more voices, but it seems like some of the more right-leaning or conservative voices are still dominating the popular media forms that we can think about, like radio or television. But I’ve noticed something in journalism, that… even podcasts that I think are otherwise okay, is that there’s this reluctance to refer to things such as January 6th by what it actually was. I mean, that was an insurrection. That was an attempt at a violent coup. And there seems to be this desire to try to treat these things as legitimate political strategy rather than political violence.
MARKOS: Right. I mean, in the last couple of days, there’s been this push on Twitter, driven by people like [pause] Meghan McArdle that, “oh, because we were mean to Mitt Romney, that is why now you have this reactionary fascist right.”
And people are pointing out well, you said that Barack Obama was an illegitimate, non-American, socialist, communist Muslim who went to a radical church, who’s gonna burn down Christianity, and you know what? Democrats didn’t say, all right, you know what? We’re gonna vote for Louis Farrakhan for president next election cycle. I mean, there is no excuse, but you see this phenomenon on the right, which is amazing. And you see it in traditional media very much. They don’t wanna give conservatives agency for their decisions. It’s not their fault that they attempted a coup! January 6thers were led astray by certain voices who were radicalized because liberals were mean to John McCain.
Come on! They have agency, just like our people have agency. People have the ability to open their eyes, look at the situation, and decide what to believe, how critical to be about their news sources, and how to act on those beliefs.
It was clear that there was nothing stopping them from resorting to violence [on] January 6th, because they believed that whatever the democracy looked like, it was flawed. It was stolen, whatever they… however they rationalized it. There was no evidence. The courts were very clear on this. Trump himself couldn’t actually show any evidence. He would just say: “everybody knows.”
It was very clear. And so they made a conscious decision just to go along with this because it’s what they wanted to believe, not because that’s what the truth was.
And then we were supposed to believe that it was because somebody was […] being mean to Mitt Romney? It was like talking about how many houses he had. Nobody accused him of being un-American. Nobody accused him of being a danger to democracy, or being a Muslim, or being a communist, or being any of the enemies of America. We said he had too many houses!
CAYA: And something I’ve been seeing a lot of, with regards to the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, is people hearkening back to when Republicans were trashing Hillary Clinton for her emails.
MARKOS: And that’s it’s like, there was no wrongdoing! There was no wrongdoing. It wasn’t against the law to have your emails. Colin Powell did it. Condoleeza Rice did. And you asked people what was wrong with the emails, and they can’t tell you. But it was her emails! She had emails, they had secret emails, 40,000 emails. She turned them over. There were three emails that were classified after the fact.
CAYA: Do you think there needs to be any accountability on the [field of] journalism or the media, in terms of how they try to dampen the severity of some of these events and actions?
MARKOS: I think Twitter has been really good as an instant feedback mechanism for the traditional media, and it’s clear that a lot of them don’t like it. They’re not used to being [checked], and it’s even worse than that. They’re used to being attacked from the right. Because the right had the mechanism to really raise voices and attack journalism. Rush Limbaugh would call them out, and the web was very, very right-leaning when I first stepped onto the scene.
And so they were used to getting attacked from the right. They weren’t used to being attacked from the left, right. And it really shocks them when that happens, because it’s just so rare. But over the years, because of this relentless assault from the right, you know, working the refs, so to speak, it’s pushed the center of gravity, rightwards. So Twitter really created a new mechanism to hold accountability. These are private businesses. And I don’t say that in the very Democratic-Socialists-of-America-way of like, they’re corrupt and this and that. They have certain rights. And people have certain opinions and that’s okay.
It’s also okay for liberals to go like, you know what? [It’s nonsense that you say] Donald Trump exists because we made fun of Romney’s 10 houses. I mean, that’s not an argument that makes sense. Why are we, why is anybody repeating it? Why has anybody given it any credence?
The reason the conservatives, have turned to fascism in Donald [Trump] Is because that’s what they always believed. We just didn’t know it, because they didn’t have access to the information like they do today.
We thought that [the] John Birch society was a small, sort of fringey outlet… but the problem with the John Birch society is that these little newsletters that they printed out and mailed just didn’t reach enough people.
Now, you have Facebook. And that reaches a lot of people and whoa, they all believe it! That’s what we are finding out. They’re all predisposed to authoritarianism and fascism. Keep in mind, it’s also different when it was just white people in power, and they can’t handle that. So you had like Barack Obama or a woman is running for president, like, it broke them! They broke. And so, given the access to authoritarian messaging, and the creation of the conservative media bubble, and the rise of power amongst formerly disenfranchised communities and peoples, has completely reshuffled the playing field.
And that’s why we have the polarization that we have today. If you look at white voters, white people, the most liberal leaning are those that live in cities, and what characterizes living in cities, is that you’re in contact with people of different cultures and different sexes, genders, and pronouns…and it’s okay. Like, it’s not scary. And so their appeals to racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia do not have resonance with urban dwelling whites the way it does with people who don’t have access, who just aren’t present. Rural America, basically.
CAYA: Who are more isolated, and more likely to have a more homogeneous surrounding, and less environmental factors to combat some of the propaganda, the misinformation that they might be seeing online.
MARKOS: Yeah, absolutely. And then you also layer on top that those areas are also the most economically disadvantaged parts of America. Corporations left them behind for China and Mexico decades ago. Nobody really came in after.
The fact [that] the youth are leaving. There’s really not much of an economy left over. Meth and other other drug addiction is heavy in those places.
And there’s a nihilism that Donald Trump really appealed to. I mean, Donald Trump, his biggest appeal is that he said, “I’m gonna burn this whole thing down. I don’t take it seriously. This thing, it’s a joke.” It’s political nihilism.
And that’s why Mehmet Oz, who comes in just as rich and has just as many houses, gets no traction because he’s not a political nihilist. And it takes somebody like Donald Trump with the ego and the narcissism to try to realize that if it doesn’t serve him, it has no purpose, and he’s gonna burn it down. It’s easy to rally around somebody like that, who doesn’t respect institutions, the way they don’t respect institutions, because institutions have legitimately failed those people.
CAYA: Right. To go back to what you were mentioning about… on the other hand, we have somebody like John Fetterman who is not running a ”traditional” political campaign, who’s gaining a lot of traction. And he’s not the only candidate that has been generating a lot of enthusiasm among voters.
I think that something that’s been on everybody’s mind lately has been: what are the 2022 midterms going to be looking like? I know that certainly myself, I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’ve had my eye on the primaries, just to see how, okay, what are these gonna look like? What is November going to potentially look like? And the primaries have given me a cautious optimism.
But I’m really curious to know what your perspective on what our chances are in November, or how you think November might be turning out.
MARKOS: Yeah, no, “cautious optimism” is actually a very good way to put it. Like, nobody’s celebrating yet, and don’t we dare celebrate yet!
CAYA: Don’t jinx it! Hold your breath!
MARKOS: The conventional wisdom in an election is that the party in power loses about thirty to fifty house seats. And generally, you’re gonna lose a bunch of Senate seats, it spells disaster.
The reason is that the elections are generally a referendum on the sitting president. That’s just history. Joe Biden is sitting around a 36% approval rating. Somebody maybe has up to 39%. He’s bleak. If it were a traditional cycle, we’d be looking to get blown out and we’d just be trying to figure out, how do we minimize the damage? We’d be looking at 2010. But, I was saying a year ago, I was writing about it, or talking about it in my podcast, the Daily Kos Brief, I was talking about how this was not going to be a typical midterm election.
The argument was that, first of all, we knew that Dobbs was coming down the line and that the Supreme Court was going to eliminate the right to an abortion.
Right? So that we knew that was gonna be a factor. We also knew that it’s hard to have a referendum on the sitting president when the ex-president is also running for president at the same time. So we know that Donald Trump generated a great deal of support. He actually increased his number of votes by about 3 million from cycle to cycle from ‘16 to ‘20. Joe Biden brought out eight million new Democrats, and that was not Joe Biden. Nobody loves Joe Biden, right?
That was Donald Trump. “Oh crap. Donald Trump!”
So, I knew that having Donald Trump on the ballot again this year was going to be a factor. Now, I didn’t know how much of a factor… and a lot of it was theoretical. it turns out that I was right. I’m not always right. I’m not bragging… but I was right about this.
Dobbs, I think, is the biggest factor, and it actually has generated a dramatic increase in voter registration amongst women, amongst liberal-leaning women, and men, too. And it’s looking like it might be, actually, allies. It might not, it’s not necessarily conservatives. They won. So the reason a midterm election is a referendum on the president, it’s obvious.
But what that also does, is that a president’s party loses his base of support, loses some intensity. One: because you got it, you won! So there’s a sense of like, mission accomplished! But two: because our political system doesn’t allow a president to deliver on his promises. (I can’t wait until I can say “his or her promises,” but, so far, it’s only been “his” so far.)
Biden, what he’s gotten through has gone through so much compromise, it’s watered down. So everybody’s depressed and sad, upset and disillusioned. Why did we fight so hard for this? So there’s a lot of that, but what’s happened now, Republicans are still very active. Nobody should be disabused of that because they’re still in the minority. But — liberals also feel like we’re in the minority because the Supreme Court has just come in and said, “No, we’re in charge.”
Not only are we gonna throw out abortion, but you know what, here, we’re gonna give you a list. We’re gonna literally write down how we’re coming after same-sex marriage, we’re coming after contraception, we’re coming after sodomy laws and oh, you know what, maybe we won’t come after interracial marriage, but that’s just because of Clarence Thomas, and it’s in his interest not to come after that.
The underlying judicial opinion and the underpinnings of all those rights is the right to privacy. And that also includes interracial marriage.
All those things are actually now on the ballot and they have said so, and they are basically saying, “We’re in charge. We’re in charge.” So now, liberals are feeling under siege and disempowered and that’s very, very motivating.
So both sides are now at a level that sort of looks like 2020-type of intensity. It’s a [presidential] general election intensity, not a midterm intensity. So that alone has already reshuffled the playing field. And then, of course, Trump is not only back on the ballot, like we assumed he is, but he’s criming his way to… how many possible indictments? I don’t think a lot of people are gonna be like, “okay, now, I was gonna vote Republican, but now, because of the of the Mar-a-Lago raid, now I’m gonna vote Dem now….” I don’t think that’s happening.
But what’s happening, is that there is really one swing demographic in the entire country. Everybody’s locked in fifty-fifty. The only people that go back and forth are college educated, suburban white women.
They are the reason we lost Virginia’s governor’s race last year, the reason we almost lost the governor’s race in New Jersey, that should not have been competitive. So last year I was like, oh my God. Oh crap. Republicans were outperforming Donald Trump’s numbers by about three points last year.
So if you take it fifty-fifty, twenty-twenty, and you give Republicans three points, they take the Senate, they take the House. After Dobbs, after the Supreme Court decision, there’s been three partisan races, special elections in the House. The Democrats, on average, has outperformed Joe Biden, eight points in those three races. That’s not even including the Kansas abortion race [ballot measure], it’s a different environment. And if this continues until November, we’re gonna win two to four seats in the Senate, and we’re gonna keep the House.
CAYA: Thank you very much for that. Big if… and correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it really is going to have to come down to making sure that people [are] getting out to vote, because I think that a lot of people have been disillusioned by… we worked so hard to get Joe Biden in. And what are we really getting in return? People maybe fearing that it might not be worth it voting.
Do you agree with that statement?
MARKOS: I mean, no. I think that’s where we were before Dobbs, like I said, Dobbs has reach, and you know, it’s one of the things that’s kind of amazing. And I haven’t seen this in recent history, in any history that I’ve seen, actually… I’m not gonna say it’s never happened, ‘cause I haven’t done the research, but at least when I was paying attention, so in the last twenty years, I haven’t seen this bifurcation between the president’s numbers and the numbers of the Democratic — his party’s — candidates.
I mean, Biden is in the thirties. You have somebody like John Fetterman in the, like, high fifties, which, for in the modern day, anything above forty, you’re doing pretty, pretty well. You look into Wisconsin with Mandela Barnes, you look at our candidate, Val Demings in Florida.
You look at our candidates in North Carolina and Ohio, and we are actually looking pretty good, despite Joe Biden. And what’s happening is that, instead of it being a referendum, which would depress, like what you just said, it’s a referendum on the Supreme Court because, holy crap, we gotta do something, because they’re coming after our rights. And it’s a referendum on Donald Trump, because look, he’s there, and he is trying to run for president again.
And he’s already criming his way to everything, and oh my God, he wants to do more of those crimes! And then you have a Republican Party that can’t quit Donald Trump, for whatever reason, when he has objectively been bad for… everything. He’s cost them the White House, only the third president in a hundred years to not win reelection –
CAYA: Only president to be impeached twice.
MARKOS: You got that. But even if you’re like a Republican, he costs you the White House, he costs you the Senate, he costs you the House, he costs you a couple, several dozen state legislatures… objectively, he has been bad for them! He’s brought more people out and I think that’s what they look at. He’s brought out more of our people, and he’s doing it again this year.
CAYA: I think that they cling to him because as you said, Republicans know that they cannot win by legitimate political means. So they turn to scorched earth tactics and authoritarianism and fascism, and Donald Trump is the perfect vehicle for that. However, I don’t think that that strategy is sustainable in the long run, because, like you said, you have the swing-around where everybody else starts mobilizing behind getting that energy out.
MARKOS: Yeah. And the other piece is their core base – older, white, rural men–are dying. Like, literally, they’re dying and youth are extremely liberal. They’re more liberal than I am. You know, I’m fifty, and generationally they get more and more liberal. And they don’t vote at high rates now, ‘cause no young people have ever voted in high rates.
It’s been the challenge of every Democratic liberal campaign in history. I mean if you don’t believe me, look at Bernie Sanders, right? The youth love him, but they didn’t vote. That’s why he lost every [combined] primary. Because the people that form his base are not high voting people. It’s a challenge, but they’re gonna get older and they’re gonna die off. So demographically, they’re falling off. It’s slow going. I mean, this isn’t happening, and this is why they’re trying so hard. This is why they’re trying so hard, to use those levers of our flawed democracy to lock in a minority vote. Because they know that demographic cliff is happening. They don’t want to actually have to do the work to rebrand and rebuild.
It can happen! I mean, Republicans were trashed after Watergate in ‘76, and yet four years later they won the White House [with Ronald Reagan], right? I mean, this is not something that would doom them.
If they went back to being like, “okay, you know what, we’re the small [government], we’re the low tax party who believes in lots of Pentagon spending.” That’s their gig, and, you know, find some issues here or there that would appeal to suburban, college-educated white women. School-related issues, [for example].
So there is a place for them to rebuild, but they don’t want to actually even surrender a little bit now. So this is becoming an existential election.
We have an opportunity, because of Trump and because of the Dobbs decision on abortion, we have an opportunity to actually get that filibuster-proof majority. We need two seats in the Senate to get rid of the filibuster, expand the Supreme Court, grant statehood to D.C., grant potential statehood to Puerto Rico, at least give them a referendum to decide whether they want it or not.
And if they want it, to grant it!
To ban partisan gerrymandering, to pass a voting rights bill that guarantees vote by mail, that guarantees access to the polls.
I mean, these are things that can happen if we win this November. And if we don’t, we are in a really bad place. This is not fearmongering.
We’re in a really bad place because they are systematically eroding people’s rights to vote and keep key battleground states like Arizona and Georgia.
And if we don’t win in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan… I mean, these are all contested gubernatorial statewide [races]. Secretary of State offices, we have elected positions, and those are critical Supreme Court justices in these states. This is all on the ballot. So either we turn out and we do everything we can to win, top to bottom, or we’re in a bad place. But I’ve never seen that kind of you know, distinction between the two of possibilities: like, expand the Supreme Court and D.C. statehood, or the end of American democracy!
I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not!
CAYA: No, you’re not! So, we are approaching the end of our time. And I’m not going to pretend that we have a lot to be hopeful about. There is… like you said, that cautious optimism, but the past four years have been hard. The past two years have been brutal, but the fall of Roe v. Wade, and the [loss of the] rights to privacy and bodily autonomy have been especially punishing for all of us.
So the final question that I like to ask everybody is: in these times, what is bringing you joy?
MARKOS: I mean, I’ve got my two kids. I’m a single dad. My oldest is right now in the Army. He’s finishing up his infantry training, he’s going to ranger school…he’s amazing. And I’m gonna be doing a keynote tomorrow here, and I’ll be talking about how, at the first Netroots Nation, he was two years old, and I had him on my shoulders and… when I was giving my keynote, I mentioned Harry Reid was gonna be speaking later, and he starts angrily screaming and everybody at the hall thought it was hilarious. And I was mortified!
And that little kid, who was on my shoulder, screaming at the name “Harry Reid” is now finishing his infantry training, and he is soon to be going to ranger school. So I’m incredibly proud of that.
And I’ll be going to his graduation in four weeks, in Georgia.
And then, my daughter, who is just the smartest person. She’s fifteen, she’s queer, and she’s like this incredibly fierce trans rights advocate, to the point where her trans friends are like, can you like lower the temperature a little bit?
I mean, it’s actually hilarious. She’s frickin’ amazing.
And…she suffered. She’s very social. She suffered during the pandemic, and she had some pretty severe mental health issues. So I had to step back from work a little bit and really deal with getting her healthy, and she seems to be out of the darkness. She’s coming back and, there’s this vibrant… she just sent me a video of her playing piano, and she hadn’t touched the piano in probably over a year!
And like she’s playing piano again.
I’m just so incredibly thrilled that, at this time particularly, I can refocus on the battle ahead, towards November, because she is back in a good place. She does debate… she’s turning into a little me! She’s a little arguer and it’s like, “oh my God, am I that annoying? Holy crap, I need to re-calibrate myself!” [laughs]
Within a month, she, as a beginner, she was already on the varsity squad.
So it’s really cool to have these kids that are so incredibly talented in different ways and are doing different things. I get incredible joy from them.
I mean, that’s why we do everything and they’re just fun. Yeah. I love my kids.
CAYA: Thank you for that. That was Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos. Tune in next time for our next installment for NPI at Netroots Nation!
For NPI, I’m Caya Berndt.