Party Central 

Berkeley blogger Markos Moulitsas wants nothing less than to reinvent party politics.

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He is impatient with the Dems' high-minded approach to politicking; his gut preference is for a bloodier fight. "We're not going to win by pulling out an encyclopedia and saying 'No, really, global warming is happening!'" he says firmly. "The conservatives have declared war on liberalism, and we have been treating it like we can appeal to people on the basis of reason, that if they'd just look at information and become educated they will see that it is in their interests to vote Democratic. The other side has been playing on emotions, they have been playing Orwellian tricks on the language!"

He'd like to see progressives make better use of negative campaign ads -- he's convinced Matsunaka could have taken Colorado if there'd been more money to keep running the pickpocket ad -- and says that if the party doesn't want to get its hands dirty funding attack ads, independent campaign committees should do it. He thinks Democrats should try to divide the Republicans on wedge issues like abortion, and drive progressive voters to the polls by running ballot initiatives on lefty issues such as raising the minimum wage. "We need to be down and dirty and absolutely tear them apart," Moulitsas says. "We have enough ammunition, but we're always too afraid to take the low road. It's like we'd rather lose than go down in the gutter with them. Fuck that. Let's go down in the gutter."


A good deal of Moulitsas' political imagery is couched in military terms, very likely because much of his life was shaped by war. Although born in Chicago of a Greek father and Salvadoran mother, when he was four his family moved to his mother's native country, then in the grip of a brutal civil war. "Here, war is a video game," Moulitsas says. "I've seen firsthand the ravages of war and the hatred, and just the notion that politics can be a life or death issue."

Moulitsas' family rented a house belonging to his grandfather that was in the middle of a field in contested territory; rebel troops wanted to use it as a headquarters. When Moulitsas was nine, his parents received an envelope full of photos of him and his brother going to school on the bus. "The message was kind of like, 'We're watching you. Get out,'" he says. According to family legend, after the war was over and someone went back to check on the house, it was riddled with bullet holes.

The family retreated to Chicago, where Moulitsas was in for a particularly hideous adolescence. He was a skinny kid who loved computer culture, followed the news assiduously, and was painfully aware of his accent. "I spent a lot of time in libraries," he says. "I was a definite nerd. I was hopeless. I had no social skills; I barely spoke English. If I was ten, I looked like I was six. I was short for my age, so I was the weird foreign short kid. It was the Army, basically, that gave me the cocky arrogance that I carry these days."

Moulitsas was indeed an unlikely candidate for military service, entering at age seventeen and all of 118 pounds. He'd figured that if he ever ran for elected office and had to vote for war, he should have done time in the military. Basic training provided Moulitsas with what he describes as the major turning point of his life: a grueling sixteen-mile road march in 100-degree heat. Moulitsas, who is not the sort of guy to do things the easy way, was determined to finish first with the people who were bigger than him. His strategy was to never take a break -- when everyone stopped to rest, he'd just keep marching. But finally, toward the end of the trek, fatigue overtook him. Even though he was sure he was far behind, he stopped to rest with the next group of soldiers he saw and, while squeezing the blood out of his socks, learned that he had somehow caught up to the leaders. He was so elated that he refused to surrender his rifle and heavy rucksack for the last two miles when relief trucks came by to pick them up, and ultimately finished the march with the lead group. "I kept thinking, 'You know what, I can do this -- there is nothing that people can throw at me that can ever compare to the pain and the overall horribleness of this experience,'" Moulitsas recalls. "I came out of that day thinking I could conquer the frickin' world."

In the Army, he also underwent a political transformation. He went in a hawkish Republican because of Ronald Reagan's support for the Salvadoran government. He came out a Democrat, having served with people of different races and social classes from all over the United States. After basic training, he was stationed for three years in Germany where he was a LANCE fire direction specialist for a missile unit. He reveled in his reputation as a platoon class clown who was continually reprimanded for his long hair and frequently drug tested for coming home red-eyed after nights partying in German clubs -- smoky air doesn't mix well with contact lenses. He played rhythm guitar and wrote lyrics for a punk band. He inscribed the Bad Religion lyric I want to be a man, but I don't want to die with a rifle in my hand on his helmet.

It wasn't a good time to be in the Army and to have ambivalent thoughts about death. The first Gulf War had begun, and the equipment for Moulitsas' unit had been sent to Saudi Arabia. He was slated to follow -- but the war ended before his unit shipped out. "I didn't even deploy and I had to go through soul-searching and come to terms with my own mortality at the age of nineteen," he says. "I'd get letters from friends in college saying, 'We went to this party, blah blah blah,' and I'd be like, 'Who gives a flying fuck? I could be dead next week.'"

Instead, Moulitsas finished his military service and went off to college as well. He entered Northern Illinois University planning to study music -- in addition to his punker career, Moulitsas is also a classically trained pianist who had hoped to make a living composing film scores. But fate intervened again when a columnist at the school paper wrote something nasty about Mexican-American students. "There was a big protest and all the ethnic groups stormed the paper and they burned the copies of the newspaper," he recalls. "I thought, 'This paper's kind of a piece of shit, but this isn't the way to change things. If you want to change things you've got to get on the inside, so what the heck, I'll try to be a columnist.'" Within a few semesters Moulitsas not only had his column, he was editing the paper and freelancing for the Chicago Tribune. He dropped his music major and added three more -- philosophy, political science, and journalism. He was primed for a reporting career, but his emergent blogger tendencies rebelled at the last moment. "The thing about journalism that kind of annoyed me was that I'm always writing about other people," he says. "Maybe I just want to set too many trends, I don't know. But it was fun for a couple of years and then suddenly it just started grating on me that it was always about somebody else. I got a little selfish -- I was like, 'What about me?'"

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