Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Reflecting on Netroots Nation 2011

I went to Netroots Nation in Minneapolis last weekend (July 16th-19th). It was the first one I've attended. If you're interested, you can go to the Netroots site for the schedule of speakers and panels. The site's blog features videos, as does their YouTube channel.

Going in, I thought the convention would probably be a good morale booster for many of the attendees, particularly those who live in conservative-dominated states. (In Los Angeles, where I currently live, it's not as hard to find some liberal meet-up groups.) However, I wondered if the convention would amount to preaching to the converted. Perhaps that was the case to a small degree, but I was struck by the amount of regional caucuses and activist group meetings, which I found encouraging. I also appreciated the heavy union representation among main stage speakers. For many attendees, going to Netroots Nation wasn't for an ego-boost, it was for gettin' stuff done. A few panels focused on the fight against far-right measures from state legislators and governors (in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Florida...). Special emphasis was given to the populist challenges to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who's extremely plutocratic, Koch-backed, and has engaged in radical overreach that he did not disclose to voters during his campaign for office. Because Wisconsin's right next to Minnesota, many Wisconsinites made the trek. Meanwhile, conference goers were able to attend a few jobs rallies in Minneapolis.

What with airfare, lodging and registration itself, going to Netroots Nation can be a bit expensive for working stiffs. At least one speaker noted that the average Netroots attendee tends to be well-educated, middle-class, and white. Netroots seemed to be making efforts to increase diversity, though, and was definitely far more diverse than conservative conferences such as CPAC and Right Online. Meanwhile, the group Democracy for America has been offering scholarships to help people attend the past couple of years. (This year, they offered fifty scholarships, including one to Blue Gal.) Downtown Minneapolis is also extremely walkable. Netroots Nation also hosted a "day of service" event on Sunday, in addition to the other rallies, so while there were plenty of parties, there were plenty of opportunities for social responsibility besides the socializing.

All the panels I attended were good, some excellent. I went to ones on messaging, reckless Republicans in state legislatures, combating corporate power after Citizens United, corporate courts, our progressive history, saving public education, countering hate speech against workers, challenging media narratives on right-wing extremism, and comedy, video and activism. Typically, there were at least one or two other panels I would have also liked to attend in the same slot. Most panels were taped, so I hope those are eventually posted. (Currently, it seems the only videos posted are panel highlights, and the keynote speeches.) I was generally familiar with the facts and the stories behind the panels' discussions, but several speakers made extremely sharp points about "framing" various issues. The quality of Q&A time varied. Some people asked great questions, some made comments instead (but they were good comments), and a few would launch into long, repetitive speeches, monopolizing the time.

As for the speakers for the main hall speaker events, all the union folks were great. A few international bloggers were featured. Understandably, there was a strong Midwestern presence, and frequent mentions of the much missed Paul Wellstone. Most of the speakers focused on jobs, the middle class, and making the American Dream achievable for the majority of Americans again. Many also spoke about not depending on Obama for progress, and continuing to pressure him and Congress to enact good policies. Russ Feingold was good, and spoke on campaign finance reform. I liked the content of Al Franken's speech on the good that government can do, but he was surprisingly low energy. (Early morning? Jet lag?) Debbie Wasserman Schultz had a natural manner. Howard Dean and Van Jones seemed a bit more generic to me. Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison gave a rousing speech, which you can see here.

Daily Kos' Angry Mouse (Kaili Joy Gray) interviewed White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer on the main stage. It was a pretty frustrating affair, and sometimes seemed pointless, since as an official flack, Pfeiffer just wouldn't give straight answers to some questions, and she pressed him hard. Pfeiffer would have had an easier time, of course, if Washington politics weren't so screwed up, with common sense measures denounced as radical, far-left socialism. However, the netroots' discontent with Obama and the Dem leadership is less about a lack of success than the lack of effort on some issues. It's about poor negotiation and often accepting right-wing framing. (Why not emphasize jobs versus the deficit, for example?) Political realities are one thing, but they can be reshaped somewhat, and Obama's reticence makes less sense when good policy happens to coincide with good politics (which isn't uncommon). In any case, I appreciated that the Pfeiffer interview was often adversarial, and not a suck-up job. I wasn't as crazy about Angry Mouse's frequent, audible sighing and her saying that she and we were all sick of hearing about the Lilly Ledbetter Act – rather than saying, okay, the Lilly Ledbetter Act was great, but what's your next move? However, Angry Mouse has explained her perspective more fully in this piece, and she did catch and press Pfeiffer on Obama's equivocation on gay marriage. As Dave Weigel wrote, "[Pfeiffer's] main goal was to take some hits without generating new, bad storylines for the White House or an impression that it was bowing to liberals. He succeed." Alas that hippie-punching is still the reigning dynamic inside the Beltway, and kudos to Angry Mouse for giving it a go.

Netroots Nation has been stalked from city to city the past few years by Right Online, a copycat conservative conference, well funded by the Koch brothers through their Americans for Prosperity Foundation. That funding made registration for Right Online much cheaper than Netroots Nation, but they still had a smaller turnout (apparently about 1,500 compared to Netroots' 2,500+). It's unsurprising that a Koch-funded conference would also devote time to backing a Koch-backed politician, Scott Walker. Apparently, working class conservatives hate unions so much, they'll fight against their own interests with just a little goading from the latest plutocratic shill. It's a perfect example of a joke that circulated (with some variations) a couple of months back:

A unionized public employee, a member of the Tea Party and a CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle of the table there is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches across and takes 11 cookies, then looks at the tea partier and says, "Look out for that union guy – he wants your cookie."

(I think that joke captures the bulk of the left and right blogospheres, and forty years of movement conservatism, but more on that in another post, perhaps.)

Supposedly, Netroots included a non-compete clause when bidding for their new location (Providence, Rhode Island for 2012), so if that holds, Right Online will have to try to steal attention from Netroots in a different city.

There wasn't much coverage of Netroots Nation in the media, which is really inexcusable, since it's arguably the major liberal/progressive event of the year (certainly one of them, this being another), and comparative right-wing gatherings get coverage even by non-Fox outlets. David Neiwert wrote a piece about this for Crooks and Liars, and noted that the Twin Cities' paper, the Star Tribune (admittedly a generally lousy paper) wrote two fairly positive pieces on Right Online, but only devoted one paragraph to Netroots Nation. (Dave Weigel of Slate did write some pieces on both conferences, which start here – you can then scroll through the "next" tab.) Andrew Breitbart tried to crash Netroots Nation, which is apparently an annual occurrence, and was chased off. Naturally, this was videotaped. This incident was much discussed at Netroots, particularly at the excellent Media, Comedy and Activism panel. While Breitbart is a liar, provocateur and an immense asshole, I agreed with the panelists that shouting at him was the wrong way to handle the situation, and just looked bad to people who didn't know Breitbart. (It's that old saying, "Never argue with a fool, because people might not be able to tell the difference.") An angry reaction was exactly what Breitbart wanted. Being polite, or being comedic (Lizz Winstead had some good ideas), would have been far more effective.

As for other events, the Laughing Liberally comedy show was pretty good. Elon James White (of the fun Blacking It Up podcast, and This Week in Blackness) had the most off-color material but the best delivery. He was also a friendly guy. I missed the karaoke and the political quiz events.

The booths at the conference offered plenty of buttons and stickers. I also got a book autographed by Tom Tomorrow. I've cited pieces by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the Center for Media and Democracy/PR Watch in the past, and both had booths, staffed by very friendly people who were happy to hear their material was being used. The Fair Tax folks were there, too, trying to hoodwink liberals into backing their atrocious, plutocratic plan. I did take their literature, because I always like to see how people are selling their bullshit, but passed on an extensive discussion. Teachers, manufacturing and unions were well represented.

My badge just showed my first name, not my pseudonym/nom de blog, although I would mention that to people as appropriate. If I ever attend another Netroots, I might go with the pseudonym. I'm a part-time blogger and have had to blog even less than usual this year, so I figured I was fairly under the radar, known in some circles, but very far from "blog famous" – which is itself several grades lower than actual fame. In any case, I was largely anonymous at Netroots. I found most people were very friendly, but some were surprisingly standoffish, even after receiving a compliment like, "good panel." I'm sure bloggers suffer from social awkwardness more than ordinary mortals, some activists can be single-minded, but some people gave the vibe, "if you're not famous, I'm not interested." This is familiar to anyone living in Hollywood-land (and you can find it anywhere, to some degree). However, most people were nice.

One of my excuses to go to Netroots Nation was the number of college friends I have in Minnesota that I hadn't seen in person for years. I flew out a day early and stayed fairly late on Sunday to catch up with a few of them. (I also visited the Walker Art Center and Sculpture Garden.) There was a sizable California contingent at Netroots, so I saw some familiar faces, especially the prolific and amiable David Dayen. I'm sorry I missed the Balloon Juice meet-up, but there wasn't much advance notice. However, it was lovely to meet Blue Gal and Driftglass, and a number of other bloggers in person for the first time. Blue Gal and Driftglass' podcast reflecting on Netroots Nation is here, and they also did three short pieces while at Netroots itself. But surely most readers of this blog are already regular listeners of BG/DG's Professional Left podcast. In any case, seeing friends old and new was the best part of my trip.

That's it for now. Peace, art, activism, and happy blogging.


Fran said...

Great to read this account. I know that BG and DG attended and I have read some posts but not yet caught up on the podcasts.

Thanks for your insights. I may not comment much these days, but I always try to keep up with you in my reader at the very least.

Cirze said...

I also want to thank you for taking the time to document your trip, Bat.

Here in NC I've met quite a few idiot (really, no kidding) Tea Party faithful (who were recruited by the Koched-ups) who are mainly doing it for the paycheck.

Hard to believe isn't it?


Have you lived in an area like NC's hard-hit workforce?

"Their" plan of attack works perfectly here.

Thanks, again!


Phil said...

Great breakdown.

Almost an outside looking in viewpoint but much preferred to the OMG! I was at Netroots! kind of thing.

Glad you got to go and glad to see we progressives are still out there kicking ass and taking names.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Was there any sense of fatigue at the seeming futility of getting any mainstream traction for liberal memes and the overwhelming success of right-wing messaging? Cause I can tell you that I am fucking fatigued by this right now.

Batocchio said...

Thanks for stopping by, folks.

Comrade PhysioProf, there was some of that, and certainly I share that feeling - as do the folks in the comment thread at Dave Neiwert's piece. It goes back to that joke – the left blogosphere tries to point out the obvious insanity of the "he wants your cookie" move. The right-wingers mainline all the Fox News propaganda (and add to it), and get angry at the left blogosphere and the union employee. The MSM ignores it all, or reports it poorly – worst of all when they legitimize the right-wing rage at the damn evil schoolteacher. It's all very frustrating, and the deck is badly stacked – but progress does get made, at least on the margins.