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A Tale of Two Netroots

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Earlier today on DailyKos a user outed me as a 'spy' at Netroots Nation, writing:

"Blogcritic's Dave Nalle files his first spy report. As he acknowledges right off the bat, he is there undercover to see what the other side is doing. He demonstrates his complete ignorance of the left blogosphere in his description of the attendees and the dkos blogging community. Beware who you're talking to at the conference."

He sort of misses the point of my reporting on Netroots Nation. It's a pretty poor spy who writes up descriptions of his exploits while they are ongoing and releases them through a major web magazine which is linked into Google News. I'm not interested in rooting out deep dark secrets or causing confrontation. I'm interested in the political process, regardless of the ideology involved, and think there's real value in understanding the beliefs and thought processes of those who may not share one's viewpoint. I don't need to go out of my way to understand the beliefs of Republicans or Libertarians, but I can't pass up the opportunity to gain more knowledge about the progressive left and actually expand my experience at an event like Netroots Nation.

It will be interesting to see what kind of reception I get tomorrow, assuming that I'm recognized for the dreaded interloper which some clearly think I am. What people have to beware of in talking to me is a puzzle. From what I've seen so far there's not much going on at Netroots Nation which is nefarious or unexpected, but maybe I've been missing the top-secret planning sessions where space aliens hand out mind control weapons or the ghost of Karl Marx conducts satanic rituals over the naked body of Obama Girl. Actually, that last one might be kind of fun.

Another Kind of Netroots

Today I got a chance to check in and spend a little time at the right-wing alternative to Netroots Nation, Americans for Prosperity's Defending the American Dream Summit. It was smaller and cozier, but well attended, one of scores of similar state events coordinated by AFP. For those who aren't familiar with AFP, it's a political foundation dedicated to promoting lower spending, lower taxes and smaller government. It differs from most right-leaning organizations because it is very interested in reaching out to young voters, non-traditional conservatives and libertarians to build a base of support broader than just the usual Republican constituency.

The crowd at the summit seemed much younger than at typical Republican events, with a strong libertarian-leaning element. Attendance was expected to be around 500, but because the admission is low they were getting a lot of walk-ins and they had already exceeded the estimated attendance by Friday afternoon. Featured speakers for the weekend include Michelle Malkin, Grover Norquist, Michael Steele, Barry Goldwater Jr., Robert Novak and a number of Texas politicians. The only bigwig I got to see today was Barry Goldwater Jr., who was signing his new book Pure Goldwater, co-authored with John Dean, and based on Goldwater's fathers journals. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but by all accounts it provides new insights into the character of the most principled and influential conservative leader of the last century. Ironically, John Dean was not at the signing, because he had a signing for his anti-Republican book Broken Government over on the other side of town at Netroots Nation. Based on his increasing hostility to the political right Dean might not have been terribly welcome at Goldwater's signing.

I also got to pay a brief visit to the small exhibit hall, and was pleased to see that the Libertarian Party had a prominent booth. I also got a chance to talk with some folks at the Sam Adams Alliance booth. They're another of the new groups working within the Republican Party to promote liberty and responsible government, like the AFP and the Republican Liberty Caucus. They seem to have a LOT in common with the Sunlight Foundation, which I mentioned in my last report. To the extent that they appear to be trying to duplicate a lot of the same efforts; suggesting that a non-partisan alliance between the two would make a lot of sense.

There are some real differences between what's going on at Defending the American Dream and Netroots Nation. While Netroots Nation seems geared very much towards building an organization and developing on existing relationships, Defending the American Dream seems more focused on bringing people together, discovering the conservative blogosphere and bringing bloggers and activists together with party leaders. It's smaller, seems more intimate and has a cash bar in every corner, which certainly encourages conversation. The difference may just be that Netroots Nation is farther along in the grasroots development process, but I think there's more to it than that. Defending the American Dream seems less controlled, more open to diversity and focused more on the party reform than Netroots Nation. The smaller size, lower admissions fee, local organization and absence of establishment institutions and their surrogates, makes Defending the American Dream seem like part of a much more genuinely popular reform movement, while Netroots Nation looks too much like top-down progressivism with its version of reform pre-approved by party insiders.

Tomorrow I'm going to be spending more time at Defending the American Dream and hope to catch Michelle Malkin's speech at lunch. I don't always agree with Malkin, but she's consistently amusing and provocative. Somehow I also have to fit in more time at Netroots Nation on Saturday. By staying away today I missed one of the most important events, a chance to get my photo taken with Obama Girl. When there's so much going on, you just have to swallow your regrets and look for new opportunities.

The Naming of Things

Just one last note on the trivial, but irritating issue of terminology. I hate the term Netroots. It sounds like a skin disorder. Yet I have a hard time resisting the urge to apply it more universally to both the right and left sides of the online grassroots community, because no one is offering me a better term. And even if Netroots Nation is a terrible name for a conference, it does beat the hell of of Defending the American Dream Summit, which is just too hyperbolic and too complicated to be catchy, and I hate having to type it over and over. I realize that FreedomFest is already taken (another sign of how strong the liberty movement is getting), but it might be worth setting aside a room at the summit to hold a bull session on figuring out something better to call future events. I do have some ideas. Maybe I need to make giving these events and movements better names my special crusade.

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