Living just outside of the Peoples Republic of Austin I’m in a unique position to observe and study the world of the American left, while at enough of a distance to maintain some objectivity. That proximity sometimes brings with it unique opportunities. This week that means that I have a chance to attend Netroots Nation, the nationwide gathering of online and grassroots activists which grew out of the DailyKos and has expanded to embrace the whole ‘progressive’ movement within the Democratic Party.
Some of my right-leaning associates have tried to convince me to play the role of a mole in the camp of the enemy, including suggesting that I attend the conference wired for video and sound and send a constant live feed of nefarious leftist activities to the web for them to study and perhaps mock. They might well have found much to mock in some of the conversations I got into during my initial foray to Netroots Nation, but spying and lampooning aren’t really my objectives. I’m much more interested in the political process and comparing what goes on here to what goes on at similar Republican events, which is going to be pretty easy to do since at the same time as I’m attending Netroots Nation, I’m also spending part of my weekend with the conservative grassroots at the Defending the American Dream Summit, which Americans for Prosperity is hosting in a hotel in northwest Austin. I’ll be shuttling back and forth between the hotel and the convention center comparing how our two main political parties organize, motivate and train their bases.
This isn’t strictly going to be liveblog coverage, but I’m going to file several reports over the course of the weekend, starting with my initial impression of Netroots Nation.
In my standard disguise as an average Austinite (probably an eco-conscious real estate developer) in shorts and Tommy Bahama shirt, I arrived at the convention center ready for action, pleasantly surprised to have found a metered parking spot on the street less than a block away. Not surprisingly for the Thursday start of a primarily weekend event, the crowd was sparse and it was a breeze to get my media pass and standard issue giant swag bag. If the crowd of attendees was small, the list of sponsors was long, including a lot of corporate groups I wouldn’t have expected to see, and lots of political issue groups. The Austin convention center is expensive, and with an estimated attendance of about 2000 they certainly needed sponsorships to make ends meet.
I’m always fascinated with the business dynamics of conventions, having been a convention organizer. The situation at Netroots Nation immediately struck me as unusual. The attendance was clearly intended to be small, with the whole conference specifically designed not for the broad grassroots of the left, but for the most influential elites of the left and especially the progressive blogosphere. The idea was clearly to bring together the most influential bloggers and organizers with party leaders and trendsetters like Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, Harold Ford and Wesley Clark.
With a registration fee of about $500 it was clear that no riff-raff need apply. Discussions with attendees put that in context and explained the need for so much big-money sponsorship. The attendees were largely hand-picked, with their entry and expenses underwritten by various groups in the form of paid ‘scholarships’ to enable them to attend. Naturally, that meant that there was a selection process in play where scholarships were directed to the most influential and most loyal partisans, giving them the opportunity to make contacts and take advantage of the extensive learning opportunities offered at the conference.
Netroots Nation also functions as a social gathering for insiders or “Trusted Users” of DailyKos, a close-knit group of enthusiastic online activists for whom DailyKos has become the basis of a lifestyle. They have little clubs and interest groups within the larger community and clearly share common interests and a jovial camaraderie. Politics aside, they seemed like pretty nice, outgoing folks. Once again demonstrating that the impression people make in person is often much more positive than the one they would create online. These are the same folks who would delete my comments for political incorrectness on DailyKos, but in person they seemed pretty amiable.
In the Belly of the Beast
The exhibit hall is the heart of any convention, and that’s certainly true here. It’s the place where you can see exactly what groups are involved and be sure to find one of their representatives who is eager to tell you all about their beliefs and agenda. After stopping to take a quick look in on a couple of the ongoing ‘caucus’ meetings, I headed for the exhibit hall to take the pulse of the Netroots. Visiting it on Thursday, before the crowds arrive, is a good way to make sure you can actually get the attention of booth staff, but in this case it also meant that about a third of the booths had not arrived yet or were still setting up, so I’ll make another visit on Saturday.
The mix of groups in the exhibit hall was pretty typical, with issue advocacy groups and web-based political businesses dominating. A couple of things really stood out about the exhibitors. The first was the preponderance of union groups or union funded front groups. The second was the number of startup businesses with really questionable business models.
One of the largest booths belonged to the Teamsters Union, who deserve some credit for boldly proclaiming their identity and not hiding behind some bogus PAC or front group. Other unions were more circumspect. For example, a booth which appeared to be for a public interest group advocating reforms in WalMart’s business practices turned out to be a wholly controlled front group for a retail food workers union, and I’m pretty sure that another ‘workers rights’ group was actually the wobblies in disguise (Industrial Workers of the World). Also present were some of the usual suspects from the progressive movement, including the gratingly partisan Soros-funded smear machine Media Matters and Howard Dean’s progressive PAC Democracy for America which impressed me as professional, well organized and pretty smart.
Can Partisanship and Business Mix?
What shocked me about many of the businesses in the exhibit hall was how ideologically motivated they were. I’m used to dealing with businesses which put the interests of the customer first and want to use their expertise to make as much money as they can from as many clients as they can dig up. What I found here was that there were a number of startup web businesses which were proud and outspoken about their intent to work only with clients who were bonafide members of the political left. They included Wired for Change who seemed proud that they had rejected a liberal Republican who wanted to work with them, and Advomatic who had cool retro signage, but shocked me when one of their staffers declared that even if a Republican offered them 100,000 times more than their usual fees they would never take him as a client. I wonder how well those principles would hold up in hard times, facing the failure that comes to so many internet startups. Does political loyalty feed the kids when the wolf is at the door? Of course, it’s possible that my disguise was good enough that all of this brand loyalty was just a pitch based on the assumption that as a Netroots attendee I’d be outraged if they were less than gung ho for the team.
Of course, there were some non-partisan groups there, and they offered some of the most interesting booths. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition had a large booth, staffed by people who I had a suspicion were not exactly as left-leaning as they pretended to be in order to fit in. I was surprised not to have seen them at Republican events where I think they would get an even better reception. One of their staffers commented on how surprisingly unsympathetic Democrats as a group seemed to be to their anti-drugwar message in comparison to Republicans. Also pretty interesting was a group I hadn’t encountered before called the Sunlight Foundation a DC-based group, whose goal is to increase public access to legislation, public documents and funding records, which is a pretty laudable cause. They’re the umbrella group under which sites like Open Secrets and Congresspedia operate. I particularly like their new project, MapLight, which uses a google-like map system to graphically provide access to donation records for political campaigns. You can type in any candidate and it brings up a map of who contributed to him and where they live, including breaking down donations so you can tell what groups and types of donors are supporting them. Very useful, and a clever implementation. Between these various sites they’re developing a one-stop resource which is absolutely invaluable.
Getting Out While the Getting Was Good
The longer I was at Netroots Nation today and the more people I talked to, the harder I found it to maintain my pose as a fellow traveller. It was easy to talk to some people, because I do share common interests. Talking about drug legalization or immigration policy I felt confident and at home. But when it came to talking to the union stooges and some of the more extreme partisans I found my attempts at sincerity shading into sarcasm. I had a somewhat sharp exchange with the WalMart bashers, which I think I was able to pass off as an attempt at humor, followed by a conversation with a nice lady who was trying to reduce the role of lobbyists in government, where I think I almost convinced her that lobbyists provide more thorough and democratic representation for their paying constituencies than our elected representatives do. After that I could tell that my composure was starting to slip, so I headed for the exits.
There’s still a lot to report on, assuming they let me back in to the conference after this hits the net, but I need to rest and gather my thoughts and get a fresh perspective.
Despite a few rough moments, I do think there is common ground between the rational right and the more reasonable elements of the left. Yet, I have to say that fanaticism was as much in evidence among the true believers of the left at Netroots Nation as among the hardcore religious right. Their beliefs may be different, but the intensity with which they hold them, and the absolute irrationality and closed-mindedness which they display are identical. If there is common ground, I may have stumbled on a starting point when I discovered that the progressive left seems to despise Senator Joe Lieberman just as much as I do. Maybe we can build on that.