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Trip Report: Netroots Nation (part I)


Netroots Nation (NN) is, or now is, a regional-scale trade show where Democratic consultants mingle with activists and operatives, held this year in Providence, RI. NN is organized at Daily Kos (DK), "a Democratic blog with one goal in mind: electoral victory." DK, founded by Markos Moulitsas ("Kos") has a circulation of about two million unique visitors a month; with an Alexa Rank of 1006 (US) and 3707 (global), DK is at the top of the power curve for political blogs, and indeed, at the top for the Internet world-wide. Kos personally, and posters, commenters, and moderators at DK, played a key role in the online activist community by promoting Obama during the 2008 Democratic (D) primaries, and enforcing Obama's primacy in DK postings and commentary.

Yves was kind enough to send me down to Providence to see Eric Schneiderman's keynote, and NN was kind enough to let me in as "Media." In truth, I liked the temporary blank badge they gave me better than the printed one I ultimately wore; a "blank screen" seemed appropriate for an old-school pseudonymous (Greek for vituperative; foul-mouthed) blogger of the left. And for the event.

I used to be a D -- I still remember being "for Kennedy" walking back from grade school under the leafy trees back home in Indiana -- but at some point between FISA "reform" and TARP I dis-identified and became apartisan, which ought to be a word, but isn't. And I used to live in Providence; bright college days, followed by other days. So for the day I spent at NN, I was looking backward, and my valedictory feelings and sadness may come from personal circumstances. Or not; see the review section. Add salt to taste!

So, herewith a mosaic of brief impressions. Friends recommended that I bring waders, but the bullshit was really pretty easy to step around. And many activists are doing great work. Pathos enters in because NN, and the Ds, have individually and severally become less than the sum of their parts, at least with respect to public purpose. Considered systemically, both, like the Russian automobile industry in the last days of the Soviet Union, actually subtract value from their inputs.

I. Being

“What happens if you drop all the things that make you I?”
--Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

I remember my first trade show: I carefully three-hole punched all the marketing literature and organized it in a binder. And judging by the hardware -- my hardware! -- and the demographic, NN and MacWorld have a lot of overlap. Except no Steve Jobs. Or anything insanely great.

Overheard at the wifi hotspot while I was caffeinating myself and checking my mail: "San Francisco is my wife, but New York is my mistress!" "Where is the Westin?" "Ilya Sheyman." And w-a-a-a-y too many times: "I'm from DC."

Grey ponytails, sandals, clunky yet bling-free jewelry: All the class and cultural markers of the Prius and NPR-listening "creative class" of a certain age: My age, in fact, my class, my culture. Young techies in T-shirts, heavy-framed hipster glasses, and stubble. My tech, my T's, my stubble, though not my glasses. Or my age. And, after the terrible family quarrel of 2008 -- "They spoke of it!" -- and the subsequent debacle, not necessarily my people.

I wandered onto the show floor -- turning the corner on Google, who were doing demos at a stunning, all-white booth -- and ran into the excellent Source Watch, who educated me about sand mining in WI, and its relation to fracking (see), even though that issue wasn't part of their messaging. The International Association of Machinists had a terrific "Union of the Unemployed" tee, which I bagged; but I didn't spend much time, because I wanted to get to the panel discussions. On the way out, I passed Team Sheyman's booth, which was a table, empty, with almost no marketing collateral, like a tiny software firm with no buzz and a product concept that had seemed good at the time.

* * *

After the panels and the keynotes, when the show had closed for the day, I walked over to the legendary Haven Brothers Diner for hot dogs in "The Aluminum Room." I'd say Philly's dirty water dogs are more flavorsome, if less plump, but I did get to eavesdrop on the patter of the colorful clientele, among whom were a software developer and his suited pitchee, both from NN. The pitch, paraphrased: "Our platform was built to help campaigns manage their activists and volunteers, but we could repurpose it for any business that tasks remote workers from a central office: Janitors and maids, for example, in a cleaning service." Software architecture does tend to "mirror" [PDF] the structure of the institution that commissions the development. Eh?

II. Doing

“The individual cannot bargain with the State. The State recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself.” --Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed

[I'll paraphrase and patch all the panel discussions from my not at all exhaustive notes. Q: Question. A: Answer. MOD: Moderator. AUD: Audience.]

From the show floor, I went to the panel on OH, but the scheduled presenter didn't show, so the discussion was facilitated, and smoothly, by a substitute who knew more about ALEC than OH (and who fortunately didn't force fit the discussion to his topic). As it turned out, a lot of audience members were doers who knew the ground well in both OH and WI, so the discussion was great.

Q: I have hundreds of signs and a lot of supplies from the last campaign, including bar code readers. Where do I send them?

A: Try the campaign office.

Q: [lambert] I'd like to understand the difference between success in OH with SB5 and failure in WI with the recall. What are your thoughts?

MOD: The difference between OH and WI is time and money. Walker outspent Barrett, and had time to amass a war chest. In OH, neither side had much time to organize. SB5 organizational differences were set aside; the only question was how to make it work. WI was drawn out over 14-15 months.

AUD: In OH we had only two months of downtime and we kept SB5 going with social media. I think energy-wise people in WI didn't have that. Also, we had different types of election: A recall vs. a legislative change.

AUD: It's harder to get rid of a person; people say "let him finish his term." Also, in WI there wa a multiplicity of races, and it was unclear who was running when.

AUD: SB5 money all came through We Are Ohio, so it's hard to compare and contrast to WI.

AUD: We're comparing a moderate candidate in WI with a clear issue in OH. There were similarities: The public outrage, the pictures in the rotunda. But in SB5 we avoided the image, and never used one photo.

AUD: I worked the ground in both places. It was much easier going after the issue itself. If WI had a process for recall on issues, OH and WI would have had similar results, with the exception that Walker manipulated the situation better by omitting the firefighters and the police. In OH, the firefighters made a huge difference. Nobody likes the cops.

AUD: I agree it was the firefighters. Everybody loves the firefighters, they provide nothing but a service.

AUD: In our neighborhood, the firefighters took down their posters for a fund-raising chicken dinner and put up posters for an anti-war rally. That was the one that Obama participated in.

AUD: OH had message discipline. WI had a hodge-podge.

AUD: We fled from our own message in WI, the collective bargaining.

AUD: The candidate was not arguing those issues.

AUD: Again, though, look at the length. Our own people were tired.

AUD: From outside, in MI, SB5 looked very focused. They never lost sight of their message. SB5 is a case study where everything was done right.

AUD: The real genesis of this issue in OH was the law, not the person. Most of OH was about process.

AUD: Rs are now framing it as a victory as a victory over the unions. The Ds made it about Scott Walker not labor. You can't preach one thing and do another.

Q: [lambert] I'd like to hear about fracking in OH.

AUD: Via ALEC, state standards for renewable energy have been repealed, trade secrets for fracking fluids have been enforced, there are gag orders for doctors and first responders so they can't talk with their patients about what they know [big audience reaction].

AUD: They say "Jobs!" But the jobs aren't local jobs and they don't last. Who wants to be the richest man in the cemetery?

AUD: We've used social media and not airwaves, and in MI a fracking ban is on the ballot.

AUD: Against the jobs talking point, health is the right answer.

AUD: Especially the health of your kids.

AUD: In Pittsburgh, Doug Shields got a fracking ban.

AUD: In Canton, we're working for a citizen's rights ban but we have no home rule.

AUD [subject change] Getting redistricting rescinded is the most important thing. We can't have "politicians picking their voters." We Are Ohio is sponsoring Voters First, which advocates putting redistricting under a citizen's commission.

MOD: Districting is important. In 2010, I kept saying "This is a census year. The next five elections are going to be determined by what we do."

* * *

After rereading my notes and cudgeling my brain for recollection: Almost nothing was said about working with Ds on the ground at all. No "our state rep did ____," or "the party held ____," or "we caucused and ____." Even during a passionately fought recall campaign, the Ds played a purely negative role. The only mention of a D taking positive action was Obama, with this (little-noticed and unrecorded, 2002) anti-war speech. In Illinois. Remarkable.

III. Writing

"I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made." -- Samuel Johnson, Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

Next I sampled a "How to Blog" panel, just for grins, but the first thing the presenter asked me to do was log into Google (I canceled my account over privacy) and anyhow I wasn't the only one who couldn't connect to the Convention Center WiFi. And the second step was to share with your neighbor, verbally. So I complied for one round and then bailed. Blogging isn't about talking. Blogging is about writing online for an online audience. The two are not the same! Nor is blogging about "the conversation," the smarmy creative class retooling of "the conventional wisdom."

* * *

I'll have parts III, IV, and a Conclusion tomorrow, and I'll get to Eric Schneiderman, never fear. However, just to show that I'm not the only one who came away from NN with a sense of pathos, I include below a collection of comments on NN by other bloggers.

Appendix: Reviews

Blogging's master of light irony, Atrios, doesn't write up NN at all, but links to the beautiful in all ways Providence "Waterfire" event. Though one has to wonder whether the headline of his original post -- FIRE, in acronymic caps -- is at once a sly reference to the Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate sector, which owns both legacy parties, and therefore NN, as well as the notable lack of fire at the event as a whole.

At strongly partisan Balloon Juice, mistermix agrees on the lack of fire: "After Waterfire, we trekked to some bar for the Kos after party, which was everything Waterfire wasn’t. I heard that they had been invited to have their after party as part of Waterfire and weren’t interested." Headline: "Come On Baby Light My Pyre." Ouch. Also at Balloon Juice, Metrosexual Black AbeJ: "[T]his one seems sad."

AmericaBlog posts celebrity videos: Van Jones, Krugman, Warren. But no reporting or commentary.

The acute Charles Pierce writes of "the progressive convention that seems, quite honestly, a bit muted compared to past years", and "whatever idiot it was who didn't accept Dave Neiwert's panel on rightwing extremism needs to be fired." The same idiot -- or operative -- who decided that the Foreclosure Panel wouldn't be streamed, I would imagine.

Lord Kos: “The administration should be worried about the level of despair here" (although, to be fair, there are "happy to be here"-type activists who don't share this feeling at all).

FDL's Scarecrow, after Van Jones's keynote: "On Sunday morning, I’m struggling to make any sense of what we were told." FDL's David Dayen: "I had one participant come up to me and say, 'We should cancel all the panels and hold a three-day plenary session called What the hell should we do now?'" And FDL's Massochio: "The lesson is clear. If you are directly facing the formal institutions in this country, there is no visible way forward. It’s depressing. If you are actively engaged in trying to help people one on one or in small groups, you can point to successes and see ways to leverage those successes into broader actions that will make a difference. The organizers have hope. The people engaged in other kinds of activism, like Erica Payne, have hope."

Which may be why Kos reacted so badly, eh? In RL, I have been involved in small successes that used the parties for what they are worth, and so I am, despite the tenor of this post, quite hopeful. I found the thinking in the OH panel I attended very hopeful. But because I shared desires for understanding and for outcomes with them. Not because they were Ds. Not because they were my tribe.

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gmoke's picture
Submitted by gmoke on

I was there, the first time since the first convention, the original YearlyKos in Las Vegas. Thursday was disappointing as there were way too many ostensibly white, older people like me. Friday and Saturday were better as more youth and diversity showed up and raised the energy level.

Disappointed by many of the Occupy panels, including one whose panelists didn't seem to have much connection to Occupy at all. The Occupy and foreclosure panel was good but all of the foreclosure folk were working on the issue before Occupy began. The Ballroom A panel with actual Occupy people had maybe, maybe 50 people show up. If anyone were hoping for some kind of connection between the leftie bloggers and the Occupiers, I don't believe it happened.

The environmental caucus was interesting and one of the only events without a panel of "experts" lecturing a dumb audience. I went to at least two panels which didn't leave any or much time for questions from the audience, something I consider to be an insult to said audience.

Best keynote was Darcy Burner's great presentation reverse engineering the concept of power ( She did a five minute Ignite talk (20 slides, 15 seconds each) later on nonviolence which was also good.

Yeah, the dailykos party was strange. Music too loud to talk and distant from WaterFire. Maybe I didn't stay long enough and get drunk enough for it to turn into fun.

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

It has been a Democratic blog. Get everyone excited about a particular candidate, work hard, make your blog the center of online action. Even if your candidate loses, your readers have the feeling of being part of something larger, so losses are seen as tactical, not strategic. Thus, from a business point of view, it did not matter that Howard Dean and Ned Lamont lost, Daily Kos emerged as the premier Democratic blog. But something began to go wrong with the business model in 2007, the Democrats were not doing anything with the power they had. Jane Hamsher twigged on this and began to refocus her blog on issue activism, only she fell for the Public Option Sparkle Pony. But she has consistently focused her blog on issues rather than candidates.

This year's Netroots Nation was listless because people have worked out that electing Democrats has not made any difference, only most of them have not fully come to terms with that. If Romney wins this year they will be able to maintain the illusion that Obama would have been better. If Obama is reelected, look for 2013 Netroots Nation to be either even more listless or in full rebellion mode.