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In Search of a New American Vision at Netroots Nation and Right Online

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, June 20 2011

The Right knows what it wants, but its base needs to learn how to better use technology. The Left knows how to use tech, but its base needs to figure out what it wants. Both can't help but be reactive to each other. And neither seems to have a fresh vision for America in the 21st century.

Those are my conclusions from spending last Thursday thru Saturday in Minneapolis at the Netroots Nation Right Online convention. I mean, the two separate conventions of the online left and the online right, though they were so close to each other (even sharing a headquarters hotel, and sparring across Twitter and occasionally each other's hallways) that at times it did feel like one event, not two--especially when the Andrew Breitbart show turned the twin meetings into a one-ring circus.

In fairness, of course, these aren't exactly parallel gatherings. Netroots Nation, now in its sixth year, is the organic outgrowth of the progressive megalopolis. Since its founding as the YearlyKos conference, NN brings together about 2,500 grassroots Democratic activists, who broadly represent the liberal and progressive wings of the party both in Washington and at the local level. In recent years, NN has been embraced by many top Democratic party officials and even hosted a seminal presidential candidates debate back in 2007 in Chicago. This year, organized labor seemed to have adopted NN, with organizations like the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, LIUNA, United Steelworkers, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, International Association of Fire Fighters all seemingly competing to sponsor the most open bar events. (I'd say the United Food and Commercial Workers won the weekend with its "Bourbon and Bacon Tasting Happy Hour" on Saturday, by the way.) But it is most deeply rooted in groups like Democracy for America, which boasts 300,000 active members years after Howard Dean's 2004 campaign, Wellstone Action, and, the liberal online powerhouse.

By contrast, Right Online is more of a "grass-tops" event that is sponsored and subsidized by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which is heavily financed by the Koch brothers, prominent right wing donors. It's a newer event, started in 2008 in Austin to shadow Netroots Nation, and so far each year its organizers have chosen to gather in whatever city NN picks for its event. Tickets for RO were $119, compared to $355 for NN, but they were also deeply discounted ($39.50 if you bought them here). And unlike NN, which featured most everyone from the liberal mainstream to the Firedoglake left, RO was a gathering of economic conservatives, with values issues like abortion relegated to a back seat. That said, it still had a vibrant crowd of something like 1,500 people, and, this being a presidential primary year for Republicans, attracted presidential candidates Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachman and Herman Cain.

I should stop here and note that what follows is by necessity very subjective, and also written in haste. There was no way to attend the dozens of simultaneous sessions underway at both events, and so if you are looking for a comprehensive digest of everything that went on in Minneapolis last week, you'll have to browse widely. Go read people like Dave Weigel of Slate, who managed to file numerous posts from both events, or Ed Morrissey of Hot Air ("neither side is happy with the establishment in their parties, and the energy on both sides is with grassroots attempting end runs around them") for more reporting and perspective.

Why do I say that the Right knows what it wants, but its base needs to learn how to better use the web? Well, if you asked folks at RO at least, I think most would tell you, in the words of John Fund, editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, that they're for "free markets and free people." (Some readers may take issue with my implicit claim that there's nothing fresh about this seductive notion of going back to the Wild West days of unregulated capitalism, but that's basically what is on offer from this wing of the Right, with people expressing allergic reactions to anything that smacks of government intervention in the supposed magic of the marketplace.) Breakout sessions at RO were all about training in online activism, tools, citizen journalism, and working with the grassroots. Only one track out of six dealt with "public policy issues," while there was no shortage of breakouts on such topics as "beginner's guide to the Internet," "blogging 101," "advanced Twitter," "building online coalitions," "mobile activism," "podcasting 101" and "freedom of information and how to use it effectively." (I was amused to overhear some people leaving that last session complaining to each other about how long it takes government to respond to FOIA requests; welcome to the club, friends!)

Whereas the left, as represented at Netroots Nation, needs little help figuring out how to use networked communications technologies; what it lacks is a unifying message. To be sure, there were a number of sessions at NN focused on training and skills, but the majority seemed to be more on strategy. The problem for the left, however, is how many competing strategies seem to be on offer. To give you a semi-random list: cultural organizing and youth, building on the Wisconsin labor fight, forcing action on "don't ask don't tell" and the DREAM Act, dealing with "wage thiefs" who steal workers' earnings, decoding monetary policy, organizing around community colleges, environmental justice, protecting reproductive rights, combating corporate power in elections after the Citizens United ruling, fighting against dirty energy industries, working the refs, fighting for marriage equality.

This sense of strategic fragmentation is fueling a new effort led by Van Jones (former Obama green jobs "czar"), Natalie Foster (formerly of Organizing for America and MoveOn) and Billy Wimsatt (of the League of Young Voters) to create a new "meta-brand" for progressives that they're formally launching this Thursday in New York, called the "American Dream Movement." Jones was given a major keynote slot at NN to preview ADM, and his speech certainly roused the crowd to its feet with his insistence that "the fightback has begun."

Jones told his audience that he had been studying the rise of the Tea Party. They are "an upgrade" to "what we did" electing Barack Obama, he argued, noting that individual charismatic leaders often have flaws, while movements focused on principles don't lose ground when their leaders shift. "If Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh etc held a press conference tomorrow and said the Tea Party was over, it wouldn't be over," Jones declared. "That's because they've built a starfish not a spider," citing the influential book by the same name by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Its subtitle is "The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations," and clearly Jones and crew are hoping to build a movement that can't be stopped.

"I've studied the Tea Party and discovered something--there is no Tea Party," Jones declared. "There is no headquarters building in Washington….This is an open-source brand." Noting that some 3,500 groups call themselves members of the Tea Party, he observed, "They've agreed to use it but nobody owns it."

Can American progressives find a similar banner to rally around? Jones made an additional point, a critique aimed at his own side: this can't be a coalition. "We talk 'Kumbaya, can't we all get along,' but we have enacted the most individualistic approach to politics," he declared. "Why'd she get that grant?" he joked, knowingly calling coalition politics on the left a swift path to a therapist's office. (Not for nothing did scholar and New Party co-founder Joel Rogers memorably call the American left "a bunch of sick people running around stealing each other's medicine.")

So far, so good, if you ask me. But Jones's diagnosis and solution faces two difficult problems that, at least for now, aren't addressed by his new model. First, while he is right that American progressives need an open-source brand as supple as the Tea Party moniker, the American Dream Movement can't simply be a label for the disparate groups that Jones identified in his powerpoint presentation as its component parts: labor unions, racial justice activists, environmentalists, women's rights activists, LGBT rights activists, and immigrants rights activists. There are too many cross-cutting interests at work; free markets and free people is a lot more concise than a rights-based smorgasbord.

Jones seemed to recognize that problem; in his speech, he framed ADM's call to arms as a fight to defend the idea that a hard day's work should pay a decent income, enough for a wage-earner to give his or her kids a chance at a better life. That's the core American dream, after all, and it is being undermined by economic insecurity and the greatest polarization of wealth in America in decades. Jones singled out four key demographic groups who could the heart of an American Dream movement: workers, young people, young veterans and homeowners. But do unionized workers (who range from service workers to construction princes to teachers and firefighters), millennials graduating from college into the worst economy since WWII, young veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and struggling homeowners really see each other as having common interests or common goals? Is having common enemies enough?

What was missing from Jones' speech, as well as from all the other scattered soundings that I did while at Netroots Nation, was some positive vision of how we're going to keep providing a decent wage and a future full of opportunity to a rising share of Americans at a time of serious challenges to the model of Keynesianism that has tied the liberal-left together for decades. How do you ensure resilience in an age of stateless capital? How do you pay for enlarged social spending when the bond markets and international capital will punish you for increased deficits if you can't also raise taxes much? And what do you do about peak oil and the climate crisis, which make the American Dream increasingly unsustainable, if it means a car in every garage somewhere in the suburbs?

Sure, American tax rates are low compared to the rest of the industrial world, and all kinds of expansive social goals draw strong support in opinion polls. But as many speakers at NN pointed out, American politics is driven by deeper forces than public opinion alone, and monied interests have a stranglehold on both major parties. Not only that, while people may offer broad support for taking care of the elderly and the poor, if progressives only response to small government conservativism is to counter with big government spending, they gain little traction with the expanding sector of free-agent independents, the people who are making the next economy in America.

For all the ways that the netroots nation uses the net, the one thing that was strikingly missing to me at NN was any discussion of how being hyper-networked itself might be the path to a new American political and economic synthesis. Meta-marketing alone won't help the netroots regain the momentum that it had back in 2006-08, in my humble opinion. We also need a way beyond the never-ending debate between small government and big government. Me, I'm interested in effective, do-it-ourselves, meshy (to use Lisa Gansky's evocative term) we-government, one that uses being open and networked to do more with less and make sure that everyone is engaged. On the edges of the conversation, I think we can see glimmers of that coming. But for now, neither the netroots nor the right-roots seem to be on top of what will make the next American century actually work, if anything can.