Thoughts on Netroots Nation 2011

This was my first Netroots Nation (the annual progressive blog conference, 2,400 people attended this year), so I was full of empty places to store first impressions. It was a fascinating conference, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is inclined to join us next year.

Panels — Excellent. As professionally handled as any trade show panels I’ve attended. Obviously some were better than others, but on the whole, extremely well moderated, with a nice handle on the waste-my-time potential of run-on speakers and audience members. Didn’t happen nearly as much as you’d think for a convention of lively minds. Most panelists were very well prepared.

I attended, among others, some writing panels, some blogger panels, a great Afghanistan panel (Darcy Burner, Steve Clemons, two Representatives and a retired general), bunches of strategy panels, and some “countering right-wing tactics” panels. All very good.

Training — This was unexpected, the training sessions. I attended only a few (in my weaker moments, I consider myself already trained). But the ones I did attend were surprisingly informative. I’d single out Joel Silberman’s session, on media presence and projecting no further than the camera or mike, for top marks.

His session really was training, not faux-lecture, and everyone came away more skilled. The in-class exercises (and there were many) produced obvious and universal results. An example: The camera, being a very close eye, magnifies stillness or fidgeting, so stillness is king. Joel had the room do a grounding exercise (literally, getting connected to the ground) while standing, and after a minute, all fidgeting in the room stopped. Wow. Welcome to professionalism, and thanks a ton, Joel.

Meet-ups & greet-ups — This is an obvious comment, but still true; you meet people you only know online, and then meet a ton more. Progressives are a warm and welcoming group. That aspect of the conference is under-appreciated until you experience it. From big-names to trench-diggers (most of whom are heroes), there’s no end of inclusion. Feels great.

Obama — Many have written about the “theme” of the conference for them, for example, here or here or here (h/t Amanda Marcotte). For me, the theme was “What about Obama?” There’s a poll showing that 80% of NN11 attendees still support him. (It’s a smaller number, however, perhaps significantly smaller, who would work for him again, but the open support was there.)

Still, the dissatisfaction with Obama was palpable. There were plenty of party loyalists and a few headliners whose sheepskins weren’t perceived as disguises (for example, Debbie Wasserman Schultz) who came to sell. And some of the loyalists got sand kicked on their trousers from time to time (watch the vid and read Jane’s closing comments).

But most of the convention was in the middle — lots of good people from mainstream leftie orgs who will no doubt vote Dem, but who are hearing from the other 20% how Bush-like the Fierce Defender has turned out to be.

My take — The progressive movement is clearly moving away from Obama and the Beltway crowd. The hard-line Dem types are fighting a rear-guard action. And it’s the avant-garde, not the dead-enders, who are turning away.

What the avant-garde is turning to is up for grabs. A ship doesn’t turn on a dime, yet you can see and predict the motion in broad terms, and this ship is turning for sure, wherever it eventually docks. You heard it everywhere. There’s a crowd effect among many of the attendees, but the early adopters of separatism, those who’ve mentally broken away, are not going back to the Party except for specific candidates, and their numbers are growing, not shrinking. You can count that as good or bad, but it’s true.

Grayson & Feingold — I had a chance to meet both, and both are good progressives.

Grayson said frequently “we as progressives,” a strong self-identification, and I believe him. His actions, in the main, have shown it. Still, he’s a much stronger party loyalist than I realized before talking with him, and — in my opinion only — this is his Achilles heel. It was breaking news, for example, when he admitted in a small impromptu session that he’d now support a progressive primary challenger. For me, that’s a progressive given. He’s clearly off the fantasy candidate team for 2012, and may never be more than a far-left Party man.

I do hope I’m wrong, and he could prove me so. I wish he would. He’s further along now than two years ago. But again (in my opinion only), he has a way to go. I love his fire; I’d like him to take better aim.

Feingold, in contrast, seems to have broken loose. Before the conference, I caught this piece from TPM, in which he accuses Dems and Repubs of “corruption” (defined correctly as letting campaign cash cast your vote). In the piece, he’s quoted as calling out Steny Hoyer and Claire McCaskill (her). Not the party-loyalist thing to do. And his keynote address rang the same bell.

There’s going to be a primary challenge to Governor Scott (“Reporting for duty, Mr. Koch“) Walker of Wisconsin. The fight is in the states, and Feingold would make a great candidate — and a great progressive candidate — if he decides to take his career that way. He has his eyes on straight, knows what he’s looking at when he sees Beltway Dems, and seems to be less confused by the party-vs-principles thing. Here’s hoping.

The RightOnline conference — As you’ve read by now, there’s a shadow right-wing conference every year. This year it was in the main conference hotel (our conference itself was at the Convention Center, a short walk away). There are many reports of encounters.

I’ll just add two observations. Angry lefties who freelance their rage and cleverness for Breitbartean cameras — shouldn’t. Leave that to the pros, like Seder or Silberman. The untutored encounters look obnoxious, and the bad guys use the tape to play the false equivalency card. Here’s a tip: When you see clowns, smile.

And second, the right-wing film crews and celebs were covered in cops, the faux secret-service, curly eartail types. Linebackers looking to take you down, a serious authoritarian stink around them. And most likely true-believers themselves, Movement media hiring Movement muscle. In contrast, our “security” looked like mall cops, checking ticket stubs and reminding you when you dropped your popcorn. Quite the eye-opener.

(By the way, the way the logo worked, RightOnline could be read as Right-Online or RightOn-line. Right on, bro; very nice, in that manipulative adman sense.)

So that’s my trip report. Please post in the comments if you attended and want to tell your stories. I’d love to read them.


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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