Netroots Nation: the discontent over the disconnect


I had a blast at Netroots Nation 2011.  I met many bloggers, activists, staffers and several celebrities.  I made a ton of connections.  However, throughout the conference, there was a current of discontent which was often the topic of discussion at parties, before and after panels and in the hallways of the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Many progressives are not happy with President Obama when he is compared to Candidate Obama. Obama hasn’t exactly lived up to the standards he set as a candidate on marriage equality, DADT, civil liberties, torture, secrecy, FISA, net neutrality and closing Guantanamo to name just a few.

It’s not like we don’t support him over the “reunion of Batman villains,” as Elon James White described the Republican presidential field.  But many progressives may not be as motivated to work for him as they were in 2008.

It seems that the die-hard supporters, organization staffers, consultants, pollsters and etc. don’t seem to recognize the discontent.

To illuminate this, let me describe a panel a friend of mine attended on organizing.  She asked the panelists how she would be able to convince residents of north Minneapolis to vote for Obama when FEMA had denied disaster aid to them.  Instead of discussing the problem, the panelists all remarked on how difficult it was to lobby FEMA and discussed strategies to lobby FEMA.

She raised her hand again and told the panelists they hadn’t addressed her question.  She asked the question again.  She said they never really did address her question.

Another example would be the incident between Dan Choi and a young, over-exuberant and rather clueless Obama volunteer…

This incident took place at a panel entitled What to Do When the President is Just Not that Into You.   


NICK TSCHIDA (Obama volunteer): I can’t say I’m for marriage equality, but as a bisexual man, I would take a bullet for both of you.

CHOI: You say you’re not for marriage equality?

TSCHIDA: I can’t, no as a….

[Ripping sound as Choi rips up the Obama lit]

CHOI: Did you not understand? Here! I believe that I’m an equal citizen.

TSCHIDA: I understand that, but Obama hasn’t gone officially on record for it…

CHOI: Then, don’t tell me that I’m a bad person, go tell him that he should believe in my full equality and then report back.

TSCHIDA: Civil unions?

Finally, there was a certain amount of an Us vs. Them fissure running through the conference.  Us being the progressives and Them being the staffers, pollsters, consultants who are getting paid or will soon be getting paid to reelect President Obama.

A writer at firedoglake described it quite well:

Everywhere at NN11 there were media consultants, organizing consultants, all manner of firms doing everything from polling to new media. All for campaigns, parties and anyone else that can afford them. I wrote about some of these folks yesterday. They are not capable of questioning the rationale of the campaigns they work on because the system works for them. Anything you want, just organize for a candidate and work hard enough and it can happen. Magic thinking, all self serving, and almost all genuinely self deceiving as opposed to knowingly misrepresenting the electoral choices we have every two years.

These professional political types are well on their way to full commodification of progressive politics for their own gain, as the elite gatekeepers of progressive votes, volunteer hours, and wallets. These folks, whether they realize it personally or not, see all the progressives that aren’t them as part of their business model. In their business model what is in our best interest is what works for them and their employers – any other view is unserious and bound to help the scary Republicans.

The professional class in DC sees a world in which there is no alternative, a world in which our goals and salvation runs through them and only through them. And they’re panicking – they know they’re losing us and don’t know what to do. After all, why would everyone with a microphone volunteer their thoughts on the enthusiasm and voting problem if they weren’t scared shitless they were going to lose all of us – and our readers!?

The countervailing force to the Democratic establishment is us, the bloggers, who make these communities what they are and who all know that we have been misled and betrayed on some level. These folks see the choice in front of them. They are seeing that there is an avenue of investigation into activism other than Democratic politics.

These folks, from FDL and dKos and everywhere else, didn’t get into progressive politics to protect their own little turf, or bump their salary, or get their ego stroked by networking. They did not get involved to select a nominee (and we did – Obama would not be president without the support of the netroots during the nomination fight) only to watch that man as president betray their principles and their belief in him, to say nothing of the spineless and corrupted Democrats in Congress. They do not see themselves as cogs in an establishment political system that merely calls itself “progressive”. They got involved to change a country and a world. And increasingly they are seeing the path forward as around the Democratic establishment rather than through it.