Last year’s Netroots Nation took place only a few months before the 2010 midterm elections. Even then, everyone could tell that cycle would be devastating for the Democratic Party, but many of the attendees displayed an almost manic commitment to putting a positive spin on things. The official mascot of the conference was a wide-eyed, frozen rictus grin. Bringing that grin to Vegas, where every window and every elevator opened onto a colossal metaphor for American decline, was an awkward choice.
This year was different. For one thing, 2011 brought Netroots Nation to downtown Minneapolis, a gorgeous, sparkling neighborhood with great weather, great bars and great looking people. The city, a stronghold for old-fashioned progressive politics, seemed like a vision of the future from back when the future was going to be awesome. Yet the general mood of the conference was even more dour than last year (though perhaps that’s because people just weren’t trying as hard to hide it). By mid-June 2011, the Tea Party had decisively won one election cycle, the economy was still doing terribly, and climate change seemed to be getting worse. While it was too early to tell for sure, things did not look great for 2012. And with no big federal elections this year, the opportunities for some cathartic pom-pom shaking were decidedly nil.
So attendees put their pom-poms in storage and found another outlet: poor old White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. His Friday Q&A in the main exhibit hall started off tough yet courteous, but soon turned less substantive and more emotive. The questions were nearly all accusations, taking the White House to task for various perceived failures of political will. But while Pfeiffer’s inquisitor certainly succeeded in making him feel uncomfortable, it was all basically harmless: very few of the questions were on issues that fell under the direct authority of the president (such as wiretapping, secret legal interpretations, etc.), and all Pfeiffer really had to do was take the abuse. It’s not like anyone in the room had any real leverage against the administration or its policies, or posed a credible threat to its reelection campaign. What everyone in the room knew, but couldn’t say, was that they’d all dutifully line up and cast their vote against President Bachmann in the end. That’s what people mean when they call themselves “the base.” And the group at Netroots Nation didn’t even make up a particularly powerful bloc within that base.
So much for altering the White House’s behavior in any meaningful way. Yet, despite the bad vibes, I left the conference feeling more optimistic (or, at least, less fatalistic) about the future of American politics than I have since I first moved to DC. Maybe that’s because, as bad as things are on the national level, I met so many people doing great things on the local level. And with left-wing anger at the White House at its peak, I got to thinking: maybe we’re reaching the point when the left will finally stop pouring so much energy into lobbying Obama and think about what it can accomplish without him. Or, as Gogol Bordello put it:
Of course a movement is more than a thousand different atomistic cells pursuing wildly divergent goals. There needs to be some kind of unifying philosophy behind it all. Van Jones pitched his version of that philosophy — “the American Dream” — to the Netroots Crowd, leaving David Roberts unimpressed. I don’t disagree with Roberts, though I do think that Van is halfway there. There exists a far more robust philosophy that can easily encompass both Van Jones’ American Dream rhetoric and Roberts’ Great Places doctrine: I’m of course referring to small-r republicanism.
I’ll have more in the days ahead about how I think we could translate that into the building blocks for a progressive movement.