Last weekend, the annual Netroots Nation conference in Providence, Rhode Island, drew 2,700 progressives to discuss the state of the movement. Since the event fell two days after Governor Scott Walker won his recall election in Wisconsin, I expected a collective mood approximating either a massive group therapy session or a giant wake. I found neither. The political challenges were apparent, sure. The “Bold Progressive 99% Candidates” panel was supposed to feature two bold progressives, Lori Saldana and Eric Griego, who lost their primaries to more centrist candidates. And while some respected elected officials were in the proverbial house—Senator Sheldon Whitehouse held court in the bar after speaking about the perils of Citizens United, while earlier Elizabeth Warren wowed from the main stage—there was none of the craziness of the 2007 Netroots Nation when all eight Democratic candidates for president made almost-mandatory pilgrimages to Chicago to court the powerful base of bloggers and activists and get an edge in the long race ahead. Instead, there were multiple panels on Occupy, art in every hallway, an amazing TED-style Ignite session from participants. Netroots Nation 2012 seemed to reflect a growing progressive sentiment that favors sass over suits and an emphasis on power building over power wielding.
In the hallways and in the twittersphere, a handful of folks bemoaned the absence of administration heavyweights as evidence of disrespect for the base, and some of the press used the conference to drive that now familiar storyline. Digging deeper though, the back-to-basics energy that pervaded the conference felt refreshing to most attendees. Rather than racing between keynotes dominated by political rockstars, participants lingered over panels doing deep dives into policy or skill shares on social media. Less Democratic Party participation left room to elevate emerging movement leaders, like Ai-Jen Poo from National Domestic Workers Alliance and Becky Bond from CREDO Action. The thousands of conversations elicited some common themes on lessons learned and moving forward. Here are five of my top points; I'd love to hear yours in the comment section below:
A powerful movement is defined by values, not tactics. Occupy. Consumer Boycotts. Shareholder Activists. Netroots Progressivism. While some argue these are independent movements; I see them as different tactics in a singular movement committed to economic opportunity, social and political equity, and environmental sanity. Despite having experienced a growth decade in the progressive political power due to the emergence of online communities, the national political sector is often the lagging indicator in social change. Does that mean we abandon the electoral playing field? Absolutely not. Groups have been and will continue to be active in primaries and general elections this year. But it does mean it's time to put resources into other sectors that build power towards our ultimate goals. The Stop Rush campaign has alerted political activists to the power of the pocketbook to stop hate speech and ChangeToWin has invoked the wrath of the Wall Street Journal for its effective shareholder organizing. Trayvon Martin's murder united progressives around the need for racial justice and The Advancement Project is organizing that energy to fight voter suppression campaigns that keep people of color out of politics. Embracing a values-based definition of the progressive movement and resourcing strategies accordingly will allow us to control more levers and win more victories.
Impact is impact: embracing progressive entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurship is exploding. From energy efficiency giant O-Power to peer-to-peer car-sharing platform Relay Rides, private ventures with a social mission are having great impact on everything from consumption to community-building and often outpace their non-profit brethren in measurable gains. And while these folks are everywhere from the Young Global Leaders table at the World Economic Forum to the pages of Fast Company, they are often nowhere to be found at progressive political gatherings. It's time to stop divining whether the motivation of profit-driven ventures are pure and to start evaluating these folks on their impact. An effective progressive movement needs like-minded business to stand with us against corporate co-option of our government.
Winners practice multidimensional chess. The right sees a win as a win as a win. A state win or a local win is as good as a national one; a partial win may not be good enough, but heralding it shows the momentum and power of the movement. Progressives are notoriously short on elevating local and state candidates, even though those actors may be able to maintain a progressive posture better than the national ones. There exists good infrastructure to identify and support candidates to build our bench, including Progressive Majority and the New Organizing Institute, but until we learn to use national bully pulpits to herald these up-and-comers, we unnecessarily limit the narrative of our own victories and the power-building that comes with it.
Claim victory early and often. The right, amazingly, even sometimes counts losses as wins. While the personhood amendment in Mississippi failed late last year, its backers helped succeed in moving the conversation from access to abortion to access to contraception, something they clearly consider a victory. As progressives, we are slow to claim victory—even when it is real—for fear it might communicate to those in power that we are wholly satisfied and to those on the sidelines that we don't need their help. But momentum generates more energy, not less and more energy can create greater change.
Microtargeting is for voters, not movements. It is high time that we stop using the words “online” and “off-line” in front of organizing. Organizing is organizing. Netroots are grassroots. Many organizers and funders who share the analysis that we are losing have an inclination to go back to what they know best — funding direct service and traditional Alinsky-style organizing. I fear this future. While service providers are absolutely critical in addressing immediate need, they alone will never be able to alleviate the inequality that plagues our nation. And no one refutes that traditional community organizing will always have lessons to teach us about building power. Still, there's no going back to the 1990s. Community organizers are wired now and mobile platforms represent the best hope of engaging anyone under thirty. Only when we lose the artificial distinctions will we fully embrace our power and the possibilities of a united cohesive movement.