Champion’s, a typical sports bar in Austin, Texas, ran a curious greeting on its scoreboard all weekend: “Welcome, Netroots!” The pulsing light bulbs faced a giant convention center hosting Netroots Nation, an annual conference for the Internet Left, which grew out of volunteer brainstorming sessions on DailyKos over three years ago.
Then, web activists were undeniable outcasts in Democratic politics and no bar outside of Berkeley could spell “netroots.” Now, this net movement has an open line to every player in the party; the conference’s speakers included Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean, DLC head Harold Ford, several Obama aides and an array of candidates, wonks, operatives, writers and progressive stars, from Paul Krugman to Samantha Power to Wes Clark. (I also moderated a panel, and Nation writers Chris Hayes and Jeremy Scahill spoke at the conference.) The gathering’s 2,000 paid attendees were drawn from bloggers, blog commenters and even “lurkers”–the silent majority of visitors who scour online conversations without participating–all focused on electing Obama, stopping the war, restoring the Constitution and calcifying the frail backbone of the Democratic Congress.
In a lively plenary session called “Ask The Speaker,” organizers pressed Nancy Pelosi with questions that activists had written and selected through an online community portal. It was basically a cross between a town hall and a Digg vote. The top questions, which drew hundreds of votes each, were about impeachment, subpoenas for Bush Administration officials, campaign finance reform and abstinence education, followed by several queries on restoring the rule of law.
Pelosi seemed defensive most of the time. She blamed seventeen Democratic Senators for backing the President’s surveillance bill–which the netroots strongly opposed–and repeatedly offered the weak riposte that soon Bush’s term would be over. Despite sharp policy differences, however, the audience was largely warm and respectful. Some attendees held up copies of the Constitution in protest, and a few costumed, antiwar activists from Code Pink briefly disrupted her remarks. Then Pelosi’s interview was mercifully truncated by Al Gore, who made a surprise appearance that wowed the conference and drew several standing ovations. (Here’s my blog report.)
Attendees seemed very enthusiastic about Obama, who recently responded to widespread criticism within the movement for backing the FISA bill. For the conference, he recorded a special YouTube address, stressing his foreign policy differences with John McCain, appealing to activists for support, and reiterating his commitment to an open dialogue. “We’ve had some disagreements in the past,” he says in the six-minute video, seated in front of an American flag and a royal blue curtain. “I promise to continue to listen to your concerns, take them seriously, and discuss them respectfully — and work to earn your ongoing support.”
After discussing his Iraq policy, Obama’s video heralded the power of grassroots organizing. “While I can’t be there with you in person, I want to thank you all for your hard work and sacrifices so far,” he told attendees, linking his campaign to the Dean/netroots fifty-state strategy. And Obama touted the way his campaign has empowered “supporters to self-organize” through a social network portal, MyBo, which recently hosted the surveillance bill protests. The site has generated over 1 million volunteers, 70,000 offline events and–as Obama wryly noted–“formed thousands of grassroots advocacy groups, including one you might have heard about recently.” One of the campaign aides who oversees MyBo, Facebook co-founder and whiz kid Chris Hughes, also conducted a workshop at the conference.
Reflecting on the conference, Obama spokesperson Hari Sevugan told The Nation that the “netroots community is an important voice in our public discourse.” An effective “grassroots movement” will not only help victory in November, he added, but also “help keep people involved after the election.” At this point, the alliance between Obama and the netroots is strong, though not fawning in either direction; and open, as both sides are transparent in their expectations and disappointments.
That reality is obscured, however, by some narratives in the traditional press. Coverage of this weekend’s conference often carried an edge. The New York Times reviewedObama’s clashes with bloggers and declared that “the netroots can be reflexively confrontational and demand ideological purity.” The Washington Post opted for an oddly competitive analysis: “The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has less need to court this crowd, having proven himself a better organizer than they–and on a far grander scale.” And Time drew an ominous scene for Pelosi’s visit:
Criticism of her appearance in the blogosphere had been so high in the lead up to the event that [a moderator] preceded her introduction of the Speaker with a warning against any agitation. It can get pretty hostile at Netroots Nation. Last year, Hillary Clinton nearly backed off from attending the conference; after a small uproar from the blogger community, she finally showed up but the Q&A session she headlined was met with boos. For Pelosi, the potential for trouble at her Q&A session at the Austin Convention Center was everywhere….
Actually, Clinton was not met with any boos at her session last year. As I wrote at the time: “Clinton’s breakout session drew repeated applause and no boos. (She was booed lightly during the larger candidate forum.)” And the moderator’s reference to “agitation” was not addressing “criticism of [Pelosi’s] appearance in the blogopshere,” which actually welcomed the visit, but the Code Pink members, who are known for protesting from city halls to congressional hearings.
These may sound like relatively minor distortions, but they also reflect a resilient mischaracterization of the netroots as an angry, radical and combustible bunch. It’s a rather silly gloss for a well-educated, text and technology-based activist corps that wields influence via web fundraising, e-mail lobbying, social networking and, yes, traditional gatherings offline.