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.”