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Netroots Nation: the discontent over the disconnect

by The Big E on June 22, 2011

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.

ericf June 22, 2011 at 8:11 am

I got a better sense of being listened to at the session with a couple OFA staffers and I liked their strategy, even as I wanted to tell them OFA keeps doing its own thing not just where there’s not functional local party, but also where there is. On the other hand, my sense from the interview with Dan Pfeifer (sp?) is the Obama people are trying first and foremost to avoid mistakes rather than do something. They may have felt red meat for the base would be used against them by the GOP. Cautious nuance won’t cut it if the economy is bad, even against so weak an opponent as the GOP seems inclined to produce.

My hope is that the staff at Netroots went back to the office and passed on an earful to the higher ups. Hopefully, there were some “do you know how crappy it felt to defend this stuff?” discussions.

Dan June 22, 2011 at 8:23 am

That exchange is just painful.  Obama’s waffling on gay marriage is becoming increasingly awkward and tough to defend. Does anyone really believe that in his heart Obama doesn’t support gay marriage?  Its political positioning, nothing more.  And as tough as it is for supporters of marriage equality, maybe its what needs to be done.  The numbers may not be there.  Ugh.  Just ugh.

I think what people need to remember is that the alternative to Obama’s half-ass support for gay rights is outright hostility.  If Obama loses, there won’t be any progress at all on this or other progressive issues.  That isn’t much motivation, but the only people we are going to punish by witholding support and time and money for Obama is ourselves.  People felt good about sticking it to the similarly waffling Al Gore and voting for Nader in 2000, and what they got for their trouble was a decade’s worth of wars in the Middle East.  

username June 22, 2011 at 9:50 am

give him a Congress that will back him up.  That’s not the case today.

Many progressives believe that everyone would think their way if they only knew the facts. That’s a fallacy. Conservatives outnumber progressives 2:1 in American, and rebalancing will take more than any of us have yet given.

Obama killed DADT and he just shoved DOMA over the falls.  That’s more progress than we got from the previous 43 Presidents combined.  You wished for a Superman. You got a man. You wished it would be easy. It isn’t. Deal with it.


username June 22, 2011 at 9:26 am

and it will take a while to get back.  If you don’t have the stomach for the long haul, think about another avocation.  Meanwhile, guys like Dan Choi do far more harm than good.  Watching his display of alpha male psycho abuse of that poor, confused, submissive male would make almost anybody cringe.

You can’t beat or browbeat people into agreeing with you.  That’s totalitarian bullshit.  If you want to convince the undecideds and the wrong way leaners, you start out by being more attractive to them, not a bigger asshole.

If you’ve stopped thinking Republicans are your target, you’ve stopped thinking.

Bill Prendergast June 22, 2011 at 11:48 am

has got it right.

The left is thinking with its a** again, the old “if we don’t get more of what we voted you in to do, we’re walking out…”

And the result will be : in a close election, the conservatives win, and you get more wars, more division, more effed up environmental and social justice policy from a conservative government–created in part, by the left’s “if we don’t get more, we walk” disease.

If the election isn’t close (eg, if Obama’s ahead by seven points or something)–it doesn’t matter what the left thinks or does, and they get marginalized again anyway.

The sane solution for left progressives is as “username” suggested: work for a more progressive House and Senate. If you can do that miracle, then the President is likely to back you up more in what you seek. And if you can’t deliver a more progressive House and Senate: well, then…you simply don’t have a popular mandate for those changes you seek, do you?

And that is going to be a problem for you, in a representative democracy dominated by billionaires and a corporate media. You’re not going to punish them by walking out on Dems and the hordes of little careerist Dem organizers. You’re not even going to punish the Dems and the hordes of little careerist Dem organizers: those guys will still be around, if you walk out on Obama and the Dem party.

No, the people who will be hurt the most by a left-walkout: will be the left, and leftist pundits who counseled a walkout, and all of the people of America that the left says it cares about. All of those precious issues: feminist, gay identity, ethnic identity, environmental, civil rights, civil liberties, election reforms…and so much more…

…swept away, for a decade or more, any time the left weakens the Dems and liberals with a pi**y little walkout because the candidates aren’t progressive enough.

TwoPuttTommy June 22, 2011 at 6:14 pm

…but the Seven (soon to be 8) GOPer Dwarfs scare the SH*T outa me.

Presidents come and go; Supreme Court Justices seem to stay.  GOPer Presidents have been appointing those Justices for many more years than Democratic Presidents, because Lefty’s get pissed and go home and pout.

Last November, my State Rep lost by 107 votes.  The GOPers turned out 600 more voters than the off-election four years ago; the DFL had 1800 voters decide it wasn’t worth pulling the lever.  And now we got a knuckle-dragging neanderthal voting as he’s told to in St. Paul.

I’l be working to re-elect Obama, and I won’t hesitate to tell ‘em what I don’t like as I do it.

If the idea of President Pawlenty or VicePreisdent Bachmann doesn’t scare those reading this to do as I’m going to, then they won’t be surprised when Corporate America uses the next election to cement the Permanent Republican Majority.

There are two types of people:  those that believe people exist to serve corporations, and those that believe corporations exist to serve society.

Only one of those types is going to win next November.  It’s now or never, people – that’s what the stakes are.

Judeling June 22, 2011 at 11:05 pm

is not a transformation of message that will get me in the streets.

I’ll end up voting for him and others like him because the choices offered on the other side are so odious.

But we did have a progressive mandate and fail to exploit it. It was that failure that led us here.

And it is our fault. We are unwilling to shed blood. The continued rightward drift of our pundit and leadership classes is a direct reflection of the fear they feel. They are constantly looking over their right shoulder because they know that conservative powers are more then willing to cast them away even if that means a short term loss. The Sharon Angles and Christine O’Donnells are every bit as important to their success as the Thunes and DeMints. Until we are willing to put our foot down we will continue to fight rearguard actions hoping to limit our losses.

Bill Prendergast June 23, 2011 at 6:53 am

agree to disagree…

Judeling wrote:
“But we did have a progressive mandate and fail to exploit it. It was that failure that led us here.”

I don’t think there was ever “a progressive mandate.” I think there was a “mandate to get rid of the disgusting performance by Bush and the GOP Congress.” You see the difference between those to mandates, of course.

If there had been “a progressive mandate” from the voters at large, we wouldn’t have lost Congress so fast–and to a bunch of nuts, at that.

There was a mandate for serious change under FDR, and that was sustained. Use of government to address serious social justice issues continued through the sixties, but after that it kind of dried up due to a lack of public support.
So, no… I disagree that there was a progressive mandate in 2008… “disgust with conservatives” and “the left coming back in to work for the centrists” were the basis of the tsunami that drove out the conservatives for a couple of years.

Again: progressives would get more of the reforms they seek if they could move the voters back toward the center, in terms of those voters’ political inclinations. But doing that, involves reliable progressive support for liberal and centrist candidates that self-styled progressives detest. The progressive stars would have to give up “grand-standing,” their “threats to walk out,” and “over-stating the strength of their position” in order to keep the conservatives permanently out of power–and I don’t see progressive star-activists doing that.  

Judeling June 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm

60 + gains in the house + Obama is about as much of a mandate as you are likely to get. It is always a mandate to fix that shit when parties shift power.

Centrist? When I hear Lindsay Graham described as a centrist I know the word has lost all meaning. On the vast majority of issues the progressive position is the majority position and a bit of follow through on them would have engendered the pubic support you crave.

We need to continue this because I think this needs talking out. But I’ll be away from the phones until Sunday night or Monday morning. Lets pick it up then.

Grace Kelly June 22, 2011 at 9:40 pm

President Obama could have delivered speeches even when he could not deliver new law. He choose not to. This effect of people falling into despair is real. See what happened in the mid-term elections. Obama needs to lead not be a compromising wimp. Big E is not leading the despair, he is trying to make the Obama people see the reality that already exists because the Obama people failed to get the message in the mid term elections.  

ericf June 22, 2011 at 10:11 pm

I can’t see Netroots attendees or grassroots activists refusing to vote for Obama in 2012. The problem is whether those same people put in the effort to persuade persuadable voters and turn out more Democrats, or rather I should say Democratic-leaners, since the party base will vote. It’s a matter of motivating people to put in the one more afternoon in a canvassing effort and engaging in one more conversation, or whether they just cast their own vote and don’t otherwise participate.

username June 24, 2011 at 9:31 pm

When you post stuff like that, do you think about what you’re trying to accomplish? Are you trying to convince those of us who support the President and the Democratic Party that we’re wrong to do so? Are you just trying to piss people off? What?

Obama has brought forth more 1st 1/2 term legislation than any President since LBJ. If you’re too young to know who LBJ was, your ignorance is excused and you need to go educate yourself. If you remember LBJ, you understand that the Left took over the Party soon after Johnson left, and quickly plunged us into 30+ years of darkness.

Lefties think they’re morally superior to the rest of us, and love to lord it over us with statements like yours. You’re not morally superior; you’re just strategically and tactically challenged. Those of us working in the middle want the same things you do. We just understand that, to get them, we have to support the President and the Party, not trash talk the people trying to accomplish the same things you are.

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