Liberals Invade Providence

A look back at NetRoots 2012


Netroots Nation finally made its way to Providence in early June, a year late due to the labor stoppage at the Westin. Their convention in our city drew several thousand liberals (now called progressives) to Rhode Island, arguably one of the most liberal states in the nation. And now that it’s over, the obvious question many residents ask is, so who were these guys (and gals) and is there anything we need to know?

Originally called the Yearly Kos, the convention was started in 2006 by readers and writers of the Daily Kos, a blog devoted to progressive politics and activism. In 2007, the name was changed to Netroots Nation, with Netroots referring to politics via various forms of online technology (as opposed to grassroots, which refers to politics on grass, or cementroots, politics on sidewalks, I assume).

Now an official Daily Kos project, Daily Kos head Markos Moulitsas says the purpose was to bring progressives together to learn, collaborate and network in an attempt to catch up with the Republicans, who he says have had a 50 year head start.

“Conservatives have spent decades building an infrastructure that allows them to develop a message, sell that message and get that mes- sage passed into legislation at the state, local and federal level. They’ve been doing this for decades, while we on the left just keep looking ahead to the next election, constantly recreating the wheel. We need to continue building those institutions and organizations that do exactly what conservatives do,” Moulitsas argued.

For Moulitsas and others, the conference was more about building that competitive infrastructure, rather than developing specific policy solutions. This year’s conference was especially interesting since it came right after the progressive movement’s defeat in Wisconsin in a fullcourt press to win a recall against Republican Governor Walker and his attempts at pension reform.

The convention consisted of guest speakers, forums and a number of workshops centering on particular issues, addressing problems and the latest online marketing and communicating techniques. Participants were on hand to share their successes and defeats. Some of the more well known speakers and participants included Eric Schneiderman, New York Attorney General, Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Congressional candidate for Senate in Massachusetts who is trying to reclaim the “Kennedy seat,” Pulitzer Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, environmental activist Van Jones and Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP. As one might expect, the subject matter included things like The War on (and for) Women, Austerity No More: an Economy for the 99%, and Criminal Justice in America.

From my vantage point, among the real highlights of the event were the impressive number of after convention parties and open bars (special thanks to the company giving away the free bloody mary drinks on Saturday morning). I did look at their website, although there seemed to be a monitor malfunction as everything looked blurry.

This being an election year, of course the Rhode Island Congressional delegation was seen everywhere, including at a special Welcome to RI party held at Local 121. Rhode Island’s actual delegation, consisting of local labor and progressive organization leaders, participated in or led several workshops, including a state caucus and one dealing with two of the prevailing hot button convention themes: disappointment with Democrats and the need for collaboration.

One aspect that was interesting, and received scant coverage in the Journal, was the problem of overcoming skepticism and distrust not just between labor and community organizations but among labor groups themselves. Naively I, and many of our readers too I would suspect, tend to lump most union members together. Union members themselves don’t see it like that necessarily. The AFL-CIO, for example, doesn’t consider you a true unionist unless you’re one of their members, which makes for an interesting dynamic in Rhode Island where one teachers union (the American Federation of Teachers) is a member of the AFL-CIO but its local counterpart, the National Education Association (NEA), is not, leading to occasional disagreements on issues and tactics. Moulitsas explained to me that the same measure of distrust and skepticism exists nationally, as well.

“When we started this in Vegas in 2006, a couple of unions came in as sponsors and we Netroots types would look at them and go, ‘Those are the dinosaurs that brought us to where we are today.’ And they would look at us and respond, ‘Oh, those are a bunch of dorks with keyboards who think they can change the world. What are they going to do, hit George Bush on his head with their laptop?’ There was plenty of disrespect, distrust and dismissal,” Moulitsas said.

The convention’s disappointment with Democrats extended to participants on both sides of the party. Some see the conservative Democrats as tied in too deeply with special interests or troglodytes in terms of social issues. Others see the left as unwilling to fight, all too eager to cave. There was, of course, disagreement on controversial issues within the Party too, such as illegal immigration reform, voter ID legislation and the definition of marriage equality. Bottom line – locally or nationally, it’s often unclear what having a “D” next to your name really means.

At the Rhode Island meeting (Theme: “When Democrats Aren‘t Democrats, the Story of Rhode Island”), panelists spoke of the problems in dealing with the often more conservative Democratic legislature. Steve Brown, the RI head of the ACLU, spoke of the frustration of watching voter ID passing locally, despite pressure from national Democrats. Ray Sullivan spoke of failing to get marriage equality passed in this supposedly most liberal of states (while it’s picking up steam throughout the country). Kate Brock, Ocean State Action head, spoke of failing to get a tax on the wealthy passed and watching as bills on poverty, workers’ rights and the environment got shot down.

The answer from Moulitsas is for the liberals to fight back with the same intensity as the conservatives... a frightening thought given the current animosity and gridlock that exists. “We haven’t held the ground on anything. It’s embarrassing. We should be treating social security like Grover Norquist treats taxes – it’s non-negotiable and it ain’t going to be on the table. We’ve got to stand for something!”

It remains to be seen how effective Moulitsas’ and Netroots “Take No Prisoners” approach will be over the long haul. At the Working RI forum, a sheet metalist from Washington who had been in Wisconsin fighting for the recall got up near the end and spoke about the giant elephant in the room, namely the public employee unions, currently the most visible part of the movement. He spoke of how these unions are being perceived as out for themselves at the expense of everyone else, including those they are trying to support.

Given the upcoming Obama-Romney showdown in November, we’ll soon see whether the Democratic progressive base can rekindle itself in time. Van Jones probably summed up the current situation best: “We progressives may still like Obama, but we’re not in love with him anymore. He’s trying to rally the base again. They’ll vote for him. May even do a little work for him. But it’s certainly not going to be like it was in 2008.” Guess the Republicans really do have that head start after all.