The “Liberal” Netroots: An Army Beholden to Democrats or an Independent Political Force to Be Reckoned With?
Each year, for the past five years, members of what has become known as the "netroots" [a term that almost exclusively means progressives, liberals or Democrats that regularly blog and organize on the Internet] have come together for an annual convention known as Netroots Nation to participate in a forum for progressive activists and candidates to strengthen communities online and grow the progressive movement. It has attempted to inspire action and help those in attendance grow new ideas to affect change.
As the "netroots" prepare to meet in Las Vegas to once again discuss what they could be doing (and have been doing) to "amplify" their "progressive voice" by using "technology to influence the public debate," one wonders if this convention will have any potential long-term value at all to movements in this country desiring more change from the Obama Administration.
David Lightman of McClatchy Newspapers aptly presents the dilemma the "netroots" currently face, "Activists in the liberal blogosphere face a crossroads: They had tremendous success in 2008 helping to turn voter anger into votes for Democrats, but persuading Congress and the White House to adopt their agenda is much harder."
Lightman adds during the convention "members will quiz House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., among others, about why Washington doesn’t move more quickly to end the Afghanistan war or give more help to the millions who are out of work" and the "netroots" will likely be told " (a) Washington works in complex, deliberate ways, and one should be happy to achieve 80 percent of one’s goals, and (b) since Democrats took control of Washington 18 months ago, they’ve won the enactment of historic legislation on health care, economic stimulus and financial regulation — no small achievements."
Lightman’s preview of Netroots Nation indicates the convention will be another Democratic exercise in the lowering of progressives’ expectations of what is possible in terms of change in this country. There’s also indication that the focus will not be on Democrats at all. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), who reassures readers in the McClatchy article that the party is in "no danger of being a captive of the left" believes in unifying "this year’s congressional candidates behind an anti-Republican message: that if the GOP were in charge, things would be much worse." The DCCC is a sponsor of Netroots Nation.
Rep. Van Hollen appeared on "Meet the Press" on Sunday. Here’s a glimpse at the story the Democratic Party will likely be promoting as it seeks to ensure Americans will vote for them in November:
REP. VAN HOLLEN: Well, what you’re, what you’re hearing is–as, as Bob said, look, we know that we have a long way to go on the economy. People are still hurting, that’s absolutely clear. But we also know what the American people know, which is the day George Bush lost–left office, we were losing 700,000 jobs a month. And during the full eight years of the Bush administration we lost private sector jobs. We are now beginning to climb out. And what we are saying is yes, let’s focus on the policies, because why in the world would we want to go back to the same economic agenda that created that mess, that, that lost jobs for eight years? And I think the challenge that our colleagues have here, Pete and John, is to say to the American people, how do you expect to do the same thing and get a different result? I mean, that, that’s Einstein’s definition of insanity, right? [emphasis added]
Such a message hinges upon whether or not the financial reform legislation can be viewed as shifting the country away from the same economic agenda that created this mess. Robert Reich, who was the Secretary of Labor under President Clinton and is a fairly outspoken progressive voice, asserts, "Congress has labored mightily to produce a mountain of legislation that can be called financial reform, but it has produced a molehill relative to the wreckage Wall Street wreaked upon the nation."
Also, should we be so certain that the Republican’s are following "Einstein’s definition of insanity"? What they are doing may not be working out for certain sections of the American population, but it is most certainly, politically, paying off. As a tactic, crafting a debate on issues that ranges from what the Tea Party is not willing to accept to what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street and other private interests fear will infringe on their precious free enterprise system today has effectively defanged every piece of legislation that has come up for debate in Congress.
Representatives like Rep. Van Hollen ignore the tactic that the Obama Administration has practiced, the courting of Republican votes for legislation the party will continue to oppose no matter what concessions the Administration grants them.
The Administration has decided Republican voices are more important than any liberal or progressive voices in the Senate or House that might be making demands.Instead of seeking to silence the conservative echo chamber that effectively skewers any progressive agenda items that could potentially be put on the table, the Administration has gone out of their way to assure and reassure Republicans that they can move the debate in their direction.
Progressives, on the other hand, have learned that they will incur the wrath of those in the Administration like the brawny and rugged Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and other Obama advisers if they dare to oppose the Administration’s attempts to sterilize legislation on behalf of the corporations they are attempting to regulate.
Given the record of scorn displayed toward progressives who organize with their own agenda in mind (e.g. Emanuel calling liberals "fucking stupid" as they ran ads against Democrats opposing the public option), it’s no surprise that progressive voices would be reluctant to tug the conversation in their direction. Instead of incurring the fire of the Obama Administration, many probably would rather focus on the reactionary Tea Party faction growing within the Republican Party and simply tackle that instead of the failures of the Democratic Party during Obama’s first two years in office. Unfortunately, this ignores the reality that Democrats have failed to rebuff the growing rancor of anti-government sentiment in the GOP and offer an alternative message; in fact, that Tea Party message is effectively dragging the Democrats toward supporting a political agenda more conducive to a vastly unregulated free market system that Democrats admit has gotten us into the mess we are in today.
Democrats have gradually become more and more the party of "no" to progressives. Their admission of running on a message that is anti-Republican is an indication that their campaign strategy for these elections will also be a strategy of "no." How is this any different than what Republicans have been doing as they claim Democrats are the party of "no"?
What we have in this country is a political establishment discourse that has devolved into discussions from Democrats on why the population should reject Republicans and a discussion from Republicans on why the population should reject Democrats. It does not allow for real talk on the issues any more than a domestic dispute between a husband and wife allows for real discussion on who was responsible for escalating the situation and why there was yelling and screaming in the first place.
To some extent, both parties are right: neither offer an agenda for a future that will go to the root of the problems this country faces and take on the private and powerful interests that are further entrenching these problems in the fabric of American society.
This failure produces a "trickle-down" effect that has a detrimental impact on the "netroots." Articles and postings like Eric Alterman’s recent essay are published and proclaim that America cannot have a progressive presidency right now. They debilitate, demoralize and produce comments demonstrating an acquiescence to this meme.
The "netroots" will meet and focus on primaries and electing better Democrats, using blogs, Twitter and other social networking technologies to turn "red states" "blue", how to improve online organizing, the current state of progressive media, etc. There is no doubt that many will take home some valuable knowledge and insight they did not have before they attended. And most likely they will network with other people who are part of the "netroots" community and gain the opportunity to be more effective at what they do. However, this is an event receiving sponsorship from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which contribute to the maintenance and polishing of the Democratic Party’s image.
There would be nothing wrong with these committees supporting this event if wedding this event to those committees did not automatically limit the scope of debate at a time when the dimensions of discussion in politics need to be expanded.
Only in America do political activists (especially ones who call themselves progressives) limit their visions for change to what can be passed legislatively this year or the next. Only in America do those committed to organizing consistently coach themselves to accept terms for organizing that will not alienate the very politicians who have contributed to the situations organizers seek to address.
An event that organizes those who are the most vocal section of society has great potential. But, the dominance of politically-safe sessions (in the aftermath of the Citizens United v. FEC decision, no abolish corporate personhood now workshop), the absence of any sessions on reforming the broken electoral system, and the lack of discussions around the very few differences between Republicans and Democrats and what to do about that reality warrants skepticism.
If the "netroots" leave ready to do more to defend Obama and Democrats from Republicans, this convention will have massively failed. But, if they leave ready to advance small-d democratic policies and items that often appear on proposed progressive agendas, if they leave committed to creating space in the public sphere for real progressive organizing to take place, there is a chance that this event will not have just been an opportunity for Democrats to revitalize support for their increasingly stale politics in this country.