Netroots Nation 2012: Where I Got My Hope Back

From June 6 to June 10, I attended my sixth Netroots Nation in Providence, Rhode Island, an annual gathering of the liberal blogosphere with dozens of workshops, panel discussions and appearances by various politicians. With Republicans running Congress, the president having angered much of the left and Governor Scott Walker surviving last week's Wisconsin recall, it could have been really depressing. Instead, meeting up with engaged progressives who are making real change both online and off has invigorated me.

I learned more about why we lost Wisconsin, but also how labor scored a victory in Ohio. Marriage equality will be on the ballot in four states this November, and with coordinated efforts we can finally end our losing streak. Celebrity appearances were far less glitzy than prior conventions (when presidential candidates came), but we met with our allies who really matter -- Elizabeth Warren, Van Jones and Senator Sherrod Brown. It was a contrast from last year's convention, when the netroots "broke up" with Barack Obama.

The netroots have come a long way from its first convention back in 2006 -- or even my first attendance in 2007. Back then, the netroots was mostly independent bloggers who spent hours of their spare time generating a "media buzz" on crucial stories.

Today, it's far more institutionalized -- with most bloggers working for various liberal organizations who have integrated new media strategies. "It was easier writing for Burnt Orange Report when I was in graduate school," noted Phillip Martin at a panel on local blogging.

The political context this year was also far more ominous. We are no longer the rag-tag army of misfits who helped Democrats "slay the dragon" of a permanent GOP majority in 2006 and 2008. Back then, it seemed like anything was possible.

Now that Democrats have won and then lost control of Congress, it's clear that many in the Party leadership find us as a mere annoyance (or even "fucking retarded") -- although our criticism of the president comes from a place of love. As we try to channel our effectiveness, learning from our successes and failures will be key.

Rather than start asking questions about why we lost the Wisconsin Recall, my first panel on Thursday morning was on a more positive note -- how we won the Ohio Referendum. Just like Scott Walker, Ohio Governor John Kasich stripped collective bargaining rights of public employees -- but in November 2011, labor decisively won a ballot fight to overturn that measure by defeating Issue 2.

"The campaign was nonpartisan and bipartisan that knew no political boundaries," said Doug Stern of the Ohio Firefighters. In order to win electoral campaigns, it's crucial to round up more than the usual suspects. "No on 2" took that advice very seriously, hiring two full-time staff whose only job was to expand the coalition through the whole campaign -- never stopping to keep expanding the pie.

Another reason why we won in Ohio is a lesson the gay marriage movement has learned time and again -- telling your stories. "We had workers tell their own stories," said Kate Kennedy of the We Are Ohio campaign -- helping to create a narrative, while the opposition failed to ever humanize the issue.

It was a major contrast with what happened in the Wisconsin recall, explained blogger Harry Waisbren at a Friday afternoon panel. Scott Walker's Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, never gave a real narrative as to why the governor had to be recalled. Waisbren was very proud of the "horizontal" and decentralized campaign to recall Scott Walker, but I asked him if that prevented us from staying on message. Ironically, the problem with staying on message actually came from Tom Barrett.

Meanwhile, there was much activity at Netroots Nation around marriage equality -- as we plan to go back to the ballot in four states this November.

In Minnesota, we are playing defense -- with the right-wing pushing an anti-gay marriage amendment. We're also playing defense in Washington and Maryland too, where in both states the legislature & governor passed a marriage bill and it's being threatened at the ballot -- but in both states, a "yes" vote is the pro-equality side.

And in Maine, we are playing offense -- having collected signatures, after losing in 2009. The Maine fight would be the first time that we actually choose to go to the ballot. I went to Maine three years ago, and I am now determined to go back.

It's easy to be skeptical about a ballot fight for marriage equality -- given that our side has never won a statewide initiative campaign after 30-plus states. But here are two reasons why this year can be different, and we can make history.

First, polling in all four states not only has us ahead -- but also above 50%. That's crucial, because in gay marriage polling, those who refuse to answer (or claim to be undecided) are closet opponents -- but once people are for equality, we don't see slippage. Final polling in 2009 for Maine had us "winning" with 47% -- with a chunk of undecided voters. On Election Day, we lost by a 53-47 margin. Today, polling has us in Maine at over 50% -- and polling in the 3 other states have similar numbers.

Second, campaign managers from all four states were at Netroots Nation -- and we have changed our messaging. No longer will marriage equality campaigns be about "rights and benefits" -- because swing voters just conclude civil unions are okay. As studies have shown, winning the swing vote will be about "love and commitment" -- so that swing voters understand that gay couples really want to join, not change, marriage. And, like the labor fights in Ohio, we will push a narrative by telling our stories.

Granted, Netroots Nation this year was a lot less about meeting political celebrities and asking them tough questions. Barack Obama wasn't there, and no one from the White House like Valerie Jarrett (who came in 2009) or Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer (2011) showed up. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was not present, nor Nancy Pelosi (who both appeared in 2010). Not even Bill Clinton or Al Gore.

But the Democratic politicians who did attend are of the more feisty and progressive kind. Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren got a hero's welcome, and she had plenty of red meat rhetoric to get the crowd riled up. But besides her jabs at Mitt Romney and corporations, Warren made a crucial point: "I don't just want to win this election [against Scott Brown in 2012]. I want to change the conversation."

For the netroots, we are not just concerned about the 2012 election -- but about the long haul. What we really care about is electing more and better Democrats who will change the conversation in Washington, so that we're not fighting the same battles over and over again -- and see corporate lobbyists co-opt the people we elect once they get there. AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka was on hand as well, to explain that organized labor is focusing its voter outreach efforts three elections at a time.

Only four current U.S. senators attended Netroots Nation this year, and they were all first elected in the past six years when Democrats won back the Senate: Oregon's Jeff Merkley (elected 2008), Maryland's Ben Cardin (2006), Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse (2006) and Ohio's Sherrod Brown (2006). That was no accident -- it's the freshmen Democrats, elected with netroots support as insurgents, who have been far more willing to challenge Republican obstruction -- and the filibuster rule.

Recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apologized to these freshmen senators -- for failing to enact filibuster reform back in January 2011. Because the Senate rules can only be changed by a simple majority at the start of a new session, we have to wait until January 2013. Otherwise, any change in the Senate rules require two-thirds.

I chatted with both Senators Brown and Whitehouse about their proposals they will introduce in January, which requires 41 senators to be present in the Chamber in order to actually keep a filibuster going. If Democrats keep the Senate in November, these reforms will have the Senate majority leader's support -- and might pass.

We also talked about the Bush tax cuts, and the upcoming fight in December to block such a renewal. I conveyed my anger to them about how President Obama caved back in December 2010, and that -- to add insult to injury -- it wasn't an isolated incident. In January 2009, when Nancy Pelosi wanted a vote to abolish the Bush tax cuts, the White House had told her to back off and wait for them to expire in December 2010.

"We have our assurances this times," said Brown.

Sherrod Brown is one of the most progressive Democrats in the Senate, and he also has a tough re-election fight this November with a wealthy opponent. He will need netroots support, but labor will also have his back -- in fact, the successful campaign last November in Ohio to defeat Issue 2 set the groundwork for Brown's re-election.

But I can't say that I necessarily trust the White House to keep its word -- at least, not without significant pressure from the Left. Which is why Van Jones' speech on Saturday night set just the right tone for the challenge progressives face this year.

"We have to fight in November," said Jones, "but then the fight will be in December [when the Bush tax cuts are up for renewal.]" Rather than lecturing disillusioned progressives that we just need to get behind Obama because Romney is dangerous, Van Jones urged us to engage and then fight in December when the tax cuts happen.

But first, the netroots have to elect Elizabeth Warren and re-elect Sherrod Brown. While we're not also fighting to pass marriage equality in four states. It's going to be a lot of work, but we're ready for the fight. Because after all, I got my hope back.

Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.