Snakes and Ladders at Netroots Nation

Richard Eskow

At the emotional high point of this year’s Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, Rev. William Barber II concluded his roof-raising opening-night invocation by asking, “Can I be a preacher for three minutes?”

“My son is an environmental physicist,” Rev. Barber said, “and he told me, ‘Daddy, if you ever get lost in mountainous territory … don’t walk out through the valley but climb up the mountain to higher ground.”

The reverend spoke of the “snake line,” above which dangerous reptiles cannot live. “Reptiles,” Barber intoned, “are cold-blooded. They can’t survive up there.”

“In America,” he said, “we’ve got to get our policies above the snake line! We’ve got to get to higher ground.”

Barber was just warming up. “There are some snakes out here!” he continued. “There are some low-down policies out here!” He rocked back and forth, testifying. “Going back on voting rights, that’s below the snake line! Going back on civil rights, that’s below the snake line!”

The Reverend mopped his forehead and continued. “Touch your neighbor and say ‘Neighbor, we’ve got to take our country above the snake line!”

“… Say ‘We’re on our way to higher ground!’”

The good word.

The word “snake line” immediately entered the conference lexicon. By late evening it was affectionately being used in everything from philosophical debates to bar conversation. “These chicken wings,” someone announced at a late-night drinking session, “are definitely above the snake line.”

For Netroots veterans, that bonding moment was a welcome reminder of the subculture which first gave rise to this conference. This year’s event was far more polished than the gathering of keyboard-addicted bloggers which first convened as “Yearly Kos” (a play on the blog name “Daily Kos”) in 2005.

Rev. Barber had some words of caution, admonishing his audience to criticize Democrats as well as Republicans when appropriate. He told them that theirs is a moral mission, not a partisan one. And he said that change begins with a vision, not a plan.

“The slaves didn’t get free by figuring out how to get freedom,” he said. “They got free by singing ‘before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord …’”

The Reverend was saying, in effect, that freedom begins with freedom songs. The strategy sessions come later.

The crowd was enraptured. As my friend Dave Johnson said, “They came for Elizabeth Warren and discovered William Barber.”

These are not the nerds you’re looking for.

This Internet-born group, which once prided itself on its ‘nerdiness,’ found itself sharing a hotel with the only kind of conference which was inarguably nerdier: a gathering of science-fiction fans dressed as Star Wars characters, medieval fantasy figures, and combatants in steampunk video games.

One of them asked me about Netroots in a crowded elevator. “Half of you are in t-shirts and jeans, and the other half are in suits and ties,” he said. “What’s that about?” I told him that the people in t-shirts were blogging nerds, while the people in suits were political operatives trying to influence the blogging nerds.

Someone dressed as a pirate shouted “Nerds rule!” as I left the elevator.

The Sci-Con attendees reserved an entire floor of the hotel and used it for celebrations and raves. At 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning we mounted a reconnaissance party. What we found looked like a cross between the bar scene in Star Wars and the party scenes in Boogie Nights.

The Netroots Nation events, while convivial and celebratory, were a little tamer.

Beyond the mothership.

The science-fiction theme was amplified by the Renaissance Center itself. The “RenCen” seems like a physical metaphor for wealth inequality, with the 1 percent as glass-encapsulated off-worlders hovering above the 99 percent’s poverty-stricken dystopia. The nearly 40-year old Center is a 20th-century vision of the future, with shimmering glass walls and cavernous spaces punctuated by elevated catwalks. There’s even a monorail.

The Center hovers like a starship over the heart of poverty-stricken Detroit. Entering it is like penetrating a topological anomaly, a space where directions and dimensions lose meaning. Its circular walkways and undefined spaces seemed to exert a hallucinogenic influence on baffled conference-goers. “I’m just trying to get to the CVS on Level Three,” a leading activist said plaintively. (It’s in the “Red” zone, right by the “People Mover” monorail station.)

In what might have been the conference’s finest moment, a number of Netroots attendees left their glittering hypercube to march with local activists against Detroit’s policy of shutting off water to poor homes. That was a just and moral action. This policy violates the United Nations charter, which states that access to clean water is a basic human right. It was implemented by Detroit’s unelected “emergency manager.”

And speaking of international policy: It was unfortunate that Netroots, which focuses on domestic policy, was held at a time when global crises are dominating public attention. Had things been different, progressives might have challenged leading Democrats over their tacit endorsement of the humanitarian horror show now being staged in Gaza.

Snakes and Ladders

Earlier conference populations were weighted toward independent bloggers, most of whom paid their own way to an event that offered them a chance to meet people in person they’d only known through their online names. (“So you’re Ghost183!”) But the cost of travel seems to have skewed attendance toward people with organizational affiliations.

There was a dizzying array of breakout panels – 16 choices for each time slot, most of them rich with talent and ideas – but much of the action seemed to take place in restaurants, waiting areas and other social spaces. Activists huddled over coffee to plot new ways of defeating Rev. Barber’s metaphorical “snakes” while other attendees networked over drinks as they sought to climb career ladders.

Snakes or ladders: In some ways, that was the conference’s basic divide.

The Swagging of the President, 2016

Some Netroots “old timers” expressed dismay that Vice President Joe Biden, whom they consider an embodiment of old-line Democratic politics, spoke on Day One. Biden, burnishing his progressive cred for an anticipated presidential run, endeared himself to the crowd with warm words for immigration rights activists who interrupted his speech by shouting “Stop deporting our families.” Then he dampened that enthusiasm with a Joe Biden-length – i.e., interminable – talk.

I understood the reasoning behind Biden’s invitation. But Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who followed him, is a stalwart Wall Street ally, a camera-obsessed politico who seems to embody everything the original Netroots despised. His presence was both a surprise and a disappointment to some attendees.

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee-by-acclamation, didn’t show up. But her de facto campaign machine was there in force under the “Ready for Hillary” banner, hosting a polished covers band at a “Motown dance party” and handing out free “I’m Ready for Hillary” cups and stickers.

Most attendees did seem ready for Hillary, or at least ready enough. By contrast, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s speech was received with wild enthusiasm. Warren’s supporters were the clear winners in the War of the Swag. A group called “Ready for Warren,” unaffiliated with the senator was in attendance, and their hats and bumper stickers were the most popular item at the convention. A number of attendees used Warren stickers to cover up the branding on their Ready for Hillary cups.

(Dave Johnson has a more detailed take on Warren’s talk. So does Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce, who, together with John Nichols and other people I admire, proved to be a delightful Thursday night dinner companion. These sorts of happy accidents and chance encounters still happen in Netroots-land.)

Changing Channels

Despite Warren’s reception, the Clinton operatives at the conference must have been pleased. Sure, attendees cheered for Warren. But most of the ones I encountered made it clear that they would vote for Clinton without hesitation, despite the vast gulf between Warren’s positions and the Clinton economic record (not to mention Hillary’s Walmart and Wall Street ties.)

A more appropriate slogan for the event, at least for some attendees, might have been “I’m resigned to Hillary.”

But in politics, “resigned” is good enough. If the Clinton team concludes that it can keep tacking to the right without losing the left, than this year’s attendees will have partially failed in one part of the mission Rev. Barber laid out for them: to hold leaders of both parties accountable while staying true to a moral vision.

When it comes to influencing the presidential campaign, this year’s Netroots Nation was a missed opportunity. Ready for Warren had an extraordinary impact on the convention, however, and there will be other opportunities.

Growing signs of activism at the state and local level were more promising. Community- and state-based groups showed up in force. Their issues ranged from education to water rights and immigration. Groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) are working to change the composition of Congress, while others are focusing on statehouses and mayoral races. And an increasing number of groups recognize the key role of cities as engines of change.

If Clinton or another corporate-friendly Democrat heads the ticket in 2016, these seem like promising alternative channels for progressive energy.

Razing Arizona

The conference ended on a controversial note when organizers announced that next year’s meeting would be held in Phoenix, and Markos “Kos” Moulitsas (founder of Daily Kos) announced that he would not attend because of that state’s oppressive immigration policies. Some attendees have already taken Kos’ position, while others have argued that they’ll go to Phoenix because they endorse the organizers’ plans to support local activists’ efforts.

Notwithstanding this controversy, this year’s conference organizers deserve great praise for creating an event broad enough to contain multitudes. The open question is, What’s happening to the broad and independent progressive movement that gave rise to the conference? One hint: There were a lot of strategy sessions, but not many songs of freedom.

Another, more hopeful sign: By Friday morning some attendees were wearing freshly minted buttons that exhorted people to rise “above the snake line.” That spontaneity was a reminder of the “DIY” spirit of earlier years, when an offhand remark or suggestion could turn into action overnight. Spontaneous creation is, after all, how freedom songs were born. This small, lighthearted gesture rekindled the hope that an independent progressive movement still lives on, inside and outside Netroots Nation, in elevated places where reptiles fear to tread.

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