Saturday was a monster. All day long, shuttling back and forth from the leftist mecca of Netroots Nation to the rightist haven of the Defending the American Dream Summit. It was a day of peculiar encounters and discoveries, in which I think I got a real handle on what was going on at both events.
Netroots in Chaos
The morning started with a brief stop in at Netroots Nation. In the context of having been outed as a 'spy' on Friday I wanted to see how they handled my presence that morning, so I made myself visible and wandered around and went to check out various events. They handled it right, either by intent or by accident. Although some clearly had an idea who I was, no one made an issue of it. It may have helped that the convention management seemed to have basically disappeared from the hall. No reaction was the right reaction, the mature reaction, even had my coverage to this point been a lot more hostile than it was.
What struck me as I wandered around was that the population of Netroots Nation seemed to have taken to the halls. The panel sessions that morning had light attendance and the exhibit hall was virtually depopulated. The largest concentrations of attendees seemed to be in the hallways chatting or on their computers, presumably blogging. Not necessarily a bad sign, but not what I would have expected. There was a lot of talent on some of those panels and the prevalent attitude among most of the participants seemed to be that they didn't need new ideas or guidance. It certainly wasn't the intense environment of dedicated ideologues receiving training and marching orders to present a unified front to go out and fight the right. The potential was there, but it wasn't being used. Instead everyone was pursuing their own interests and the result was chaos.
Invading the American Dream
I took off for the Discovering the American Dream summit around 11am, with the goal of getting there in time for Michelle Malkin's speech at lunch time. Before I got to any of that I got to see the fruits of my outing. While no one had harassed me at Netroots Nation, they'd become aware that some evil conservatives were convening on the other side of town, and they had sent over at least two and possibly three teams of infiltrators to check out what their counterparts on the right were doing. I discovered this the moment I walked in the door of the hotel, where I found a blogger who goes by RudePundit and his henchman in the lobby staging a confrontation with conservative pundit and Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund. Fund has been a favorite target of the left, and what was unfolding in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel was a classic ambush scenario with the objective of provoking Fund into an embarrassing outburst and catching it on video. I didn't catch all of their exchange, but shortly after I walked in I did hear the confrontational henchman asking Fund "do you have sex with Grover Norquist," which seemed typical of the level of provocation. I went to tell someone in convention management what was going on, but before they could even react the hotel staff had stepped in and security had ended the encounter and escorted the RudePundit team from the building. Interestingly they haven't posted their video on their site or on YouTube. Maybe they decided that their ambush didn't go the way they had hoped.
While the ambush bloggers got no farther than the lobby, at least one other group of visitors from Netroots Nation kept a low profile and got through to video some of the panels. I have no idea what they did with that video, but it hasn't been posted publicly yet, as far as I can tell. Maybe they're keeping it for future study and strategizing. I suspect they may have been disappointed, if they wanted to expose the evils of the right wing. Instead of a bunch of bible-thumping theocrats and neocon warmongers, they likely encountered mostly reasonable people interested in more liberty and less government. The attendees at Defending the American Dream leaned towards the pragmatic and libertarian, with a lot of fiscal conservatives and very little activity from the religious right or other controversial groups.
As it turned out, I missed lunch and caught only a bit of Michelle Malkin's speech. Instead I dropped in to see Grover Norquist signing books and ended up spending some time in a couple of the panels. They were very well attended and everyone seemed eager to learn more about developing a stronger online presence for grassroots conservatives. I was surprised to see former State Representative Ron Wilson on the panel on education choice. It was one of several signs of the relatively non-partisan character of the Defending the American Dream Summit, a quality which Netroots Nation lacked. Wilson is an african-american Democrat from Houston with some very non-traditional ideas, who has now apparently signed on to the growing movement of inner city minority leaders in Texas who see school choice as the best way out of the dilemma of a failing education system. I think it was ironic that while Netroots Nation could offer only Harold Ford as a prominent black speaker, the right-wingers had Ron Wilson, Michael Williams and Michael Steele. A pretty impressive trio. I see an especially bright future for Michael Williams in Texas and national politics.
Before heading back to Netroots Nation I did make another stop in the exhibit area where I had an interesting chat with Eric Singer of the Congressional Effect mutual fund. It's the first time I've seen someone pushing a mutual fund at a political event, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Singer has discovered a fascinating pattern in the financial markets which seems to have been consistent for decades. When Congress is out of session the market consistently goes up. When it's in session the results are unpredictable. So he's created a mutual fund which invests in the stock market only when Congress is shut down and leaves the money in a moneymarket fund the rest of the time. It actually looks like a pretty sound idea, returning about 12% annually, even at times when the market is at its worst.
Strange Encounters with the Netroots
I had a couple of hours free before Libertarian Presidential Candidate Bob Barr's closing speech at the Defending the American Dream Summit, so it was off to Netroots Nation again. Once again, I found a bizarrely excellent parking space right in front of the convention center. Apparently none of the other attendees drove their in their ecowagons.
It seems that Congressman Barr had the same idea I did, because when I got to the top of the escalator in the convention center, there he was in the entry hall, surrounded by the largest and most animated crowd of netrooters I'd seen all day. He'd just decided to stop in since he was in town and was fielding questions as fast as they could throw them at him, completely surrounded by potentially hostile leftists, most of whom were a good foot taller than the diminutive candidate, yet he was holding his own and giving out intelligent, coherent answers as fast as they threw questions at him.
It was impressive. They may not have agreed with a lot of what he said, but it was very clear that they were impressed by his willingness to be there in the camp of the enemy, standing up for what he believed in. Sadly I couldn't record the whole thing, but I did manage to catch one of the strangest questions. Above is a short clip of Barr supporting the right of Wiccans to serve in the military and spinning it nicely into a good explanation of his reversal of his past position on gays in the military.
One of the people in the crowd talking to Barr turned out to be Edwin Rutsch who is making a documentary about Progressive Values. He was wearing a shirt which read "Conservative Values: Fear, Authoritarianism, Self-Righteousness, Hypocrisy," so I had to follow him around for a bit to see if I could get an opportunity to point out to him that those terms were not values, but actions or types of behavior. As a result, I got to see him interviewing people for his documentary. Bizarrely he was asking Netrooters what they thought 'conservative values' were, and getting answers like 'hate' and 'racism'. I wonder if he plans on asking conservatives what they thought 'progressive values' were. Fat chance. There's something retarded about interviewing leftists about conservative values, but I give Rutsch points for being an authentic grassroots progressive loony. It only got weirder when, after watching him for a while, he ended up interviewing me for the documentary on the assumption that I was a fellow progressive. I think I managed to lay down a brand of bullshit complex enough that there's a fair chance that his NPR-addled brain won't figure out that I was sarcastically deriding his efforts until after he puts me in the film, unless he happens to read this article.
After that I had to go back into the exhibit hall for a while, just to confirm some of my earlier impressions and do a little more research. There were still some hours before the convention ended, but many customers and about half of the exhibitors had either already left or were in the process of packing up to leave. I talked to a few of them about how the experience had been for them. In my experience there's something wrong when exhibitors are packing up and leaving hours early. One of them confided in me how dissatisfied he had been with the experience. There had been very little traffic in the exhibit area the whole time and most of the attendees seemed uninterested in the resources and groups appearing there. He observed how very inbred he thought the netroots were. It was bloggers who were there to talk to other bloggers with little interest in anything else including the ideas of the frustrated exhibitors. His conclusions fit with what I'd seen earlier in the day.
I also stopped by to talk to a couple of the exhibitors whose presence had troubled me, including spending some time talking to the young staffers at the Wake Up Walmart booth. What they told me confirmed what I had learned Thursday, and went farther. Despite the appearance of a grassroots organization, the small army of 'activists' working at the booth were not earnest former WalMart employees or concerned volunteers, but they were in fact employees of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union flown in from Ohio with all expenses paid by the union and working on the clock. This kind of faux activism and bogus grassroots campaign is what I found most troubling about Netroots Nation. These were not the authentic, motivated and sincere activists I had expected to find, who I could respect even if I disagreed with them. They were just flunkies for the powermongers of institutionalized labor, pushing the interests of their employer at the expense of workers, their employers and the general prosperity of the nation. Their cynical presence showed how little difference there is between the entrenched power groups of the left and the right, and how hollow and inauthentic so much of what went on at Netroots Nation really was. Paid bloggers and shills for unions and powerful lobbying groups are not what I would normally call the grassroots.
But at the same time, I did talk to some genuine progressives who were there out of sincere devotion to their beliefs. It may seem strange, coming from a right-leaning atheist, but I was particularly impressed with the young representatives of the Chicago Theological Seminary which has been a leader in educating gay and lesbian ministers of many denominations. They seemed to have the dedication to doing good for others and promoting positive values, and the kind of authenticity which I wish I had seen more of at Netroots Nation. They also had a mandolin and sang some very nice classic protest songs which brought back memories of the sixties; they were a lot more genuine and endearing than the shilling and blogging for dollars which so many of those at Netroots Nation seemed to be involved in. Check the video clip for a nice musical selection from the CTS booth. It reminded me of the better days of the progressive movement.
My one regret was that despite all I learned at Netroots Nation, I somehow managed to miss seeing Al Gore on his surprise visit. But then, I didn't see any of the other bigwigs either. They were far less in evidence than their right-leaning counterparts were on the other side of town.
Back to the Renaissance
I wrapped up the day, and ultimately the weekend, of total political immersion by heading back to the Defending the American Dream summit to catch Bob Barr's concluding speech. It was a strong speech, apparently given pretty much off the cuff, or at least very well rehearsed and somewhat customized for his audience. In the speech, and particularly in the informal Q&A session afterwards, Barr impressed me with his command of the issues, authenticity and approachability. He dealt extraordinarily well with questions about his changes in views since he left office, and his honesty was convincing. It's hard to talk to him and not come away believing that he is someone who actually thinks about issues and reasons his way through to the right answers. He is everything that Ron Paul should have been and was not. He is an authentic voice for freedom and reform on the political right. He deserves a larger stage to present his views and I think it would be good for the nation if he can qualify for and be included in any national presidential debates.
That was enough politics for one weekend, and I bet I can go for weeks without another fix. I learned a lot from both conferences and from the comparison of the two. If I were to come up with a conclusion, it is that I found a lot more genuine grassroots enthusiasm and interest in new ideas and reform among the less experienced and less well funded participants in the Discovering the American Dream event, but there was an awful lot of money and power behind Netroots Nation and the leftward thrust which it is giving the Democratic party.