Liberal activists rallied in Minneapolis on Thursday for Netroots Nation, a blogger conference that is now one of the largest gatherings in progressive politics. A whopping 2,400 people are here this year, the highest turnout in the conference's six-year history. The draw is simple: a string of speeches, panels and parties with new political stars, from hometown Senator Al Franken to Paul Ryan's would-be nemesis Rob Zerbin, along with progressive classics like Van Jones, Howard Dean and Russ Feingold – liberals who have been more vanquished than rewarded for their prescience.
In the first timeslot on Thursday morning, organizers from MoveOn, DFA, PCCC and AFT outlined lessons from the Wisconsin labor protests. About half of the standing-room crowd was from Wisconsin, according to a show of hands, and they were interested in how to tap the backlash to change the dynamics beyond Wisconsin.
"We pushed our national membership to not just be bystanders, but to actively partake in this election recall process," said PCCC's Adam Green. PCCC raised money online for a series of ads featuring Wisconsin residents, which targeted Republicans who had voted against collective bargaining rights. Levana Layendecker, a communications strategist for DFA, said her group spent $1.5 million on their Wisconsin effort. She used her appearance to announce a DFA program to hire 35 new organizers for the Wisconsin recalls.
But some questioned the role of these national liberal groups in Wisconsin.
The first question for the panel came from Jill Hopke, a 31-year-old doctoral student from Madison, who basically told the national groups that they did not spark the Wisconsin protests. It was local students hitting the streets, she said, "bringing sleeping bags" and blocking the Senate chamber.
"The reason that I was there protesting had nothing to do with partisan politics," Hopke stressed, "but that our basic rights to organize were being attacked." Hopke, who testified at about 2am during the legislature's overnight hearings, told The Nation after the panel that some people think the Wisconsin effort was sparked by legislators leaving the state, or by national intervention. Yet the real catalyst, she argued, was people with skin in the game standing up for themselves and organizing locally.
The panelists essentially replied in agreement, stressing that Wisconsin started locally and their challenge was how to follow and assist.
"We're not carrying a single banner," said MoveOn's Daniel Mintz, likening the nascent network backing the protesters to an "open source movement." He cautioned, however, that the Tea Party had an advantage in using a recognizable national brand, which enabled "folks who are not coordinating [and] not talking to say, 'I'm part of the movement.'"
The session also reflected a sense that Democrats were not automatic allies for labor priorities.
Matt Browner Hamlin, a web strategist for SEIU, asked from the audience about why a fundamental "class warfare problem" is met with largely electoral responses.
MoveOn's Mintz replied that the answer was "not to elect more Democrats, or even more and better Democrats." That phrase was deliberate -- it was the rallying cry from Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, and other top bloggers, in previous election cycles. So it's telling that MoveOn, one of the largest liberal groups with 5 million members and a financial engine for many Democrats, is striking a more strident tone.
"When I look at the 1930s, one of the big differences that leaps out," Mintz said, "there were big movements of people doing stuff separate from what was going on in government, and exercising power that was separate from FDR and the Democrats in Congress." A movement is "already building out there," Mintz argued, and "we need to harness that energy." He also plugged June23.org, a hub for the new "American Dream" campaign MoveOn is pushing with Van Jones and The Roots, who are playing at the launch event in New York next week. (Nothing says grassroots movement like Jimmy Fallon's house band. Kidding – I love The Roots!)
If there is a bright spot for labor beyond the backlash, it could be demographic. The widely read blogger Matt Yglesias, who was sitting on the floor just outside the labor panel -- apparently posting about the CIA's interest in another famous blogger, Juan Cole – just noted data showing young Americans actually have the most positive views of labor unions.
The Nation's Ari Melber is writing from Netroots Nation this week, and he is participating in the conference by moderating a keynote session with Sen. Al Franken and union leaders on Saturday, June 18. The Nation is hosting a livestream of the conference here. Contact Ari Melber: Twitter, Facebook.