Netroots Nation vs. the US Social Forum

This is a follow up to The US Social Forum vs. Netroots Nation.

Back from the recent Netroots Nation in Las Vegas. Good job everyone! It was great, I feel very lucky to be one of the 2000 folks in attendance. I’m also finding it hard to summarize my thoughts for a follow up post. So I’ll just do bullet points, ‘k?

Reminder: I’m comparing the US Social Forum held in June in Detroit with Netroots Nation, held in July in Las Vegas. Both events attract folks to the left of President Obama interested in organizing for social and political change.

Most pertinent observations:

The Social Forum (USSF) was much more diverse. Not only in terms of race (Netroots Nation gets a passing grade) but in terms of age, class, out queers, locals and politics. The backstory is that the USSF simply isn’t interested in attracting a whole slew of NN’ers, as this conflicts with the emphasis on mass based organizations of people of color and the poor. Similarly, NN isn’t a great place for introducing newcomers to politics in general, and they don’t pretend otherwise.

One of the highlights of NN was when Lt. Daniel Choi gave his West Point ring to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as a way of encouraging him to advance the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. (I strongly suspect Get Equal was part of that….)

It was a touching moment that highlighted how NN organizers and attendees are using the event itself to push for change at the highest levels. More generally, having sessions where everyone was experiencing the same content helped bring us together as a group and create a shared conversation. This was sorely missing at the USSF, where the big hall looked about 5%-10% full for peak events. As a political moment, NN was huge, and USSF was weak.

What are the important issues? Interestingly, NN and the USSF were quite similar. In both cases, unemployment/the economy and immigration were featured prominently. I was pleasantly surprised to see Tim Wise speak about the racial dynamics behind the policy debates. He wasn’t alone. The point was made that while the right wing uses racist code language while supporting ‘colorblind’ policies that privilege the wealthy, progressives often opt for genuinely colorblind thinking that fail to account for the very important racial dynamics that need to be upfront in the policy debate.

USSF has a particular focus on the marginalized of this country – the poor, people of color, immigrants, etc.) but I felt like I learned more on those topics at NN.

NN celebrated the primary fight against Blanche Lincoln. True, she won anyway, and our guy Bill Halter lost. But ‘we’ raised $2.5 million from tens of thousands of small donors around the country working together with the labor movement. She barely won, even with Bill Clinton trying his best to do to progressives what he claims never to have done with Monica. What exactly did we celebrate at the USSF? I can’t remember…. Just having it felt big at the time. Now it feels like not enough. I think… I’m demanding short term political gains that the movement can celebrate.

Democrats. I heard DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas mention dispassionately that the Democratic Party is corrupt and dysfunctional. It echoes a frequently heard sentiment at the USSF: that Democrats suck and no one should have expected much from a centrist Democrat like Obama anyway. The difference is huge. NN folks operate within the limitations of our political system to push hard and get more. Lots of Forumistas feel and act the same way, but there’s a strident, separatist undertone more interested in peeling off a few more radicals for a hard-left world view than in actual organizing.

Labor. Why was labor better represented (it seemed) at NN than at USSF? Seems strange. Why would Rich Trumka and Liz Shuler think that 2000 bloggers are a more important audience than 15,000 movement activists? Instead of answering that, I’ll pose the question another way. Is it possible that 2000 bloggers are actually, in the real world, a more potent force for change that 15,000 movement activists?

Skills training. The series of NN training sessions organizing together with Democracy for America was great, for newbies and veterans alike. Many will be online soon. There were skills training sessions at the USSF, but it wasn’t a major focus. Generally, Forumistas were more interested in the political implications of ‘X’ than in how do ‘X’ better.

This list might appear to favor NN over the USSF. But NN is organized by a tight, highly organized group with funding and love from some not-insignificant factions of the power elite. The Social Forum better reflects where the oppressed and marginalized of America happen to be at this moment. It’s not a group amenable to thought leadership from the DailyKos community.

The USSF has other things going for it. A stronger focus on international solidarity, lower costs for attendees, greater ability for folks to connect around specialized interests, and stronger connections with on the ground, membership based organizations rooted in local communities. All good; but I still think that the Forum suffers from a strong disconnect with our existing political culture, indifference to ‘free agent’ activists who play an essential role, relative absence of world class speakers (Celebrities! Experts! Heroes! Leaders!), and greatly dispersed focus.

Netroots Nation and the US Social Forum were the seminal conferences of progressive political season. If I had one wish, it would be for more Forumistas to attend NN in 2011 and 2012, and then bring some of it back to the USSF of 2014.

What do you think?


5 Responses to Netroots Nation vs. the US Social Forum

  1. Barry says:

    I attended both conventions too, and IMO this assessment is on the money. Thanks for writing it.

    I would be particularly interested in how the groups that are part of the Inter-Alliance Dialogue — including Jobs with Justice, Right to the City, Grassroots Global Justice, Pushback Network, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and National Domestic Workers Alliance — feel about NN, and why they have so far chosen not to be part of both events. When I was at USSF, this coalition felt like it was one of the most substantive and organized in attendance, and I think they’d have a lot to offer to the NN experience.

  2. JoPo says:

    I’m a Forumista and couldn’t stretch my budget to be able to go to NN. I have to wonder whether NN could be more affordable if there were fewer world class speakers and a little less fancy. And, more importantly, would attendees support the decision to diverting some funding to solidarity funds and perhaps even targeted organizing of people of color, out queers, indigenous leaders closer to grassroots, youth, etc?

    Were you at the Allied Media Conference? To me, that conference was the perfect marriage of the two worlds.

    • clenchner says:

      I always hear great things about AMP. With regard to NN, they do have solidarity passes. There’s a well publicized effort to raise money for them and select great people, in partnership with DFA.
      When they asked all the scholarship babies to stand, it was a diverse crowd.
      And…. I doubt they paid for any of the speakers. The money is more for facilities and salaries of the NN staff (who are great). It’s def. a costlier model.

  3. clenchner says:

    Thanks Barry…
    Actually, Jobs With Justice has been part of both events, though USSF was clearly a bigger deal. And they were there last NN in PGH too. But I think for the sector you describe NN is a totally different culture, and there’s resistance to investing energy in that direction.
    I’d love to hear more from those folks about this question. Interestingly, I felt a stronger labor presence at NN than at USSF. Why is that?

    • Barry says:

      “I felt a stronger labor presence at NN than at USSF. Why is that?”

      Movements put more resources into recruitment than retention, and there is definitely more recruiting to the labor cause to be done among white middle-class tech-oriented progressives than among the Forumistas. Moreover, with the NN crowd, you’re recruiting influencers, the new mass media, who will carry the labor torch to thousands of readers and activists.

      “I think for the sector you describe NN is a totally different culture, and there‚Äôs resistance to investing energy in that direction.”

      The IAD and NN have very different theories of change, and therefore very different operating modes and tactics. They also have very different cultures. Here’s a theory for consideration: bridging the cultural divide is the key to strategic alignment. If NN and IAD/USSF leaders developed a plan for giving their constituencies shared cultural experiences and referents, they could transform these communities’ strategic and tactical differences from cooperation barriers to an effective and coordinated division of labor.

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