RightOnline and Netroots Nation: Right and Left Mix It Up a Little in Minneapolis
This piece has been updated and added to since it was first published.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Americans For Prosperity Foundation fawns before the organizers of Netroots Nation, the annual conference of progressive bloggers, organizers and grassroots activists launched by the Daily Kos in 2007. For the last three years, the AFP Foundation, chaired by David Koch, has sponsored a counter-conference to Netroots, known as RightOnline, which takes place on the same weekend and in the same city as Netroots, all designed to create the illusion of equivalence in might and digital prowess to the left's new media enterprise. As I've done since 2009, I spent most of Netroots weekend with the right, attending the sessions of RightOnline.
In the past, the two groups have pretty much stuck to their separate corners, content to operate in parallel universes. But this year was different -- there was active engagement between the two sides, thanks, in part, to the pugilistic presence of right-wing blog impresario Andrew Breitbart, and the awakening of progressives to the threat posed by the Tea Party movement. It all made for some great theater -- theater that may have served the right-wingers better than the lefties.
Among progressives, those who engaged the right fell into two camps: those who sought dialogue, and those aiming for confrontation. Breitbart mostly drew the dialogue-seekers.
Breitbart as Flat Stanley
Breitbart won the respect of some Netroots Nation participants by holding court in the bar of the Minneapolis Hilton for spirited debates with the likes of Sam Seder and Sally Kohn.
Yet, away from the bar and among his own people, Breitbart wasn't talking about ideas; he was describing liberals as shallow and lazy, as people who don't really mean what they say, and who have an inflated sense of their own morality.
At a Friday night banquet in the hotel ballroom, Breitbart told the RightOnline crowd (video - 00:45) that he used to be a liberal. "I would wake up in the morning, I'd go, 'I'm for the children.' Well I didn't wake in the morning at that point in my life; the morning was, like, three in the afternoon. I'd go, 'I'm for the environment. I'm against war. I'm inherently good."
Breitbart did, however, say that he liked some liberals -- "the ones who are nice to me," such as the people who "hung out at the bar with me" during the conference. Then he returned to his rant on the moral failings of liberals. "My goal is to take down the institutional left," he said.
The progressives who chose to engage with the presenters at RightOnline seemed to fall into two camps: those who wanted the argument on ideas -- a typical liberal failing, thinking we can change minds based on reason and policy. (I, too, fall into this behavior, even though I know better.) And so Breitbart comes away with adorable photos of himself smiling with some of the progressive movement's leading lights, while, once among his own people, painting the entire progressive project with the brush of Weinergate. In fact, Breitbart was kind of the Flat Stanley of Netroots Nation: Here's Andrew with Deanna Zandt, here he is with Katie Halper, with Sam Seder, with Sally Kohn. (Well, okay, he does have his hands around Kohn's throat.) And somewhere out there is a picture of me with James O'Keefe, the result of my desire to have a reasonable discussion with the man who needed a judge's permission to travel to Minneapolis because of his conviction for entering the offices of Sen. Mary Landrieu under a false premise.
This year's RightOnline line-up offered the glamor of a handful of GOP presidential candidates, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., being the clear favorite. Hot off her triumph at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, where she delivered a well-received speech (despite the fact that Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., won the presidential straw poll), Bachmann wowed the RightOnline crowd with her climate-change denial and promise to repeal "Obamacare," as right-wingers like to call health-care reform.
In fact, Bachmann said, President Barack Obama really has a nefarious, secret plan: it's to end Medicare and roll all those senior citizens "into Obamacare." Which prompted Slate's David Weigel to tweet: "Bachmann warns seniors that they'll be rolled into Obamacare and out of... err... single payer. FREEDOM!" (Never mind that Bachmann was all for Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to end Medicare, until she turned kinda, sorta against it.)
"I am not convinced on the science that says human activity causes global warming," Bachmann told the crowd to enthusiastic applause. But the crowd really went wild when the Tea Party Caucus chair announced her introduction of the "Lightbulb Freedom of Choice Act" (which prompted Weigel to tweet, "Americans can buy any damn lightbubs they want. It's in the Constitution.").
The phase-out of the incandescent lightbulb is an emotional issue for the Tea Partiers who populate the RightOnline audience. It's become a symbol of all that is wrong with the liberal agenda, this notion that technology that was invented 130 years ago by Thomas Edison should ever be replaced with a more efficient and modern technology. Kind of like the internal combustion engine.
At one point in her speech, Bachmann had audience members take hold up a dollar bill and then fold it to represent the percentage of each dollar she contended is spent on servicing the debt, another great bugaboo of the right. (The right is leading the charge to block to raising of the national debt ceiling, a move that could, if successful, cause the U.S. to default on its obligations.)
Though Bachmann steered clear from any overt mention of such social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, she sent some coded messages out to so-called social conservatives, winning her biggest applause when she pledged to "stand by Israel." The religious right defends the Israel's most right-wing policies, not so much for reasons of geopolitics, but for reasons of religion. Israel is seen as a bulwark against the spread of Islam, and a return of Israel to its biblical borders plays to the end-times theology of many evangelical sects.
Bachmann's avoidance of those pesky social questions, however, did not entirely succeed. As she walked off the stage following her crowd-pleasing speech, a cloud of rainbow-colored glitter was tossed in her face by an activist from the radical group, Get Equal, in protest of her anti-gay positions and alliances. (G.O.P. presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota's former governor, was similarly "glittered" later in the day.)
The glitter episode elicited condemnation from LGBT rights blogger Matt Comer, who wrote, "these “glitter” protests are outrageously personal, confrontational and aggressive. Personally, it turns me off and I don’t think it accomplishes the goal that [Bachmann's glitterer] E.B. Lang and GetEqual seek."
And then there was Breitbart's deliberate provocation of the Netroots crowd, when he attempted to enter the progressive conference without a credential, although I'm sure he could have applied for and received media credentials if he wanted them. (Amanda Marcotte has the lowdown at Pandagon.) If only the crowd that confronted him could have been smart enough not to take the bait -- never mind behave in a civil manner. (Who raised you?)
Another act of confrontational protest that took place at RightOnline, however, was smart and funny, and made its point with aplomb. After a group of Muslim women, in town to attend Netroots, were harassed outside a Netroots after-party at Minneapolis jazz club by a man in town to attend RightOnline, progressives mobilized a flashmob/press conference of headscarf-wearing women in the lobby of the hotel in which RightOnline was taking place (the very same hotel that was the official hotel of Netroots Nation, whose conference took place in the nearby Minneapolis Convention Center). Video is here.
At next year's Netroots Nation, alas, there will be no such contact. The 2012 conference will take place in Providence, Rhode Island, a town so friendly to conventioneers that the contract features a non-compete clause. Sad faces, all around, I'm sure, at the Americans For Prosperity Foundation.
Despite the range of issues addressed at RightOnline -- energy, taxes, health care, labor law -- there is a unifying theme: "getting" the left, making liberals angry, yanking the chain of their opponents. That's not to say that certain liberals don't take a certain glee in punking the right -- say, via a prank phone call to a certain Wisconsin governor -- you don't hear a lot of rhetoric in either the panel sessions or plenaries of Netroots Nation about how so-and-so is so cool because he makes someone on the right really pissed off. I'm not saying it never happens, but at RightOnline, a constant, smug glee circulates in the room with each insult visited on a liberal, or at evidence of progressive irritation at either the methods or sources of right-wing activists.
In her introduction of Andrew Breitbart, appearing at a triumphant moment after the resignation of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y. -- the result of Breitbart's, ahem, exposure of Weiner's sexting problem -- Freyda Levy, board member of the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, lauded Breitbart for his "skill at annoying the left."
That chain-yanking sensibility was on bright display at a presentation by James O'Keefe, the force behind a number of video "stings" of liberal -- or ostensibly liberal, in the case of NPR -- entities, including ACORN and Planned Parenthood. Some of O'Keefe's videos have been shown to have manipulated video, or, as in the case of the undercover video that resulted in the dismissal of two National Public Radio employees, clips taken out of context to make it seem as if the subject was stating his own opinion, when, in fact, he was relaying what someone else had told him.
Most revealing in O'Keefe's presentation was a video he shot while attending Rutgers University in which he and several comrades sat down with a dean, claiming to represent the non-existent Irish Heritage Society, and calling for the removal of the breakfast cereal, Lucky Charms, from the campus dining room because its mascot, a pug-nosed leprechaun, was demeaning to Irish people. It's a very funny video, and a creative prank designed to poke fun at the sensitivities of African Americans and other oppressed groups.
More common, though, at RightOnline was the name-calling and invective. Local radio host Jason Lewis, a speaker at RightOnline's Saturday plenary session, said, "I have the heart of a liberal. I keep it in a jar on my desk."
Opening the session, Michelle Malkin referred to progressives as "Soros-funded flying monkeys." In a video address to RightOnline attendees, Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck described the conference as "just the kind of event that gives Van Jones and George Soros nightmares. Thank you, thank you." He then launched into a very bad impression of Soros, speaking in an accent that sounded more like Boris Badenov from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon.
Soros, like lightbulbs, is but one of many right-wing bugaboos, along with a paranoid belief that American Muslims are hell-bent on implementing Shari'ah law as the law of the land.
Then there's the conspiracy theory of widespread voter fraud, ostensibly perpetrated by liberals, an easy fable to sell to an constituency whose members can't, for the life of them, believe that anyone in his or her right mind could possibly vote for a Democrat. The voter-fraud trope then gives impetus to schemes that actually would suppress the vote in minority and disenfranchised communities, such as voter ID laws and a proposed repeal of the motor voter law.
At the first breakout session I attended at 8:30 on Friday morning, Anita MonCrief, a former staff member of ACORN who turned on the organization, called for the formation of an army of poll-watchers who will guard polling places from the dastardly schemes of liberal vote-riggers. MonCrief actually decried the passage of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which required motor vehicle agencies to offer customers the opportunity to register to vote while doing business there. MonCrief was especially irked by new enforcement guidelines of the law issued by the Justice Department that require agencies offering public assistance to poor people to offer provide voter registration opportunities.
A Study in Contrasts
Every political conference needs a rousing closer, someone who can bring the crowd to their feet in preparation for pounding the pavement to organize their troops. For that purpose, the Americans For Prosperity Foundation chose Herman Cain, the former businessman and radio show host whose campaign is run by Mark Block, the former director of the Wisconsin chapter of Americans For Prosperity, the guy who did much to see to the election of anti-labor Gov. Scott Walker, as well as Sen. Ron Johnson, who defeated longtime Democratic crusader Russ Feingold, and a host of other state-level and national Tea Party-allied candidates. As AlterNet reported, Block has a dirty past in Wisconsin politics, from which he was barred for five years in 2000. He was also implicated in a vote-caging scheme designed to suppress the vote in two Milwaukee districts heavily populated by African Americans and young people.
Netroots Nation chose Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who represents Minneapolis in Congress, and who is the first Muslim to serve in the House of Representatives.
Since throwing his hat into the ring late last month, Cain has become a favorite on the campaign circuit, appreciated for his entertaining delivery and up-from-his-bootstraps story. Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza and former executive at Burger King, also has a knack for making members of the almost exclusively white Tea Party movement feel okay about themselves on matters concerning race. He's an African American who puts himself forward as living proof of what he claims is an absence of racism in the movement.
Cain's message is a straight-up pro-big-business sermon that aligns perfectly with the agenda embraced by David Koch, the billionaire who, with his billionaire brother, Charles, runs the second-largest privately-held corporation in America, Koch Industries. The company is a conglomerate whose core business are in the oil and gas sector.
As he takes the stage at RightOnline (video), Cain receives a rousing welcome. "Aw, shuck 'n' ducky," he says. Then he gets serious. "We are living a national nightmare," he says, ominously. It's a nightmare that will rob our children and grandchildren of their dreams, he continues.
He goes on to list the components of the night mare, describing each as individual cars on the stalled train that is the economy: high unemployment, small businesses struggling, "$1 trillion in spending that didn't stimulate the economy," and a $14 trillion debt, he says. In the caboose is "Obamacare" and the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.
"The reason that this economy's not movin' is because there's no engine with the right fuel in it to move this economy," Cain asserts. One imagines he's looking for good old fashioned petroleum, rather than that alternative stuff. I mean, if your boss was an oilman, wouldn't you?
Cain's solution? Tax cuts, and more tax cuts. "A max 25 percent tax, corporate and individual...Take capital gains taxes to zero...Suspend taxes on foreign repatriated profits."
Wait -- what was that last one? A new addition to Cain's stump speech; this I know because I have seen far too many Herman Cain speeches, having attended far too many Americans For Prosperity Foundation events.
Well, lo and behold, as I opened the New York Times today, I ran across this: Companies Push for Tax Break on Foreign Cash. Wouldn't you know, it's an initiative that's being pushed by, among others, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Duke Energy and Apple Computers.
Around the same time that Cain was telling the RightOnline audience that he had been anointed by God to save the national economy by starving the government of revenue and filling the coffers of corporations, Keith Ellison took the stage (video), just blocks away, at Netroots. His bid for unity among constituency groups was eloquent and moving: the very sight of a Muslim calling for equal rights for gay people and women gives lie to the Shari'ah hysteria that excites the right. Then he broke it down.
"If your whole political philosophy is the elevation of greed to an ideology that only serves one percent or less of the American people, then how are you going to get more than 50 percent of the American people to vote for that program?" Ellison asked. "First, you've got to suppress the vote...you got to make the scared of each other, suspicious of each other, you've got to make them not want to hang together. You've got to get some of them to think that they're more moral than others, that some people's families are more moral than other people's families because while you ain't got no paycheck, and while you've got your house foreclosed [on], and while you got no health care, you at least can feel better than somebody else."
With that he implored the crowd to spread the notion of one America, "with liberty and justice for all."