News & Politics

It's Conference Time in Progressive America -- Will You Be Attending?

Summer is the season when American progressives gather to assess the political moment and mobilize their troops for the ongoing battle.

Spring and summer are when progressives in America come together to assess the political moment, advocate for various campaigns and priorities, show off their rhetorical skills, and carry the flag of movements for social change. Beginning in early June, there will be at least four major gatherings in four U.S. cities.

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The gatherings come at a charged political moment. The insurgent Tea Parties, along with their wealthy backers and astroturf organizations, dominate media coverage and manage to kick up controversy at every turn. Of course, as always, the corporate media seems far more enchanted with what is happening in Conservativeland than in Progressiveville, even though the Tea Partiers already have their very own cable news network in Fox. As the media watchdog group FAIR pointed out, the Washington Post assigned a full-time reporter to the Tea Party beat: "That's a level of attention few progressive citizen groups will ever receive from the corporate press." (Except of course if you are ACORN, and the media gets taken in by right-wing charlatans out to smear you, and helps to destroy a long-established organization -- one of the very few that advocated consistently for poor people.)

Historically, the biggest gathering for progressives has been the annual soiree hosted and organized by Campaign for America's Future (CAF). The group's leaders, Bob Borosage and Roger Hickey, along with their staff, bring together a wide and diverse array of Progressivism's best and brightest. If you are a progressive activist leader, non-profit advocate or political junkie who wants to be aware of the latest trends and best analysis, this is a gathering you won't want to miss.

Since the June 7-9 conference (called America's Future Now since the old name, Take Back America, in some sense no longer applies) is in Washington, and CAF is a Beltway operation, there is a significant orientation around electoral politics. In presidential years, the candidates come to show their wares (I've seen Obama give two great speeches at CAF) but now that there is a Democrat in the White House -- and one whom many progressives are disappointed in -- the gathering in Washington at the Omni Shoreham Hotel will be in many ways a tense affair. (Click here to register for the conference and get a special AlterNet discount.)

The CAF conference is being billed as progressives' answer to the Tea Party, and a good turnout will feel good. But make no mistake -- the underlying theme of the CAF gathering will be the large backlog of unfinished business with the Obama administration, and the many perceived disappointments and failures. Last year, Obama was just getting started and administration defenders were prominent among the speakers. This year it will be more complicated to be sure, as CAF has been a strong advocate for what isn't getting done.

In marketing for the conference, CAF offers that Obama deserves credit for stopping the economic free-fall inherited by Bush, but, "Where is the plan to bring back the eight million jobs lost in the recession?" You will certainly hear a lot of ideas about how Obama and Co. can address what most consider the nation's most acute need: getting millions of Americans back to work. There is a lot of hand-wringing about the White House and Congress' priorities as well as the influence of the "fourth branch of government" -- the enormous lobbying apparatus, in which hundreds of ex-members of Congress are making millions working against the interests of average Americans. As CAF emphasizes, Democrats have so far failed to break up the too-big-to-fail banks, and Obama has created a commission that "strengthens the hand of deficit hysterics and Social Security haters." These will be among the dozens of topics on the program.

CAF usually brings in a gaggle of crowd-pleasers to preach to the choir, and this year is no exception. Leading the way on the vision front are some first-rate orators: Bill Moyers, Arianna Huffington, Richard Trumka, blogger Markos Moulitsas and the hottest new progressive in Congress, Alan Grayson, innovator of "The War is Making You Poor Act." CAF honors key people at its usually packed gala dinner, and this year the big awards go to superstar, first-term member of Congress Donna Edwards; James Rucker, whose influential organization Color of Change has shifted the debate on a number of key issues; and stalwart progressive funder and drug policy reformer, Peter Lewis, the founder of Progressive Insurance (the company with the funny commercials).

Just prior to CAF in NYC is the Personal Democracy Forum (PdF), on June 3-4, a bipartisan gathering of electoral-oriented technology types and advocates for a wide range of tech innovation and tech policy. Conference organizers Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej go out of their way to include Republicans and conservatives in an attempt to create some tension, but the overwhelming number of participants are progressives and creative, thoughtful technologists.

This year's theme, "Can the Internet fix politics?" will be explored on the first day of keynote talks and conversations by a diverse collection of speakers including Daniel Ellsberg, Craig Newmark, Eli Pariser, former AlterNet tech director Deanna Zandt, and the aforementioned regulars Huffington and Moulitsas. (Click here and use the coupon code ALTERNET for $100 off non-profit and regular registration.) PDF is offering a Quick-Start track for relative beginners to online politicking; Advanced Online Organizing;; Media; and a Developer track for the geeks, wizards and CTOs among us as well as a grab-bag track covering everything from how the rise of the mobile Internet is changing the shape of the digital divide, to the latest news from the Europe tech-politics arena, to a session with top foundation executives discussing Philanthropy 2.0.

The U.S. Social Forum, a decidedly more grassroots and left progressive gathering, takes place in Detroit, Michigan on June 22-26. The U.S. Social Forum (USSF) says it is not a conference, but rather a movement-building process -- a space to come up with the peoples’ solutions to the economic and ecological crisis. "The USSF is the next most important step in our struggle to build a powerful multi-racial, multi-sectoral, inter-generational, diverse, inclusive, internationalist movement that transforms this country and changes history," say the organizers. Presenters at opening ceremony: Joanne Watson, Detroit City Council; Dave Bing, Detroit mayor; representatives from Michigan Welfare Rights, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Centro Obrero, Southeast Michigan Jobs with Justice, etc.


And later in the summer on July 22-25, Las Vegas becomes blogger central as Netroots Nation gathers in a state that is ranked first in unemployment (so there will be more than a few bargains to be had on the Strip). Some of the key presenters will be Senator Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Trumka, Rep. Alan Grayson, Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins of Green for All and George Goehl of National People's Action.

Clearly the right-wing and the Tea Party movement are organizing many events around the country, and will have an event competing with Netroots in Las Vegas at the same time, a week after the Tea Party Convention, also in Vegas. It will be interesting to compare and contrast how progressives and the radical right conduct their gatherings and mobilize their troops for the ongoing political battle. 

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.