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RightOnline and Netroots Nation: Right and Left Mix It Up a Little in Minneapolis

When parallel universes collide.

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.