A Republican at Netroots Nation

(Ed went to Netroots.  Wrote up this diary.   – promoted by Rob “EaBo Clipper” Eno)


I was in Silicon Valley for a tech conference last week (Velocity), and I heard the annual Netroots Nation convention was nearby. Curious about how technology was affecting the liberal organizing elite, I decided to attend some of the conference, and tell my Republican friends what I learned.

This article will make you roll your eyes, and will probably make you laugh, but most importantly, it should make you worry. We are losing and it is going to get worse.

In an age where technology is enabling a massive change in how voters are reached and turned out, liberals have a people-powered culture that is well-suited to adopting it.

They have raised a lot of money for new kinds of supporting organizations. They now have an ecosystem that will continue to allow them to outperform relative to their small numbers. We all heard what President Obama’s tech team accomplished in 2012. What you probably don’t know is how far and wide these ideas have spread in the Democratic party.

Their advantages will be hard to match. Republican culture isn’t suited for what needs to happen. We also don’t have the right organizations to move forward, such as their New Organizing Institute, which really impressed me.

So… what do we do? Lots of things, but first: Don’t worry about the RNC, the state committee, and campaigns; they are not set up to advance this kind of change. We need to raise money for new cutting-edge enabling organizations. We also need to see that losing young voters means losing most of the people that are comfortable with the kinds of tools that we need to create and use.

I know people will tell me that we’re already doing this stuff. Like hell we are.

(read the full story…)

Contents:

* The Fun Stuff from the show

* The Serious stuff in the sessions

* Ideas on catching up

* Closing Thoughts

THE FUN STUFF: Arriving at the show

I walked into the San Jose Convention Center, hoping that none of the Democratic activists I know would be there. I picked up my badge and got the handbook. I opened it and looked at the introduction page and saw this paragraph on “Transgender Etiquette.”

Please do not assume anyone’s gender, even if you have met them in the past. A person’s external appearance may not indicate their gender identity.

You know…. I’m OK with being reasonably accommodating to people, but to warn me that I shouldn’t make assumptions about people I have already met – even though they appear to be the same sex I saw before? You’ve got to be kidding!

The nice guy with the HRC logo on his hat told me that there were 2,300 attendees. As I saw people coming and going, I took notice of them.

When you go to some big Republican or conservative thing, the crowd always seems like an official gathering of straight white Christians, with the occasional interloper. But here, this looked like the rest of America. Of course there were demographics absent, but there were a lot of non-white people, and even great variety among Asian Americans and Latinos. There were lots of young people and a lot more women and a significant number of gay people. This is where they are succeeding and we are failing.

After attending an early session on an analysis of 10,000 Facebook pages – not bad at all – I went into the expo hall to pick up my conference materials and check out the vendor tables.

Wow.

The large expo hall was a glittering carnival of bad ideas. (I wondered, “Is this what CPAC looks like to a liberal?”) I walked quickly by the evil purple NARAL table, upon which I would have sprinkled holy water if I had some. But I reminded myself I wasn’t there to cause trouble.

I hurried through a gauntlet of ideological fantasies to the table where I was going to get my bag of conference schwag. “Name please?” I turned my head left, then right, then leaned in and whispered, “Ed Lyons.”

I got large bag and slipped off to an unoccupied corner a few feet from a man wearing women’s clothes. Here is what was in the bag:

Conference schwag is supposed to be colorful and lighthearted. I certainly got a laugh out of a foam luggage tag that said, “I love airport workers.” And then there was the anti-drone frisbee. But what really turned me off was a little book of stories about women and the abortions they had. I grimaced and whispered, “You’ve got to be freaking kidding me!” I then thought, “It’s one thing to be pro-choice, but another to make this into a secular sacrament!” Ugh.

I got up and walked for a few minutes. I accidentally stopped too long at a booth where some woman tried to convince me that the schools were being ruined by the “reformers” who want charters and vouchers and testing – and that the unions were going to help improve education.

I looked around her to see if there was a hooka-smoking caterpillar nearby. It took great restraint, but I said, ‘Thank you for explaining the situation to me,’ and walked further on. I stopped by the ActBlue table and sincerely told them I was impressed by what they had built. A curious woman said, “Who are you with?” I smiled and said, “I am alone,” and walked off.

I stopped by a large booth of politically-themed posters you could buy.

There were others that were pretty hard-core, but some weren’t offensive at all – just edgy. Let’s just say I don’t think any of this would have looked good in my den.

I decided that I couldn’t keep my poker face on much longer, and skipped out to another session.

THE SERIOUS STUFF: The Content

I went to various things, but I want to focus on just two sessions.

I checked out a packed session about voter outreach tactics. There were five people on the stage talking about their successes in various elections. I was particularly impressed by two women panelists: one from a SuperPAC called CREDO and another from an organization called the New Organization Institute.  Both of these are enabling organizations. CREDO is not a SuperPAC that makes scary television ads, but “a SuperPAC built around data” that goes “after the worst Tea Party Republicans in the House.” They have a member list of 3,000,000 people. (How the heck did I not hear about an organization of 3 million Democrats?” Ugh.)

Note: Despite the waning influence of the Tea Party movement, lots of people at this conference were all fired up to fight against them. I almost feel bad for them that their enemy’s big moment has come and gone.

The woman from CREDO was really something. They are working hard to take the new “science” of campaigning and practices to lots of races. (I hear they worked hard to defeat lunatic Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann – so they can’t be all bad, eh?) I was quite jealous that we don’t have a PAC like them!

The other woman from the liberal New Organizing Institute was also great. Their organization will astound you. (Check out their website !) They are totally immersed in the new world of high-tech politics. They have a campaign toolbox to help people. They fund experiments. They do all kinds of training. (At their booth in the bizarre bazaar, a sharp young African-American woman gave me a handout and a flag that advertised how awesome it is to be a “Data Ninja.” Wow.)

The session went very well, and I left thinking, “This is going to get worse for us before it gets better.”

Next I went to a big panel discussion on efforts to get gay marriage adopted in several states. Each panel member got up and talked about how they succeeded in their efforts.

They were really something. Their tactics were impressive, and so was their humility. They spoke at length about reaching out to all kinds of people who don’t agree with them and were pre-disposed to vote against gay marriage – such as religious voters. They talked about trying to use the right language and imagery. (I have never in my life seen conservative activists sitting around humbly talking about how to use the right language to get other people to agree with them.)

They also spoke of their Internet tools, from a clever Tumblr blog to the use of a great Facebook application called “kNOw” – I think. (I am pretty certain they were speaking about NGP’s Social Organizing Tool – which lets you use Facebook to match the Democrat’s VAN voter file with your Facebook friends.) The app asks questions about your friends and lets you take all kinds of campaign actions and even compete with others using it for points and prizes. The guy who talked about it said it was great just to clean up and improve your voter data files. (Matching social media profiles with voter lists is probably the hottest thing going on in politics today.)

IDEAS ON CATCHING UP

1. Should we have a conference like Netroots Nation?

It took over ten years for this conference to be this huge success that it is now, featuring scores of sessions and important leaders. Sure, we have RightOnline – which has been around since 2008 – but it pales in comparison to what Netroots Nation is.

We probably shouldn’t try to copy NN, as copies never work out well. But we should have a big organizer conference with flashier presentation, better marketing, and a massive effort to get certain kinds of people to attend – especially to preach the benefits of technology-driven politics. Also, NN has a certain blend of speeches, caucusing, technology, advocacy, and organizing strategy. We shouldn’t have the same recipe, but experiment with different formulas. (I think our conferences have too much emphasis on speeches, for instance.)

But whatever the mix, we need to create events where we can get more people to become much more effective. This should probably start at the state level. For instance, I remember attending the 2011 MassGOP Growing Grassroots event and one or two activist training events in the time since. Let me be honest. The stuff in our state on activism is probably 5 years behind what I saw last week. It’s time to go back to the drawing board. (But not a real drawing board, a Google Hangout, ok? )

2. What role do diversity, culture, and youth play?

Diversity not only improves the exchange of ideas and generation of new ones, it also provides a legitimacy to what you are proposing, and morale to the people involved. I sat in an advocacy session at NN with an audience full of many kinds of people. It really did feel like that cause had broad-based support. (I knew differently, of course, but still – the optics were compelling.)

One big thing the liberals have over us is that they have a better culture for organizing. They have a history of people trying to work locally to fight against the powers that be. We tend to be more in line with the business community and traditional institutions, not rallying for changes in the public square. They seem much more likely to go get people together and start something. We need to figure out how to encourage people to go do their own thing more often – and not always join an RTC or work for campaigns. Maybe part of it is to evangelize how powerful the new tools and technologies are. (Not to mention how inexpensive they are.)

You might say, “But isn’t this what the Tea Party has done?”  Yes, but they bring me to my last point: youth.

When the Tea Party stormed upon the political scene a few years ago, I thought, “Well, this movement was born into a world of great technology. They have none of the baggage of the Republican party.”

But the Tea Party did not become a group that adopted lots of new technology and invented their own, despite the many opportunities. Some of this was probably due to their stubbornness in remaining de-centralized. But they could still have used some tech to operate as a massive federated organization that shared tool and organizing knowledge. But they did not.

I believe the main reason is because of their demographics. Across the country, the Tea Party is much older than liberal Democratic activists. Every photo of a Tea Party meeting I have ever seen shows a lot of middle-aged and older white folks. There’s nothing wrong with that. But these people are far less likely to be plugged into innovation, and worse, their members are not going to be fertile ground to try out new ideas.

The lack of youth in a political world living through a technological revolution driven by young adopters is fatal for us. I wish the College Republicans in their just-released report would have made it clear that losing young people to the Democrats isn’t just about votes, it is also about losing the most important group of people we need to update the way we do politics.

3. How can we create better enabling organizations?

I realize that Republicans have all kinds of organizations out there, and many do some sort of training. But we don’t have anything like what I saw at NN. So many people at so many sessions not only talked about the “science” of campaigning being crucial, but they also had many stories of how they had implemented it and won elections.

We need our own NOI. We need to convince more donors to dedicate some of their resources to these kinds of efforts, not just committees and campaigns. Also, there is a mindset shift to be undertaken: we need to spread our content openly. Too often, we restrict our training to in-person sessions, and even sometimes check voter registration to make sure attendees are Republicans!? Of course, the training then can’t be put online.

The NOI gives away most of what it has. Their bet is that for the price of a few Republicans seeing their stuff, they will reach ten times as many Democrats. That’s the right tradeoff. We are so far behind it’s time to stop worrying about keeping things secret and time to start aiming for as broad a reach as possible.

Closing Thoughts

I was glad I attended a day of the conference, and even one of the nighttime parties, which featured Howard Dean. It was a great window into the state of Democratic organizing. I bear no ill will toward the nice people I saw there. (I just don’t want to see any more of their ideas become law.)

I think one of the things that holds us back is that we are somewhat complacent, knowing that there are many more conservative people in this nation than liberal ones, historically. But as the nation continues to become more diverse, and as our ever-growing government finds more and more ways to satisfy niche audiences, there is a real danger that this won’t always be so. Worse, if liberals use new tools and techniques to be much more effective than we are, they will wipe out any ideological advantage we have with the voters.

I will conclude with this: if we don’t want to have Hillary Clinton become president in 2016, it’s time to change the way we do politics. Next time you’re at an all-white event where they hand you the training materials in a three-ring binder, tell them that this isn’t going to cut it anymore against a diverse army of “data ninjas,” and walk out.

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