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08.15.09

The Great Liberal Blogger Pilgrimage

Thousands of liberal bloggers converged on Pittsburgh this weekend to ask whether Obama was taking them for granted. Rebecca Dana reports from Netroots Nation, where Twitter—not Bill or the other A-list pols—was the star.

This weekend, nearly 2,000 progressive bloggers schlepped to Pittsburgh, of all places, for the fourth annual Netroots Nation conference: three days of panels, plenaries, caucuses, rallies, trivia nights, pub crawls, Cyndi Lauper karaoke sessions, film screenings, and a party deejayed by renegade street artist Shepard Fairey, creator of the Obama “Hope” poster.

Arlen Specter, who is 79 years old, tweeted the whole event via TwitterBerry.

The air carried a familiar liberal's blend of political conviction and bonhomie, but two developments made this year's event dramatically different from the previous three. First, the election of Barack Obama, which helped transform a loosely knit community of bloggers into a powerful, cohesive political force. And second, the invention of Twitter, which added a new level of metaanalysis and general dweebery. (Some attendees wore T-shirts that read: “RT @ TheONECampaign #NN09.”)

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But if there was any question as to whether power might corrupt the progressive blogosphere, the answer came back a decisive no. Aside from some polite chest-thumping for their role in Obama’s victory, the bloggers were ruthlessly civil. One moderator earned a round of applause by interrupting a session with Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to remind cranky audience members that “Hissing’s just not cool, OK?” Attendees also voiced wild enthusiasm for an array of liberal causes, from free college tuition to the finer points of congressional procedure. At one session, dozens of audience members leapt to their feet to encourage Sen. Arlen Specter to support a cloture vote on health care reform.

“There’s very little power to corrupt in a distributive world like the netroots,” wrote DailyKos founder and netroots paterfamilias Markos Moulitsas in an email. “We’re not like the right that worships its authoritarian figures. We actually kind of hate on ours.”

Obama, for example, is now the object of intense ambivalence among netroots, whose pride in helping him get elected is tempered by frustration that he hasn’t done enough for their causes. Referencing the strained relationship, blogger Susie Madrak described netroots as “the girl you had under the bleachers but won’t take to the prom.”

Still, a lot has changed since 2006, when a few DailyKos commenters organized the first event (then called “YearlyKos”) in Las Vegas. Back then, lefty bloggers made do with disappointing liberal candidates—Howard Dean, Ned Lamont—and had to beg politicians to acknowledge their existence. This year, Bill Clinton was clamoring for a speaking slot.

Now, whether they like it or not, every politician and major media figure has a few “youth” on staff, as Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak put it, to maintain blogs, Facebook, and Twitter pages, and to field texts. The upshot is, occasionally, slapstick. For instance:

During a session Friday morning, audience members challenged newly minted Democrat Arlen Specter to call Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and set him straight on Obama’s health-care proposals. Specter invited bloggers to follow him backstage and watch as he made the call. They did, but Grassley wasn’t there, so Specter left a message. Then Specter, who is 79 years old, tweeted the whole event via TwitterBerry: “Called Senator Grassley to tell him to stop speading [sic] myths about health care reform and imaginary 'death panels.'” Bloggers and observers duly blogged, tweeted and retweeted.

Two hours later, Grassley, 75, got the message, saw the tweets, and tweeted his response via text message: “Specter got it all wrong that I ever used words 'death boards'. Even liberal press never accused me of that. So change ur last Tweet Arlen.” The netroots updated their blogs, Specter responded via Twitter, the netroots updated their blogs, Specter updated his Twitter, and so on: The snake tweeting its tail.

Jarrett took an hour and a half of questions from Facebook and Twitter on Saturday morning. Embattled New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine withstood withering Q&A about his onetime role as CEO of Goldman Sachs. Bill Clinton, whose wife's bid for the presidency was thwarted partially because of her testy relationship with the far left, gave the kickoff speech Thursday night, thanking bloggers “for what you do and the contribution you have made to dramatically elevating our public discourse and the base level of knowledge.”

Just as significant as Clinton’s deference was the number of traditional media reporters there to record it. Once scorned by the establishment, the netroots now command considerable respect from newspapers and magazines. Or if not respect, at least fear.

“All the old media guys are running around: ‘Join my Twitter page! I’m a blogger!'” said Mike Rogers, a D.C.-based netroots activist known for outing closeted gay politicians and activists who oppose gay rights. “Larry King is a blogger now? That’s how you know they’re scared.”

There was some actual human interaction at the conference, chiefly at a party Friday night in the parking lot next to the Rosa Villa diner, hosted by MoveOn.org and The Warhol Museum. Fairey, wearing a “Visit Guatanamo Bay!” T-shirt, handed out a special poster he made to support “Clean Energy for America.” He spun an '80s dance mix all night, heavy on Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and what he sees as the netroots anthem: "Freedom of Choice" by Devo, while guests wearing “Demand Our Right to Travel to Cuba” stickers bopped around, eating crab cakes and drinking gratis Vitamin Water.

“If anything, I worry about complacency,” said Raines Cohen, a Berkeley-based blogger and the founder of Democracy Begins at Home, a California-based community organizing nonprofit. “You see this attitude creeping in: ‘Oh, we got Obama elected, our work is done.’” Too much Vitamin Water, not enough cloture.

Cohen shared a booth at the conference with Susan C. Strong, founder and executive director of The Metaphor Project, an organization that helps progressives craft their message in easy-to-understand language. They had a “good spot,” right next to the ConAgra foods table stacked with free boxes of Crunch 'n Munch (even reviled corporate America makes an offering to the netroots now), but foot traffic was slow on the second day of the conference. While bloggers were busy at panels like “After Sotomayor: How Progressives Reshape the Debate Over Our Constitution” and “Presence and Authenticity: The Secret to Being a Media Star,” Strong was waiting patiently to teach anyone who would listen about the power of metaphor.

Howard Dean was signing books in another room, and a young blogger-type, identifiable by his plastic-frame glasses, breathable fabric clothing, and traffic-cone orange Netroots Nation lanyard, walked by. He was carrying three life-size cardboard cutouts of Obama under one arm. The effect was not lost on Strong, who is 69 years old.

“It certainly is a brand-new era,” she said and laughed. “You should check out my Kos page.”

Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.