MINNEAPOLIS—The streets outside the spacious convention center and the massive downtown Hilton are filled with progressive bloggers, consultants, and hacks, walking from meetings and lunches, orange lanyards dangling around their necks. They occasionally walk past copies of Thursday's Star-Tribune, with headline in the sort of font usually reserved for celebrity deaths and declarations of small wars: "Governor Outlines 'Painful' Shutdown."
The governor is a Democrat, Mark Dayton. The legislature is run by Republicans who won control in 2010 and who want to balance a budget with cuts that the governor opposes. They're at war, but these days, who isn't? The tone at the sixth Netroots Nation conference of progressive bloggers is not resigned and doomed. It's combative and doomed.
There are big crowds for panels with titles like "Where Crazy Comes From: Reckless Republicans in State Legislatures," and "After Citizens United: Combating Corporate Power." These rooms are so full that bloggers sit cross-legged on the floor with laptops that fulfill their anatomical promise. Meanwhile, the crowd for a panel about how political groups should lobby Congress can be counted on three hands.
"I'm glad there's not a hyper-focus on Obama," says Matt Osborne, a videographer and blogger from Alabama. "I went down and filmed the new legislature in our state. It's the first Republican legislature since Reconstruction. They get power, OK. What do they do with it? They crack down on teacher's unions and pensions and they're debating an immigration law by asking whether they should 'save' the immigrants before they deport them."
He shakes his head. "It's down the ballot where the real crazy is happening. If people want to whine about Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama—just shut up."
Osborne speaks for most of the people here. This is a national politics conference without much focus on a national goal. There is no sponsorship or booth from President Obama's re-election campaign. The biggest elected stars taking the main stage are Rep. Keith Ellison and Sen. Al Franken. Previous conferences had the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and, in 2007, every major Democratic candidate for president.
"We've had Pelosi or Reid two of the last three years," says Adam Bonin, chairman of the Netroots Nation board. "This year we wanted to have more issue-based plenary sessions, less ask-a-famous-person-a-question sessions."
In the past, Democratic candidates have flocked to this convention to meet potential staffers and donors. There are fewer now. The only one I see in person is Norman Solomon, the left-wing author who's now running for Congress if and when Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California retires.
"I'm running against an establishment, Obama Democrat," says Solomon.
His campaign literature points out that he was an Obama delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
"I was," he says. "And I disagree with much of what he's done."
That's not new. Progressives were saying that as early as February 2009. What's new is that the activists can see a life and politics without and beyond Obama. They're at war with conservatives in this state; they're locked in battle in Alabama, Ohio, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and everywhere else Republicans gained last year. In Wisconsin, they're fighting to save civilization itself.
Who are their allies? Not the White House, really. They're allied with labor unions. Every major union is present here, and the first big speeches of the weekend are given to a representative from American Federation of County, State, and Municipal Employees, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. The AFCSME speaker introduces a video that links imagery of the civil rights movement with images of protests in Madison, all to the music of "America the Beautiful" sung by Aaron Neville. Weingarten gives a fist-pumping, arm-thrusting speech, taking on Republican governors by name, swatting at the movie Waiting for Superman, and welding the angers of netroots activists with the fears of teachers.
"General Electric made $5.1 billion in profits last year but paid this much in taxes," she says, holding up her hand to form a zero. "Yet in the aftermath of Gov. Walker's actions, a custodian at the University of Wisconsin will pay 16 percent more of his salary towards his health and pension. Where's the fairness? Where's the shared responsibility?"
The whack at GE is probably a result of a New York Times story that focused on that company's fancy tax-law tricks. It has a double meaning: GE's Jeffrey Immelt was the guy Obama picked to lead his post-midterm-election jobs council. (Former Sen. Russ Feingold took on Immelt in his speech.) And Van Jones, the ex-"green jobs czar" and patron saint of liberals torn down by Glenn Beck, is Saturday's keynote speaker. The fight's moved on from the White House.
"You do hear some people say, 'Oh, why won't Obama come to Wisconsin?'" says Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos (whose blog inspired this convention, although the planning has nothing to do with him). "Why should he get involved? We're doing pretty good without Obama."
"You've got a lot of people here who drink the Kool Aid," says Bob Borosage, the president of the Campaign for America's Future. "This year looks like an effort to build from the ground up again, which is what we need."
On Thursday night, even as they weren't thinking about Obama, the Netroots activists bathed in warm nostalgia with the last presidential candidate they'd fallen in love with. Howard Dean took the stage after a video reel of supporters who said he'd brought them into politics or back into politics. He endorsed Obama quickly and then moved on. "I don't care about the Democratic Party," he said. "I'm not the DNC chair any more. I can say what I damn well please!"
It wasn't supposed to be a slap at Obama. It was a slap at the very idea that any candidate—himself included—could be trusted to do anything activists cared about. "This is not about electing our president," he said. "This is about keeping our promise to each other. Change does not come from Washington, D.C. Change comes from the bottom up."
Big applause for that. Winning now means reverse-engineering what the Tea Party did—which the Tea Party did by copying the left. Win in the school boards. Win in the states. Then work up.
"I'm all about Speaker Pelosi," says Moulitsas, relaxing and talking to Daily Kos's Web team. "That's my rallying cry. The White House will take care of itself."