For nearly the entire Caltrain ride to down San Jose last Thursday morning, my thoughts were fully consumed by the subject of liberal disillusionment and cynicism. I pondered the question, “How much progress have the things that liberals care about made since the start of the new millennium?”
The issue of gay rights was the only glimmer of hope I could conjure up. Since 2000, income inequality has increased astronomically, the military-industrial complex grows unabated, the drug war continues to destroy millions of lives, women are having to protest the same idiotic conservatives policies their mothers protested, we are realizing the tangible repercussions of climate change, the Citizens United ruling and Republicans have become the John Birch Party and Democrats, by and large, have become identical to the Republicans of 30 years ago.
And while it may be true that progressives were responsible for electing the first black president, the Obama Administration has, for the most part, ignored, shunned, and at times insulted progressives. If Obama governed like a progressive, he would have jailed Wall Street executives for their roles in the financial crisis and HSBC bankers for laundering terrorist and drug cartel money, he would have rejected the Keystone pipeline in resounding fashion, he would have fought harder for a public option, he would have ended or at least decreased the surveillance state, and he wouldn’t be prosecuting medical pot dispensaries with extreme vigor.
Like a lot of the other media there, I came in search of demoralized liberals and to see if the Democratic Party leaders and other notable figures in attendance would feel the brunt of this dismay.
Unsurprisingly, the boogeyman of John Boehner, the Koch Brothers, and other rightwing caricatures were paraded out in order to stomp out any reservations you may have had about the president. One of the most notable lines of the conference was Howard Dean’s unfunny salvo of how the president isn’t perfect, “but it sure beats having Bain Capital, oops, I mean Mitt Romney in the White House!”
When our Rep. Nancy Pelosi was booed for saying that Edward Snowden should be prosecuted for his leaks, she tried shouting over the jeers by repeatedly saying that Obama’s second term was not Bush’s fourth. Then she tried to calm the crowd down (in a twist of irony, a man named Marc Peckel was kicked out for voicing objection to a police state), saying she welcomed the booing and debate about privacy. But would we be having this debate now, if it weren’t for Snowden’s leaks?
I attempted to ask Rep. Pelosi some follow-up questions as she exited the building (flanked by numerous aides and security) but oddly enough, my shouts of “I’m with the San Francisco Bay Guardian!” didn’t faze her one bit.
From the dozens of interviews I conducted with a wide range of attendees, the overall consensus seemed to be that Obama, his administration and other Democratic Party leaders are still on their side – though a good number of my interviewees expressed profound disappointment that the president hasn’t been liberal enough. One healthcare organizer from Chicago said he was immensely dissatisfied by Obamacare, but believes that it’s right the step toward implementing universal healthcare.
Obama’s most visible critic for the three days was a man who goes by the name Stan Everyman, who came on behalf of the San Jose Peace & Justice Center and carried a sign everywhere he went that read “OBAMA=CHENEY”. Everyman, who fervently believes that “Netroots is firmly under control of the Democratic party,” saw the conference as an opportunity to connect with other progressives who have gripes with Obama. The majority of reactions to his sign were positive, he said, but he did wind up engaging in some mild confrontations with what he calls “Democrat loyalists.” He was aghast when he encountered someone who came to Netroots on behalf of a liberal dating service, saying, “she didn’t mind if her emails and calls were tapped and didn’t care if there were helicopters hovering over her house as long as it caught the terrorists.” and when it did elicit a reaction, did nothing more than get a thumbs up or an eye-roll.
Meanwhile, some Democratic figures urged progressives to pressure elected leaders as much as possible. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota representative and co-chair of the progressive caucus, stated: “If people who came before us got discouraged because things were hard, we’d still have slavery, have no right to collective bargaining, the air quality would be horrible. The problem isn’t that you’re not involved and you didn’t get what you wanted, the problem is that you got to stay involved.”
When I countered that a big reason behind liberal disillusionment was that our own guy didn’t come through for us, Ellison’s responded, “Let me say this, never ever organize around a personality – even if it’s an awesome personality like Obama’s. Organize around the principles that guide you. Somewhere along the way we stopped saying ‘yes we can’ and started saying ‘yes he can,’ and when he didn’t do certain things we want, we got discouraged. What personality does the Tea Party coalesce around? None! They coalesce around, ‘we hate government, we love guns’ and ‘if you’re not quite like us, you’re not all right.’ So the progressive movement should coalesce around generosity, inclusion, fairness, sustainability, and leaders need to live up to that, and if they do, they’re good, and if they don’t, they’re not. But it shouldn’t be a personality-driven thing.”
If you want change, you have to keep on keeping on, no matter. Sure, town halls, letter campaigns, and protests are great ways to engage your politicians and in democracy, but when you got to go to work or tend to your family, six-figure lobbyists walk through the halls of Congress retracting whatever impact the people’s efforts made. Politicians want us to give them the political will to do what’s right even though we elected them to do what’s right. I don’t naively believe politicians are perfect and that they’re our friends and that we can sit back and relax after we pull the voting lever. However I do have a problem with “I’ll fight for you!” during the campaign season and “Fight for me!” during the legislative sessions. The latter due to this being a non-election year, was the unofficial theme of Netroots Nation 2013, which also possessed a palpable feeling that the reason why many of the big names showed up was to throw the progressive wing a bone and quell whatever qualms they have.
I do admit that Netroots, in the past, has resulted in a concrete impact (namely, helping to get Obama elected and being instrumental in manufacturing a 21st century online campaign apparatus). However, the chances that it will be able to pull Hillary Clinton—who’s just as hawkish as Dianne Feinstein— to the left beyond the duration of the conference are lower than the probability of Obama appointing Angela Davis as his Chief of Staff. A piece on Salon.com a couple days ago reported that progressives are open to a Clinton run, which should come as no surprise to given how good the left is at reconciling their beliefs with that of their leaders.
So between now and NN14 (which is in Detroit), when the Democratic Leadership will come begging for the left’s help to return the Speakership crown back to Pelosi, pretty much everything the left holds dear will wallow in purgatory or regress to hell. But cheer up: At least Bain Capital isn’t president!