Thoughts on Netroots Nation, RightOnline 2011

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Before sorting through my thoughts on this year’s Netroots Nation and RightOnline, I made the poor choice of first sorting through the overstuffed schwag bag I dragged with me from Minneapolis back to DC. The reams of paper and Stuff included flyers for progressive PACs, and conservative activist groups, buttons for AFSCME and “Kill the Death Tax!,” pamphlets for the Independent Women’s Forum stuck to the back of a primer from the Guttmacher Institute, and, strangely, a coupon for “FinnStyle” – a “one-of-a-kind” “modern Finnish design” store. (Huh.)

Save the Finns, none of these materials were too surprising. Folks familiar with the online organizing world’s “dueling” left and right conferences – held annually in the same city, often just blocks away from one another – would quickly recognize the names, asks and info supplied by both events. (And for the unfamiliar, noting that Netroots was started by Daily Kos and RightOnline by Americans for Prosperity should help bring you up to speed.)

What I wasn’t expecting was the particular emphasis on SuperPACs and K Street from both sides. Maybe some of you NN/ROL veterans out there are rolling your eyes, but allow someone new to the scene to express some optimism:

Sure, Russ Feingold’s talk about rejecting SuperPACs and unlimited spending at Netroots came embedded with an ask for his PAC (Progressives United), but there is a difference between PAC and SuperPAC spending on elections (an “unlimited’ difference, if you will) and it’s hard to argue with Feingold’s central point: “We have never needed independent checks on our public institutions more.” Unlimited spending by special interests in elections does not a democratic process make.

Sunlight’s had its watchbears…er, watchdogs…on the issue of SuperPACs for months now: from Stephen Colbert’s flirtations with the FEC to covering the birth of new interests, we’re creating opportunities for you to follow shadowy influences, and even to help bring the disclosure the FEC is slow to make. (On that note, if you haven’t checked out SuperPAC Sleuth to see what a SuperPAC really looks like, you’re missing out.)

I appreciated that Feingold took the opportunity to use his keynote not (just) to grandstand big-D Democratic ideals, but to call out both parties for fighting against progress in campaign finance reform. His recounting of campaign finance history (a large chunk of his 27 minute speech) is definitely worth the watch — particularly since he calls for the passage of transparency legislation, the DISCLOSE Act — and though the historical section is non-partisan, viewer be warned, the overall lens of this talk is left-leaning. (It was delivered at Netroots, after all.)

Although SuperPACs weren’t mentioned with the same frequency at RightOnline, there was the same level of interest and energy in discussing the role of monied K Street lobbyists and their influence on the political system. The timing couldn’t be more perfect: On June 23rd, just before RO started, a bill was introduced in the House to “create a Lobbying Disclosure Act Task Force, and to make modifications to the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.” It’s an exciting piece of transparency legislation, and while it may not go as far as those of us invested in lobbying disclosure would like, examining the rules by which unelected actors play is necessary for improving the efficiency and accountability of our government. The more we know as citizens, the more informed we can be in the voting booth, with our wallets, and as consumers and producers of media.

Michelle Malkin at RightOnline Michelle Malkin at RightOnline

In this same vein, many of RightOnline’s breakout sessions were focused on practical takeaways and strategies for users to inform themselves and others. One interesting panel ran through the details of the Freedom of Information Act: how (and when) to make requests and tips on dealing with state agencies. This fit nicely with the narrative of fostering citizen watchdogs and pushing bloggers to be investigators: to use government data to hold government accountable.

Whether you lean left or right, you have to admit that it’s heartening to watch the network of people who realize — or rather, grok the potential for online organizing to have a massive impact on open government. Though the language and party lines may differ, though the issues diverge and may never explicitly refer to transparency, in truth, we’re working for the same ends: We are using technology to engage with our democracy. We are harnessing our influence as people and as citizens to counteract the influence of deep pockets. And just because we don’t have sunlight shining in every corner of governement yet, doesn’t mean that we’re not all still fighting.

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