Netroots Nation 2014: Building a movement in 140 characters

DETROIT — What do you get when a well-organized group of left activists, bloggers, and speakers get together in the nation’s most iconic city for 21st century de-industrialization? You get the Netroots Nation conference of 2014, held in downtown Detroit at the historic Cobo Center. But the annual car show and unveiling of new models were the last things on attendees’ minds as they prepared for a weekend of talks and panels, including a keynote by Senator Elizabeth Warren, on the subject of defeating the right and rolling back corporate influence in the upcoming November elections.

Netroots Nation as a convention was originally called the YearlyKos, named by the writers and readers of the Daily Kos internet blog. Beginning in 2006, the name was changed in 2008 to both rebrand the conference under a broader title as well to reflect the growing influence the conference had outside of the Daily Kos blog. Bringing in big names such as Bill Clinton and, for 2014, Senator Warren, the conference has been tremendously successful in building awareness of left activism as well as laying out potential strategies for organizing efforts in the subsequent year. Netroots 2014 was no exception.

Many of the panels, views, and strategies focused on at the Detroit conference emphasized activism, getting out the vote and ways to combat right extremism. One panel in particular encapsulated the majority of the discussions in a single title: “Moving your audience in 140 characters.” The language is simple: In an age where Twitter and Facebook are the primary means of social communication on a broad scale, understanding how to utilize these technologies to accomplish goals is critical for any practical activist and organizer. Additionally, the title emphasizes the movement of audiences; not merely grabbing their attention nor educating them. It is these concepts combined together: How to engage with and move an audience, and how to do it in an era where the political climate can shift by just 140 typed characters.

The panels grappled with this broad question in a variety of ways. One panel considered the importance of understanding where men fit in the reproductive justice movement for women, emphasizing that their support is not only critical for women but also substantial in transforming the stereotypes of men. Another emphasized the importance to getting women, specifically African American women, to get out the vote and participate in their local community as the benchmark for future success.

At the same time, the conference was acutely connected with the social terrain of Detroit as one of America’s primary examples for the faults and handicaps of modern capitalism. One panel, for example, titled “Visionaries for an Inclusive Detroit” explored the ideal possibilities of a transformed Detroit operating under the principles of a ‘Beloved Community’ where needs were not created then packaged as commodities but rather were responded to as socially-necessary community values. The conference closed on Sunday the 20th with a reminder of the duties of participants, and the projected future without right-wing extremism.

The question for this writer is is what can one get out of the Netroots Nation as a conference? As a devoted Marxist activist myself, I’m aware that the organizations one chooses to associate with has a profound impact on the way other people perceive not only your politics but your entire worldview. What Netroots Nation provides for people is an outlet to hear leftist opinions without the concern for squabbling and inner-circle debates; a trait common of political action groups.

Importantly what we get instead is a community-driven focus on what is socially necessary for Americans and in the near-future.

Photo: Rev. Dr. William Barber II, the fiery preacher behind North Carolina’s Moral Mondays movement, spoke to attendees–and helped set the tone for Netroots Nation–at Thursday night’s opening plenary session. Screenshot from video. Click here to watch Rev. Barber’s speech in full.