Netroots’ left bias

It’s been just six years since the “netroots” took their first tottering steps as a movement, but the smash success of the Netroots Nation conference in Austin, Texas, this past weekend marked just how far online progressive activists have come in that short time.

The conference, formerly known as YearlyKos, was originally created by Daily Kos community members who organized the event as volunteers — without my help or input — three years ago.

This week’s gathering of 2,000 Internet-oriented activists attracted top-flight participants like Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former Vice President, Oscar-winner and Nobel laureate Al Gore. At the same time, it featured dozens of panels organized and run by everyday citizens from across the nation.

A “competing” gathering of 200 right-wing bloggers across town managed to bag … Bob Novak. Panels were exclusively staffed by Beltway establishment Republicans.

This disparity isn’t surprising. While conservative bloggers can rightfully claim a couple of minor successes, they’ve been generally relegated to the fringes of their movement. There’s been little need for them. Conservatives eager for conservative voices have long had a smorgasbord of options from which to choose, from Fox News Channel to an AM radio buffet dominated by Rush Limbaugh and clones, to hordes of movement conservatives clogging up newspaper op-ed pages, to well-established online message boards. Despite “liberal media” cries, there has never been any medium truly dominated by movement progressives. So-called “liberal” voices, like Joe Klein and Richard Cohen, have been more concerned with getting approbation from their friends in the D.C. cocktail party circuit than truly fighting for progressive causes.

Furthermore, the right-wing media machine operates in a top-bottom fashion, relying heavily on its firebrand personalities — Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Progressives instinctively chafe at this hierarchical approach. Yet the Republican ability to march in lockstep has paid huge political dividends, yielding GOP victories on the strength of simplistic, well-crafted, oft-repeated (and even more often, bogus) messages, like the fabricated quote that Al Gore claimed to have “invented” the Internet.

But the horizontal, collaborative structure of successful online communities clearly poses a problem for right-wing bloggers, precisely because their movement excels in following orders instead of participating in bottom-up discussion and organizing. Americans get enough one-way communication on TV, radio and print; those who follow politics online do so because it allows them to engage in something larger, not because they want to hear yet another bloviator blather.

Yet in an ironic twist, most right-wing bloggers seem to see themselves as Limbaugh clones, evidenced by the absence of even basic comment functionality for readers of most of the top conservative blogs.

Meanwhile, progressives have mined a medium featuring strong, proud and unapologetic movement progressive voices, one that thrives on what has long been considered a political liability — the inability to stick to talking points. Rather than sit around and wait for marching orders, the netroots have created an unprecedented venue for discussion, debate and activism.

Accompanying all that is a heaping side order of dissent. But we’ve discovered, over the last six years, that while we may argue incessantly amongst ourselves (and with others, as Barack Obama learned after his wrong vote on the FISA bill), we’ll consistently come together at election time to help elect the next generation of strong progressive leaders.

For better and for worse, today’s Internet is inherently a progressive give-and-take medium. The strength and diversity of Netroots Nation 2008 indicates that it will almost certainly stay that way.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .