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Editor’s Diary: Fear and Hustling at Netroots Nation

I made the Hunter S. Thompson joke as we circled the Strip in the airport shuttle.

If not for the connection to the Good Doctor, Las Vegas would seem an incongruous place for a left-leaning convention. The place pumps enough energy into glittering, flashing neon lights to warm half the globe, and feminist bloggers enjoying cocktails served by scantily clad waitresses just, well, doesn’t seem right, no matter how pro-sex we feminists are.

I was in town for a brief two and a half days for Netroots Nation, the convention formerly known as Yearly Kos and maybe a little misnamed. I expected lots of panels about media, about writing and Web tools, and instead I got candidate after candidate for office.

Of course, I also got Van Jones. I got some new friends. I got a panel on new Civil Rights movements that featured the fabulous Tim Wise driving home the point that economic insecurity is a racial justice issue; that the social safety net was dismantled in the U.S. when it became coded as handouts to black and brown people instead of something that we might all use when we’re down on our luck. And yes, dear readers, I got a little drunk.

Luck is, of course, the theme in Vegas, and I suppose that made it more appropriate as well that we were there. Hoping, naturally, for a little luck of our own come November, that a Democratic-controlled Congress has passed enough legislation that people don’t hate that Democrats can hang on to majorities in both houses. But had we really traveled across the country just to listen to stump speeches and not one, but two versions of the apocryphal Franklin Delano Roosevelt “Make me do it” story?  (One, told by Nancy Pelosi, starring Frances Perkins, first female Secretary of Labor, and the other according to Al Franken starring A. Philip Randolph.)

Mostly, I was a little stunned at the disingenuousness of politicians coming to a fairly politically sophisticated audience to give rote speeches. I sat next to award-winning investigative journalists, longtime media critics, activists who fight in the trenches day after day for immigrant rights, racial justice, LGBT equality. Were we supposed to cheer Democrats, this year?

The closing night reminded me, though, that I wasn’t really at a media conference. I was at a conference that started as a place for the community around one blog met up. The fact that it had exploded into something like this, an event where the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader showed up to face questions from the crowd, was in its own way remarkable. I turned, as they spoke, to Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown and joked “Can you imagine having a Tiger Beatdown conference in five years?”

And at least one of the politicians that night did inspire us to whooping and hollering, standing to cheer her and stopping her on her way by to tell her that we loved her and asking her what we could do to help her.  Linda Chavez-Thompson won us over as she stood on a box to see over the podium, and declared “You better know who you’re fighting if you ask to see my papers.” Dear Democrats, find a hundred more of her and you’ll win all the elections out there. Smart, tough women of color who can shake up a crowd, can talk labor (she’s a former AFL-CIO executive vice president) and make you tear up with stories of kids growing up with one book among 300 children. Her T-shirts read “Que Linda,” and I stopped a man wearing one of them later that night to tell him that his boss made me want to move to Texas to work for her.

Stump speeches and panels on snark and sustaining indie media behind me, I left Vegas with a hangover and a non-political book in my lap, chewing over whether I thought the conference had been a “success.”

Movement-building isn’t a game of successes and failures, wins and losses. Candidates and “electeds” come and go (mostly go). The connections we make, though, are what keeps us going. The new friend who suddenly you are so sad to see go, whose issues will suddenly matter that much more to you. The person you drunkenly sang karaoke with and the person you’ve exchanged business emails with who is suddenly telling you about their art and photography. The moment when exchanging business cards isn’t about “networking” but about sincerely wanting to keep in touch.

Progressive politics is a hard slog and sometimes I want to withdraw from all of it and be one of those smug leftists who’s sure that elections don’t matter. I walk an interesting line, after all, fighting for candidates in whom I only half believe because I think that somewhere, some small difference they’ll make is worth it. When in reality my politics are somewhere else entirely–or perhaps politics there is the wrong word. Values has been claimed by the Right, but maybe it’s time to take it back.

And so, “success”? The best panel I saw was on “bringing the snark after winning elections,” and a crew of smart, funny folks one by one agreed that electing Obama didn’t make being a political humorist any harder–or the fight any easier. Despite the number of politicians glad-handing at Netroots Nation, I came away thinking about how much more the fight is about than winning elections.

Politics is an addiction for me like it was for Hunter Thompson. But it’s those little moments when you feel like you might actually be creating a movement that sustain me.