When I think about YearlyKos, the gathering of political bloggers that I was sent to cover by The Progressive magazine, I think about Gina Cooper first.
Gina is part of the DailyKos blog founded by Markos Moulitsas. On DailyKos readers are allowed to start their own blogs and also leave comments on each other’s postings. It’s a large part of why DailyKos is the most popular of the political blogs, with more than half a million hits a day. It’s not a news source so much as a community. A community filled with people like Gina—left leaning, dedicated, deeply upset by the incompetence and corruption they see in a Washington political world dominated for six years now by rightwing Republicans to disastrous effect. And one day, when a blogger named Pastor Dan suggested they have a convention where everyone could meet in person and amplify their voice, Gina decided to make it happen.
It took a year and a half.
She was a high school teacher in Tennessee, and she and her husband had just moved to California. Gina’s income is crucial to their household, but Gina didn’t apply for that new teaching job. Organizing the convention was a full-time position. She was not paid. She and her husband tightened their belts. She is what some in the political class would call easy exploitable labor. And what others, just as derisively, would call a true believer—i.e. she’s sick with a case of TB. But Gina is a grassroots activist, part of a vanguard of the new political movement that has sprung up in opposition to the current establishment. One that has moved online and taken the name Netroots. One that may or may not change everything.
YearlyKos operates just like any other political convention. There are caucuses and roundtables and training sessions and more than anything else an opportunity to network. A little over a thousand attendees arrive.
But YearlyKos is not just any political convention. There is star power here. The mainstream media is here in force. There are major political players in attendance, including Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, Governors Bill Richardson, Tom Vilsack, and Mark Warner, and Senators Barbara Boxer and Harry Reid. All of them are eclipsed by Markos Moulitsas, the founder of DailyKos, whom the bloggers worship and the politicians demur to. From the Air America skybox Stephen Sherrill and I are able to find Markos just by watching where everyone is looking.
The media and the politicians in attendance speak to the power of the blogs, which can raise millions of dollars for a candidate but also supply a well of passion and volunteers. The blogs can keep an issue alive—like the Downing Street Memos, like Trent Lott’s praise for Strom Thurmond, which cost him the Senate Majority Leadership. The bloggers on the left (and they are much more prominent here than on the right) have had victories like the selection of Howard Dean for DNC chair. But when up against the mainstream Democratic machine mostly they have seen defeat. The two most prominent examples being Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign and Paul Hackett’s bowing out of the Ohio Senate primary.
Still, they are making a difference and they are growing exponentially and they are here to stay. The biggest test case is forthcoming when Joe Lieberman faces off against Ned Lamont in the Connecticut primary. The Netroots community is vehemently anti-Lieberman. The bloggers call him Bush’s favorite Democrat. Markos, in his keynote speech on opening night, promised that Ned Lamont would win the primary. If he does, it will fundamentally change everything. If the Netroots can unseat a sitting Democratic Senator, they will assume control of the party. And control of the party will forever change the Netroots.
But we’re not there yet. In the meantime, as the movement grows, things are already starting to change.
That change comes to Las Vegas in the guise of former Virginia Governor Mark Warner. A Democrat who was able to win in a red state. He’s extremely wealthy, and extremely likeable, and extremely smart. Smart enough to know the power of this movement. Smart enough to hire Jerome Armstrong, the founder of the second most influential political blog, MyDD.com, to help run his campaign. Armstrong and Moulitsas are good friends; in fact, they have written a book together. You get the picture.
Warner, who is obviously running for President, was one of the first major politicians to agree to appear at YearlyKos. On Friday night he throws a $70,000 party at the top of the Stratosphere. I go with my friend Susan, an activist from San Francisco. We walk the strange circle on top of the needle above Las Vegas where we can see all the way to where the lights end and the desert becomes black and it looks like the beginning of the sea.
There are bands at Warner’s party, Blues Brothers impersonators, and Elvis impersonators. There’s a mashed potato bar, and you can have your potatoes garlic or onion or plain in a martini glass topped with mushroom or bacon or whatever you like. There’s an ice sculpture of a computer with DailyKos on the screen. There are many bars, and they are all open and free. You can have a Kos-mopolitan poured through a block of ice. There’s sushi, a chocolate fountain, and strawberries as big as your fist.
“Remind me never to give money to his PAC,” Chris Thomas, from hammeringtheissues.org, tells me. “What a waste.”
I ask Susan what Mark Warner stands for, but she says she doesn’t know. I ask Deborah Schneider from the New Progressive Coalition. She says he stands for being electable. I tell her being electable is not the same as standing for something. Someone else says he stands for running in all fifty states. Susan asks Matt Stoller, whom many consider among the most politically savvy bloggers, and he waves his hand in the air, walking away. Pushed harder he says, “You don’t want to know.” After asking ten or fifteen people, people who head committees, who do political work, who write for major papers, and not receiving any answers, I realize there is a major problem. Mark Warner has spent $70,000 on an incredible Las Vegas party filled with people who volunteer huge amounts of their time and energy to the political process and no one knows what he stands for. In a brief moment with the candidate, I ask the governor himself what he stands for.
“In thirty seconds or less?” he asks smiling, surrounded by people. “Transformative change as opposed to incremental change.” I’m not sure what he means. And then he is gone.
I don’t give up. I find his press secretary. I say I’ve asked twenty people and nobody knows what Mark Warner stands for, but they all think he throws a good party. She tells me that it is too early for the governor to take positions, and that I should look instead to what he has done. She talks to me about all the great reform, the fiscal responsibility, he brought to Virginia. And I’m able to piece together something. But too early to take a position, what is that supposed to mean? Is he waiting to see the national mood, for the results of a poll? Here, thousands of feet in the air, with a view of a corrupt empire built on money and sex, the Netroots is being courted over fancy drinks by a mainstream politician, a man likely to be endorsed by the DLC.
Will it work? Of course it will work. Sure, some people won’t be affected by the proximity to power. But bloggers are as human as everybody else. You don’t need to take a poll to know that people like to be flattered. To know that you score points by paying attention, by taking people seriously. One could make a serious argument that on top of the Stratosphere the blogosphere comes of age.
On the last full day at eight in the morning Howard Dean delivers an address. He says we lost our way in 1980 when the Me party took over from the We party. He calls the Republican Party the party of secrecy and dishonesty and the largest national debt in the history of America. He says in 2004 he knew his campaign wasn’t dead because it was never a campaign, it was a movement. It’s not about the Democratic Party, it’s about the United States of America. He says it is immoral not to have health insurance for every person, to send troops to a foreign country without tell the truth to them about why they’re going. He says voting is not enough. Voting is the bare minimum. Even giving money is not enough. The crowd goes wild.
At the end of the convention I run into Edward Anderson. I met him earlier, at the $1-to-2 no-limit poker table where I beat him with a brutal pair of kings and a ten kicker. I didn’t think he was a very good player, and I was not above taking his money even though he did give me a Ned Lamont pin.
He’s leaning against an ashtray looking angry. I ask him what’s wrong. “I didn’t come here to schmooze or go to fancy parties,” he says. “Why are we playing along just because they pay attention to us. Mark Warner’s party last night was all about power and money. I feel like I’m in Washington, D.C.” He nearly spits when he mentions that city.
“A lot of front-page bloggers from Kos aren’t here because they can’t afford it,” he adds. “Where are our progressives? Where’s John Conyers? I want the blogs to remain on the outside. I don’t want blogs to become a career path. I love where we’ve been for the last two years and I don’t want to change.”
After talking to Anderson I find myself at the Laughing Liberally party in a suite that seven comedians from New York have shared for the entire convention. It’s bring your own, and bloggers dance and talk and stand on the balcony admiring the view. Harry Reid, the Senator of the state, has just given the final address. In the bedroom the lights are dimmer and one of the main organizers for the convention, a young, well-known blogger who went to an Ivy League school, is lying on the bed with his shirt up over his pale stomach.
I mention what Edward said, and the blogger dismisses him out of hand. “He’s a child,” he says. “He’s looking for mommy or daddy.”
A child. It was the perfect quote from a twenty-three-year-old blogger. Here are the first growing pains. There will always be people like Edward, searching for a purity that is unattainable. But the more dangerous element might be the ones who dismiss Edward out of hand. Because they resemble the old guard they are supposedly here to replace, the ones who dismissed them out of hand.
And in the morning there is Gina. Her idealism and sacrifice beyond reproach, still working in the greeting booth. Convinced she has contributed something positive and probably right. Pastor Dan, whose idea started this whole thing, is having a prayer service in the room down the hall. She says she’s tired, but she doesn’t look it. I ask her how she’s feeling and she tries to be serious for a moment. “Well, you know. We’ve given a lot of people resources here. Now we have to see what they’re going to do with them.” She stops for a second. “I guess I’m not so good at speaking to the media.” I tell her she’s fine. “It was just nice to meet everyone. You know, all of us progressives, we’re frustrated, and this was an outlet for that. And it’s nice to have a shared mission with so many positive people.”
It’s the end of the convention, and the end of the beginning. Markos is now a star, a political force beyond his wildest dreams. The Netroots is front-page news across the country. Here is the new movement, the new political class. Full of idealists and egomaniacs and starfuckers and visionaries and careerists and revolutionaries. Filled with those looking to give and those looking to take. Filled especially with people like Gina—moderate, caring, thoughtful people wanting to make the world a better place.
Stephen Elliott is the author of the campaign memoir “Looking Forward to It: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process.”