Netroots Nation is the largest gathering of progressives each year, showcasing a complete spectrum of activism and thinking. The panels I attended featured smart and deeply involved people, and the talks were funny and intelligent. My rough take is that the people who deal directly with the formal structures of governance, the administration and its regulatory agencies, the courts, and the legislature, are deeply worried about the future. The people focused on the economy are deeply worried about the future. The people who deal directly with people in need, people who are losing in the housing crisis, the jobs crisis, and the surveillance state, the direct activists, all are hopeful.

The panel on direct action against the banks featured Malcolm Chu, who works with homeowners facing foreclosure. His one on one stories about homeowners fighting back and the people who are helping them were inspirational. Tracy van Slyke of The New Bottom Line is one of the people behind the Home Defenders League, a group working to organize the 16 million underwater homeowners, has a specific plan for the future, skipping past the formal structures of government to focus on helping individual homeowners connect and work together. They have a way forward.

Other panels of experts dealing with formal structures were depressing. The panel on a new economy offered some ideas about what a decent economy would look like, but had no ideas that seemed plausible for moving the country in that direction. The panel on the Federal Reserve Bank, led by Mike Konczal, explained the problems the Fed faces and causes, and offered no pathway towards the weak solutions they suggested. Dave Dayen’s panel on the foreclosure mess went into the weeds explaining the problems and the misery facing millions of Americans. We know what needs to be done, but we have no way to do it. The formal structures of government are deeply committed to protecting the banks and the rich, and everyone else is a loser.

The most depressing panel discussed the Supreme Court. This panel included Nan Aron, Dahlia Lithwick, Debo Adegbile and Lani Guinier. The panel started out pessimistic and got worse. Adegbile was truly upsetting. He is the chief litigation officer of the NAACP. He works on all of those cases involving fundamental protections for all of us, like the Voting Rights Act. He has direct experience dealing with the Supreme Court, giving him an authoritative perspective. He agreed with the other panelists as they discussed the broad array of cases that the Supreme Court can use to move the country in the direction that the right wing loves, tearing down every progressive accomplishment. It was just depressing.

One panel discussed a number of reasons that manufacturing left the US and isn’t coming back. Dave Johnson, a writer with a solid background in tech matters, says that one problem is that US business leaders don’t think of themselves as Americans but as Globalists. They are doing exactly what China wants because they think it benefits them, without regard to the interest of the rest of us. Marcy Wheeler explained the market issues, pointing out that the sheer numbers of Chinese make that market so attractive that business is willing to kowtow to the Chinese. She also noted the problem of national security. Paul Scott of the Alliance for American Manufacturing led the panel. He says that all of the chips manufactured in China for our warplanes have back doors. This problem and the related problem of transfer of military technology have been obvious for years. Scott noted a couple of encouraging signs, but the real problem is that we have no industrial policy, and we never will have an industrial policy, and the leaders of US businesses will continue to eat away at out nation until they change their minds, and we can’t affect them.  [cont'd.]

The panel on surveillance of communities deemed dangerous, like Muslims, was comically depressing. The people doing the surveillance, like the New York Police Department, have the weirdest ideas imaginable. Just see if you can read this without a snicker. I asked Cyrus McGoldrick if my skimpy white beard was a sign of radicalization, and he suggested that I keep a close watch behind me. The only thing this panel had to offer was the hope that foolish overreach would discredit the entire terror apparatus.

The lesson is clear. If you are directly facing the formal institutions in this country, there is no visible way forward. It’s depressing. If you are actively engaged in trying to help people one on one or in small groups, you can point to successes and see ways to leverage those successes into broader actions that will make a difference. The organizers have hope. The people engaged in other kinds of activism, like Erica Payne, have hope. Progressives get to pick their troubles, but that activism thing looks like a lot more fun than reading 10-Ks from JPMorgan Chase.

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Video Notes: Boston Workmen’s Circle A Besere Velt (A Better World) Yiddish Chorus, performs “Bread and Roses/Makhnes Geyen” at the Rosenberg Fund for Children’s “Celebrate the Children of Resistance” event in Boston, MA, June 19, 2007. The song is a ballad from the 1912 Lawrence, MA textile strike, woven together with an anthem dedicated to the fighters in the Spanish Civil War. “The masses are marching in the struggle for victory.”