The left's existential dilemma: How Joe Biden's Netroots speech revealed his party's crossroads

While the VP issued a paean to consensus it was another speaker's plea for moral reconstruction that stole the show

Published July 18, 2014 3:31PM (EDT)

Two speeches. One, amid metal detectors, disruptive protesters and a house full of press; the other, given in the cadence of an all-night revival, seen by almost nobody on the media risers. But together, they displayed the twin political preoccupations of a Netroots Nation at a crossroads, caught between the straitjacket of political dysfunction and the historical imperative of moral reconstruction. They symbolized where the progressive political movement, nine years on from its infancy as just a bunch of bloggers who wanted to put a face to each other’s names, stands today, and perhaps where it needs to go.

Vice President Joe Biden represented a scene from the netroots’ past, back when it was known as Yearly Kos. In 2006 and 2007, a herd of candidates who thought themselves made of presidential timber rode through the conventions, kissing the ring of the new phenomena, the liberal political writers who grew up online. They sought their support, and planted seeds for the future. In 2007 every Democratic candidate running for president appeared in Chicago’s Yearly Kos for a debate; all but Joe Biden. The vice president clearly still harbors pretensions of running for one spot up the ticket, and saw the crowd as an interest group to be managed, encouraged and nurtured.

The full ballroom waited 45 minutes past his scheduled time; Biden had to speak with the Ukrainian president about the tragic outcome of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, “apparently shot down, not an accident,” Biden told the attendees. After these preliminaries, Biden dove into remarks thanking the netroots for showing up and battling, and noting several shared commitments. This could have been ripped from any address of any politician to any base group from time immemorial.

As if to emphasize what divides remained alongside the similarities, a group of undocumented young people from Presente, one of the more militant immigration groups on the left, began chanting “Stop deporting our families,” a reference to the Obama administration’s record deportations. Biden strained to hear their message, and then nodded his head. As security led the Presente youths out of the room, mostly to applause, Biden urged the audience to cheer them on. Saying “I respect your view and share your view,” he then veered off-script to discuss the sheer horror all of us would feel if we came home every night not knowing if it would be the last night we saw our mother or father before authorities ripped them away. “Can you imagine the pain, the anxiety,” he said. The actual deportation record aside, it was a genuine moment, and Biden handled the interruption about as well as anyone could, by speaking plainly and connecting with the hot-running emotion.

This would have been perfect if he didn’t have a speech to return to, but he did, and Biden saved the final section to effectively teach the young whippersnappers in the crowd about how politics work (actually, the netroots are incredibly diverse in terms of age, despite being often portrayed as a collection of political naïfs). Biden decided to make a pitch for consensus, saying that political opponents should be worked with to arrive at compromises and conclusions. “We know that we can change history – a little bit. A LITTLE BIT!” Biden implored.

The appeal to incremental progress might have gone over better if Biden hadn't flipped back and forth, arguing the country had divisions but need not be divided, arguing that we needed to find consensus and yet hold on to core values. All of these represent the usual constraints of governing a fractious country, and the difference between principles and hard reality. But it certainly was presented as a lesson, as the right way to do things, as a how-to guide for politics.

Were these the wrong people to receive that message? Netroots Nation has from the beginning represented outsiders, who put values first. While everyone waited for Biden, Brandon Jessup, a candidate for state representative in Michigan, led the audience in a mic check, asserting that water is a human right and calling on the crowd to call Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s office (517-335-7858) to stop the water shutoffs for Detroit residents. This represented a stark difference in approach: a vice president arguing that lowering our voices will achieve our goals, and a young politician and activist attempting to corral voices and target them directly at the opposition.

Over the years, the Netroots conferences have transitioned, from the passion of activism to something like a trade show for the Professional Left. Organizations dominate the space and a number of the panels, and networking often takes precedence over idea formation. But the embers of hardcore activism do remain at a conference big enough to encompass a variety of perspectives. In Thursday night’s keynote address, told to a half-empty crowd at around 9 p.m., the Reverend William Barber, founder of North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement, took those embers and built a fire.

Appealing to history in a lengthy address, Barber noted America’s habitual phases of moral reconstruction, where people came together for renewal (for example, Barber excerpted long passages from the 1868 North Carolina constitution, the first after emancipation, which called for voting rights, asserted a right to public education and warned against big-money factionalism, the very issues the state deals with to this day). Every time a moral fusion movement sought great changes among the populace, Barber explained, they invited a backlash, from extremists wanting to deconstruct this moral foundation. The way to deal with them was not through rational compromise or horse trading. Barber stated firmly that they need to be fought, that a movement must grow and bear witness to the most basic rights of citizenship, and show America the “higher ground.”

Barber’s theory of change stems from planting your feet firmly and defending immutable values from injustice and racism. Not only that, Barber said, it has worked; his movement rallied North Carolina to his cause, brought low the approval ratings of the extremists who have curtailed voting rights and unemployment benefits and resources for education in the state (“never call those who would do these things Republicans,” he cautioned), and showed the possibility of a new dawn. And as you might expect from a preacher, he explained it in waves of testimony, eliciting applause and laughter and exhortations from the audience.

Joe Biden clearly understands the value in a moral politics – it was his instantaneous reaction to the immigration protest. But he’s a politician, concerned with political matters. Reverend Barber is an activist, concerned with the national soul. And paraphrasing a certain presidential candidate who may have forgotten this message along the way, Barber pointed out that “change doesn’t come from D.C. down, change comes from Montgomery up, change comes from Selma up, change comes from Mississippi and North Carolina up!”

Though too few bore witness to Barber’s remarks – and nary a soul in the press – they encapsulated the other spirit of the netroots, not of an interest group subject to ingratiation by ambitious politicians but of outsiders, armed only with their moral convictions, using the tools they have to fight for change. Between Joe Biden’s paean to consensus and Rev. Barber’s plea for moral reconstruction, I know what I’d choose.

By David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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