The US Social Forum Vs. Netroots Nation

The US Social Forum represents one pole of the progressive movement and Netroots Nation represents another. I just got back from the Forum (which ended on Saturday), and I’ll be attending Netroots Nation (July 22), and it got me thinking: what do these two gatherings represent when viewed as two estranged parts of a complete whole?

Attendees of the Forum generally consider it to be one of the most important national gatherings of the last few years. It’s a staging ground for forces that rarely get to experience their own collective strength. But to the rest of the movement, especially those who define themselves in relationship to some wing or the other of the Democratic Party, it’s more like ‘the US Social what?!’

The gap between the two tells us a lot about the challenges facing change activists to the left of the Obama Administration. Nearly everyone I know who is active on an issue falls in that category – supporters of immigration reform, financial regulation, a strong jobs program, opponents of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, climate change activists, and more. The gap between what we want and what we get is might be related to the gap between the Social Forum and Netroots nation.

The Social Forum vs. Netroots Nation
In a nutshell, the Social Forum represents a broad swath of people organizing for change in membership-based organizations that represent the poor, people of color, queers, immigrants and other marginalized constituencies. As one observer notes, these groups have

“literally taken over the organizing process right from the beginning, consciously excluding and marginalizing the traditional civil formations who otherwise normally dominate such processes (including – as I understand it – progressive organizations from the civil rights world, the labor world, the world of feminism, the environmental world, and so on.”

Jai Sen, 2nd issue of the USSF Magazine

What a contrast from most conferences I attend, where VIP’s and salaried staff of organizations mingle with folks eager to become next year’s VIP’s and salaried staff. Where Netroots Nation serves in part as advanced training and brainstorming for internet fueled political campaigners, the Social Forum is all about offline organizing and coalition building among the have-nots.

One aspect of the Social Forum’s mandate is that the agenda was being set by folks who are often feel left out and disempowered by the political process, and in return don’t give it much faith. No one I met was disappointed in Obama’s first year accomplishments – people didn’t expect that much to begin with. A lot of them see electoral politics as a kind of diversion from the “real” organizing work. On one panel, organizations involved in civic engagement were clear that they did electoral work to base build; they did not do base building to help win elections.

What Influences the Mainstream?
My disappointment in the Social Forum was in the relative absence of high level strategizing and information sharing on how we intervene successfully in the ‘real’ political life of the United States. Few workshops addressed nuts and bolts issues like targeting, messaging, polling, open rates, super-activists and donor acquisition – all hallmarks of what makes Netroots Nation such an important event.

By way of example, I encountered very emotional testimonies from Arizona immigration activists fighting against SB1070, the recently enacted law that, more or less, declares all brown people to be potential enemies of the state. It just wasn’t connected to an educational strategy that might persuade supporters of SB1070 to change their minds, nor to a legislative strategy, an electoral strategy or event a Congressional lobbying strategy. All of those exist, wonderful people are doing this work, but – based on my own experiences – it’s work that takes a bit of a back seat at the Forum.

Some months ago at the Left Forum, I asked one of the leaders of the Social Forum process about the tendency to ignore political strategy. She explained that the level of organization and political education among marginalized people is so low at the moment, that the main task is shifting consciousness. Looking back at the Forum workshops I attended, it looks like many agree with her.

Social Forum vs. the Netroots
The netroots movement inspired by Howard Dean has been superseded to an extent by the web-enabled organizing carried out by the Obama campaign. There is now a literature articulating the benefits of ‘web-ready’ organizing models. Many of us believe that the rise of web-based tools and practices has revolutionized organizing, advocacy and political campaigning. Unfortunately, it was hard to see the impact of such views at the Social Forum. Not that attendees there aren’t online; but there are strong countervailing forces seeking to keep all that new fangled stuff in its place, as though it was a threat to be managed. (A major exception is the focus on open source  technology and a DIY ethic.)

Among my online organizing peers, there is a bias towards working with organizations large and well funded enough to have access to certain tools. In parallel, they often pursue agendas limited enough to have ‘play’ in Congress or a state capitol. The folks using these tools and working for those organizations are often more white, more male, more formally educated and from more privileged class backgrounds than the pool of change activists comprising the sector as a whole. Good people all; but there are excellent reasons why leaders from marginalized communities would seek to prevent that demographic from dominating their spaces. We can’t separate the potential impact of new tools from the political power of the demographics wielding them.

An illustration of this is the conflict one experiences when hearing about the great online work done with the Basta Dobbs campaign or the great text messaging work done by Fair Immigration Reform Movement. It is great work, but very little scales back down to the work of grassroots organizations with fewer resources. If a goal of your movement is to avoid dependence on ‘the industrial-nonprofit complex‘ it’s just frustrating to be directed to strategies forever out of reach.

Despite the obstacles, I wish there was more high-level sharing of ideas between these two communities. The cost of tools continues to go down. Less specialized training is needed. What we need are more tables at which organizers, community leaders and online strategists are working together to take advantage of every new innovation to build power.

What Should We Do?
What we need are 10,000 more online strategists with an emphasis on practitioners who are people of color, not in DC/NY/SF, women and veteran organizers already embedded in leadership positions. These newly minted strategists might not be able to code a single line of php or build a single email template, but they will know what we mean by CRM, CMS, SMS, the VAN, ROI and of course, Netroots Nation. Every one of them will be one degree of separation away from the vibrant community of new media activists and online organizers that is taken root over the last decade.

It won’t be easy. We’ll know we’ve succeeded if, the next summer when the Social Forum and Netroots Nation are both taking place (2013?), more of us choose to cross over to the other side.

What do you think?


  1. I would consider rather that the main difference between the U.S. Social Forum and the Netroots convention is that most of the organizations at the U.S. Social Forum have a fairly explicit class understanding of society.

    A few of the articles I read in the DailyKos have that understanding, but electoral mechanics generally take precedence; and they are the bailiwick of the Professional-Managerial class.

    My own beliefs were outlined in the May, 2005 entries of The Practical Democracy blog –

  2. I almost agree with you. It’s not that Netroots folks are ignorant of class, but they are much more interested in the mechanics of change than in deep ideology. They might argue that the folks who specialize in deep ideology (and class) have less of a track record when it comes to winning elections and passing legislation.

  3. Jack Dunn says:

    And I could reply that for all the elections the electoral focus people have participated in, not much seems to have changed. But I really don’t have a serious disagreement that both approaches are needed.

    I would like to see more emphasis on class rather than the “good guys vs. bad guys” approach of the DailyKos; and I think that an electoral approach without a mass movement, grassroots base will inevitably founder. But, again, I doubt if you seriously disagree.

    So let’s work in our chosen areas and cooperate when we can.

  4. Create a scholarship program to bring some of those actual own-interest activists to your various trainings and let them bring back whatever skills and tools THEY recognize as applicable to their own movements.

  5. Chicago activist says:

    I definitely understand the criticisms towards the USSF in failing to or not addressing political strategy and other ¨of the machine¨ related issues. However, what is sometimes missing when we talk about progressive and left-leaning politics is a broader understanding of what grass-roots movements across the United Stats -across the world, are attempting to do, which is to shift the paradigm of power. Yes, we must talk the language of the Democrats and appeal to those who voted for Obama, yet sometimes undocumented immigrants, home-less folk, queer-youth of color dont really identify with the mainstream view of social justice. Justice for whom? And while I believe that we must do both, political and grass-roots work, it really does go beyond popular education methodologies and our efforts must reflect a democratic process that is a lot more inclusive, respectful and just. And for a lot of us, this is what´s at the core of the US Social Forum, with all it´s flaws and hurdles, the voice of the people which has been there for a long time. We must listen.

  6. i didn’t get to go to either gathering, but i really wanted to. i know people who went to both. i was excited to see this headline & link on twitter a few minutes ago. i think things like these events get a lot of promotion but never get much reflection & analysis. so i think this post is really great for offering that!

    i have a question that seem insignificant, but i can’t stop thinking about it as i’m reading this. why doesn’t it say anywhere who wrote this post? i can figure it out from the comments, but otherwise, there’s no info on the article, the site, or on the twitter acct who linked to this about who’s behind this blog or the twitter account. is it the same person/group? i need to know so i can make my decisions about credibility. am i just missing it? i think my bigger question is: why does it seem like people don’t feel the need to put their name on their writing anymore? i think people want to create a brand for themselves instead of creating credibility & a reputation for themselves as an individual.

    i’m also curious why it was tweeted after midnight on a tuesday a month after it was posted. has something changed or something else happened that relates?

    • Kelli and the rest, wow, thanks a lot. Someone influential has clearly run around promoting this post!
      FYI, all posts are written by me, Charles Lenchner. This site does not get the attention it deserves. I’m trying to move it to my own WordPress install, and after that happens I’ll clean it up.

      Thanks everyone for the helpful comments.

  7. DonMidwest says:

    I attended NN10. This time the focus was more on governing than elections. Filibuster. Net Neutrality. Attack media. Civil Rights. Teachers. Unions. Jobs. Economy.

    The goal is to elect good democrats. Democrats that go with the party of NO are to be subjected to primary challenges like Blanch Lincoln in AK – Bill Halter was there and got a standing ovation.

    Many were disappointed with what Obama has done. We sure hope that Elizabeth Warren is appointed but he is not going to do it on a recess appointment and Chris Dodd is speaking out against her again. How many more disappointments can progressive stand? On the other hand, the Republicans are out to destroy our democracy.,

    And the politicians knew that they had to earn our support. But the frustration of blockage of 300 bills in the Senate by Republicans out to destroy constitutional government, and put the oligarchy and the corporations more in charge.

    On the organizing side, John Atlas was there with his new book on ACORN which was both a grass roots organization and a political organization. Could it be that the destruction of ACORN is another canary in the coal mine before the end of the country we have known.

  8. DonMidwest says:

    I forgot to thank you for this story. I could not attend both conferences and am very interested in your observations on the different emphasis of the two groups.

    Will you post another story after attending NN10?

  9. What is this USSF magazine that you speak of? Best, Mark

    • Hey Mark,
      The ‘magazine’ was produced during the Social Forum and distributed. It was an 8 or 12 page cheaply printed sort of thing. I suppose its a collector’s item now! I couldn’t find any of the texts reproduced online.
      I know it exists though, cuz I brought a copy home with me….

  10. Charles,

    Glad to read that you went to the USSF. I would argue though that you may be missing the point in asking why there wasn’t more focus on messeging/polling etc in that space. As someone who straddles both worlds but has my heart in grassroots, community based work, many feel that it is not our job, that is the job of people of color, queer poc, trans poc, radical women etc and so on to teach the powers that be. Taking that approach is still a top down approach that burdens communities to prove their situation as opposed to building up from within.

    I don’t know if that makes any sense. Pero just my perspective. I wasn’t able to attend the USSF but I did attend the Allied Media Conference prior to that and well, you know I was at Netroots. I would love to see some of the Netroots peeps step out of their comfort zone and go to more radical spaces and push their thinking and comfort level.

  11. Maegan, you do a good job of describing the USSF mindset. I wish there was more of a dialogue with it.
    The more radical communities want to address who has the legitimacy to speak, lead, be heard.
    The less radical, more netrootsy folks don’t feel that anyone ‘deserves’ to act as gatekeeper. Not queer poc’s, not white men, not anyone. The question is more – what kinds of speech or actions get policy results? Figure that one out, and it doesn’t matter as much who is doing it.