It must have been divine intervention by the Journalism Gods that on my flight to Las Vegas for YearlyKos, a conference billed as a gathering of the future of the Democratic Party, I happened to sit next to Lou, a potent symbol of the party's past.
Small and wiry with a jutting jaw and the tense energy of a prizefighter, Lou expressed disappointment when I first sat down next to him. "I was hoping a couple of good-looking broads would take these seats," he said. I laughed politely, penciling in a mental checkmark next to "Dirty Old Man." But after take-off I noticed Lou pull out a copy of The Nation, and I nudged my editor sitting next to me. It was only a matter of time until Lou started to talk, launching into a two-hour disquisition on the evils of war, the Bush administration, the Christian right and Big Business.
"This Bush says he's a born-again Christian," he scoffed. "Born-again Barbarian is more like it." Lou served in Korea and, like his father who was shot while serving in the Italian army during World War I, he "hates war." He knew the Pentagon's budget by heart. "War," he said, "is a business. Just like everything else."
As critical as he was of the war machine, he wasn't a pacifist. "If you come to me in peace, with an olive branch, then I'll respond with an olive branch," he said. "But if you come up to me and punch me, I'm going to punch you right back in the face."
He was born and raised in Steubenville, Ohio, a one-time steel town in the eastern edge of the state. After Korea, he spent seven years in the mill as a union man. "I was a rabble rouser," he said. "The management tried to blackball me." Steubenville was, in Lou's day, a boomtown, but now more than 30,000 steel jobs have been reduced to 5,000 and all around him he sees creeping false consciousness. The men at the steel mill have started to turn rightwards, he says, thanks in part to their preachers. "I tell them, 'You're so dumb you don't know your friends from your enemies.'"
The more Lou talked the more animated he became. You got the sense that there weren't a whole lot of people left in Steubenville who agreed with him about much.
Now retired, Lou was visiting some family in Vegas. Just recently he'd lost a younger brother who'd worked his whole life in the steel mill and died of lung cancer. He nursed his brother at home while he slowly withered away. "And Rush Limbaugh, that motherfucker, thinks people in the mills and factories make too much money. What does he have against a decent wage? He's never worked a day in his life. He ought to spend a day near a blast furnace."
Given this prologue to the weekend I couldn't help but survey YearlyKos within the context of Lou: what the left has gained and lost as the Lous of the world have either died or drifted from being Reds to red-staters. Like Lou, the conference attendees were, broadly speaking, "ordinary people," passionate about politics, who get into arguments at family holidays and mix it up over the water cooler at work. They aren't members of the professional political class; I met teachers and waitresses along with professors, programmers and dentists. (The cost of airfare and a hotel for a four-day conference created a selection bias that made the blogosphere appear a good deal older and more affluent than I suspect it actually is. Nonetheless, I couldn't help but notice that the 2004 Democratic National Convention, a redoubt of the party insiders, was far more diverse than YearlyKos.)
What the conventioneers and Lou share more than anything is a certain pugilistic spirit, an eagerness to engage in political combat and a refusal to be cowed. It is a rare and necessary commodity. When Harry Reid, in the conference's closing speech, invoked the 2,500 Americans who have died in Iraq, someone impertinently yelled out: "How many Iraqi civilians have died?" At dinner one night I told my blogger tablemates that oftentimes the ceaseless war of words in the blogosphere left me exhausted. "I just don't feel like I'm very good at fighting," I told them. They looked at me with a combination of shock and pity. "It energizes me," said Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake. "I love it." Peter Daou of Salon.com's Daou Report nodded his head vigorously. "I grew up in a war zone. In defense of my principles and beliefs, I relish a good fight."
But Lou possessed something missing from the conference, namely--not to put too fine a point on it--a critique of capitalism. In his union days, Lou said, he'd urged his local officers to use some of the union's pension and strike funds to actually buy part of the company. "That's real unionism," he said. "We've never tried that here in the United States. Now they'll tell you that's Marxism, but that's just because the American people have been brainwashed into thinking that Capital is more important than Labor. But it's Labor that creates all wealth!"
You didn't hear talk like that at Yearly Kos. Nothing even close. The panel on "Labor and Power" drew a meager crowd of 40 people, tops. Next door, the "blogosphere expert" panel was packed. UNITE HERE's political director Chris Chafe seemed dismayed. "If we don't have this room filled to capacity at the next YearlyKos convention then we're all going to lose," he said.
In a post on DailyKos after the convention, labor expert Nathan Newman wrote, "The labor movement actually took YearlyKos very seriously, contributing money to help subsidize costs and sending top leaders to attend the sessions. ... I know that the labor leaders were a bit frustrated that their interest in the blogosphere was not reciprocated."
Generalizations about the netroots are a fool's game, though one the pundits can't help themselves from playing. And indeed, within the comments of Newman's post, many Kossacks spoke up to offer their support for unions and the labor movement. But it was clear at the conference that the issues attracting the most attention--the Valerie Plame affair, bias in the mainstream media, electoral reform--tend toward the process-oriented and obscure. It's a blessing there are thorough and talented bloggers to track these stories, but they aren't the issues that most people wake up thinking about, or, for that matter, vote on.
YearlyKos made it clear that the netroots is a vanguard--a smart, savvy, compassionate and courageous vanguard, but a vanguard nonetheless. There's nothing wrong with vanguards, but they do not a majority make.
So while we may need to strengthen the voice of bloggers, we also need to find a way to make a lot more Lous.