Why is there a giant Koch-funded conservative gathering at the same time and in the same city as Netroots Nation, anyway?
Over the last couple of decades plenty of women have thought they were going into a medical clinic to get a free pregnancy test only to enter what's know as a crisis pregnancy center. Few of them offer actual health care, instead proselytizing against abortion, birth control and pre-marital sex to women at their most vulnerable. But these establishments often look like and are adjacent to Planned Parenthood or other women's clinics. They mimic these institutions to press their political agenda in the most confrontational way they can.
The right-wing Americans for Prosperity Foundation is using a similar tactic for -- wait for it -- blogger conferences. RightOnline describes itself on its website:
The RightOnline initiative was launched in July of 2008, with more than 600 activists and bloggers attending our first ever RightOnline Conference in Austin, Texas. It was the first conservative event to ever counter the leftwing Netroots Nation Convention ... an annual gathering of what the media called the most concentrated gathering of high-profile progressive bloggers to date.
Yes, Netroots Nation, founded as Yearly Kos in 2006, has for the last four years had to compete with a counter-conference in the same city and on the same weekend it's been held. While no one would ever mistake the conservative confab for the liberal one, the presence of a mimic conference with registration blocks in the same hotels insures that the Netroots crowd doesn't get a media and messaging weekend to itself.
RightOnline remains smaller than Netroots Nation. It boasts 1,500 attendees in Minneapolis this year to Netroots' 2,400. It's cheaper to attend RightOnline, too: $120 for registration, meals included, compared a staggering $355 per registration for Netroots. But that's partly because the two conferences, while both targeted to a blogger and online activist audience, are far from "opposite equals" (to use a math term).
Sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, RighOnline benefits from the Foundation's annual budget of $10 million, overseen by board chairman David Koch, of Koch Industries-fame. Netroots' filings to the IRS show a budget of less than $1 million.
In short, the foundation putting on RightOnline has more than ten times the cash of the liberal tweeples two blocks away, making it easier to attend. You'd think then its attendees would be happy. But by the look of those at the gathering, they're a brooding bunch. And yes, the crowd with very few exceptions is entirely white. Netroots is a Benetton ad by comparison.
Tweeter @Mulletmanandy69 laid out some expectations for it as the conference got going, "Hoping for some good conservative fun at RightOnline. #ro2011"
What is conservative fun? Apparently it can be summed up in two words: Andrew Breitbart. Friday afternoon, on the first day of RightOnline, right-wing agitator Breitbart marched the block and a half to Netroots Nation in the sweltering heat with what he called an entourage. Some were left-wing bloggers there to record his annual blogger-con stunt. Yes, he's done this before at Netroots and with the same result. He shows up at the liberal gathering and cameras are put in his face. There's yelling. It's put on YouTube. And the Loki of RightOnline goes back to his conference being the undeserving victim of hippie hate. As Slate.com reporter Dave Weigel said to me the moment the news broke, "Every conference has to have a Breitbart moment, the last one that didn't was CPAC 2009."
The two staple speakers every year at RightOnline are Andrew Breitbart and his equally incensed blogger colleague, Michelle Malkin. It sets the tone. Provocateur James O'Keefe was celebrated by the crowd during his speech on Friday afternoon. His talk was curiously titled "The Left Exposed: Where Investigative Reporting Meets Online Activism." (It should be noted the 27-year-old is on probation for his antics.) Herman Cain was invited to speak, along with the two local Republicans hoping to secure the GOP presidential nomination for 2012, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former governor Tim Pawlenty. Most tellingly, there's what looks like a shrine to Sarah Palin, a 5-foot tall painting of the governor in the hallway of the event space. The documentary about her was screened for attendees Friday night but the media superstar herself is not on the list of speakers.
It's a conference about being online but the attendees haven't been tweeting very much. It's maybe one every ten minutes on their chosen hashtag #ro2011 -- compared to the Netroots twitter stream which has been a reliable geyser. Inside the meeting hall (on a stage that would be the absolute envy of an over-the-top Texas episode of "Toddlers and Tiaras") Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) gave a speech opening with the phrase "we share the same fear" and repeated it twice. She railed against Net Neutrality, the poorly named issue Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has called the most important free speech issue of our time. But they don't need a conference to be against something Franken is for.
Perhaps that's why the conference has to be held next door to where Franken spoke. It's mainly to create the illusion of there only being two sides. You can find more than one opinion on every single issue imaginable at Netroots Nation. The attendees there agree absolutely on very little save the overwhelming compulsion to hand-wring. So why hold RightOnline so close by? Probably for the same reason pro-life groups set up fake clinics -- mimicking the other establishment at close range is about confronting their political agenda in an in-your-face way.
You could even call it conservative fun.
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