What Pittsburgh Can Learn From NetRoots Nation

Yesterday's post on What NetRoots Nation Can Learn From Pittsburgh was pretty long. Pittsburgh is an old and complicated place. Not everything there is to learn is a good thing, but there is a lot to learn.

This post is shorter. That's partly because NetRoots Nation is a new and relatively simple phenomenon. It's partly because I skeptical that "Pittsburgh," however you might take the place name as standing in for one or more city and regional populations, is capable of learning much of anything. We are who we are, as Popeye might have said. The local folks who are mostly likely to learn from and adapt the ideas and tactics of NetRoots Nation are the folks who are already learning from and adapting the ideas and tactics of NetRoots Nation. Last night I went to the NetRoots Nation after-party at the Warhol Museum. I saw Dok Harris there, and Kevin Acklin. It's possible that Luke Ravenstahl made an appearance; after 11 pm the place got pretty crowded, and when the lines at the bars got 15 people deep, I ducked out. Was Luke there? The place didn't have a Ravenstahl vibe.

But reckless optimism is sometimes warranted; once in a great while, it pays off. The younger/progressive wing of Pittsburgh can learn from NetRoots that naive enthusiasm is not enough. I talk to younger people in Pittsburgh who are wildly and unrealistically optimistic about Pittsburgh's bright future; they are unaware of the daunting financial challenges that lie ahead. They can learn that social media and connectivity are not enough. (I'm getting better with the social media stuff; Pittsblog is now on Facebook and Twitter.) You have to have a message, and you have to connect the content to on-the-ground strategies. Content matters; you have to have something that's worth saying. And that wing can learn that a narrow base isn't enough. (Mayoral campaigns that build foundations in Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Point Breeze, Regent Square, and Highland Park are unlikely to get much traction outside those neighborhoods.)

Some of those messages are already sinking in; there were more than a few Pittsburghers in the NetRoots crowd last night. But there is much to be done.

Turning from younger/progressive end of the socio-political spectrum to the older/establishment end of the socio-political spectrum, there are complementary lessons to be learned: Adapt or be swept away. When the younger/progressive wing gets better organized and gets more strategic, and if it can come up with serious arguments on the structural economic and financial problems facing the region, then that wing becomes a force to be reckoned with. It isn't necessarily an irresistable force, but it has to be acknowledged in a way that in Pittsburgh, today, it rarely is. You can almost sense the traditional institutions of power creaking under the wind blowing from a NetRoots-type direction. (Cf. the question about Luke Ravenstahl, above.) The Post-Gazette's economic and editorial heads are barely above water. The Allegheny Conference and its partners are tweeting and Facebooking. Can the PG survive? Can the ACCD remain relevant? I think that the answers are yes and yes, but to do that both institutions need to get out in front of the political/technological curve, not chase after it. There are progressives/subversives lurking in the corridors of economic and political power in Pittsburgh, people who are waiting for the time to arrive when they don't have to place nice with the region's top-down, CEO culture in order to effect change and move the region into the 21st century. I know this because I know many of these people, and I know what they would like to do if history and politics didn't hold them back today. The time may come when patience and political good will are exhausted, when their strategic sense and sheer numbers will overwhelm the legacy institutions of the region, when they will stop pausing at the entrances to the metaphorical tunnels here that lead to Pittsburgh's future. Here and there, you see this happening already -- in the arts and technology communities, for example, where innovators and creators aren't necessarily going to wait for the blessings of traditional funders. The odds of that happening on a large scale are, in my view, low. But NetRoots Nation shows Pittsburgh that change is coming, like it or not.


2 Responses to "What Pittsburgh Can Learn From NetRoots Nation"

joe said... 8/15/2009 11:06 PM

I attended an interesting panel discussion today at Netroots Nation that touched on some of the points you make in your thought provoking post here Mike.

The session was moderated by Zack Exley and featured speakers with experience pioneering a new way of engaging volunteers and local communities in the Dean '04 and Obama '08 campaigns.

This new way was described by one panelist (Joy Cushman of the New Organizing Institute) as NOT a model, but "a way of being in the world" - a set of principles and practices based on a culture of high involvement among volunteer leaders and responsibility, so volunteers are held accountable.

There were fellow local volunteers from the Obama campaign in the room, as well local staffers from Organizing for America (which is picking up where the Obama campaign left off after the election).

The importance of story in engaging people was discussed. In my notes I have "Telling our stories is a way of accepting responsibility for our leadership." I like that, and though I think it was meant as a comment about individual volunteer leader involvement, I think it also applies writ large to what you call "the younger/progressive wing of Pittsburgh." We need to tell the story of what's happening locally in a more organized and outward looking manner.

BTW, I think the wing definitely skews younger, but the local progressives are not all 20-something idealists (and Netroots Nation was grayer than one might expect).

I was on the local host committee for Netroots Nation, and am interested in talking with others about possibly hosting a Netroots Nation Salon series here in Pittsburgh this fall. If anyone out there is interested, please e-mail me at zenoangel@gmail.com

joe said... 8/17/2009 8:12 PM

For those who don't frequent Daily Kos -- this is from a front-page post tonight by Markos:

"Pittsburgh coda
by kos
Mon Aug 17, 2009 at 04:30:04 PM PDT

So my favorite moment of the conference --

I'm at the Daily Kos party, introducing the comedy segment of the evening, and I ask, "Be honest, how many of you thought Pittsburgh was a shithole before you came here?" And just about everyone raised their hands. I assume those who didn't were mostly locals. Then I asked, "So what do you think now?" And everyone cheered wildly.

So congrats to Pittsburgh for 1) being such a great host city for the conference, and 2) to the conference attendees for recognizing that the Pittsburgh of perception has no basis in reality."

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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