Underneath the surface, however, lies a bit of a mutual admiration society. Conservative activists express respect for the left’s ability to fundraise and adapt to new technologies. Liberals look with some envy on the enthusiasm of the tea party movement. Both sides wonder how the other manages to be so much more aggressive, more focused, more unified.
RightOnline was founded in 2008 as a response to Netroots Nation, which began in 2004. It’s more of a top-down affair (a problem with the whole Republican Party, younger activists here lament), hosted by Americans for Prosperity, a major Republican-backing organization. Netroots was launched by online activists and only later attracted the attention and respect of mainstream Democrats.
RightOnline’s conference is smaller (about 1,200 people to Netroots’ 2,500) and more focused on strategy than policy. RightOnline always makes sure to be in the same city, so the get-together is guaranteed more media attention.
“I think the left is naturally more aggressive about delivering a message,” said Tim Phillips of Americans for Prosperity. “A lot of times on the conservative side, people will think, ‘If I’m right that’s enough.’ Our folks have learned that it’s not enough to be right.”
Liberals beg to differ. “Attitude is sullen, frustrated, sad,” he wrote of Netroots on Twitter. “Weird to have a conference of political activists who have lost their faith in politics.”
But among conservatives, there was mostly envy of liberal technological skills.
“We’re trying to compete with ActBlue but they’re way, way ahead of us. We’re playing catch-up,” said John Hawkins of Right Wing News. “Their panels are for advanced activism. This is basic, for getting into activism.” A sign in the hallway of RightOnline advertised “proven technology used by millions of Democrats.”
Over at Netroots, there was talk of the enthusiasm and media attention on the other side.
“The tea party changed the discussion,” said Van Jones, the former White House “green czar” who is launching a new economic campaign called Rebuild the Dream. “What they were able to do is take pre-existing sentiment and preexisting groups that were not visible and they got those visible. They got those people heard.”
Netroots still has clout. Four senators were at Netroots; none came for RightOnline. (Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, was scheduled to attend but could not make it). The head of the Democratic National Committee spoke at Netroots; no top officials from the Republican National Committee attended RightOnline.