On Building a Progressive Governing Coalition Around Net Neutrality

Last year, we could throw wrenches into the works and call it a victory.  This year, we're going to try to govern, and this means that we actually have to accomplish stuff.  And based on what I'm seeing on the net neutrality front, the progressive movement has a lot of work to do.  Take net neutrality for instance.

One would think that net neutrality is a no-brainer for the Democratic caucus, right?  It's not a first 100 hours issue, but surely it'll get done soon, at least within the next two years.  That's what you would think if you read the blogs or the newspaper, or if you assumed that Congressional Democrats were savvy about politics and sought to protect the internet, which arguably propelled them into the majority.  But that's not the reality of where we are in this fight.

The Democrats took Congress a month ago, and since then, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and The National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) both came out against net neutrality.  These groups are a big deal, more significant in some ways than the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and National Association of Black Journalists, both of whom came out for net neutrality because it protects a diversity of voices in a media that has traditionally shut them out.

Why is this debate in the African-American and Hispanic political communities happening now?  Why not last year, when net neutrality was in the spotlight?  Well, look at the power dynamics - if you are AT&T, you don't need LULAC with Republicans in the majority, but you do when Democrats take over.  Once it became clear that the telcos couldn't push the COPE Act through a Republican Congress but would have to go on the defensive in a Democratic Congress, they pulled out their trump cards.  LULAC and NBCSL clearly didn't want to come out on this issue, otherwise they would have continued to quietly support the telecom companies as they did last year.  They were pushed to come out, probably with prodding by Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, etc.  LULAC is going to be a key roadblock in Federal net neutrality legislation, and NBCSL is going to be a key piece of the telecom offensive strategy in the states.

Both groups believe the rhetoric from the telecom companies that net neutrality will reduce access to the internet for their communities.  In addition, LULAC gets funding from AT&T and Comcast, the NBCSL from Verizon and AT&T.  This creates an interesting dynamic in communities of color, as black and Hispanic groups are put up against black and Hispanic journalists.  

What these recent moves from LULAC and the NBCSL show is that the secret weapon of the telecom and cable companies are the non-white ethnic groups who have longstanding relationships with corporate America.  These groups are now prime movers against net neutrality, for a variety of indistinguishable reasons.  First of all, while Democratic consultant culture took minorities for granted, corporate America did not.  These companies invested serious money in outreach, and their staffing choices in the lobbying area reflect a commitment to diversity.  They fund charities, they hire from these communities, and they are very serious about using the resulting political power they acquired.  By contrast, the lack of a career track in progressive politics means that our talent bench is low and not particularly diverse.  

I sympathize with Brent Wilkes of LULAC and various African-American leaders who believe that the telecom companies are operating in good faith, and that the Save the Internet and the Google crew represent a new and weird group that doesn't really understand their community.  Many African-American leaders, Bobby Rush for instance, believe that giving regulatory license to the telecom companies in return for a small amount of payback in his community, makes sense.  Techies haven't been there in terms of broadband or telecom policy for a long time, so at least he's getting something.  And it doesn't hurt that Rush gets $1 million from AT&T pushed to one of his pet community projects.  Say what you will about perceptions of corruption, from Bobby Rush's perspective it sure looks like AT&T wants to serve your constituents more than, say, Google, or the blogs.  One could argue the same for LULAC, or NBCSL - the proof is in the pudding, they would say.  

At the same time, the logic from journalists of color is too compelling to suggest that these groups really just want to expand internet access.  I can't help but wonder how to build a real and substantive relationship between progressive free media advocates and organizations representing minority advocates.  In the long-run, our interests are way more aligned than those of AT&T and LULAC.  When you clear away all the politics and policy details, it's pretty clear that we want everyone to have high speed internet access for low or no cost, and Comcast just wants to sponsor a fraction of LULAC's operational expenses.

These are not easy problems, because they involve longstanding relationships that will have to be reexamined and reworked.  But as we continue building a progressive movement, we're going to encounter real trouble unless we do a much better job at coalition building.

Tags: League of Latin-American Citizens, LULAC, National Black Caucus of State Legislators, NBCSL, net neutrality (all tags)

Comments

12 Comments

My beef with Obama

...is that he said the day after the '04 election that he would definitely not run in 2008. If he flip-flops on that question, what else would he flip on?

by dwbh 2006-12-06 08:02AM | 0 recs
Whoops!

Sorry, I meant for this comment to be posted to the thread below this one.

by dwbh 2006-12-06 08:04AM | 0 recs
On Building a Progressive Governing Coalition

This topic deserves at least one comment on topic !

Net Neutrality is of critical importance for 2007 for many reasons: one, the substance of it is right and necessary; two, on the politics, the netroots needs to keep the newly progressive congress from reverting to the mean of kow-towing to lobbyists while giving us the back of the hand; and, three, as in this post, it provides an urgent opportunity for alliance building around core progressive issues, causing us to reach out to our natural allies and see issues from their perspective, where net neutrality may not be quite so pressing.

by Arthurkc 2006-12-06 09:17AM | 0 recs
Re: On Building a Progressive Governing Coalition

I am afraid a lot of things are being fought under the banner of "net neutrality", and in such fighting the enemies of enemies are not friends. I will try (off the top of my head) to provide a couple of instances. One is the opposition to the AT&T and BellSouth merger. While in general I am in favour of the larger idea behind what has been termed "net neutrality", I am not sure that requires opposing this merger, in the face of the 800 pound gorilla that is Verizon. There may be advantages to a duopoly over regional monopolies with one giant player. Second, discrimination by content and distributor is already a fact on the Internet, some of it even in violation of RFCs, often carried out by the very stalwarts leading the "fight" for net neutrality.

The issue of net neutrality is a particular instance or manifestation of the erosion of egalitarian access (in both directions) to the net.

by ravi 2006-12-06 09:46AM | 0 recs
Re: On Building a Progressive Governing Coalition

My feeling is that building these kinds of coalitions (much like building more effective alliances with labor) will require the synthesis of a new progressive consensus, which is a long and slow process, but an entirely necessary one now that the tide is turning against reactionary conservatism. Moving forward requires a vision that translates into a plan of action.

My hopelessly technocratic and disasterously crypto-marxist take is that we have an opportunity here at the onset of the "information age" to do things better than during the industrial age. By decentralizing and widely distributing the means of information-production, we can lay a cornerstone for a more just and equitable nation and world. Social justice isn't going to come down from on high as a gift from the Great White Fathers in DC, even if we get a black president. The Great Society is not getting a redux.

For real gains in equality to be attained and made sustainable, they need to be driven by citizens, have a real bottom-up lineage. That means we need to be able to communicate, network and promote our causes our own terms.

Media justice is therefore a prerequisite to social justice, as well as a great investment in future jobs and prosperity. What's better for economically downtrodden communities: a few thousand jobs with limited growth potential installing cables for TimeWarner, or the opportunity to create the kind of enterprise-friendly environment that exists in Silicon Valley and grow indigenous centers of capital?

Obviously both are good, and in fact they're probably related, but it's not as though people are going to stop installing cables when get net neutrality. If you look at just how much culture originates in impoverished communities and think about what might be possible if that cultural production and marketing could be homegrown rather than owned by a far-off publishing entity, you can start to make connections between abstract things like Net Neutrality and real economic progress.

I think in any counter-lobby effort on Net Neutrality, you have to talk about how Verizon and other telcos are adamant about wanting to redline for their next level of service. They want to keep you watching TV rather than giving you the power to make your own, which isn't just about what people do for fun. It's about real power and money. Going to their side here is quite literally becoming a house servant: you take a little bump in your standard of living -- a little funding, a nice community project -- in trade for a lifetime locked out of the real game.

by Josh Koenig 2006-12-06 09:57AM | 0 recs
What Marx Would Say Today:

"Screw the means of <i>production</i>; it's the means of <i>communication</i> that the people must control."

At least, that's MHO.  (Figured I'd share that with a crypto-Marxist.)

Fine post, btw.  Can't think of a thing I'd disagree with.

by RT 2006-12-06 12:00PM | 0 recs
Means of Communication

That's probably a more catchy formulation, but part of being vaguely crypto-marxist is subservience to the old man's terminology. ;)

One of these days we'll write a new manifesto, and then we can quit being vaguely crypto-this-and-that and get back to a one-word moniker. That'll be a good day.

by Josh Koenig 2006-12-07 09:36AM | 0 recs
Re: On Building a Progressive Governing Coalition

Hello Matt, from the Hands Off coalition.

An interesting analysis. However, you unfairly describe the motivations of AT&T and the minority groups representative groups mentioned. You make it sound like this is the first time such groups have taken a stand, but that just isn't the case.

If you look at the Hands Off member coalition page, you'll notice the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and LISTA, which represents Hispanics working in information sciences. They've been members back to last summer.

You might want to ask them, and LULAC, and NBCSL, why they oppose net neutrality laws -- rather than  just assuming you already know.

by LookMaNoHands 2006-12-06 10:11AM | 0 recs
Re: On Building a Progressive Governing Coalition

Again, if you want to put a name on your comment, you are welcome here.  Otherwise, quit it.  You have consistently come onto this site and lied, and I won't have it.

In terms of your point, I didn't say that it's the first time these groups have taken a stand.  I have blogged often about the CBC and net neutrality, and I spent, oh, three months blogging about Al Wynn and Donna Edwards in MD-04.  

The motivations of these groups are clear.  They don't trust us and they get financial support from you.  That you are lying to them about access will become obvious in time.

by Matt Stoller 2006-12-06 10:55AM | 0 recs
Matt, can you provide some links?

I have blogged often about the CBC and net neutrality

I have spent quite a bit of time lobbying John Lewis on net neutrality with phone calls and emails. It is like banging my head against a wall. I would like to read whatever you have blogged about the CBC and this issue to help me understand what's going on here.

by miasmo 2006-12-06 09:07PM | 0 recs
Re: On Building a Progressive Governing Coalition

The Democrats took Congress a month ago, and since then, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and The National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) both came out against net neutrality.

This is the kind of issue where local bloggers could make a big difference.

It is also another illustration of why we need more minority bloggers, so if you are a minority and you are reading this, please start blogging!

by Alice Marshall 2006-12-06 01:28PM | 0 recs
Governing and demonizing

Matt,Just had to chime in here. I was glad to here you say:
"This year, we're going to try to govern, and this means that we actually have to accomplish stuff."

Do you think the way to govern and get net neutrality passed (when you need 60 votes in the Senate and the Administration not to veto) that it might be wise to not call every republican "a really bad person" or to otherwise demonize them as evil despicable people.

When in the wilderness, it may have been necessary to add vitriol to your blog to generate passion, fear and excitement. Governing is different. If you are governing the onus is on you all to govern or "accomplish stuff" as you say. Accomplishment requires cooperation and negotiation.  

Like the barking dog that catches the car. Now what do you do?

Scott Cleland
NetCompetition.org

by Scott Cleland 2006-12-07 07:23AM | 0 recs

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