Building a progressive governing coalition around net neutrality

by Matt Stoller, MyDD

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.

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