Netroots Nation 2010: Senator Al Franken Closing Keynote Address

Thank you!

I want to thank Stephanie for that introduction, and for so much more.

I am so fortunate to know her – and even more fortunate to have had her come to Minnesota to run my campaign.

Anywhere Stephanie goes, good things happen, and I’m so happy that she’s now at EMILY’s List, a fantastic organization that deserves the same kind of success I had with Stephanie.

I want to thank Markos for his leadership of the Daily Kos community, and for insisting that Democrats fight for our values.

That was an interesting idea, don’t you think?

I want to thank the organizers of Netroots Nation for, once again, putting together the most exciting progressive get-together of the year.

In fact, I’d say it’s the most exciting political get-together of the year – without guns.

And, since we are in Nevada – and, by the way, it’s Nevada, not NevAHda, and it’s Las Vegas, not Las VEEgas – I want to thank Leader Harry Reid.

You know, Harry’s in a tough fight this year. But I know he’s going to pull it out. This guy is as tough as they come. And I respect and admire him tremendously.

So. Who here remembers five years ago?

President George W. Bush had just feared-and-smeared his way to re-election.

Republicans had consolidated their hold on Congress and were planning a destructive agenda, starting with the privatization of Social Security.

The right-wing echo chamber controlled our discourse, and big money dominated our elections.

And it felt like a permanent Republican majority was in the offing.

It was really pretty miserable.

But some folks out there had built a new progressive infrastructure to help us turn our misery into motivation, and as our frustration grew, so did our movement.

Over at the Center for American Progress, they were building an incubator for cutting-edge progressive policy ideas.

At Media Matters, they were building an organization to challenge the dominance of the right-wing echo chamber and hold the mainstream media accountable for being so easily bamboozled.

And all over the country, progressives were logging on to Daily Kos and other sites, building a community of smart, passionate, and creative men and women from all walks of life.

As a satirist, I was able to do a few things.

I helped to get a liberal radio network called Air America off the ground so that we could finally hear our voices on the airwaves along with the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world.

Following up on my previous book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right), which even today makes a great gift, I wrote a book called The Truth (with Jokes), an inspirational call to action that also contained jokes.

I started a political action committee called Midwest Values PAC so that I could support candidates around the country who shared our values – and I invited everyone to join me.

That year, we raised over a million dollars. And we supported Senate candidates like Sherrod Brown, and Jon Tester, and Claire McCaskill, and Bernie Sanders, and Jim Webb, and Sheldon Whitehouse – who became Senator Brown, and Senator Tester, and Senator McCaskill, and Senator Sanders, and Senator Webb, and Senator Whitehouse.

When I think back on it, it turns out that five years ago was a pretty exciting time after all.

And when we stopped the Bush agenda in its tracks, taking back Congress in 2006, we were a little giddy. We felt like we’d won the upset of the century.

Then the 2008 campaign started, and all of a sudden the netroots had become a real factor.

Presidential candidates started showing up at Netroots Nation and posting diaries on Daily Kos. The blogosphere was driving the discourse both in newsrooms and in campaign war rooms.

At some point, YouTube became a verb.

And it wasn’t just what we were doing online that was making a difference.

We took the energy of the netroots, and its spirit of people-powered activism, and we translated it into a grassroots organizing force that I think we will all remember being part of for as long as we live.

When I ran for Senate in 2008, I was constantly impressed and inspired by the strength, dedication, and creativity of this community.

Which reminds me: Thanks.

More than 200,000 people made a contribution to my campaign, most of them online. That’s the sort of support that comes in handy when you find yourself, say, spending eight months fighting a protracted recount battle.

But, leaving aside money – for the moment anyway – my campaign relied heavily on the community that progressives had built online.

People from all backgrounds were coming up with new ways to talk to voters – and sharing their ideas with each other.

We tapped into that creativity to build web-based tools for caucus organizing, canvassing, and, yes, the recount.

It made a huge difference. Believe me.

And the conversation online made a real impact on the coverage of the race.

When the mainstream media, relying on bad information, was pronouncing us dead during the recount, it was bloggers like Nate Silver who were able to change conventional wisdom.

Meanwhile, the UpTake – my state’s own homegrown source for citizen journalism – was showing the world online that Minnesota is not Florida, and that our victory was fair and legitimate.

By 2008, everyone knew that the Internet was important, even if they believed it was a series of tubes. Which, by the way, it is not.

But what we proved in that campaign was that the Internet isn’t the whole point.

The Internet is a tool, and progressives have found a way to use it to organize without the benefit of institutional power.

In our community, your relevance is determined by what you have to say, not how big a megaphone you’ve got.

The traditional barriers to participation, and to power, don’t apply.

That philosophy, applied to our politics, can win – and has won – elections.

That philosophy, applied to our government, can change – and has changed – this country.

There’s a quote I love from my personal hero, Paul Wellstone. Paul said, “The future belongs to those who are passionate and work hard.”

Well, we were passionate. We worked hard. And now the present belongs to us.

Which means we’ve finally gotten to the tough part.

We now have to fight twice as hard just to keep what we’ve won, let alone build on it.

As Paul Begala has said, this is a movement, not a monument. We can’t afford to stand around and admire it.

We have upset the apple cart over the past few years. Conservatives are miserable. And that means they’re motivated.

They don’t just want to win elections. They want to prove that everything I just said about the strength of our movement is wrong, that our success has been a fluke of history.

Remember how we felt five years ago, when Republicans were talking about a “permanent majority?”

They look at the new strength of the progressive movement, and it makes them feel the same way we did.

They look at how we proved them wrong, and they’re just as motivated to stop our momentum as we were to stop theirs five years ago.

You can tell they’re motivated, because they’re spending boatloads of money.

Corporate special interests have pledged more than $200 million for this election. One oilman – one single guy – gave a million dollars to Karl Rove to run attack ads.

And, of course, thanks to the Citizens United decision, corporations can now spend unlimited sums of money directly attacking candidates who try to stand up to them.

It all adds up to a tough year for the many Democrats seeking re-election, and a dangerous year for our movement.

The Senate would be a very different place if Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray and Russ Feingold weren’t there.

The House would be a very different place if Nancy Pelosi weren’t the Speaker. And John Boehner were.

See how different? Very.

And the history of our country will be very different if it records that our movement sputtered out in 2010.

That’s why Midwest Values PAC launched its first moneybomb a few weeks ago.

On the screens next to me are the names of hundreds of people from all over the country who have pledged donations.

These motivated progressives are fulfilling their pledges this weekend because when you’re part of a community like this, even a $20 contribution can make you part of something special.

We’ve got to support great Senate candidates like Joe Sestak and Jack Conway and Robin Carnahan, and great House candidates like Julie Lassa in Wisconsin and Bryan Lentz in Pennsylvania and Joe Garcia in Florida and Minnesota’s own Tarryl Clark, who’s giving Michele Bachmann the fight of her life.

And we’ve got to continue to do what I set up MVP to do in 2006: Make it clear to Democrats all over the country that if they’ll stand strong for our values, we’ll stand up for them when it counts.

Now, I know that some of you feel like, after all you’ve done to elect Democrats, you haven’t really gotten your money’s worth.

I’m frustrated, too.

I’ve been part of the progressive movement a lot longer than I’ve been part of the Senate.

Like you, I wish we’d gotten a public option. I wish we could do education reform and immigration reform this year. I wish we could have public financing in time for this year’s elections.

So, yes, we can all be disappointed sometimes. But don’t for a second think that you’re not being heard.

I go to lunch with the all the Senate Democrats every Tuesday, and I can tell you that your voice matters in that room.

There’s a story about FDR. He was approached early in his presidency by a labor organizer and civil-rights leader named A. Philip Randolph. Randolph laid out a progressive agenda and urged the President to act on it.

FDR told Randolph that he agreed with everything he had suggested. But the President issued a challenge to Randolph: “Go out and make me do it.”

The progressive movement has made Congress do some great things.

On health care reform, we didn’t get everything we wanted. But we did expand coverage to 32 million more people. And we did get a medical loss ratio, a provision I authored which requires that insurance companies spend at least 85 cents out of every premium dollar on health care. That leaves them just 15 cents for administrative costs and executive salaries and marketing and profits.

On Wall Street reform, we didn’t get everything we wanted. But we did get a Volcker rule, and an open exchange for trading derivatives, and an independent bureau of consumer financial protection.

These bills were better because you made us make them better.

But I agree that we haven’t won nearly enough.

And I know that many progressives are frustrated – not just because we haven’t gotten as far as we thought we would, but because it sometimes feels like not everybody in our Party is pushing forward at the same pace.

We have a lot of Democratic votes in Congress. And that’s a good thing. But we don’t have enough progressive votes to pass the agenda you and I want.

And I’m not satisfied with how far we’ve come.

And I’m not alone.

Sherrod Brown isn’t satisfied. Sheldon Whitehouse isn’t satisfied. Tom Udall isn’t satisfied. Jeff Merkley isn’t satisfied. Bernie Sanders is extremely dissatisfied.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the members of our Coalition of the Impatient have joined the Senate since the netroots became a political force to be reckoned with.

We wouldn’t be Senators without your support, and without the inspiration and motivation we draw from this community, we wouldn’t be the kind of Senators we are.

We need you to send us more Senators like Sherrod and Sheldon and Tom and Jeff and Bernie.

And that’s why, no matter how frustrated you are, you can’t check out now.

It only took a few years for the progressive movement to establish a foothold in Congress, but it’s going to take a little longer for us to have enough votes to pass the agenda you and I want.

I’m not going to tell you to be patient. That would be hypocritical. Because I’m not patient, either.

But while we’re shaking our heads at the things we didn’t get, Republicans are making plans for taking back the things we did get.

And we cannot let that happen.

If Republicans take back Congress, they’ll implement a truly dangerous agenda.

Everything is on the table, from repealing health care reform to privatizing Social Security.

Republicans have nominated a Senate candidate in Kentucky who has questioned the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and one right here in Nevada who can’t seem to stop bringing up the prospect of armed revolt.

If they take the House, Joe Barton – who famously apologized to BP for what he called a “shakedown” – will be chairman of the Energy Committee, and Darrell Issa is promising to double his staff and embark on a witch-hunt in the hopes of bringing down the Obama administration.

We’ve seen what happens when Republicans take control of Congress with a Democratic president.

Meanwhile, we are teetering on the brink of a double-dip recession.

But Republicans won’t address the economic imperative for more stimulus. They hide behind big talk about deficits as if they suddenly appeared at noon on January 20, 2009.

The hypocrisy is amazing, but it’s beside the point – because there’s a real human and economic crisis going on out there. I’ve seen it all over Minnesota, believe me. And Republicans just want to make it worse.

When they talk about cutting spending, they certainly don’t mean defense spending, even though experts from all over the ideological spectrum – including the Secretary of Defense himself – agree there’s enormous waste there.

They want to cut stuff like unemployment insurance and COBRA health care subsidies. Stuff like the vital nutrition assistance programs and infrastructure investments in the Recovery Act.

The spending Republicans want to cut is spending that is putting people back to work, and keeping money in the pockets of struggling Americans who can’t find jobs but still need to pay bills and buy essential goods.

These aren’t government handouts – these are investments in our future and the most effective ways to get our economy going again.

And if Republicans are able to cut them, it will drive us back into a recession – and, by the way, increase the deficit.

In short, Republicans want to take us back to the dark days of the Bush administration.

But this time, it might not be so easy for us to regroup.

Because even as Republicans plan to punch loopholes in our regulations and shred the social safety net, their corporate backers have an even more dangerous agenda of their own.

Last month, I spoke to the American Constitution Society, and I talked about the Roberts Court’s pattern of protecting the rights of corporations above those of working Americans.

The goal of these corporate interests, I argued, is an America in which no individual rights are so basic and important that they should be protected above a corporation’s right to profit.

Now, look. Corporations aren’t inherently evil. Corporations create jobs.

Corporations made the suit I’m wearing, the chairs you’re sitting in, the beverages you will no doubt be enjoying tonight at some of Las Vegas’s fine establishments, which, by the way, are owned and operated by corporations.

There are some great corporations based in Minnesota, corporations like 3M and Medtronic and General Mills that create a lot of jobs and do a lot of good work in the community.

Also, Cheerios are great for lowering your cholesterol.

But while corporations aren’t inherently evil, the big ones are inherently powerful. They have more money than you do. They know more about you than you know about them. They have lawyers and public relations experts and tax wizards and, you bet, lobbyists.

So it’s pretty easy for them to be evil if they want to – or simply feel like they have to in order to compete – unless the rights of working Americans are protected.

And those rights are disappearing, one 5-4 Supreme Court decision at a time.

This is about your right to earn a living, your right not to get fired because of who you are, your right to drink clean water, your right to privacy, your right to keep the pension you’ve earned, your right to a jury trial.

And it’s about your right to be heard.

It used to be that, really, only the government could threaten your First Amendment rights. Now, corporations – with government permission – pose the greatest threat to your First Amendment rights.

And tonight, I want to tell you that I believe that net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time.

You know, it is literally malfeasance for a corporation not to do everything it legally can to maximize its profits. That’s a corporation’s duty to its shareholders.

Telecom executives understand that they can profit from providing preferred access to the Internet for companies that can afford it.

The CEO of Verizon said, “We need to make sure there is the right economic model… we need to pay for the pipe.”

And as the Chief Technology Officer for BellSouth pointed out, “I can buy a coach standby ticket or a first class ticket… I can get two-day air or six-day ground.”

Airlines and shipping companies profit from this system – why wouldn’t his company profit from selling premium access to corporate interests?

Meanwhile, Comcast and NBC Universal intend to merge. Why? Because concentration of power is profitable!

But when the same company owns both the pipes and the programming running through those pipes, we could be headed for big trouble.

Now, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, executives at both Comcast and NBC promised that that’s not what they’re interested in.

But, as the only member of the Judiciary Committee who used to be in show business, I knew better.

Back in the early 1990s, the rules that prevented networks from owning more than a very small portion of the programs they aired – these were called Fin-Syn rules – Fin-Syn for “Financial Syndication” – the Fin-Syn rules were allowed to expire.

I watched the Fin-Syn hearings. And I watched network executives swear that rescinding Fin-Syn wouldn’t lead the networks to start favoring its own programming.

“Why would we do that?” they asked. “We’re in the business of ratings. We’re gonna pick the best programming!”

But owning your own programming is profitable! And so, now that they could, they did. By 1992, NBC was the largest supplier of its own prime-time programming.

And now that networks could make their own shows, it only made sense for the biggest studios to buy the networks so they could supply the programming. Disney bought ABC. Viacom (the parent company of Paramount) bought CBS. NBC merged with Universal.

This consolidation meant that the same company could own the means of distributing programming – and produce the programming.

So if Comcast merges with NBC, how long do you think it will take for Verizon and AT&T to start looking at CBS/Viacom and ABC/Disney?

And if Citizens United is allowed to stand, how long do you think it will take for these monoliths to buy enough elections that they effectively have veto power over anything Congress tries to do to regulate them?

If no one stops them, how long do you think it will take before four or five mega-corporations effectively control the flow of information in America – not only on television, but online?

If we don’t protect net neutrality now, how long do you think it will take before Comcast/NBC/Universal, or Verizon/CBS/Viacom, or AT&T/ABC/DirectTV, or BP/Halliburton/Wal-Mart/Fox/Domino’s Pizza starts favoring its content over everyone else’s?

How long do you think it will take before the Fox News website loads five times faster than Daily Kos?

If the Internet – the tool that allowed this community to come together and become a potent political force – is under the control of corporate elites, then the netroots can’t exist.

The progressive movement can’t exist. Democracy as we know it can’t exist.

And it’s not just about politics.

After all, the Internet is more than just the foundation of the community we progressives have built.

It’s an incredible source of innovation, a hotbed for creativity, and an unbelievable producer of wealth and jobs.

Its value comes from the fact that it’s open to everyone.

YouTube began in a little office above a pizzeria in San Mateo, California. It was a good idea. Today, it’s worth billions of dollars.

Twitter was dreamed up during a brainstorming session at a little podcasting company. It was a good idea. How many people here use Twitter today? How many people are following me – I’m @alfranken? How many people are Tweeting this speech right now?

Thanks to the free and open Internet, innovations that change our lives can come from anyone, anywhere.

Imagine if what is happening with television – where an independent producer can’t get a show on the air unless the network owns at least a piece of it – were to happen with the Internet.

There would be no next YouTube or Twitter. There would only be what the R&D departments at those few mega-conglomerates could invent – and profit from.

The Internet – developed at taxpayer expense to benefit the public interest – would become just a series of tubes through which money can flow into the pockets of private corporations.

Instead of a tool for creative innovation and political activism, it would become an instrument of corporate control and conservative propaganda.

I don’t know what the next great idea will be. Maybe it will be an open-source system for organizing electronic medical records that will save money and lives. Maybe it will be some kind of Digg-FourSquare hybrid that I won’t understand at all.

But I can’t imagine what life in America would be like if this kind of innovation couldn’t take place.

The Comcast/NBC merger is the first domino. If it falls, the rest will soon follow.

It’s almost too late to stop this from happening – but not quite. The government has a role to play here.

The government can mitigate the influence of corporate money on our elections. The government can pass rules to protect net neutrality. The government can stop mergers like NBC/Comcast – or at least put strict, rigorous conditions on them

But first, the government has to be made to act. And I can tell you first-hand that the government – the White House, the FCC, my fellow members of Congress – is hearing plenty from the corporations on the other side of these issues, and not nearly enough from you.

If you want to protect the free flow of information in this country and all that depends on it, you have to help me fight this.

When I bug you about going to and joining me, it’s because the kind of grassroots movement that allows Senators like me to fight on issues like these depends on people like you.

Resisting this trend towards media consolidation, resisting attacks on net neutrality – we should throw ourselves behind these causes with the same energy and urgency that we showed in 2006 and 2008.

We’re at a dangerous moment in our history. We have the worst long-term unemployment since they started keeping the statistic. Our climate is changing – did I mention that?

And we’re more vulnerable to total corporate control of our lives than ever before.

I know some of you are tired. I know some of you are frustrated.

But when this movement grew so strong that it could change the trajectory of history, we assumed not only power but also responsibility.

If we don’t rise to this challenge, no one else will.

Even if the only reason you started blogging or canvassing or donating was that you couldn’t stand President Bush or really wanted single-payer health care, you are now a key part of a generational struggle that will determine whether the American Dream survives for our kids and grandkids, or whether they’re going to live in a country defined by corporate control of our politics and our lives.

Sorry. You know. To lay that on you.

But we don’t fight these battles because it’s easy. We do it because we believe that our ideas have power, our values are right, and our country is worth it.

And we don’t do it alone, do we? We have each other.

That’s why I love Netroots Nation. Once a year, this great community that serves as a source of strength and inspiration for the progressive movement comes together to reaffirm its purpose, sing a little karaoke, and refresh itself for the fight ahead.

There are dark clouds up ahead, but we march forward because we know that the future still belongs to those who are passionate and work hard.

And we know that, for the sake of our country, that has to be us.

We have to fight back against the radical Republican agenda.

We have to fight back against corporate control of our media, our Internet, and our lives.

And we have to fight back against the urge to give up when the going gets rough.

Oh, and one more thing. We have to keep taking pride when we make progress.

That’s why nights like tonight are so important.

This country is a better place because we fought to make it a better place. We came together to elect a brilliant and inspiring President, and a whole bunch of progressive legislators who would never have had a shot at changing this country if it weren’t for your efforts. Myself included.

And the first year and a half of the Obama administration has seen historic progress – from the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the beginning of the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to historic reform of our health care system and our financial system.

These things are worth celebrating.

This might be a tough year, but I’m confident that we’ll have even more things to celebrate at next year’s Netroots Nation.

And, accordingly, the Netroots Nation gang has given me the honor of making the official announcement for the location of Netroots Nation 2011.

It’s a little bit less glitzy and glamorous than Las Vegas, but it’s also a little bit less hot.

It’s a place with great fishing, beautiful scenery, and tons of energetic progressives ready to show Netroots Nation a good time.

And the best part is, if it gets a little too crowded at Markos’s party, you can always come hang out at my house. Well, actually, you can’t.

But still – I’m proud to invite you all to join me next summer for Netroots Nation 2011 in…Minneapolis, Minnesota!

Between now and then, we’ve got to work hard. We’ve got to stay passionate. And we’ve got to stick together.

Thank you for all you’ve done and all you’ll do for progressives this year! See you next year in Minneapolis.