The prevalence of bumper sticker-covered Toyota Priuses in the parking lot of the Alliant Energy Center parking tells you a lot — but not all — you need to know about Fighting Bob Fest.
It makes clear, for instance, that few of the attendees at the 11th rendition of the annual progressive chautauqua will be voting for Mitt Romney for president. But in the same way tea party rallies reveal the complexities and competing subsets of the American right, Fighting Bob Fest, the project of former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Garvey with an assist from The Capital Times and its charitable arm, The Evjue Foundation, displays what divides progressives as much as it shows what unites them.
Democratic candidates such as U.S. Reps. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, and U.S. Senate hopeful Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, focused on urging people to elect Democrats to higher office, while others, including former independent presidential candidate Buddy Roemer and current Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, made the case that Democrats and Republicans were much too alike to tolerate any longer.
A walk around the Coliseum also displayed the various strains of political thought and activism that often conflict. Vegan advocates spoke to delegates eating brats and burgers, while a pro-marijuana legalization table was only yards away from that of the Democratic Party, historically a strong backer of the war on drugs. And the Freedom From Religion Foundation's presence certainly didn't stop former lieutenant governor candidate Mahlon Mitchell from concluding his speech by saying, "God bless America." There was even a table promoting 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Most of the attendees I talked with emphasized the value of the dialogue Bob Fest brings within the progressive movement.
"I think we, as Democrats, need to listen to what people are saying if we want to evolve and be an effective party," said state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, about the presence of party critics. "Some of (the criticism) I don't think is fair but I feel (listening) is how we improve our party."
Taylor also said such events allow her to meet potential partners in advocacy and policy. In fact, we spoke right after the conclusion of a breakout session on women's issues, in which members of the audience took turns proposing issues to promote and means of advancing a female-friendly agenda.
Nancy Giffey, an Arena artist who was volunteering at the front desk, said her own criticisms of Democrats could not overshadow the differences between the two parties, including the near-absence of minority representation in the GOP and what she called its "mean-spirited direction" and its "Ayn Rand mentality."
"I'm a pragmatist," she said. "I'm going to vote for President Obama because for me, the alternative is very devastating."
Speakers, such as Terry O'Neil, the president of the National Organization for Women, were met with raucous applause when they lauded the accomplishments of Democrats in recent years and portrayed Republicans as the chief impediment to progress.
Following O'Neil, however, was Stein, who made the case that Democrats are, in many ways, worse than Republicans. In particular, she accuses the Obama administration of abusing civil liberties and coddling corporate interests more than George W. Bush.
"When you hear the different narratives from national Democratic and Republican operatives, that's the talk," said Stein. "But it's the walk that counts. And it's now four years of walk from a Democratic White House ... and it's walking us backward."
While the audience was polite, such denunciations of Democrats were met with only a smattering of applause, with many of the listeners clearly uncomfortable with language equating the two major parties.
Despite the presence of many different segments of the progressive movement, there was a notable element of left-of-center politics that was almost entirely absent from the event: young people.
"For one thing, it's a football Saturday," explained Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, whose first mayoral campaign in 1973 was largely fueled by student activists. "For another thing, we're not on campus. And thirdly, there's no pressing issues for which there's immediacy" such as an imminent military draft.
Lara Carlson, a graduate student who taught as an elementary school teacher for four years after college, suggested that many in her generation are unwilling to stand up to authority in times when they are worried about losing their jobs.
"Last year there were a handful of (young teachers) who would go to protests (over Act 10 at the Capitol) but there were many people who just didn't want their face to be seen in that type of crowd, despite the fact that it was fighting for teachers' rights."
Taylor, however, said Fighting Bob Fest should do more outreach to the campus community, as well as find more speakers who could appeal to the millennial generation.
"We need more young people talking. I think we need the passion of our movement represented and the youth represented."
In fact, of the more than 15 featured speakers, Mitchell, 35, was the only one under 40. Only one other speaker — Ruth Conniff, the 43-year-old political editor of The Progressive — was under 50.
However, perhaps in recognition of that, Bob Fest had a breakout session on the "Next Generation and the Progressive Movement," featuring a number of young activists, including Dane County Board Supervisor Leland Pan and two of the perennial Capitol protesters, C.J. Terrell and Arthur Kohl-Riggs, who ran as a protest candidate against Gov. Scott Walker in the Republican recall primary.