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Online progressive activists have grown and developed to the point where they are ready to play critical roles in 2012 elections all over the country — including the two they consider most important: re-electing President Barack Obama against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and helping Elizabeth Warren defeat Massachusetts US Senator Scott Brown.

Unfortunately, the times may have already changed too fast. The Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, and other developments, mean that elections — those two in particular — will be awash in unprecedented floods of money that could render the power of the netroots moot.

That isn't going to stop them from trying.

The netroots, however difficult to define, is nothing if not forward-looking. Sure, you can find plenty of angry denunciations of conservative blowhards, repetitious declarations of ideology, and over-analyses of the latest campaign micro-cycle story. But much of the energy in the online liberal organizing community has always gone toward practical action — to affect upcoming elections, pending legislation, and the landscape of American politics. Perhaps that's just the change-oriented nature of progressives.

It was true at the first Netroots Nation conference six years ago (then called YearlyKos), in Las Vegas. While reporters like me were asking everyone the Big Questions about the netroots and trying to turn bloggers into media celebrities, most of the attendees were talking about how to get a progressive elected in their home district and how to get Democrats to stand stronger on key issues.

Today, as roughly 1000 members of the online grassroots progressive community prepares to gather in Providence for Netroots Nation 2012, much of the focus is on this year's elections, both national and local.

That requires a certain amount of swallowing their idealism. At last year's Netroots Nation, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer was booed for defending Obama's centrism on a variety of issues (most particularly same-sex marriage).

Obama was never a netroots darling — there was considerably more interest, at that 2006 meeting, in Russ Feingold, Mark Warner, Bill Richardson, and Wes Clark for president.

Skepticism in individual politicians is exactly why the netroots also crafts strategies to ensure that winning elections will result in real action on issues.

"The netroots community views elections not as an end to themselves, but as an important means to an end," says Michael Moschella, national political director for the Truman National Security Project and treasurer of the Board of Directors of the Netroots Foundation.

EVERYONE'S A NETROOT?

Six years ago, it seemed fairly clear that the netroots were progressives who contributed to, commented on, or read such blogs as DailyKos, MyDD, FireDogLake, BlueMassGroup, and others like them. They were overwhelmingly white and highly educated. Most had little direct experience in political organizing. There was far more concern about foreign policy and Internet freedom, than about issues of concern to union members or urban African-Americans.

Now, the netroots is a little bit of everything, everywhere.

"The netroots base has grown," says Moschella. "It now includes all the main components of the progressive movement — unions, civil rights groups, women's rights groups, and so on."

"Online grassroots activism has been able to turn ideas into real organizations with real influence," says Adam Green, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC). "We founded PCCC in 2009, and this year we'll put $2.5 million to progressive candidates."

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