The liberal audience was about 40 minutes into a documentary on Wall Street's supposed malefactors when the Rev. Barbara Woods couldn't take it anymore. She got up and hollered at her fellow activists.
"Whatcha gonna do about it?" she said. Then she stormed out of the film's screening at the Take Back the American Dream conference, an annual liberal gathering in Washington, D.C.
"I'm sorry. I was upset by the lies, the thieving and nobody being held accountable," Woods said afterwards, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Her outburst didn't seem to upset many conference participants, perhaps because they were feeling the same frustration. The failure to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, President Obama's woes and the sputtering out of the Occupy Wall Street movement seemed to leave a cloud of gloom over the event.
And worse may be on the horizon. The Supreme Court's rulings on Obama's health care law and Arizona's immigration law are due within the week. The president's re-election prospects look shaky. Economist Paul Krugman warned darkly of the economic toll and political consequences of pursuing "austerity" to address the deficit.
Winning Battles, Losing War? The left has not lost every battle. Ohio's GOP Gov. John Kasich saw his state's labor reforms overturned in a lopsided voter referendum in late 2011. Obama delivered victories on the Keystone XL pipeline, gay marriage and, just last week, immigration.
Yet there was a pervasive sense at the event that the left is losing the argument with the broader public.
"We have about 1,000 attendees this year," said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future and an event organizer. While that was about the norm for most years, he said, attendance "really swelled" in 2007 before sliding back to current levels.
For the assembled activists it all seemed bewildering. Obama's election and Wall Street's near-meltdown in 2008 should, they thought, have vindicated them and given them the upper hand in politics. Instead a conservative force calling itself the Tea Party seemed to be calling the shots.
"Why aren't we armed with our own version of Grover Norquist's pledge?" said an audience member at a panel on taxes, referring to the conservative activist who has had considerable success holding lawmakers to an anti-tax pledge.
Van Jones, another event organizer, urged participants to work harder and not despair.
"We saw in (the) Wisconsin (recall) what happens when we put our minimum against their maximum," he said, ignoring the fact that few people would think the left's efforts there were tiny.
Effective Activism A common theme of speeches and comments was that the right was simply better at activism, better at getting its message out, better at holding allied lawmakers to account and better even at organizing and getting out the vote, something long thought to be a strength of the left.
"The other side is not playing chess. They are playing 3D Vulcan chess," Jones told the audience. "They are not dumb.
At times, accusations flew. "The Republicans have gone from rooting against the economy to outright sabotage," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
The one explanation many cited was the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which lifted curbs on corporate election spending on free speech grounds. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., called the court "a wholly owned subsidiary of the right wing.
This ignored the fact that the same decision allowed Big Labor to spend unlimited sums. The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees was the largest donor in the 2010 election cycle, edging out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Few seemed to consider an alternate possibility: Maybe the public was just not convinced by their arguments.
In a presentation on the economic recovery, Damon Silvers, director of policy for the AFL-CIO, quoted his boss, Richard Trumka, as saying, "If you're doing everything right and you're still going off the cliff, maybe you're not doing everything right."