Atlanta, GA—“Trust black women,” a few dozen protesters shouted during a Saturday morning speech from Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Evans—a white Democrat.
They had assembled in front of the stage at the Netroots Nation conference, with bright highlighter-toned signs raised in the air in a rainbow line, some of which compared Evans to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a reviled figure among those gathered at the conference.
A flyer distributed at the protest accused Evans of voting for bills to create a private school voucher program and a constitutional amendment to allow state charter schools during her time in the state legislature. But the underlying message was that white progressives were not being held to as high a standard as black progressives, like Stacey Abrams, an African-American candidate running against Evans in the primary.
“Today what we were really trying to put forward is that as folks of color, black women in particular who were leading this action, it’s really about us having candidates who truly understand what impacts our communities,” Monica Simpson, one of the protesters told The Daily Beast outside of the ballroom.
The protestations of those who gathered at Netroots Nation in Atlanta was specific to Georgia’s upcoming primary. But those demonstrating may as well have been directing their anger at the Democratic party at large.
Throughout the conference, there was palpable tension over the party’s approach to minority candidates and minority voters, with African-American progressives pushing back forcefully over what is seen as a myopic fixation with winning back the white working class to the party.
Netroots Nation has always functioned as a forum for the base to air its grievances with the party establishment and even luminaries outside of it. In 2007, Hillary Clinton heard boos from the crowd for voting in favor of the Iraq War. In 2009, President Barack Obama’s top friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett was heckled by crowd members just months into Obama’s presidency. In 2015, presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders were confronted by members of Black Lives Matter.
This go around, the fault lines were an extension of those that erupted during the 2016 campaign. Then, and now, there is a belief that Democratic candidates, including Sanders and ultimately Clinton, did not do enough to corral the African-American vote.
“It wasn’t swing voters who were the key, it was Democrats or people who went to third or fourth party candidates and in some cases that number was greater than the win number for Trump,” said Aimee Allison, the president of Democracy in Color, an organization that focuses on race and politics.
Dems Can’t Forget About The Base
There were few interruptions at the mainstage during this year’s Netroots Nation conference, which also featured a mix of science-fair esque booths with everything from leftist organizations to kitschy hawking of “Resist Rings” to red-sweater meme-man Ken Bone.
But on the smaller panels, the criticism of the Democratic Party was evident.
From the standpoint of many black activists and political strategists at Netroots, far too little time has been spent figuring out why reliably Democratic black voters sat out the 2016 election, even though that trend--attributed to a combination of restrictive voter ID laws, disenfranchisement and lack of outreach--was highly determinative to the overall outcome.
At a Friday panel called “Pivoting Left,” Allison expanded on her belief that minority voters flocked to alternative options because both major parties essentially declined to compete for their support. Republicans barely tried. But Democrats, she said, were acting presumptuous and risked misdiagnosing the problem in their post-election autopsies.
“A conversation about refining an economic message must be paired with an open acknowledgment about the role of racial injustice in limiting economic opportunities for nearly half of the base of the party,” said Allison.
Participants in a particularly animated panel later in the day, entitled “Running from Trump, Running for the People,” were even sharper in their critique that Democrats were making a dangerous electoral bet in assuming that black voters would simply support any generic D.
“I think African-Americans in particular, African-American women specifically, have gotten a worse return on investment from the Democratic party than anyone who got screwed over by Bernie Madoff. Period,” Anthony Rogers-Wright, a climate justice activist and U.S. coordinator with the Naomi Klein-led climate change advocacy group “The Leap,” said during the panel to applause in the room.
Focusing on Racial and Economic Injustice
Since Trump’s win, the Democratic Party has taken concrete steps to address what precisely went wrong in 2016. There’s been attention paid to cyber vulnerabilities. There’s been talk of combating redistricting and of addressing draconian voting laws. But above all, there has been a readjustment of the party platform around concepts of economic populism and anti-corporate, anti-monopoly planks.
It has been widely characterized as a Bernie Sanders-ification of the Democratic Party, who frequently polls as the most popular politician in the country especially among young people of all colors. And in the wake of Trump’s win, some Democrats have viewed this approach as a dichotomy: the prioritization of working class white voters or a renewed focus on minorities.
A former staffer for Sanders didn’t see it this way. Marcus Ferrell, the former African-American outreach director for the Senator, argued that the problem wasn’t prioritization but outreach. Campaigns, he said, need to do better at translating bigger, aspirational goals into explanations for how they will specifically help the black community.
“What’s the point of a platform if nobody knows about it?” said Ferrell. “There’s no resources going into taking that same $15 minimum wage message, that same health care for all message and putting it in the hood. This is how it affects black neighborhoods. This is how universal health care will help your life. No one does that.”
Democrats who hit the main stage of the conference, many of whom were either up for reelection or running as first-time candidates, seemed to recognize that the party’s future depended on bridging this divide; on speaking up about both racial and economic injustice. And where they intersect.
Randy Bryce, the Wisconsin ironworker challenging House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has become an emblem for the Democratic Party’s efforts to win back working class voters, pointedly declared that Democrats “can’t only talk to the African-American community when they’re being shot by police or going to jail. We need to start including food islands and food deserts as part of the conversation.”
Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous acknowledged that Democrats can’t take an either/or approach with white working class voters and black voters. And Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) decried what she framed as a false-choice between voting blocs.
“In the wake of the last election, I’ve heard people say we need to decide whether we’re the party of the white working class or the party of Black Lives Matter,” Warren said to a rapt audience just a couple hours after protesters interrupted Evans.
“I say we can care about a dad who’s worried that his kid will have to move away from their factory town to find good work – and we can care about a mom who’s worried that her kid will get shot during a traffic stop,” Warren said. “The way I see it, those two parents have something deep down in common—the system is rigged against both of them—and against their kids.”
There was hearty applause, as was the case when she careened from topics of criminal justice reform, the fight for a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All. At one point, a portion of the crowd erupted into a “Warren 2020” chant. She was the only buzzed-about 2020 presidential candidate to speak over the weekend