On Monday, voters across the country will tune in to a Democratic National Convention unlike any in modern history. Party leaders hope their four-day, all-digital festival will energize Americans to repeat the 2018 “Blue Wave” that returned the House to Democratic control. But how will they do that when 2018’s progressive rising stars are invisible on our biggest national stage?
Organizing a political convention means mastering the art of making the right enemies. There are only a handful of prime speaking positions, and that means bruising fragile political egos. Managing a convention also means understanding how the Democratic Party has changed in the traumatic four years since 2016, a task party image-makers either don’t acknowledge or refuse to appreciate.
The House Class of 2018 is a great example. Just two years ago Democrats ended Republican control of Congress in a blowout victory driven by record turnout among women and minority voters. Nowhere was that as apparent as Nevada, which now boasts an all-female U.S. Senate delegation as well as America’s first majority-female state legislature. The 2018 election elevated the then-unknown Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to national celebrity. It gave us The Squad, Rep. Katie Porter, and made possible ambitious policy proposals like the Green New Deal.
You wouldn’t know that to look at the Democratic convention, which granted Ocasio-Cortez a single minute of speaking time on Tuesday night. Rising stars of color like Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Lauren Underwood are completely absent. In fact, Democrats have offered more time to Republican speakers than they have to the freshman legislators responsible for safeguarding the House from further corruption by Trump’s Capitol Hill goon squad.
It isn’t only progressives that are losing out. Under convention traditions that limit the role of freshmen legislators, even rising centrist lawmakers like Abigail Spanberger and Kendra Horn are missing. The weight of tradition prevents the DNC from fully embracing its role as a young, activist-driven party where the contributions of women and minorities are essential to our identity.
For new Democrats mobilized by the party’s embrace of progressive policies like climate justice and of progressive leaders like AOC and Andrew Yang, the decision to offer a primetime slot to former Republican presidential candidate Gov. John Kasich is baffling and offensive. Sure, Kasich’s second act as a Never Trumper is admirable, and more Republican leaders should be following his example. But being anti-Trump is not synonymous with being a Democrat, and Kasich’s right-wing values should make any progressive’s skin crawl.
This is the same John Kasich who proudly defunded Planned Parenthood in Ohio, then shifted those funds to bogus “crisis pregnancy centers” overseen by right-wing anti-abortion groups. The same John Kasich who gutted collective bargaining and banned strikes for over 350,000 Ohio public employees. The same John Kasich who in 2016 advised women to avoid events “where there’s a lot of alcohol” if they didn’t want to be raped. That Kasich expanded Medicaid for Ohioans in no way balances with the painful legacy of his strident conservative agenda.
Republicans have appeared at Democratic conventions before, and a few brave Democrats have even broken ranks to speak at the RNC. But as voters demonstrated in 2018 and seem ready to reinforce in 2020, there are far fewer “swing voters” now than ever before. That makes the case for platforming Kasich even murkier. If Democrats want to juice turnout and empower their activist base, celebrating Kasich’s anti-union, anti-abortion, anti-woman legacy is a bizarre and counterproductive way to do it.
The DNC’s platforming problem runs deeper than elevating Kasich while minimizing Ocasio-Cortez. For argument’s sake, let’s hold as true that Ocasio-Cortez might be “too divisive” (whatever that means) for a national audience that holds more moderate political positions. That still doesn’t explain why a party that owes its successes to women and minority voters has only confirmed two Asian/Pacific Islander speakers out of 40 in Democratic leadership roles. At a time when immigration reform and Donald Trump’s inhumane treatment of Hispanic children has enraged huge swaths of the country, only three Latinx voices appear as featured speakers.
Minority voices had to fight hard for those convention scraps—and an energized Democratic activist base is making its displeasure known through the toxic majesty of Twitter. There, Yang’s supporters raised a noisy digital stink until the DNC relented and offered their man a speaking slot. Inspired by that success, supporters of Julian Castro, the only Latinx candidate on the 2020 presidential stage, launched the viral #LetJulianSpeak campaign.
Let’s be clear: Joe Biden isn’t to blame for the muzzling of Democratic activists. In fact, Biden’s recent climate change policy drew praise from environmental groups for including substantial input from Green New Dealers like AOC. What is happening at the DNC is just the latest iteration of Democrats’ quixotic quest to win over the hypothetical “soft Republican” voter. In chasing that illusory voter, Democrats risk marginalizing their essential base voters—a mistake that came with catastrophic costs in 2016.
Senior party officials have been uncertain how to handle breakout celebrities like Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad since their hugely publicized victories in 2018. The party seems to believe that limiting Ocasio-Cortez’s public exposure is the best way to control her rise. But by muzzling the voices of our party’s next-generation leaders, Democrats are playing right into Republican hands.
The chaos and kerfuffle around the Democratic convention highlights a real problem for both the Biden/Harris campaign and the party. For years, Democrats have allowed Republicans to define the terms of the debate: Ocasio-Cortez is too left for mainstream voters; gun control legislation is political suicide; Americans will revolt against costly environmental policies. Why are Democratic leaders taking notes on appealing to moderates from a Republican Party that unquestioningly gathered behind the runaway train of Trump’s authoritarianism?
In the age of instant feedback and data analytics, we can tell with more detail than ever the issues that move voters. And voters have made people like Castro, Yang, and Ocasio-Cortez national celebrities because they are unapologetic in their progressivism. It’s time Democrats stopped worrying about what Republicans considered “acceptable” and started listening to the millions of Americans crying out for better healthcare, a more just economy, sane policing, and an end to corporate welfare. And poll after poll shows voters agree with Democratic solutions to those problems.
Democrats ignore progressive voices at their own risk. Internally, party officials are terrified of repeating a 2016 scenario where overlooked liberal voters simply stay home. But by shoving the party’s activist voices into a corner at the convention, Democratic leaders only fuel progressive fears that the party isn’t committed to the hard work of change.
If ever there was a time for Democrats to showcase what Robert F. Kennedy called “moral imagination,” it is now. We can start by putting forward the young, dynamic Democrats who get Americans excited about our shared national future. That doesn’t include John Kasich.