In the confusing, thorny maze that is the way out for defeating President Trump in 2020, there are two very different ways to solve the puzzle. Do Democrats stay in the fast-moving lane that won back the House in 2018 — energizing both suburban and urban women, who elected a record number of candidates who look like them? What about the road not taken — making a play for mostly white working-class men who liked Barack Obama’s hope in 2012 but preferred Trump’s anger in 2016.
The two meandering paths for returning Democrats to the White House nearly collided in Philadelphia on Thursday — coming within about 50 yards of each other at Netroots Nation, the yearly big-deal confab of political progressives that started in the gloaming of the George W. Bush-Iraq War years and has finally hit Philly right when the party is deeply divided over how to handle Trump.
Down one corridor of the cavernous Pennsylvania Convention Center, a big room that was packed mostly with women attendees for a panel called “Women Marched, Ran and Won: What’s Next?” cheered as speakers proclaimed it wasn’t enough for #MeToo and female empowerment movements to claim the occasional scalp like ousted CBS head and sex-abuse poster boy Les Moonves, that it’s time to tackle the broader, smothering system of oppression.
Alicia Garza, an Oakland-based activist and a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, agreed with other panelists that it’s time for a wider view of feminism than the brand that’s wholly associated with white women, but rather one that incorporates the LGBTQ community, immigrants, the differently abled and others. “Feminism is about interrupting and dismantling the system of patriarchy ... and patriarchy — like an octopus – has its suction cups on all these other systems, so if you dismantled that one then all these other ones start to crumble,” Garza said.
I had to wonder how that message would have played around the corner at a panel called “How to Win Back Blue-Collar Workers” where union activists from the Teamsters and left-wing radio talkers (yes, that’s a thing) insisted that easing up on cultural issues like guns and making it all about bread-and-butter economic issues can maybe get back the working men and women who defected to Trump in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and handed him 2016′s Electoral College.
“How’d we lose the working class? Ask yourself, what did we do for them?" asked Rick Smith, a labor-oriented talk-radio host. "You called them stupid ... You marginalized them, took them for granted and you didn’t talk to them. For 20 years, the right wing has invested tremendous amounts of money in talk radio, in television, in every possible platform to be in their ears, their eyes and on their minds, 24/7, 365 — and they don’t call them stupid.”
It was a powerful rant, and yet one didn’t have to spend more than a couple of hours at Netroots Nation’s 2019 incarnation to see that most of the zeitgeist — its momentum and definitely any youth movement — was not with labor but with Team Empower Women and People of Color, with the idea that voter enthusiasm and higher turnout is what gets back those 100,000 lost votes in the states that tipped 2016 to Trump. Indeed, a union-voter panel felt so out of step it might not have even happened had the Teamsters not put up money to sponsor it.
This was my second Netroots Nation — I’d attended one in 2007 in Chicago, the last time it was called Yearly Kos, reflecting its origins in the groundbreaking left-wing website Daily Kos — and so much has changed. That was also a year of great expectations for change — Bush 43’s two blood-soaked terms were finally ending — and that hope was reflected in appearances by seven of eight declared presidential candidates, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It all suggested a progressive movement that was back on the rise after a 20-year post-Reagan beatdown.
Ironically, the Left and its ideas — higher minimum wage, taxing the rich, true universal health care and free public college — are more prominent than ever in 2019, but any unity feels a lot more elusive. There are a ridiculous 25 people running for the Democratic nomination yet just four of them are coming to Philadelphia on Saturday to speak, and only one of the fab-five frontrunners, Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Left-wing icon Sen. Bernie Sanders — who surely hasn’t forgotten a confrontation with black activists at Netroots Nation in 2015 — is skipping, and so is leader-of-the-pack Joe Biden, even though his national campaign headquarters is only about five blocks away. Looming over everything, it seems, is whether embracing left-leaning exuberance that lifted the party in 2018 will somehow alienate 2020 voters who could be pried away from Trump by a centrist.
But Netroots Nation made clear that 2020 math isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game. Early Thursday, I listened to three remarkable Muslim woman tell the story of their seemingly unlikely recent election victories, on a panel called “Hijabi Power: The Badass Women Fighting Hate.” And badass women they were. Any pundit wanting to know how Democrats can win white voters might want to speak with Deqa Dhalac, a Somali immigrant and activist who last December won a historic landslide special election victory for city council in South Portland, Maine.
“The important part is that you reach out to every voter,” Dhalac told me after the panel, when I asked her how she won over South Portland’s white electorate. “Just make sure that folks are being heard. A lot of politicians like to talk and do not listen to the issues.” And Dhalac’s ability to bridge communities has already achieved some remarkable things, as she’s worked with other Portland leaders to find shelter for 300 asylum seekers from Africa in spite of the larger political crisis over the border.
But what really struck me at Netroots Nation was that when you dig deeper past some of the differences in culture and style, badass hijabi-wearing women and other feminists and the ignored Heartland middle class are ultimately mad about some of the exact same things: That political elites from a different world don’t understand their problems and aren’t listening.
“It’s people having hope again,” Teamsters organizer James “Curb” Curbeam, who’s headed the union’s national black caucus, told the panel on working-class voters. “Because the blue collar workers want someone to fight for them and they want someone to stand up for them, and in this age most blue collar workers have lost hope from all politicians because they feel like they are being lied to. They feel deceived and misled, but they want someone to fight for them.”