Two years ago, at the annual gathering of progressive activists dubbed Netroots Nation, then-presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was interrupted repeatedly by hecklers upset that his platform was so seemingly skimpy on racial justice. The incident left Sanders piqued and confused. He had, after all, been invited there to speak.
But he didn’t have it nearly as bad as former Governor Martin O’Malley. That same year, the Maryland Democrat boofed a question about Black Lives Matter. “White lives matter,” he pleaded, having clearly not been briefed by staff. “All lives matter.” His hecklers came up on the stage and literally took the microphone.
That was Netroots Nation then: less a conference than a public airing of political grievances.
Two years later, at this year’s confab in New Orleans, there were no proxy wars over microphones or walk outs when headliners like Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) spoke. It was, instead, bizarrely civil and very much mission-oriented around a burning, almost existential, desire to win back power.
"All the chips are on the table,” said Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) during his Netroots panel. “We have never had a greater opportunity to enhance progressive values."
Later in the panel a middle-aged woman stood up to ask the governor a question. Only, as is often the case in these confabs, she prefaced it with a bit of biography. “I’m actually from Virginia,” she proclaimed. “And I can tell you, [Inslee] is correct. The number of people in Virginia, when I was out helping the campaign this last year who said, ‘I don’t care who is running for the Democrats, if he has the D, I’m voting,’ the number of people who said that was crazy.”
The notion that a political party is bound together by a hunger for electoral success may seem painfully obvious. Winning elections, after all, is their primary point of existence.
But those even remotely familiar with the Democratic id know that this hasn’t always been the case. The party’s various factions are often in a perpetual state of annoyance with one another, over everything from ideology to strategy. ‘Dems in disarray’ may be an overused trope. But, like many tropes, it has an element of truth to it.
But the Trump era seems to have, at least momentarily, convinced Democrats to put grievances with party leadership over things like communication strategies and policy priorities on the backburner.
The agenda at Netroots was filled instead with strategy sessions geared toward getting out from under Trumpism: hyper-localized organizing of youth voters; elevating black women's groups; using peer-to-peer texting; optimizing earned media, tips on bird-dogging and building small donor fundraising networks; protecting campaigns from getting “rat**ked” and securing them from foreign infiltrators; utilizing digital tools to turn out voters; and so on.
In one of those panels—a discussion about electoral politics on the Internet—Cheryl Contee, the CEO and founder of the new digital agency, Do Big Things, warned that “progressives are ten years behind and we need to get five years ahead technologically in the next two years.” But what was more telling was what came next: a recognition that a coalition of disparate organizations and individuals from private enterprise (not always allies) had committed themselves to closing the gap.
It was, Contee later explained to me, a clear case of a “new guard” no longer waiting for the old one to figure things out, whether it be in promoting social interaction, guarding against misinformation, or developing campaign tools.
“Someone introduced me to the semi-technical term ‘developing communities of cognitive resilience,’” Contee said, “and I think that’s what is up.”
“Cognitive resilience” is a clinical term, used to describe the body’s ability to buffer itself from external trauma. As a political matter, the analogy is clear. The trauma is Trump. The buffer is the voters registered, the lists built, the special election victories won, and the influx of women turning to politics as a reaction to his presidency.
It’s also the sense that there are not shortcuts or easy fixes. During his prime time address at Netroots on Thursday evening, Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist, admonished congressional Democrats for not embracing the push to impeach Trump.
It seemed like a safe play: a sop to a room full of progressive activists who despise the president but aren’t particularly in love with elected Democrats. And yet, the applause was tepid. One man—perhaps the lone heckler all week—screamed back to the stage: “What’s your plan?”
Shortly thereafter, Steyer sat in a small hotel conference room with reporters, an Arnold Palmer in front of him, and acknowledged that his message hadn’t quite clicked. The people in the room, he explained, were “unquestionably in favor of impeachment” but they were skeptical about the prospects of getting it done. Later, he implicitly conceded that they had a point.
“From my standpoint, do we have to get rid of this president? Yes,” he explained. “Is [impeachment] a magic elixir? No. Do we have to win in November? Yes. Is that a magic elixir? Absolutely not. How can we win enough to pass anything? The issue is we have to take these steps to take the next steps to get something actually done.”