The conference, which took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, ended up attracting 1,900 people. The Clinton campaign did not show up; the hallways were clogged anyway, with shell-shocked new organizers talking to people with dark lessons from the Bush years.
More than one attendee described the weekend as a wake, a celebration with friends after the coming of the worst thing imaginable. The idea that the United States’ growing diversity could win the future had been challenged; a Clinton campaign that had seemingly mastered data had been washed over by an ad hoc Trump operation, using the cheap NationBuilder app and activating voters whom Democrats had lost.
“The election was an opportunity to explain what data actually is for,” said Aliya Rahman, formerly the director of Code for Progress, now with Wellstone. “Most of the time, when you said ‘data,’ people only thought of the voter file. If it were up to me, we’d focus on grass-roots data.”
RootsCamp, a self-described “un-conference,” had no pretense that it would plan the Democratic Party’s future. No members of Congress swung by for speeches. Panels were pitched then slapped onto “the board” — pre-Trump name, “the wall” — where attendees could decide whether to stop by “Trumps Among Us: Building a Movement to Address Sexual Harassment and Assault in Progressive Spaces” or “2016 Election: [F---] up or Fascism?” Plenty of panelists started with a confession: They deeply wanted to be talking about something else.
“We had big plans that seem cute right now,” said Linnae Riesen of SEIU, opening up one discussion on how the labor movement could resist in a Trump era.
The conference itself was an example of what could be built from rubble. Wellstone Action was launched after the 2002 death of Sen. Paul D. Wellstone, who was likely to win reelection before he and his wife were killed in a plane crash. RootsCamp, originally a project of the New Organizing Institute, hung in limbo after that organization imploded.
But this weekend, everything was mending together, even if nothing was quickly solved. There were no triumphant Clinton campaign or DNC members walking off the field; the heroes, with stories to share and copy, were the people who had passed minimum wage referendums or defeated local politicians such as Joe Arpaio, Arizona’s Maricopa County sheriff.
In discussion after discussion, there was a tension between shell shock and a sense that a winnable national campaign had been lost. At one strategy session, a Colorado activist named Kim McKinney Cohen rose to declare that she had voted for Trump, an act of protest and reform after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lost the Democratic primary.
“I wanted to shake people up,” she said. “Last time, Democrats got the White House, the Senate, and the House, and did nothing.”
Voters like her made the loss seem like a fait accompli; more worrying were the cases where Democrats lost voters who had agreed with them on policy, not out of rage but because they did not hear.
“Trump won the economic message,” said Daniel Ulloa, who had worked on a minimum-wage campaign in Ohio. “I didn’t find people believing Hillary when she responded to him. They thought she was crooked, and they thought he was an agent of change.”
That sentiment, running like a flood tide through the traditionally Democratic Midwest, upset years of progressive organizing. Some of the organizers had been there before. In 2004, John F. Kerry's presidential bid fell short, and the primary campaign of Howard Dean had fallen even shorter.
Groups that had been born from each campaign flitted around RootsCamp; the Dean-founded Democracy for America was part of a raw session on what progressives could learn from one another. ActBlue, the fundraising clearinghouse founded in 2004, reported on its best year ever, with as much money raised for progressive Democrats as had been raised in the previous 10 years.
In those years, Democrats had been stronger at the state and local level. Across RootsCamp, activists puzzled over what had been lost in the lean years. The session run by DFA, and MoveOn.org, compiled five long sheets of ideas for where to go in 2017, ideas like “support teams in swing districts to divide and conquer early” and “talking to people that don’t share our concerns.”
The discussion swirling outside of the conference — that “identity politics” had contributed to the loss of white voters — was ruled out. In one gathering of rural organizers, the stories poured forth about how voters who started out contemptuous of liberals were won over, one by one. In another, there was disbelief about the pundits who offered to be “allies” to Muslims by agreeing to sign up if a registry tracking adherents of that faith was created by the Trump administration.
“Let’s not normalize the idea that there will be a Muslim registry at all,” said MoveOn's Vicki Kaplan. “Even if Trump would reopen it, the goal should be to oppose it completely.”
Most of the official panels and caucus sessions offered training, and hard lessons that could be applied as soon as the attendees headed back home. But a few offered advice from around the world, and from countries that had confronted shockingly successful right-wing movements before. On Sunday, a few dozen people gathered for a session titled “Global Fascism: What's Up With That?” In it, three academics shared stories of anti-immigrant politics from Australia and Europe. In each case, the world had tried to warn U.S. Democrats — working class voters, focused on jobs above all else, could be pulled away from left or labor parties by appeals to stop immigration.
“Fringe elements from the right are starting control the narrative in the center,” said Aliya Bhatia, during an audience question-and-answer session. “They’re sharing their racism. They’re sharing their dog whistle politics. We should be sharing good things.”
As the discussion went on, and there was further study of the breakthroughs the far right had made, there was an awkward sensation — nostalgia for the old Republican Party.
“We spent all these years bashing the Republican elite,” said one audience member. “But were they actually putting a lid on what we saw this year?”
There were murmurs, but no answers.