ATLANTA — When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) mentioned President Trump during a Saturday morning speech, the more than 1,000 activists at the progressive Netroots Nation conference booed.
But when she mentioned a “so-called Democratic strategist” who wanted her party to move to the center, the boos rang even louder.
“Apparently, the path forward is to go back to locking up nonviolent drug offenders and ripping more holes in our economic safety net,” Warren said sarcastically, in a Saturday morning speech. “We’re not going back to the days when universal health care was something Democrats talked about on the campaign trail but were too chicken to fight for after they got elected.”
Warren’s party, locked out of power in Washington and most of the country, has spent 2017 opposing Trump while also fighting about what it really stands for. Both trends were on display at Netroots, as huddles over how to block Republican bills alternated with protests of Democrats who were seen to be belittling black candidates, LGBT rights or Native Americans.
The evidence from Atlanta suggested that Democrats might march into 2017 and 2018 elections still arguing about how to win — without dividing the party.
The high-profile problems of the Democratic National Committee were part of that discussion, but the larger focus was about what progressives were building outside the party, untainted by the Democratic brand. Just as the tea party complemented the work of the Obama-era GOP, progressives want to build organizations, national and hyperlocal, to turn out voters who might be turned off by Democrats.
“Ninety percent of Americans think that the Republicans put corporations ahead of American citizens, and 80 percent say that the Democratic Party does,” said Tom Steyer, whose political advocacy group NextGen America had already budgeted $8 million for 2018 election turnout operations. “For people under the age of 30, I’ve seen data on how 44 percent of them thought there was no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the issues. I mean, that's insane.”
The 12th annual Netroots Nation conference, which was the first to immediately follow a Democratic loss in a presidential election, revealed the scope of what Barack Obama’s White House once deemed “the professional left.” The Working Families Party, which began in New York and grew across the Northeast and Midwest, announced new state chapters. Activists organized under the Indivisible handbook, a guide created by former congressional staffers with advice on how to pressure their bosses, taught short sessions on how they organized rural campaigns — some which lost, all of which would continue into 2018.
MoveOn.org, fresh off organizing protests to save the Affordable Care Act from repeal, was promoting a “Resistance Summer” in which thousands of activists would talk to their neighbors about progressive politics. Our Revolution, the group founded by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) after his 2016 presidential bid, promoted its own “Summer of Progress” — activists getting congressional Democrats on record behind eight left-wing bills designed to ease voter registration, create universal health insurance, raise the minimum wage to $15, and reform the criminal justice system.
The Democrats who came to Atlanta to meet potential supporters often had more positive things to say about the activists than about their party. Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee now running for governor of Florida, framed his own campaign as a challenge to an establishment that seemed to specialize in losing elections.
“A lot of people are hugely suspect of the organized party, and they question whether or not the will of the people will truly be felt without the influence of party poobahs,” Gillum said. “In the past, those leaders galvanized, they chose, they cleared the field, and our voters weren’t on the same page as them. The fate we suffered was 20 years of Republican leadership in Florida.”
The Democratic National Committee itself had a minor presence at the conference. DNC Vice Chairman Keith Ellison, a congressman from Minnesota who lost a progressive-backed bid for chairman, was on hand to defend the party’s 2016 platform and its “Better Deal” economic policies.
It was not an easy sell. At a Friday panel, Ellison visibly sighed when one activist lectured him on why she had joined the Green Party after Sanders’s defeat, and after a Native American activist said his use of the term “nation of immigrants” had been offensive. Ellison’s advice was not to defend the Democrats but to influence them from the grass roots until the party changed.
“It’s not moral, and it’s not just, but it’s reality,” Ellison said.
The DNC also dispatched Raffi Krikorian, the party’s new chief technological officer, who arrived this year from Uber and Twitter. He told activists that the DNC’s innovations and data would be more available than under the old regime. For some, however, the DNC was an afterthought; asked about the DNC’s data operation, Steyer of NextGen laughed and said the organization had its own, superior analytics for turning out votes.
Candidates from Georgia and elsewhere, who had watched their parties collapse in the final years of the Obama presidency, often sounded a lot like Steyer. In a Politico column that ran shortly before the conference, former Sanders digital fundraising manager Michael Whitney suggested that the DNC faced a donor crisis. Despite bear-hugging the “resistance” movement, the DNC had raised just half as much money as the Republican National Committee in 2017 — $38 million to $75 million — and lagged almost as badly among donors giving less than $200 apiece.
“Republicans have quietly taken a decisive edge over Democrats when it comes to small-dollar fundraising,” wrote Whitney.
At Netroots, there was little worry about Democratic fundraising, apart from the structural advantage that wealthy donors earned from the 2010 Citizens United decision.
The metric on which they focused: donations to individual campaigns. Randy Bryce, an ironworker running against House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), said that more than 28,000 people had donated to his bid since it began in June. Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams, a candidate for governor, emphasized the work she had done through the New Georgia Project, a third-party group, to register voters.
“Because we’ve been under Republican control for so long, we do not have the robust infrastructure that other states have,” said Abrams of the Georgia effort. “The competition existed much more acutely when we [Democrats] had more resources. We’ll come together; there are much more skirmishes than actual battles.”
Not all battles were created equal. There was almost no discussion about the party’s potential candidates in the 2020 presidential election; when Warren made a reference to putting a woman in the Oval Office, the cheers of “Run, Warren, Run” were scattered and brief.
At a panel on what 2017’s special elections had taught Democrats about the upcoming midterms, defeated Georgia candidate Jon Ossoff repeatedly criticized the “hot take” media culture for suggesting that arguments about policy were holding Democrats back.
“Get offline and go knock on doors,” Ossoff said. “Democrats are united, no matter what you hear on cable news or in the hot takes … we don’t have to beat ourselves up over the fact that there’s a range of views and strategies. Let’s get on with it, and take back the House.”