A gritty, Don LaFontaine–esque voice boomed over a crowded conference room at Netroots Nation: “No matter where we come from or what our color, most of us work hard for our families. But today, certain politicians and their greedy lobbyists hurt everyone by handing kickbacks to the rich, defunding our schools, and threatening our seniors with cuts to social security.
“Then they turn around and point a finger for our hard times at poor families, black people, and new immigrants,” the voiceover told activists at a training session aimed at crafting intersectional messaging around race and class. “We need to join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, just like we won better wages, safer workplaces, and civil rights in our past.”
The training session, one of dozens offered here at the three-day annual progressive gathering, where potential Democratic presidential candidates took turns delivering speeches to thousands of organizers and activists, reflected a party that has openly and rapidly embraced the language of the new politics of the left. At Netroots, an early showcase for Democrats considering a run for president in 2020, talk here revolved around intersectionality, socialism, and a blending of antiestablishment and anti–Wall Street sentiment with calls for racial and economic justice.
The messages tested here over the weekend provided a glimpse at just how quickly and aggressively major party figures have embraced progressive themes in the two years alone since the Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. “Bernie’s movement put such a sharp point on the fact that something entirely different was possible, including different language,” as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio put it in an interview. “Just for him to say he was a Democratic socialist — it went from once upon a time being an impossibility to a sort of drive-by thought.”
“It’s a purposeful evolution,” de Blasio said, “but it's been really, really fast.”
On Thursday, there was Tom Steyer, a major Democratic donor who opened the conference by asking attendees, “How many people here think the Democratic establishment in Washington is listening to you?” On Friday, there was Cynthia Nixon, the progressive candidate challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo: “Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what we do, so we might as well give them the real thing." And then there were two of the biggest names in Democratic politics, Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, both putting race and class at the center of their keynote speeches. “I have a problem with that phrase — ‘identity politics,’” said Harris, the California senator. “That phrase is used to dive and used to distract. Its purpose is to minimize and marginalize issues that impact all of us. It’s used to try and shut us up.”
“Because think about when you’ve heard it raised,” Harris said. “When we’re talking about race, when we’re talking about gender, when we’re talking about sexual orientation, when we’re talking about civil rights. And yes, we’re talking about those issues. And we won’t be shut up.”
Warren, whose team distributed “PERSIST” placards to the crowd before her speech on Friday, also called for a Democratic coalition that “cuts across issues and communities.” Pundits, she told progressives, will say the left will “have to choose between being the party of the white working class and the party of Black Lives Matter. They will say it. Nevertheless, we will persist.”
Harris's and Warren’s speeches, both direct attempts to knit together questions about race and class, recalled the protests at this same conference in 2015, when a new generation of young, black activists pushed Bernie Sanders, who did not attend this year’s gathering, to incorporate racial justice into his message on income and wealth inequality.
“We’re on the cusp of a cultural and political moment. That’s evident now more than ever,” Aimee Allison, the president of Democracy in Color and founder of She the People, told BuzzFeed News after Warren and Harris had spoken to the crowd.
Allison emphasized that the Democratic Party’s priorities moving forward should be expanding the electorate and paying attention to the base that’s always supported the party but hasn’t often been recognized. “Our swing voter isn’t red to blue,” she said. “It’s nonvoter to voter.”
“I think that folks like Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are picking [the messaging style] up because they understand that there's potential for this to be a winning narrative,” said Causten Rodriguez-Wollerman, a strategist with Demos, a left-leaning research group that hosted the Netroots training session on intersectionality.
“I think we’ve demonstrated that it’s better than the status-quo language the left has been using,” added Rodriguez-Wollerman. “And I think the reason they’re identifying it as a winning message is because it’s clear that Trump won by stoking racial fears and we have to address those racial fears to win moving forward.”
It’s something activists here even heard from Democrats they might consider more moderate.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, one of the few Democrats to appear last month at a centrist conference hosted by the think tank Third Way, tested his message with progressives here on Saturday to warm reception.
“Trump wants us to be the party of ‘or,’” he said in an interview before his speech, making note of Trump’s recent attacks on black public figures like Rep. Maxine Waters, LeBron James, and Don Lemon. “He wants us to be the party of economics or diversity, and we don’t have to be. We can come together and say we’re the party of ‘and’ and say, ‘You’re not going to have economic opportunity without social justice.’”