NEW ORLEANS—The first Netroots Nation conference in a Donald Trump–era election year opened with not one, not two, but five keynote speakers of color, all of whom underlined the potential of a “multiracial coalition” of voters made up of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and progressive whites. Their prescription for taking back the House in the November midterms was not winning back Trump voters, but expanding the electorate. “Our swing voter is not red to blue,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Bronx Democrat who upset Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in a June primary, told an audience of progressive activists on Saturday. “It’s nonvoter to voter.”
The line was met with huge applause from the audience at Netroots Nation, the annual gathering for progressive candidates, activists, and organizers. Whereas last year’s conference attendees saw a gubernatorial candidate’s speech interrupted with shouts of “Trust black women,” this year’s felt like a very intentional tribute to people of color, especially women. The conference offered more than 20 training sessions and panels specifically addressing how to reach those voters, as well as the millions of eligible Americans who aren’t registered to vote. The majority of panelists and presenters, according to Netroots organizers, were people of color.
Democrats have been grappling with key questions about coalition building since the 2016 election: Should they prioritize winning back the voters they lost to Trump? Should they attempt to woo the white voters gradually fleeing the party? Progressives this weekend said, emphatically, no. It’s a genuine attempt to remake the Democratic Party at a time when racial and class tensions are the highest they’ve been since the 1960s—and it’s also put them on a collision course with party leaders and other Democrats.
“I think Trump’s win scared the shit out of everybody,” said Anoa Changa, a progressive activist and the host of the podcast The Way With Anoa. “I think it’s been a wake-up call for a lot of people that we have to invest. We can’t just do the traditional model where we only talk to super voters.”
That doesn’t mean ignoring whites and Trump voters, she says. Instead, “it’s rejecting the notion that our way to victory is having a centrist, moderate right-leaning strategy that feels like we could peel off Romney Republicans, versus investing in communities of color, marginalized groups, and progressive white people,” Changa said. “There is this notion that … we can’t address the issues of race, systemic oppression, because we don’t want to piss these voters off. We have to find a way to do both.”
A key voting group that progressives want to mobilize consists of the more than 4 million voters who supported President Barack Obama in 2012 but didn’t vote in 2016. More than 50 percent of them were people of color, and almost one-quarter were under the age of 30, according to data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. “If 2016 had happened with the same voter-turnout patterns as 2012 then [Hillary] Clinton would have won,” said Brian Schaffner, a political-science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who helped conduct the survey. “Clearly turnout can influence outcomes.”
But it’s bigger than the Obama voters. Roughly 59 percent of black Americans and 48 percent of Hispanic Americans voted in 2016, compared to 65 percent of whites. If progressives could just close this gap, they argue, Democrats would win more often. They aim to do that by mobilizing already registered voters—and by registering new ones: Roughly 30 percent of the citizen voting-age population is unregistered, and those Americans are more likely to be young people and people of color. These are the people activists call the “New American Majority.”
The Democratic Party so far has leaned into economic messaging as a way to win in 2018: After the 2016 election, they unveiled “A Better Deal” aimed at appealing to moderates and weary Trump supporters. They’ve been backing Conor Lamb–type candidates who, through their backgrounds and a focus on jobs and wages, are able to come off as more independent. In 2016, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York told The New York Times last week, “there was a blind spot that we had as Democrats with respect to engaging with the American people around the economic anxiety that they continue to experience.”
But progressives are adamant that the only way to win in November and beyond is to be about more than economics, and that the right message—the one that will appeal to progressive whites, as well as turning out more people of color to the polls—invokes both race and class equally. Two Netroots trainings on developing a “Race-Class Narrative” were completely filled this weekend, with activists and organizers participating in mock-canvassing sessions in which they practiced delivering lines that contained both racial and economic messages. “The status quo has been not to talk about race, and there’s a myth out there is that if you talk about race you’ll lose,” said Causten Rodriguez-Wollerman, one of the leaders of the training and a strategist with the public-policy organization Demos. “You cannot build a multiracial coalition by being silent on race.”
Some Democrats have poked holes in this “emerging majority” strategy on logistical grounds. “I don’t think there’s a secret progressive nonvoter bloc that, if we just say the magic words, is gonna show up and, voila, fix the Democrats’ problems at the polls,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, the vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way, a think tank advocating for center-left ideas. Nonvoters, she said, are going to be hard to engage. “Is it easier to activate a whole bunch of people that haven’t voted in 20 years or persuade the people who are already showing up?”
To counter that, though, progressives offer up Alabama as a test case: In December, Doug Jones became the first Democrat elected to the Senate from the state in 25 years with the help of 96 percent of black voters. They also point to the Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, an African American woman who structured her campaign around minority empowerment and outreach in order to beat her more moderate primary opponent. To defeat the Republican Brian Kemp, Abrams is attempting to do what Obama did in 2008: build a coalition of progressive whites, but also turn out minorities to the polls at far greater numbers than usual. If Abrams can pull that off, writes Time’s Molly Ball, “the implications would be profound, not just for Georgia but for the whole region and potentially the nation.”
On Saturday, the final night of this year’s Netroots conference, a small group of young protesters from the “Black-Ass Caucus” took to the stage. “We will no longer be tokenized by so-called white allies,” one man shouted to the audience. Another protester, a young woman, criticized progressives who speak about economics and class without mentioning race. “Everything—including class issues—are built on race issues!” she yelled into the microphone.
“I’m a woman of color and people do not pay attention to us, even in the littlest things, but we are always the ones saving the Democratic Party,” the 27-year-old Ianthe Metzger, a staffer for the Human Rights Campaign and a Netroots attendee, told me earlier in the weekend. “Finally it feels like we have a say … It’s like finally, this is our moment.”