The parade of 2020 hopefuls through the freezing New Orleans convention center was like a preview of a movie you’ll be seeing in theaters whether you want to or not. Elizabeth Warren was there to shake her fist about consumer financial protections. Kamala Harris was there to say “what’s up” to black women candidates. Cory Booker was there to give a 33-minute speech that felt like a monologue from a college Shakespeare production.
But these Democratic senators weren’t the crowd favorites at last weekend’s Netroots Nation, the annual conference of progressive organizers and activists that’s long on idealism and short on deodorant. Warren’s Senate campaign distributed “PERSIST” signs that mostly sat on empty seats or fell to the floor. Attendees gossiped about whether racial-justice protesters would interrupt Harris’s speech because of her former work as a prosecutor; in the end, they didn’t bother. Julian Castro, once considered a promising Democratic up-and-comer, had the unlucky distinction of speaking after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which means he delivered his speech to a crowd of turned backs filing out of the room.
It was newcomers like Ocasio-Cortez whom many attendees came to see. Without the pressures of a looming presidential bid, these speakers—many of them raw first-time candidates or recently elected newcomers—delivered scathing critiques of the politics of moderation and urged their fellow progressives to burn the old playbook and write a brand new one.
Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the 35-year-old mayor of Jackson, Miss., argued that the solutions to economic problems lie in radical new ideas, not moderate compromise. Democratic congressional candidate Gina Ortiz Jones got big applause for vowing to be the first woman to represent her district in Congress, the first openly gay member and Iraq War veteran from Texas and the first Filipina-American to serve in the House. And the undisputed star of the convention was Ocasio-Cortez, who came with a message that pushed the party towards the future by appealing to the past: for Democrats, she said, “it’s time to come home.”
“It’s time to remember that universal college education, trade school, a federal jobs guarantee, exploration of a universal basic income were not proposed in 2016, they were proposed in 1940 by a Democratic President of the United States,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “These are not new ideas. We are picking up where we last left off, when we were last most powerful.”
“Democrats’ job is not to convince someone who voted for Trump to vote for us,” said Aimee Allison, president of She the People, which focuses on mobilizing women of color. “We actually don’t need those people. Our swing voters are from nonvoter to voter.” The Netroots programming underscored this shift. Most of the panels were about mobilizing black and brown non-voters to get to the polls, not persuading habitual voters to move to the left.