While most pundits and political professionals were gearing up for the Republican and Democratic national conventions, thousands of progressive activists and strategists descended on St. Louis this weekend for Netroots Nation, the country’s largest progressive political conference.
Last year’s Netroots drew national attention, and controversy, for a Black Lives Matter protest that interrupted a presidential forum featuring Bernie Sanders. Some progressives balked at such confrontational tactics being used against an ally, but the action helped add urgency to the conversation on race in the Democratic presidential primary.
That conversation continued in earnest this year, just miles from where Michael Brown was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri. But to some attendees, the way that conversation was conducted felt like a distraction.
“There’s a great deal of attention given to identity politics [at Netroots] and much less attention to progressive values, how to win elections, how to excite the grassroots and our ideology,” Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) told Eliot Nelson at the Huffington Post. Nelson himself wrote that Netroots used to distinguish itself by not only “providing activists a venue to talk about intersectionality and call each other ‘rock stars,’ but also serving to marshall the left behind leading figures in the Democratic party and progressive movements.”
Those sorts of comments didn’t go over too well in my conversations with other Netroots attendees. The organizers and activists I talked to said that separating “identity politics” from useful organizing is both offensive and wrongheaded. It treats people who aren’t straight white men as an afterthought, they said — and it also ignores how organizing for social and political change really works.
Netroots Nation was in many ways a microcosm for the current state of the progressive movement
It’s true that Netroots had a strong focus on identity issues this year, and the crowd also seemed more diverse than ever. The winner of this year’s “Pundit’s Cup” was Monica Roberts, a transgender woman of color who will get media training and assistance with booking media appearances as her prize. Attendees marched with local Hands Up United organizers and blocked a freeway to demand police accountability and fight for black lives.
I’ve been to the convention several times, and there are always some panels on racial justice issues, women’s rights, LGBTQ equality, and so on. But last year, and even more so this year, there seemed to be a lot more of them. Along with sessions on digital and electoral strategy, there was an abundance of panels with titles like “Wise Latinxs: How to Build Power for 2016 and Beyond,” “#BlackWomenLead: The Role and Importance of Black Women Organizers,” and “#TransTRUTH from Trans Youth: Challenging media narratives of what it means to be young and trans.”
There’s a decades-old battle in the progressive movement between “identity politics” and “economic populism” — between focusing on the specific struggles of marginalized groups like women, people of color, and LGBTQ people and focusing on how things like Social Security or the minimum wage can benefit everyone.
There’s really nothing that says these ideas have to conflict with one another. Marginalized people are disproportionately affected by a low minimum wage, for instance, and there ought to be enough hours in the day to demand criminal justice reform along with a universal basic income.
But the two “sides” often have differences over emphasis, philosophy, or tactics. That can harden into culture wars — sometimes to an alarming degree, as an essay published at Medium about intolerance in the progressive movement explained. The history of progressivism is also one of whitewashing and misogyny, and it’s still a problem today. Economic populism is typically used as shorthand for the “real” progressive agenda. And the specific concerns of marginalized groups can often be, well, marginalized.
Alan Grayson should be “hanging his head in shame right now” for literally pitting identity politics against “progressive values,” said Sabrina Joy Stevens, a writer and progressive strategist.
“There’s no separating identity from anything else we do,” she said. “If you're putting down identity politics as a side issue, you're once again elevating white male identity politics. There's nothing neutral in making that choice.”
Just look at the Republican National Convention, Stevens added, for an example of what that can look like in practice and how powerful white identity politics and racial resentment can be as a unifying force.
Activists admitted that this year’s Netroots did indeed feel smaller and less star-studded. But that didn’t mean it lacked influencers, or failed to elevate rising stars in the movement.
“Grayson wants to focus on ‘winning elections,’ and we had a speaker who wrote a New York Times best-seller about how to win elections,” said writer and progressive strategist Richard Allen Smith. “It's a gathering of organizers, and we had a man who organized and led a month-long hunger strike against the policies of Rahm Emanuel that received national attention in every major media outlet. I could go on. ... This year’s difference was that we didn't have the names that white ‘progressives,’ who only pay attention to white voices, recognize.”
Why identity matters in political organizing
Sometimes cultural tensions over identity in the progressive movement emerge as a war over tactics: what’s effective, what’s not effective; what will win elections, what won’t. Last year’s Black Lives Matter protest set off a fierce debate over whether the action would scare away prominent speakers in the future — or whether the people making those arguments were being unhelpful concern trolls.
The fear that “identity” progressives aren’t being strategic seemed to fuel some of the complaints Nelson wrote about in the Huffington Post. Attendees said there weren’t enough political power players giving keynote speeches this year, and that the conference’s formidable gathering of influential progressives didn’t do enough to rally behind specific candidates or causes ahead of the Democratic convention.
But that’s an incredibly narrow view of political effectiveness, the activists I talked to said.
“I have gone to Netroots every year since it began, and I don't fly across the country every year just to hear speeches from elected officials,” said Elana Levin, director of online organizing for Make the Road Action. “Political speeches don't impact my work as an organizer — what impacts my work are the trainings and the community we build at the conference.”
Levin said she was a lot more excited about Saturday’s keynote about the digital culture shift, featuring “innovative leaders” like Cayden Mak of 18MillionRising.org, Malkia Cyril from the Center for Media Justice, and Linda Sarsour of MPower, than she would have been to “hear another pundit tell me things I already know.”
I attended a working group session on how to deal with sexual harassment in the progressive movement, which was inspired by the dissolution of FitzGibbon Media after multiple sexual harassment allegations surfaced against its founder, Trevor FitzGibbon. The discussion led to some really interesting, specific ideas for action that the organizers will continue to follow up on after Netroots.
Some former FitzGibbon staffers also spoke on a panel about their experiences — all wearing buttons with a “scarlet F” reading “Ask me about rape culture.” They said that powerful men like Trevor FitzGibbon only get away with these things for so long because they have other redeeming qualities. They said we have to create a culture where believing victims is a social good, and where people are willing to make the hard choices to let go of people they’ve personally invested in for the sake of others’ safety. Until that change is realized, though, “gossip” and other forms of soft power can actually be women’s most powerful weapon against predators. Organizing to gain power can take many forms.
Feeling like you’re a part of something bigger is an important part of political engagement. But that also requires feeling included, and feeling like you’re in a safe space to express yourself freely. That’s a lot easier for people in culturally dominant groups than it is for others.
“This was the first year [at Netroots] we had an official space exclusively for queer LGBT people of color to relax, chill out, and meet each other. And in light of the recent high-profile shootings in Orlando, this couldn't have come at a better time,” said Reuben Hayslett, national online campaigner at the Working Families Party. Hayslett said that as a queer person of color, he feels that some mainstream movements, even if well-meaning, too often “erase my existence, not allow me to be fully myself, or force me to choose between my identities.”
It’s true that with so many identities and interests, the left is often criticized for splintering into silos and failing to unify around common causes. There’s something to these critiques, said one Democratic activist who has attended every Netroots Nation convention: “When movements grow large enough, there's a natural tendency to turn inward and start assessing themselves. The risk is if you spend so much time focusing on self-identity, you inhibit growth.”
At the same time, said Jake Schlachter, executive director of We Own It, it’s “preposterous” to think that “we could just talk about getting votes without having to worry about the needs of the people who cast those votes.”
"Sometimes even when we have a Democratic majority we fail at making the policy gains that include all of those within the party,” said Urvi Nagrani, director of marketing and business development at Motiv Power Systems.
And some of America’s most well-known and lauded social movements only came about due to the specific organizing of marginalized communities — especially the movements for women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights. These were grassroots efforts, often local and decentralized, that eventually gained strength and solidarity based on common identities and common goals. Even the labor movement, which is often associated with white men, wouldn’t be where it is today without the organizing efforts of women and people of color.
Having a somewhat smaller and less high-profile conference wasn’t a bad thing, Netroots activists said; in fact, they say, it was probably necessary. There were more inclusive conversations, more space for new and diverse voices, and better movement building for the future. It also gave the movement some time and space to heal after an incredibly contentious primary.
“Fewer candidates and bigwigs around really did help us to hear and focus on the issues at hand in our movement,” said digital trainer and strategist Beth Becker.
“This Netroots was like a gritty reboot of a successful movie franchise,” said Brad Bauman, former executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It had a smaller budget, less frills, but in the end, it was much truer to the original mission than some of its more blockbuster sequels.”
The “original mission” in question was a disruption of the status quo: building progressive power through the blogosphere during the Bush era. That disruption looks a little different now. And there are some growing pains — not just for this conference, but for the progressive movement as a whole — in figuring out how to handle it.