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Progressive Activists Gather, Hoping To Seize Their Moment In 2020 Campaign

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the only leading Democratic presidential candidate addressing the Netroots Nation conference on Saturday. The progressive activists there are excited by how many candidates are representing their views in the 2020 campaign.
David J. Phillip
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the only leading Democratic presidential candidate addressing the Netroots Nation conference on Saturday. The progressive activists there are excited by how many candidates are representing their views in the 2020 campaign.

Progressive activists feel like this is their moment.

Their values are no longer seen as fringe ideas in the Democratic Party. Multiple presidential candidates are talking about "Medicare-for-all," reparations for slavery and bold action on climate change. And their ideas are driving the action on debate stages.

Now, as they gather in Philadelphia for the largest progressive convention of the year, Netroots Nation, they feel empowered as if this is their time to take over the party, push traditional Democrats aside and hold candidates accountable.

"We are not going to allow establishment Democrats who are thinking that we're still in 1980 ... to do anything but strongly go forward with a bold plan," said Aimee Allison, the president and founder of She the People, a network focused on elevating the political power of women of color.

Allison, like other activists at Netroots this weekend, sees the conference as a chance to energize progressive forces and prepare for battle within their own party.

"We are sick and tired of waiting for change," said Yvette Simpson, the CEO of Democracy for America, a progressive PAC founded in 2004. "Change has to happen now."

Democracy for America has not yet endorsed a presidential candidate but intends to do so before the primaries begin. There's excitement, activists say, around the sheer number of progressive candidates, compared with moderates.

But these activists don't agree on who they want to win. They're in agreement that former Vice President Joe Biden is too moderate. Many point to the momentum that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is gaining in both polling and fundraising. They say they're energized by her grassroots campaign and her emphasis on policy plans.

Other activists point to California Sen. Kamala Harris, with her strong debate performance and the very identity she represents as a black woman, as an exciting opportunity for change.

And others are still loyal to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. They say he has been an ideological trailblazer who has fundamentally shifted the Democratic Party's agenda since his 2016 run.

"There was a time when you didn't have many options," said Simpson. "This is a great time for the progressive movement." Activists say they feel that they'll have a chance to vote out of optimism, rather than fear or electability, this cycle.

But among the five candidates polling the highest at this moment, Warren is the only one attending the presidential forum at Netroots this Saturday, raising questions about the power of progressives at the very moment they think they have the ability to control the party's direction.

Some activists question why any candidate would bypass the forum, since it's a chance to tap into the most vocal and energized subset of the progressive movement. They say this gives Warren an unfettered chance to further consolidate her support in front of what's expected to be a friendly crowd for her message. The Massachusetts senator has been a frequent speaker at previous Netroots conventions.

Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the progressive website Daily Kos, has been openly critical of Sanders and said this is a strange opportunity for the candidate to skip, given the pressure he's facing as Harris and Warren have risen in the field.

Sanders made ideas like "Medicare-for-all" mainstream in the party, but this cycle, many other candidates are calling for similar changes. Moulitsas said that's a key challenge for Sanders in a progressive movement that is eager to see women and people of color in leadership.

"Bernie — he's polarizing. ... He is unable to speak in a way that draws in the more diverse elements of the Democratic Party ... and so given that there are other options, I think it's tough for him," said Moulitsas.

And that priority is becoming more apparent on the left. Progressives have long called for ideas such as accessible health care and affordable college, which remain top goals for them. But increasingly, racial and social justice is also a part of the equation.

"It's not just enough to talk about economics without looking at the economics for a woman of color," said Natalia Salgado, a political strategist with the Center for Popular Democracy Action.

That's an evolution within the movement in the past few years as a number of minorities have taken leadership positions in progressive organizations.

And it has also led to a shift in what progressives are looking for in a candidate this cycle.

"The progressive movement is looking for candidates who are embracing racial, economic and gender justice," said Allison. "And any candidate who seems hesitant or unable to ... looks like they're on a downward trajectory," said Allison.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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