The worldwide coronavirus pandemic has meant a lot of changes for the 2020 edition of Netroots Nation. The summer conference — America’s largest annual gathering of progressives — is taking place entirely online rather in Denver as originally planned, with talks streamed via YouTube, networking via app, and the Pub Quiz done with people imbibing from their own glasses at home on Zoom.
But Daily Kos Elections’ “Sea Org” team still won the Chairman Emeritus’ Pub Quiz for the umpteenth time to its usual chorus of boos, and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren appeared for the ninth time, on this occasion with Heather McGhee.
In addition to directly political concerns, like making sure the next administration’s Education Department is headed by someone actually committed to educating students, Warren spoke during the Friday keynote about the deeply personal experience of losing her oldest brother, Donald Reed Herring, to COVID-19.
“None of us could be there with him,” Warren said, describing how it wasn’t safe for any of his family to visit him after he was taken to the hospital before dying in April. “I don’t know what it was like at the end.”
“And I didn’t get to tell him that I loved him.”
Warren connected that experience to the more than 160,000 Americans whose families have felt the same pain, most of them unnecessarily.
“It didn’t have to be like this. It did not have to be this bad,” Warren said.
Warren said Donald Trump has to be held accountable for his regime’s incompetence and his indifference to the deaths of tens of thousands of people in this country. “The way I get through this is to say, I’d best honor my brother by getting up every day and saying, ‘There’s going to be some accountability in this country.’ And in a democracy, accountability is what happens on election day.”
But in the panel portion preceding Warren’s keynote speech-interview, three House members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus talked about the challenges already apparent for progressive voters given Trump’s admission that a sticking point in the recent pandemic relief negotiations was the Democrats’ desire to fund the U.S. Postal Service to be capable of handling the increase in mail-in ballots associated with November’s vote. By being willing to not fund the mail service properly, Republicans have made it less likely Trump will leave office.
“This is an attack on our democracy,” Representative Katie Porter (D‑California) said. “And sadly it won’t be the last one before we are done with him.”
“If you feel like our democracy is under attack, I would tell you, yes, honor that feeling, and ask yourself, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ ”
Porter suggested focusing on what’s going on at the county level to protect election integrity, such as signing up to be a poll worker, because a solution at the national level is unlikely to come.
“We’re going to do what we’ve long had to do, which is organize person by person, community by community,” Porter said.
Representative Barbara Lee (D‑California) connected the recent documented cases of removing mailboxes from urban areas to other activities aimed at disproportionately impacting Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).
“It absolutely is racist voter suppression,” Lee said. “It’s also another form of a poll tax. It also is another form of trying to make sure that people, especially people of color, are so frustrated that they just won’t go vote.”
Lee described her experience in 2018’s Georgia gubernatorial race where Black voters were made to stand in line for hours after taking a day off from work only to find when they got there their name wasn’t on the rolls anymore.
“In addition to voter suppression, we know that there’s foreign interference,” Lee said, which are also targeting Black and brown communities to turn communities against each other. Lee preached skepticism when reading things online, particularly when a message was especially divisive, and start from the assumption that someone saying it was a bot.
Our own Representative Pramila Jayapal (D‑Washington) followed up by claiming that similar activity was happening in the physical world.
“We already know that there were poseurs brought in to the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis and that some of those people were paid to come in by conservative groups,” Jayapal said, mirroring the more familiar right wing talking point about paid left-wing agitators being responsible for movement, though in both cases, it wasn’t clear where the claim was coming from.
All three representatives, along with interviewer Zerlina Maxwell, author of “The End of White Politics”, expressed optimism for presumptive Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden’s selection of California’s junior United States Senator Kamala Harris, with Maxwell taking a point to disagree with those who regarded the selection of a Black woman of South Asian heritage as being a “safe” choice rather than something radical and inspiring hope.
“In what world is picking a Black woman for your presidential ticket in a county where we’ve never had any women win the vice presidency — or the presidency?” Maxwell said. “That’s not the safe choice; that’s the bold choice.”
Lee mentioned that Harris was actually born in Lee’s district in Oakland, so she knew the senator well and helped stump for Harris in 2020 Harris’s presidential primary run, but for Lee, the moment of successfully Harris joining the ticket connected all the way back to United States Representative Shirley Chisholm’s run for president in 1972… a campaign which convinced Lee to get involved in Chisolm’s campaign and ultimately into electoral politics itself.
“I thought then, that was the beginning of the end of white politics,” Lee said.
Porter focused on Harris’s capacity for growth on progressive issues and looking forward to working with her as a partner in the executive branch based on Porter’s work with Harris while Harris was California’s attorney general.
“We all have a role, every one of us, in shaping the Biden-Harris administration,” Porter said.
Jayapal was elected as the House’s first Indian American woman the same year Harris was elected as the second Black woman and first Indian American to the Senate. Jayapal detailed how she worked on the platform developed by Biden and his major primary rival Vermont’s United States Senator Bernie Sanders.
“We got significant foundational pieces of Medicare For All into this platform including that… any public option would not be administered by private insurance companies but would be administered by Medicare,” Jayapal said, also citing policies like automatic enrollment into the system if a person lost their job.
For Jayapal, the argument was not that most of the Netroots Nation audience had likely considered Biden their first choice, or that Harris’s track record as progressive was especially persuasive, but that they were people who could be worked with and brought along, as with the Democratic platform.
Like Warren, the message was one of being left with a binary choice, and both tried to tamp down expectations by reminding the audience that being a progressive by definition means being out ahead of most other people on some issues.
The speakers all mentioned that they’re supporting Biden, but the focus of all the conversation was removing the current blockage in the White House so that all of the other necessary work of changing systems to benefit the majority of people could actually begin, inside and outside of politics.
In Warren’s words: “big, structural, change.”
“It is not enough to win the White House,” Warren said. “We also have to hold the House, we have to take back the Senate, we need to win in states all around this country. We need to put people at the local level who are progressives. We need to put people in positions where they can enact big, structural change.”
Netroots Nation 2020 concludes tomorrow.