WASHINGTON ― Since their disastrous losses on Nov. 8 handed Republicans full control of Washington and historic majorities at the state level, Democrats across the country have gone through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
While those still hoping for a recount or the Electoral College as their only hopes are stuck in the bargaining stage, the mood at the State Innovation Exchange conference was one of acceptance and a resolute desire to fight back.
The conference, held Monday and Tuesday in Washington, D.C., was the first mass gathering of Democratic lawmakers since the election of Donald Trump and countless other Republicans. Nick Rathod, executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, or SiX, started the conference with a statement meant to move the 400-plus state legislators in attendance beyond anger and blame and toward action to thwart the Republican agenda.
“I’ve been hearing lots of theories,” Rathod said. “It was racism. Progressives ignored the white working class. People are dumb. It’s the millennials’ fault. Secretary Clinton was a flawed candidate. It was the FBI. It was the Russians. It was because of the electoral college. It was everyone’s fault but our own.”
The epic failure of the Democratic Party in 2016 was a long time coming, according to Rathod. State legislators in the room know this best, he said, because before Trump won the White House, Republicans swept statehouses, governorships and other statewide offices across the country. “All of you have seen the writing on the wall. It’s been in the making for nearly a generation, and progressives have basically been asleep at the wheel.”
On the other hand, Media Matters founder David Brock, who spoke next, had not gotten to acceptance yet. While promising resources to help SiX and state legislative elections and calling for an independent audit of Democrats’ failure, Brock declared that he was still stuck in the anger stage of grief. He then proceeded to run through the laundry list of blame: It was the Russians, FBI Director James Comey, the media, fake news, millennials and racists. This would be the last recitation of blame for the rest of the conference.
Instead, the speakers and the state legislators in attendance showed their resolute desire to retain the gains of the Barack Obama years, to fight back against the Trump administration, go on offense in states they control and win back the states that they don’t.
Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared her support for a focus on state legislative elections ahead of the next round of redistricting as a priority. She also previewed how congressional Democrats will fight back in Washington. She compared the situation to when President George W. Bush won reelection and Republicans gained seats in the House and Senate. As congressional Democrats used Bush’s Social Security privatization as their unifying opposition issue then, they will use the proposal to privatize and voucherize Medicare to organize opposition to Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that he would be the chairman of a new organization called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. This would be a central hub to support state legislative campaigns to win back statehouses to regain the power to draw district maps, manage legal strategies in states controlled by Republicans and to oppose gerrymandering. He hinted that this effort may be joined by Obama when he leaves the White House.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), meanwhile, drew clear lines on the values that Democrats should and do stand for. Those values run from the belief that “no one in America should work full time and live in poverty” to the conviction that “this is the time for progressives to say loudly and clearly there is no place for bigotry in the United States of America.”
In general, the often convoluted debate about whether Democrats should speak to economic concerns as opposed to so-called identity politics was not taken on at the conference. Instead, panelists and speakers noted that there was no way to separate the issues of racism, sexism and other bigotries from the economic realm.
“For me, economic justice is racial justice,” said Rashida Tlaib, a former Michigan state representative. She noted that when sports teams ask cities and states for tax breaks to build their stadiums, that comes out of money that could be directed to classrooms or to help improve black and brown communities.
Dorian Warren, fellow at the liberal Roosevelt Institute, noted that racism stacks the deck against the economic opportunities for minority communities. Further, every progressive economic program helps minority communities. He urged the state legislators attending the conference to make sure that they fight back against any effort by state-level Republicans or congressional Republicans to impose new work requirements for social and health benefits.
“Please resist the work requirements,” Warren said. “Resist that at all cost.”
Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP, simply said, “If someone asks you, ‘Is it race or class?’ you just say, ‘It is.’”
But, for the most part, the discussion and energy of the conference was focused on ensuring that Democrats at the state level were not going to be abandoned by the national party. SiX was founded specifically to be a part of a new infrastructure to support Democrats at the state level.
Rathod explained to The Huffington Post that Republicans have built up a large infrastructure to not only elect party members up and down state ballots but also to provide them with a legislative agenda and intellectual support. There is the Republican State Leadership Committee, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Franklin Center, State Policy Network and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. If Democrats want to have any chance of countering Trump and rebuilding the party, they will need to do it from the bottom up, he argues.
“The problem that progressives have had is that we have spent way too much time focused on Washington,” Rathod said. “So, that’s trying to get big massive bills passed in D.C. and then trying to educate everyone on the back end on why that’s a noble or good thing. What we haven’t done as well with is organizing locally, building our presence locally, developing and creating policies that speak to communities where they’re at and then talking about those policies in a way that makes sense to those communities.”
For Rathod and the state legislators in attendance, this is the necessary final step to move beyond grief.