When Janell Ross wrote a column at the Washington Post regarding “that Netroots Nation disaster” I thought it was going to be about the damage that was being done to progressives in general this season. She was discussing the awkward moment when an obviously angry crowd booed Martin O’Malley and (to a lesser extent) Bernie Sanders off the stage after the former dared say the phrase “white lives matter, all lives matter.”
As it turns out, I was completely wrong. Ross was referring not to the PR disaster as it resonated outside of those hallowed halls, but to the failure of Democrat candidates to understand just how unforgivable O’Malley’s “gaffe” was at the event.
This year, the activists who seized control of the presidential candidate forum didn’t think the talk about expanding economic opportunity and creating citizen panels to review police complaints was enough. Or even close. There may be corners of the Democratic and Republican electorate who insist that the worst of black America’s current problems stem from the prevalence of inter-group violence, joblessness and the shape of many black families. But, for these protesters and people who support them, the reality that by June nearly 400 unarmed people had been killed by police this year, and that a staggering and disproportionate share of them were black, is not a concern. It is the concern.
Ross goes further, however, and issues a dire warning carried forward by a former Black Panther member. (Emphasis added)
Perhaps the most pointed came from former Black Panther Eddie Conway. Conway spent 44 years in a Maryland prison after a jury convicted him in the murder of a police officer. Conway has long claimed that he is innocent. Others have referred to him as a political prisoner. And in March 2014, Maryland prosecutors struck a deal with Conway. Conway was released. His conviction stands.
When an inevitable question about the Black Lives Matter movement came from the audience at that film screening, Conway offered this: “At some point, these young people, the Black Lives Matter movement, will have to something more than lay down in the street. Spectacle, believe me, is only a start.”
Let that sink in for a second. And then allow me to take a moment and try to help out some of the folks from the Democrat Party who read things like Ross’s article and feel a flush of panic. The first thing to know is that you’re panicking over the wrong thing. There is a problem to be dealt with for sure, but if you are serious about not only winning elections, but holding the nation together, you need to see the meta-problem on display before your eyes.
In order to really grasp this, we need to leave behind the crowd inside the Netroots Nation convention hall and talk about the other crowd outside. (We’ll return to them in a moment.) Believe me when I tell you… I go to these things all the time. And whether you are at a liberal gathering like #NN15 or a conservative shindig like CPAC, my advice is the same. That’s not the real world you are observing and reacting to. These are the most activated, excitable, ideologically pure and issue oriented people in the nation. Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of “a moment” like that and see it as a banner to carry forward, but there’s danger along that path.
Rather than pointing blame at the progressives at the event in question, picture yourself being at CPAC discussing one of the issues conservatives tend to talk about. Let’s take immigration as an example. You show up there ready to talk about serious aspects of the debate such as restructuring immigration quotas, increased funding for the Border Patrol, stiffer punishments for employers of illegal workers and things like that. It’s all good, meaty material, but it’s kind of boring. Inevitably one candidate after another takes to the podium and starts one upping you until they’re talking about building a seventy foot high titanium wall from San Diego to the Gulf Coast. The assembled masses are chanting. You get caught up in the moment and before you know it you’re grabbing the microphone and yelling, “… and we’ll build A MOAT in front of the wall! Full of sharks! Sharks with lasers!”
The crowd is going wild. You’ve got them eating out of your hand.
But then we swing the camera back a bit to that other crowd I mentioned… the one outside the hall where regular people are shopping and going to a doctor’s appointment or coming home from work. It includes two ladies.
JENNY: Marge! Put away your cell phone. Did you hear that? They’re talking about feeding the Mexican children to sharks! Can you believe it?
MARGE: What? Hang on a minute. I’m sending this video to the Talking Points Memo tip line.
And before you know it Sunday morning comes along and you’re on the set of State of the Union. Jake Tapper is sitting there with a tired, sad look in his eyes and he’s asking you why it is that you believe Hispanic children make suitable fish food.
Trust me. It happens.
This is the message which Democrats really need to get a grip on. You see, that other crowd outside – no matter whether it’s outside Netroots Nation or CPAC – has two groups in it. They include all races and both genders. They don’t go to conventions like these or spend their entire day watching cable news. But they vote and they have concerns. One group is mostly conservative, but not the kind of conservatives in the CPAC hall. They’ve just got the usual concerns of rank and file Republicans sitting around kitchen tables across the nations. But don’t worry… the other group is composed of liberals. They like you. They agree with you nearly all the time and will hitch their wagon to most every progressive horse you’re riding… as long as you don’t push them too far.
These two groups respond differently to the #BlackLivesMatter “disaster” which Ross is writing about, and the response changes as the train wreck shifts through two distinct phases of it. When people begin chanting “Black Lives Matter” the more conservative group may give you a bit of an eye roll, but it’s not because they hate you. They just already know that black lives matter and have long since moved on to the “all lives matter” portion of the agenda. They may think it’s being a bit overblown in the press as well. But he liberal crowd is right there with you. They will chant along in unison. They’ve probably seen plenty of stories about young black men getting in fatal encounters with police and think the matter deserves attention. So far so good.
But then the next phase arrives. When the speaker says that White Lives Matter and All Lives Matter and the crowd screams in protest about how horrible that is, the conservative crowd is going to turn ugly. They’re fine with equality, but they don’t want it turning into some sort of reverse entitlement society. But that’s okay… you’re not hunting for their votes. Instead you need to look at the progressive crowd. They’ve stopped chanting. Wait. What? Our lives don’t matter? Aren’t we all in this together? We’re supposed to be on the same team here.
You can try to start in on the long explanation that Ross attempted, but as the old saying goes, if you’re spending all your time explaining you’ve already lost the argument. And then, when they see the subject shift to the former Black Panther who is talking about “spectacle” being only the beginning and young black people having “to do more than just lay down in the streets” you’ve got a serious problem on your hands. They’re not only no longer chanting… they’re slowly edging away from you and wondering if the folks in the eye rolling crowd have any room on their bus.
This is the perilous pitfall of allowing a single issue contingent to take control of the process with what can easily be perceived as a threatening, potentially destructive agenda. If you want to see how well this plays out in a general election, just keep feeding into stories where the New Black Panthers are showing up. The spectacle involving O’Malley and Sanders at Netroots Nation was a disaster to be sure, but not for the imaginary electoral hopes of those two third tier candidates. It’s a disaster in waiting for the entire progressive movement, and I’m not enough of a partisan to take any joy in the prospect of what that might portend out in the streets even if it means a conservative victory at the ballot box.