The uneasy clash between grass-roots activists and establishment figures at the Democratic National Committee meeting in Atlanta isn’t hard to spot. It’s on display at caucus meetings, panel discussions and the maneuvering behind Saturday’s vote to elect a new party leader.
And for a party struggling to find a balance between the liberal wave of outrage at Donald Trump and its leaders trying to corral that energy into electoral action, the attempts to strike a tentative truce will define their fight against the president.
It won’t be easy. Democrats of all stripes have united in a Trump “resistance” movement, but even the most outspoken elected officials struggle to match the ferocity of the Trump opposition that’s filled the streets with protesters and town hall meetings with newly energized activists.
And the same divisions that cleaved the party during last year’s election — namely, the progressive bloc led by Bernie Sanders supporters pitted against more mainstream party factions that supported Hillary Clinton — continues to dog Democratic leaders who desperately want to put the 2016 election behind them.
“We didn’t win, but the revolution is very much in this room,” said Winnie Wong, who co-founded the People for Bernie group and helped create the #FeeltheBern hashtag. “And you folks need to pick up the mantle. We can’t stop now, we have to do everything that we can in this party to be a part of this political revolution.”
The groundswell of frustration undercuts the other dominant theme of the three-day conference that started Thursday — a constant drumbeat of calls to unify behind a common opponent. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed made a personal plea to Democrats to stay focused on Trump — and not their own internal fissures.
“This is going to end up being unity weekend in the city of Atlanta and unity weekend in the state of Georgia and unity weekend in the Democratic Party,” Reed said. “It’s going to be the end of that presidency of Donald Trump.”
The party has a long way to go. Republicans control the White House, both chambers of Congress and almost three dozen governor’s mansions. In Georgia, the party faces an even more daunting climb: Republicans control every statewide office and hold commanding majorities in the state Legislature.
Democratic leaders are intent on turning the explosive protests into votes, but they also risk the same wave of primary challenges and infighting that the tea party movement triggered in the GOP after Barack Obama’s 2008 election as president.
“There are people who feel like the Democratic Party has stopped listening to young people. Especially us young people,” Nelini Stamp said. “We have ideas and we’ve changed the country in the last six years. We need to work together and we need to push each other better.”
Stamp is a founder of the Resist Trump Tuesdays movement, and her organization is one of a surge of new groups that have sprung up after the November election.
Strikingly, though, one of the first targets of the group’s protest was a Democrat: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Thousands of protesters wound up on the doorstep of his Brooklyn office, urging him to defy Trump at all costs.
Rita Bosworth has also not endeared herself to party leaders. After starting Sister District Project, which matches donors in deep blue districts to help candidates run in more conservative areas, she said a California Democratic official pressed her on whether she was secretly coordinating with Libertarians.
“We are trying to reconnect with the people,” said Christine Pelosi, another California activist. “People do not trust us to fight for them. They do not trust us to put their interests first. That’s what every single listening tour that all of us have gone on shows us.”
That fight is spilling over into the fight to pick the party’s next chairman. Sanders and other leaders in the party’s progressive wing are backing U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid for DNC chairman, while former U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez has support from allies of Clinton’s and Obama’s.
The odds seem to favor Perez — his supporters whisper he is nearing the votes needed to win outright — but Ellison boasts an impressive network. And a dark horse contender could emerge. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., hopes a late charge could make him the party’s next face.
The winner will try to bridge the divide between veteran operatives more accustomed to the halting progress of politics and newfound activists who demand immediate action and results. Xavier Becerra, California’s new attorney general, urged Democratic veterans to act more like the grass-roots demonstrators.
“Get in the way — be a hitter and be authentic and be real every day,” Becerra said. “Continuously prove to every hardworking American that we have your back.”
Some of the upstart operatives are putting the political class on notice. Andrea Litman helped start Run for Something, which encourages left-leaning candidates to run for public office, after Trump’s victory made her “angry at the system” that she said benefited older, affluent white male attorneys.
Thousands of candidates have already signed up through her website to run for higher office. And she’s more than willing to encourage them to run against contenders favored by the establishment wing.
“If we have a young progressive candidate and you have someone you picked,” she said, “we’re going to go after you.”