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Democratic National Convention Leaves Progressives Wondering Where They Belong

By Abby Osborne

The flames of controversy were already being stoked at least a week prior to the Democratic National Convention. Cooling down from a contentious primary that seemed to be a battle between progressives and moderates, there was a spark of hope amongst some progressives that the newly elected Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, would adopt more progressive policies in the name of unity. Progressive leaders like Senator Bernie Sanders formed a unity task force with the Biden campaign, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the co-chair of the climate change group within the campaign.

But then came the policy proposals from the task force. Bubbles of anger among progressives spilled over. There was no Medicare For All, no Green New Deal, and no abolishing ICE—all proposals that initially attracted progressives to these candidates.

Then came the speaker lineup for the Democratic National Convention. The anger erupted. There were many Republican and Republican adjacent speakers, yet progressives (especially high-profile progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and Julían Castro) received minimal time—or none at all—with the notable exception of Sanders.

The convention left progressive Democrats wondering where their part of the party was.

Democrats remain split on the decision—is it better to attempt to make moderate republicans feel welcome in an effort to siphon off Republican support from Trump, or is it better to energize our base and turn out traditionally ignored demographics by highlighting politicians and policies they endorse and like?

Maria León-Acosta, an incoming freshman at GW, straddles the line of perspectives.

“While I think playing to the moderate & Republican bases was necessary, the DNC shouldn’t have done it at the expense of the rapidly growing progressive wing, which I consider myself a part of,” she said.

She added that the chosen method can be effective as people “tend to be much more sympathetic and willing to listen to messaging delivered by folks they align with,” and through “enlisting Republican figures,” this particular voter base could be swayed in a way “that could prove useful for the Democratic Party.”

Alexis Doe, another GW freshman, echoes this sentiment.

“Its actual effectiveness is still up in the air, I guess, but I think they do have a chance of swinging voters. I think the Colin Powell speech and military appeal was the best one, because a lot of folks [take] supporting the troops really seriously, and to hear a former general say that Trump is a danger to the military is pretty serious,” said Doe.

She mentioned, though, “the amount of Biden signs in my town has been going up recently.” There are a “couple houses on my street that I’m like 90% sure had Trump signs in 2016 that now have Biden signs,” which is a good thing as she lives in the critical state of Ohio where Trump won by 8 points in 2016. Nate Silver has Trump and Biden within less than a point of each other in the state on FiveThirtyEight.

However, some Republicans shrug this attempt off.

Jack Elbaum, another GW freshman who is an anti-Trump conservative, acknowledges that sometimes this strategy can stir some feelings up.

“When the DNC brings anti-Trump conservatives or liberal Republicans to make the case for the Democratic candidate, it can be compelling. After all, people generally do not enjoy being absent of a group to identify with,” Elbaum said.

He continued on to say that this can be “effective for a very specific segment of the voting base.” He categorized this segment as “the politically homeless who are also open to being swayed by political rhetoric.” He believes that “both prerequisites must be filled.”

But Elbaum added that “for those who come to independent judgments based on policy, absent of platitudes and symbolic gestures in their consideration, that strategy can be dismissed as meaningless.” He considers himself a part of this camp—someone who “[believes] the Democratic party's agenda is far more to-the-left than some of these moderate speakers lead us to believe.”

This is why many Democrats, particularly more progressive ones, believe that the DNC should have also focused on energizing their base rather than try to attract potential voters that may end up, in León-Acosta words, “a lost cause.”

“Like AOC noted a few days ago, the DNC should’ve also set aside time to energize the base and encourage turnout, particularly among youth voters that might’ve been alienated by some of the more moderate messaging,” said León-Acosta.

Doe acknowledged that the DNC did “[alienate], or at least upset, some Democrats,” but argued that “the ‘slightly left of center’ thing they’ve got going was always going to alienate people to the left.” She thinks that this attempt at appealing to Republicans was “probably worth it” if and “only if,” “they continue to circulate those videos/messages, because the people who would be swayed by it are not the type to watch the DNC.”

While this could be true, León-Acosta brought up that “the convention failed at one of its biggest tasks: showcasing party unity.”

“Did it show unity behind the Biden campaign? Absolutely. But what it really revealed, to me at least, was the chasm between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party,” she said.

This touched on something Ocasio-Cortez addressed on her Instagram story Q&A on August 21. She wished that the Democratic Party “could’ve done more to rally turnout enthusiasm from our party’s base.” She mentioned that they could have “youth issues spoken to better,” given more airtime to “Latinos and Muslim Americans” as she says those “populations play [a huge importance] in swing states,” or included Julían Castro.

Despite this, Ocasio-Cortez contended that she “was not the target audience for this convention,” rather “white moderates who aren’t sure who they’re voting for in November” were.

This brings up the question: Does any of this really matter?

Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia, “likens the conventions to a high school reunion.” John Del Cecato, “a Democratic ad maker who worked for Pete Buttigieg,” remarked that in reality, the convention “‘gives your nominee a short-lived bump in the polls, but doesn’t have a real impact on the November election.’”

So what is the point? Why would the Democrats choose to spotlight an anti-choice and anti-labor man of voter suppression instead of a former HUD secretary under the Obama administration? Why would the Democrats choose to give a former mayor of New York for 12 years (who is also a former Republican) notorious for his stop and frisk policies more airtime than a current progressive congresswoman? Why would they risk alienating their actual base for the potential of gaining a few Republican votes?

But Ocasio-Cortez is right. Whether we like it or not, this is Biden’s America. And in Biden’s America, the tent is cast wide and far even if the ideological differences seem completely incompatible.

Abby Osborne is a freshman from Chester County, Pennsylvania majoring in political communication.

Note: The GW College Democrats News & Blog Committee’s mission is to highlight, empower, and facilitate the political expression of its members. As such, the views expressed in this article are based on the opinions of its author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the whole of GW College Democrats, its executive board, or its senior deputy board.


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