Vision Is the Secret Sauce for the Democratic Nomination

#BlackLivesMatter and Black Immigration Network activists shout down the first of two Democratic presidential candidates at a Netroots Nation town hall meeting, July 18, 2015, in Phoenix.

In a dramatic and unexpected moment during last weekend’s Netroots Nation conference, a boisterous group of protestors burst into a candidates’ forum featuring former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). As they entered, the protestors shouted in a sing-song rhythm: “What side are you on my people?”

Tia Oso—a black woman in a colorful, print skirt and a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Black Love”—bum-rushed the stage, took the microphone from moderator Jose Antonio Vargas, and delivered an impassioned speech as Gov. O’Malley looked on in confusion.

“We are going to hold this space,” Oso declared. “We are going to acknowledge the names of black women who have died in police custody.”

Then, turning to O’Malley, who shuffled nervously on the stage, she said, “And Governor O’Malley, we do have questions for you. … As the leader of this nation, will you advance a racial justice agenda that will dismantle—not reform, not make progress—but will begin to dismantle structural racism in the United States?”

The audience shouted out before O’Malley could respond fully. “Black lives matter!” they shouted. “Black lives matter!”

It was quite a demonstration, one that made national political news headlines and that previews a potential battle royal on the far left for the Democratic presidential nomination, pitting activists with a black Americans-forward agenda—epitomized by the #BlackLivesMatter movement—against activists with an agenda that puts income inequality first—best represented by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) and his supporters.

Dara Lind with Vox.com described the tensions and fault lines of the two sides in a battle that previously has been fought in the trenches of social media, largely outside the gaze of mainstream media and establishment political analysts. She wrote:

There is a legitimate disconnect between the way Sanders (and many of the economic progressives who support him) see the world, and the way many racial justice progressives see the world. To Bernie Sanders, as I’ve written, racial inequality is a symptom—but economic inequality is the disease. That’s why his responses to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore have included specific calls for police accountability, but have focused on improving economic opportunity for young African Americans. Sanders presents fixing unemployment as the systemic solution to the problem.

Many racial justice advocates don’t see it that way. They see racism as its own systemic problem that has to be addressed on its own terms. They feel that it’s important to acknowledge the effects of economic inequality on people of color, but that racial inequality isn’t merely a symptom of economic inequality. And, most importantly, they feel that “pivoting” to economic issues can be a way for white progressives to present their agenda as the progressive agenda and shove black progressives, and the issues that matter most to them, to the sidelines.

So Sanders’s performance at Netroots confirmed the frustrations that his critics felt. And Sanders’s supporters’ reaction to the criticism was just as predictable.

Apparently, it wasn’t predictable to the candidates at the Netroots forum. The dilemma of having to choose between the two political philosophies on the left came as a complete surprise, judging by the deer-in-the-headlights expressions on the faces of both Gov. O’Malley and Sen. Sanders, who appeared on the Netroots stage shortly after O’Malley.

The tension isn’t likely to be resolved soon, a point my ThinkProgress colleague Ian Millhiser made recently, noting that Democratic presidential candidates must run a gauntlet of often-competing issues on the left to secure the nomination. “Would-be presidents must spend months prostrating themselves before overwhelmingly white electorates if they hope to gain a foothold in the race to become the party’s nominee,” he wrote. Indeed, he concluded that, “While O’Malley and Sanders stumbled at Netroots, the nominating process itself actually disincentivizes them from focusing on the issues that animate #BlackLivesMatter.”

Other announced Democratic candidates—former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb—didn’t participate in the forum. Clinton, however, offered her view on the issue two days later in response to a question posed by Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery during a Facebook chat. She wrote:

Black lives matter. Everyone in this country should stand firmly behind that. We need to acknowledge some hard truths about race and justice in this country, and one of those hard truths is that that (sic) racial inequality is not merely a symptom of economic inequality.

Judging from online comments following the Facebook interview, however, Clinton still has to give voice to a stronger, more detailed argument in order to satisfy the #BlackLivesMatter activists. All the Democratic candidates may soon face the same challenges that confounded O’Malley and Sanders.

But setting up a litmus test for the Democratic hopefuls—one in which they must choose between narratives of economic stratification or white privilege—presents a false dichotomy, suggesting that one operates independently of the other. They don’t; they work in tandem, says Les Leopold, director of the Labor Institute in New York. He writes:

Yes, fairer courts, better policing, drug decriminalization, and the end of mandatory sentencing would be an excellent start. But that’s not nearly enough. We need a vision that empties our prisons, and rebuilds our economy from the bottom up.

Indeed, the operative word is “vision.” That’s the secret sauce to rally the nation’s political will for constructive change. If the candidates for the Democratic nomination are tongue-tied when asked what they would do, then activists must tell them what policy positions would earn their support—and be prepared to back up the threat with votes.

The drama of protests and the threats of more to come are valid tools to command public attention. But to achieve the constructive reforms needed, something mundanely boring and basic is required: the combination of energetic activism allied with the tedious task of organizing voters who share a unified vision for political change. If confronted with an army of registered voters at the ready on Election Day, any serious presidential candidate will eagerly say that #BlackLivesMatter.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with CAP’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.