Democratic leaders still don’t know what to do after the election — but the movement does

ATLANTA — The second day of the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting got off to a rocky start. Interim DNC chair Donna Brazile attempted to kick off the session with a short inspirational video about now-former Democratic President Barack Obama. The audio began to play but the video didn't start. Brazile informed the room that they would start it over. This time both the audio and video played but the film abruptly stopped after a few seconds. Brazile and the other leaders on the stage huddled for a short moment and then decided to move on.

That small technical failure that brought the proceedings to a screeching halt became the perfect symbol for a party that doesn't know what to do without Barack Obama to lead them. The entire meeting has been consumed by tomorrow's vote for who will become the DNC chair, an otherwise perfunctory decision that has instead become a proxy battle for the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders wings of the Democratic party.

Shortly after the session began, some DNC members tried to re-litigate the primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders by introducing a measure to single out the former DNC officials who resigned amid a controversy that they had tipped the the scales in Hillary Clinton's favor.

Donna BrazileJoe Raedle/AP

After the measure was voted down, another member tried to kill a resolution that limited the influence of big corporations on the party's agenda. "We are in a corporate hotel. We have meals provided by a corporation. We drive cars provided by corporations," the California member said before praising several corporations for their role in protesting anti-transgender bills, "We want to turn around and and say to those same people, 'You are not welcome at the DNC?'" 

About a third of the room applauded while other members turned to look at each other in disgust.

But even as the main hall became consumed by intra-party battles, elsewhere in that same Atlanta hotel, DNC members and community leaders were holding a more productive and thoughtful discussion about how to organize and grow the power of the American political left. What made that meeting different is that it was being led by the leaders of grassroots movements instead of party officials.

"We really need to hear from you inside the party," said Winnie Wong, the co-founder of People for Bernie who helped draft the Women's March on Washington unity principles, "We want to hear what your challenges are — what you think needs to happen so that we actually work together to come up with an inside-outside strategy to win."

"There are people who have been disappointed in this institution." 

The meeting was arranged by DNC vice chair candidate Liz Jaff as a "moderated discussion between leaders of the grassroots resistance to Trump and DNC Members." Organizers from the Women's March on Washington, Black Lives Matter and the Working Families Party led the discussion along with representatives from several other groups. After a short introduction, Jaff turned the meeting over to the organizers who took questions from DNC members.

"There are people who have been disappointed in this institution," said Nelini Stamp, the National Membership Director for the Working Families Party and National Coordinator for a new resistance movement called #ResistTrumpTuesdays, "We need to make sure ... that state parties understand that there's a role for them and there is a role that they are not going to be able to fill and that's ok."

Though the Working Families Party sees itself as a flank of the progressive left that works with the Democratic Party, institutional Democrats have not always seen it that way. In 2014, Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo feuded behind the scenes with the Working Families Party as they pushed him to embrace a more progressive agenda. 

But on Friday, the national party appears ready not only to embrace the WFP but to learn from it.

"Decentralization with structure works," Stamp said, "Distributive organizing works, we've seen it work. It doesn't mean there isn't leadership, even at Occupy [Wall Street] we said it was a leaderless movement, it really meant there wasn't any sole leader."

Democratic Party insiders taking organizing directions from the Working Families Party and Occupy Wall Street illustrates the stark change in power dynamics that has taken place on the political left over the past 4 years.  One-by-one, DNC members, including state representatives and sitting members of Congress praised the individuals on stage for their work and inquired about how elected officials can harness the power the movements have created to stop Trump's agenda.

"We are powerful, we are the new leadership in this nation," Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said of the growing social movements around the country. 

She went on to emphasize that that leaders should "take some initiative to be able to learn about what's happening in this movement and who comprises it."

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

Despite the left's reputation for political infighting, exchanges between those who supported Hillary Clinton and those who supported Bernie Sanders were notably conciliatory—a stark contrast from the rest of the conference.

"I'm of the establishment, so to speak. I've worked for the president, I've worked for Hillary," said Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, an organization that tries to encourage progressives under 35 to run for political office. "to be on a panel with these amazing organizers of this movement that I deeply admire—I feel like such an imposter," she joked as the panel laughed with her.

Even as factional hostility dominated the rest of the conference, the organizers made clear they were united behind their shared goal of stopping Trump.