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Running on Hope

Ravi Gupta is recruiting a fresh slate of candidates to take down Trump. But can a former Obama staffer forge a new path for Democrats?

Photograph by Nathaniel Welch/Redux

Laurie Pohutsky, a 29-year-old lab technician from the suburbs of Detroit, sits on a stage before 500 aspiring politicians to explain why she decided to run for the Michigan state legislature. “After the election, a lot of people were scared,” she says. “I’m a woman, a scientist, and a survivor of sexual assault. And we’ve watched the current administration attack all three of these groups.” For Pohutsky, Donald Trump’s victory was a sort of “11/9 awakening,” an inversion of that other radical reorienting of American life. The morning after the election, bewildered and angry, she asked herself, “What can I do at this moment to make a difference?” The answer, she says, was clear: “I was going to run for office.”

Kelly Breen, a lawyer sitting next to Pohutsky, chimes in. “I was tired of complaining on Facebook!” Those assembled whoop with delight and snap their fingers in choral harmony. When Breen came home from work on November 9, she recalls, her husband handed her a sheaf of official-looking forms and declared, “You’re running for office.”

Pohutsky and Breen may be preaching to the choir, but it’s a remarkably young and diverse choir, even for a congregation of Democrats. The political hopefuls are gathered in downtown Detroit in June for a weekend “summit” organized by a new group called the Arena. Created in December 2016 to harness the collective energy of America’s postelection freak-out, the Arena aims to recruit, train, and support first-time candidates for office. This is already the group’s third summit, and the can-do fervor feels at times like a cross between a TED talk and a live taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show. There are motivational speeches and tutorials on immigration policy and workshops on the basics of campaign fund-raising. When an emcee yells, “People, make some noise!” the attendees, mostly in their twenties and thirties, oblige. Stage left, a DJ provides the weekend its thumping soundtrack, beginning with James Brown: Revenge! I’m mad. The big payback!

Since Trump’s election, the Democratic Party has found itself both invigorated and adrift. The day after his inauguration, an unprecedented combination of resolve and despair sent millions into the streets for the Women’s March, followed by mass protests over the president’s Muslim travel ban. From this self-proclaimed “resistance,” tens of thousands of would-be candidates for local, state, and federal offices have emerged, eager for guidance and support. The Arena joins a crowded field of get-out-the-candidate organizations that have formed since the election, from Indivisible and Swing Left to Code Blue and Run for Something. Though their techniques and political positions vary widely, each wants to transform the outrage and self-recrimination over Trump’s election into tangible victories at the polls. Each believes that the Democratic Party has failed to recruit a diverse and viable slate of candidates. And each believes that winning the White House is not enough—that it is essential to support candidates at the state and local level, a belated nod to the decades-long strategy employed by ALEC and the Koch brothers.

The Arena was dreamed up by Ravi Gupta, a former staffer on Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. Gupta, now 34, served at the United Nations under Susan Rice before leaving government in 2010 to open a string of charter schools for low-income students in the South. The day after the election, students at the high school he started in Nashville came to him in fear. Were immigrant students going to be deported? Were African American kids going to be subjected to Jim Crow laws? Would LGBTQ students be forced to undergo conversion therapy?

Gupta was devastated. “I went into a classroom and just started crying,” he recalled. But by the time he reached the parking lot, he was already on the phone. Soon he had invited his buddies from the Obama administration and Yale Law down to Nashville for a weekend in December. A venture capitalist friend from Silicon Valley seeded most of the money for what would be the Arena’s first meet-up. The group’s logo, five circling arrows all pointing inward to a blank space, is a pictorial representation of something Obama said during the 2008 campaign: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Gupta, in effect, was getting the band back together. His cohort of young technocrats and entrepreneurs had helped elect America’s first black president. Why couldn’t they use their experience in both the public and private sectors to recruit and train the country’s next generation of leaders?

For Gupta, the fault lines from the presidential election are personal. He grew up in Staten Island, the right-leaning, working-class borough that gave Trump his only victory in his native New York City. Gupta’s mother, who is white, voted for Hillary Clinton. His Indian-American father, prison guard brother, and many of his childhood friends sided with Trump. From that divide, both racial and political, Gupta took away an Obama-like desire to unite a fractured America. “That we’re told we should hate each other because we have different opinions on who should be president is grotesque,” he says. Gupta feels the same way about the schisms in the Democratic Party exposed by the prolonged primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. “The Bernie effect is real, and we at the Arena respect that,” he says. “I backed the insurgent candidate in 2007. I didn’t identify with the party. The early Obama-ites know what it’s like to be passionate and underdogs.”

The model that Gupta has fashioned for the Arena replicates many of the strengths—and shortcomings—of Obama’s politics. The group openly avows the idealism that drew them to Obama’s first presidential campaign, along with a commitment to rational discourse in the face of partisan incivility. But the partisan divide has widened since Obama took office, and the populist surge that elected Trump is not exactly welcoming to the political insiders and coastal elites who founded the Arena. The group, which plans to run candidates in red and blue districts across the country next year, has adopted a deeply pragmatic approach. It avoids specific positions on policies, encouraging each candidate to fashion his or her own message, even on core liberal issues like health care and government oversight. The best strategy, Gupta believes, is bottom up: Let candidates tailor their campaigns to their individual constituencies. “We work with candidates to make sure they can articulate clearly, ‘These are my values, they came from this district, and all policies flow from those values,’ ” Gupta tells me. A candidate in Wisconsin might advocate universal health care and a $15 minimum wage; an office-seeker in Georgia, meanwhile, might eschew gun control and abortion rights.

The danger of this district-by-district relativism, of course, is that the party offers up a thousand messengers but no message. Democrats don’t have a “vision or story they want to paint of what is wrong with America today,” Matthew Yglesias observed recently in Vox, and no model for “what is the better country they want to build for the future.” Gupta, like many establishment Democrats, believes that the core principles of economic equality and social justice are enough to unite the party, especially at a time when Republicans are intent on slashing health care and aid to working families. The Arena, in essence, embodies the debate at the heart of the widespread resistance to Trump: Can Democrats regain power over the long term without articulating a clear and compelling party agenda? And can a group of young Obama acolytes bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice, as their candidate so often proclaimed, without agreeing on what justice looks like?

The same weekend the Arena holds its summit in Detroit, supporters of Bernie Sanders convene a “People’s Summit” in Chicago. “Too many in our party cling to an overly cautious centrist ideology,” Sanders declares in a New York Times op-ed that week. His organization, Our Revolution, seeks to unite Democrats around a populist message that embraces single-payer health care, free college tuition, and criminal justice reform. “We need people who are unapologetically progressive,” says Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator who serves as president of Our Revolution. “We need a 1944 FDR economic bill of rights for the people of this country.”

At the summit in Detroit, by contrast, the Arena focuses on process, not policy. Up on stage, a political consultant named Marlon Marshall finishes his interview of Laurie Pohutsky and Kelly Breen. Marshall’s résumé—he’s a Democratic consulting heavyweight who served as a top director of Clinton’s presidential campaign—would likely have gotten him the vaudeville hook at the People’s Summit. Here, organizers see him as the epitome of what the Arena represents: a call to arms, with an emphasis on the arms. “If you’re thinking about running,” Marshall exhorts the audience of would-be candidates, “know that there are a slew of people who are going to have your back. If you want to run for office, dammit, run for office! And go out there and win this shit.”

Detroit is an interesting place to hold an assembly of Trump-era Democrats. Early on the summit’s first day, a group of 40 attendees takes a tour of the city. After a stop at a revitalized commercial strip seven miles from downtown, the bus delivers everyone to a United Auto Workers vote center. One of the guides is Ian Conyers, a Michigan state senator and great-nephew of Representative John Conyers. “You can’t come to the D,” he belts out, “and not know about the workers that made America great!” It’s the absence of “again” at the end of the pronouncement that strikes me as conspicuous.

Inside the vote center, Yvonne Cash, a UAW representative, laments the outcome of the election in the Rust Belt, where Trump won a majority of the white electorate. “The Republicans took our message and flipped it,” she says. “They said they were for the working class, and that the Democrats are only educated, college elites.” The young lawyers and techies from the Arena listen intently. One of them asks Cash how, as candidates, they can connect with organized labor.

Cash pauses for a few beats. “I’m going to be very real,” she says. “The first question we ask when we screen a candidate is: What kind of car do you drive?”

It’s an awkward if revealing moment. Cash is suggesting that Democratic candidates must adhere to the “buy American” message that the UAW has been promoting ever since Japanese imports invaded the U.S. auto market in the 1980s. If you want to get working-class voters out to the polls, she implies, you have to drive a Ford F-150. But that kind of “old economy” thinking runs the risk of reinforcing the false promises that Trump made about restoring a bygone industrial age. And it has little to do with the “new economy” challenges facing the Arena’s young millennial candidates, many of whom don’t even own a car. They use Lyft and Uber.

The Arena recognizes that Democrats cannot simply define themselves in opposition to Trump. While the group has no policy platform, it works hard over the weekend to demonstrate the values and first principles that it believes give the factions within the party a common cause. “Not only how you engage and lead,” as one Arena leader puts it, “but also why.” There are panels on the ongoing water crisis in Flint and on Detroit’s immigrant community. “Immigrants don’t just take jobs,” a city official explains. “They start businesses and make jobs.” Brian Deese, who served as a senior adviser to President Obama, talks about the need to address climate change and renewable energy in local terms. Brittany Packnett, an organizer focused on police violence, reminds attendees that political participation is not optional for racial minorities, immigrants, and others under assault by systemic injustices: “Not everyone gets to choose whether they enter the arena or not.” Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state who nearly unseated an incumbent GOP senator last November, describes how Republicans have hijacked the political narrative on voting rights, spreading unfounded fears of voter fraud when the real problem is the disenfranchisement of poor and minority voters. “How do we beat them on this argument?” he asks. “First, we have to make the argument.”

Jason Kander, an Arena adviser who narrowly lost a Senate bid in Missouri last year, believes Democrats will win by emphasizing integrity rather than ideology.
Courtesy of The Arena

After his presentation, Kander and I talk at a table outside the banquet hall overlooking the Detroit River. Democrats, he insists, don’t have to choose between Hillary centrism and Bernie progressivism. “Which direction the Democratic Party should go is presented as a binary choice,” he says. “I don’t think that’s the case at all.” Kander offers his own campaign as proof: An army veteran who volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, he lost by three percentage points in a state that Trump won by 19, making a name for himself nationally with a viral ad in which he assembled a rifle blindfolded. Kander has the gifted politician’s knack of making whatever he’s talking about seem both plainspoken and right. “Politics is no different than being a good person,” he says. “You make your argument to everybody based on your values, and you don’t compromise those values. When you do that, you increase the chances of winning over the people who don’t agree with you.” Honesty and integrity, not ideology, is how Democrats will win back the country. “What I’m saying,” he says, “is people will forgive you for believing something that they don’t believe, so long as they know you genuinely hold that belief, and you hold it because you care about them.”

It’s a fundamental truth—but one that glosses over the knotty questions that Democrats are wrestling with right now: What specifically do they believe? And what policy positions in their candidates are they willing to forgive to win races next year and beyond? Gupta, for his part, talks excitedly to me about Bill Clinton on the campaign trail in 1992 doing just what Kander extols. “He was Yale Law and a Rhodes scholar,” Gupta says, “and he crushed it on blue-collar issues.” I point out that while Clinton was coming across to working-class voters as a folksy guy who felt their pain, he and the New Democrats were shredding social welfare and putting millions of black Americans behind bars. Gupta agrees—to an extent. He says there’s nothing worse than the “Ivy-educated elite who wears flannel,” and he has turned away candidates seeking his help who seemed inauthentic. But he also argues that Bill Clinton gets a bad rap. “For people who care who’s on the Supreme Court and about our tax policy,” he says, “Clinton did win back the White House after three terms of Republican rule.” It’s an undisputedly pragmatic position, but one that is unlikely to inspire the millions of disaffected Democrats who rejected Clintonism in favor of Trump and Sanders during last year’s election.

The Arena’s neutrality on matters of policy is meant to make the group a welcome space for Bernie and Hillary supporters alike. In its first few months, through its traveling meet-ups, it has begun to develop relationships with grassroots organizations and local party Democrats. In March, 650 people showed up for an Arena summit in North Carolina, and in December the group plans to hold a meeting in Arizona. At one point in Detroit, a woman from Oakland stands up to announce that she has organized a new group of 1,200 members who plan to fight for racial justice. “We have to support women of color,” she declares, “even if they’re not in our fucking district!” At another, the event takes on the spirit of a revival meeting; a moderator, seizing the moment, asks who will commit to running for office in the next five years. Some 250 people rise up to cascading cheers.

Many of the millennials at the summit see themselves not as candidates but as “political entrepreneurs,” using technology to make the political process more accessible to all. Seated next to me at one session is a 27-year-old named Alon Gur, who has been working on the campaign of Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney in Philadelphia endorsed by Our Revolution. In May, Krasner won the city’s Democratic primary for district attorney on a pledge never to seek the death penalty and to combat institutional racism in the justice system. Gur tells me about a digital platform he’s co-creating, a sort of Task Rabbit for politics, which connects nascent campaigns to a gig economy of policy experts, staffers, and web designers.

Sitting behind us is Dani Isaacsohn, a classmate of Gur’s from Yale Law. Isaacsohn, it turns out, is also developing a digital platform: a service that links policymakers to valuable contacts within the communities they serve.

“What’s yours called?” Gur asks.

“Bridgeable,” Isaacsohn says.

“Ooh, that’s good.”

“How about yours?”


Earlier I meet Steve Sinha, a computer scientist who worked in Obama’s state department and advised Hillary Clinton’s campaign about policy. He has created a tech platform called Empowered to Run. “There are 520,000 elected offices across the country,” he explains, “and most are uncontested or nominally contested.” Empowered aims to connect local candidates in every district to resources, making it possible for grassroots candidates to compete in all 520,000 races. The plan hints at both the techie mind-set of the young Obama veterans involved in the Arena, and at the way the Obama administration didn’t take advantage of their energy and know-how in 2009 to usher a new wave of Democrats into the political process, just as the Tea Party was getting started. When Obama took office, Democrats controlled both chambers in 27 state legislatures. Today, Republicans control 32, and hold twice as many governorships as Democrats. Sinha actually had the idea for Empowered before Obama was even elected. “When I was working on Obama’s campaign in 2008,” he says, “I thought that someone should start figuring out the apparatus to build up a ground force not just for the election, but for the long-term.” He didn’t do it, he regrets. And neither did anyone else.

After the first day’s speakers wrap up, the Arena folks walk a couple of blocks to a dinner reception in the Guardian Building. It’s a downtown palace befitting Detroit’s fortunes in the 1920s, with a 150-foot vaulted lobby that’s marbled and lit up by prismatic tiles and a giant, glowing Tiffany clock. The summit-goers pile their plates with chicken shawarma and drink freely from the open bar and dance to the Mary Jane Girls. It’s here I meet Lauren Underwood, a 30-year-old registered nurse from Illinois who’s running for Congress. She talks effusively about her plans, even as she checks herself periodically, explaining that she’s new to the on- and off-the-record thing.

On the record, she is from Naperville, a suburb an hour west of Chicago. While still in college she interned with then-Senator Barack Obama. She went to work for the Department of Health and Human Services a few months after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and spent the next seven years implementing and reforming Obamacare. “I set up the ACA marketplace,” she says. “We have people in Congress making laws who didn’t even read it.” She started grooming herself for office back when Trump was still a birther nut: In 2014, she attended the Women’s Campaign School, a one-week program at Yale. She also joined the New Leaders Council, a training program for young Democrats founded in 2005 to chip away at the GOP’s mountainous advantage when it comes to recruiting talented newcomers.

Lauren Underwood, a candidate for Congress, holds centrist views that match her constituency in Illinois. “I am running in reality,” she says.
Photograph by Kevin Miyazaki/Redux for the New Republic

In February, Underwood found herself on a New Leaders Council conference call in which the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said that the party, still reeling from Trump’s victory, would consider backing candidates who didn’t fit its conventional mold. The Democrats have little chance of flipping the Senate in 2018, with only eight Republican incumbents up for re-election. But down only 46 seats in the House, the DCCC has targeted 59 GOP-held districts it believes are winnable. The list includes the 14th district in Illinois, where Underwood lives.

After the call, Underwood visited the DCCC’s headquarters, thinking she might run for the state legislature. “I brought my congresswoman outfit,” she says. “I looked like I took it seriously.” She was stunned when the party asked if she’d consider entering the congressional race herself. She returned home to talk to local party insiders about a possible run. When she checked in with the various Indivisible groups in her district, she was surprised to find that they hadn’t put forward a candidate of their own. In July, she applied to become one of the candidates that the Arena is supporting with fellowships designed to provide the tools and training they’ll need to win next year.

Underwood is, in many ways, the picture of a candidate running on the virtues of Obama: She’s young, African American, reared in his administration—and, as she tells me with mock apology, “not the most liberal Democrat.” She is fine with Elizabeth Warren, but does not agree with Sanders and his followers on many issues, including the legalization of marijuana and the aversion to U.S. intervention in world conflicts. She says she has no time for activist groups like Brand New Congress, which wants to mount primary challenges to Democratic incumbents it deems insufficiently progressive. That doesn’t mean she believes all Democrats must be centrists; she just feels that her own politics happen to match perfectly with those of her suburban and rural district. It’s a place she loves—the landscaped strip malls, the schools named for Indian tribal lands, the way the four-lane roads divide rows of soybeans on one side from residential subdivisions on the other. Her current representative is a Tea Party Republican named Randy Hultgren. “He does not represent our moderate district,” Underwood says. “He is wrong on every issue.”

On the second day of the summit, Underwood joins a panel alongside three other candidates running for Congress next year. Ken Harbaugh, a former Navy pilot who started an organization that deploys service members to disaster areas, explains why he is a candidate in northeastern Ohio. “I know this is going to sound old-fashioned, but if I had to boil it down to one word, it would be patriotism,” he says. “I served my country overseas. We need more people in Washington who put country first and party second.” Andy Kim, a Rhodes scholar who served as an adviser to General David Petraeus on Afghanistan and to President Obama on ISIS, wants to unseat Representative Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, who helped craft the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. “Health care affects every aspect of our lives,” Kim says. “Health care is a right. So that’s why we’re fighting.” Haley Stevens, a former Treasury Department staffer who worked on the presidential task force that bailed out the auto industry, touts her insider credentials as an asset. “I worked at the intersection of industry and government, where we can come together for solutions,” she says. “My message is: Your life and work matter.”

Andy Kim (left), a national security expert, is vying for a winnable congressional race: the New Jersey seat held by Tom MacArthur, an architect of the Trumpcare bill. Haley Stevens (center) sees her insider role in the auto industry bailout as an asset in her House race in Michigan. Ken Harbaugh (right), a former Navy pilot running for Congress in Ohio, fits the Arena’s non-partisan stance. “We need more people in Washington who put country first and party second,” he says.
Photographs by Nathaniel Welch/Redux; Michael Nemeth; Billy Delfs/Redux for the New Republic

To Gupta, Underwood and the other political hopefuls at the summit embody the way forward for Democrats: young, experienced candidates able to articulate their passion and connect with voters. “If we’re successful in the 2018 race,” he says, “the Arena-backed candidates will all be the clearest examples of telling an authentic story in the clearest, most compelling way.” But one Democrat’s authenticity is another Democrat’s selling out. Many in the party warn that unless candidates address the needs of working-class voters, Democrats will continue to lose ground to Republicans at every level of government. “We don’t just need more people running for office,” says Becky Bond, who served as a senior adviser in the Sanders campaign. “We need credible candidates who run on a bold platform that will significantly improve people’s lives if elected. We need to give the voters who the Democrats have consistently taken for granted or written off a reason to turn out and vote. Medicare for all, free college tuition, an end to the cash bail system. Resistance groups should encourage and support candidates who step up to run on these ideas.”

Underwood rejects that kind of thinking as out of touch for her district. She is content to shape her own message, even if it diverges from the prevailing upsurge of populist sentiment, tailoring it to what she sees as the concerns of her constituents. She’s eager to start talking to voters at supermarkets and churches in McHenry County, the reddest part of her district, which Trump won by eight points. She won’t be highlighting some traditional Democratic issues, like gun control, which she considers a no-win proposition there. And she doesn’t think it prudent to lead with calls for racial equity. She looks me over, considering how freely she should express her views on the world as it is and the world as it should be. “I am running in reality,” she says.

The last afternoon of the summit is given over to the specifics of candidate training: how to run a campaign, stay on message, connect with voters and funders. Some participants head off to learn about incorporating social media into campaigns. Others take advantage of one-on-one “office hours” with a few-dozen consultants and strategists, from Hillary for America and the Democratic National Committee to Everyone else files into conference rooms for a range of seminars led by battle-scarred political operatives.

The novice candidates are full of questions. A woman who is planning to run for the Wisconsin state legislature asks where she can find good polling data. (“Start with the state party,” a political organizer tells her. “Get in touch with former candidates,” another expert adds.) One would-be candidate wants to know where to focus his limited funds. (Don’t pay for political advice, he’s told.) A guy thinking about running for alderman on Chicago’s South Side asks when is the best time to announce. (The answer: When he is ready to be a target, and can show that he’s raised an imposing haul of money.) Candidates ask how much time to dedicate to calling donors, and whether it’s better to ask for an actual dollar amount on each call. A man from Lansing says he can afford only three mailings. When in the election cycle should he send them?

For the Arena-goers, who have heard the same imploring message repeated again and again—run for office, right now—this kind of detailed, hands-on instruction arrives like a sweat-lodge revelation. “Shit, this is awesome,” a guy considering a bid for the Michigan state senate announces after the entire group reconvenes in the ballroom. “You really gave me the tools. We have a lot of work to do. But this is how you do it. This is how to be an agent of change and to look out for people.” The very first person I met at the summit was a rocker-looking dude from San Francisco who said he was here only to check out the scene, and had zero interest in elected office. I now overhear him expounding on his plans to move back to Pittsburgh to win a seat in the state legislature. In August, to expand its support to candidates, the Arena merged with a new political consulting group called CHORUS Agency, which was recently founded by other Obama campaign veterans.

It is not until the very last panel that I hear the name Bernie Sanders spoken aloud at the summit. The conference room is packed for “The Millennial Generation and the Future of American Democracy,” and I stand in the back as a former county financial official from Detroit encourages people to do their stint in local government: “The best experience of my life,” he says. A national political consultant talks about the need to rebrand politics so it’s cool for young people. The head of a creative studio that does campaign videos—most recently for Randy Bryce, the union ironworker challenging Paul Ryan in Wisconsin—argues that millennials aren’t being given the right incentives to invest in politics. A city councilman from Cincinnati chastises Democrats for ceding the economic argument to Trump, who spoke about trade, jobs, and industry only in fanciful generalities.

Suddenly, an African American web developer from Brooklyn raises his hand to interject. More millennials voted for Sanders, he points out, than for Clinton and Trump combined. What’s more, the Labour Party in the United Kingdom ran a far-left campaign earlier that month and reclaimed seats in Parliament. “They have a platform that is unapologetically progressive,” the man continues. “They say, ‘We’re going to take care of regular people.’ We don’t have that message.”

“We don’t see a platform that goes with our beliefs,” someone else interrupts.

A white woman cuts in, “We want to feel something.”

“The party assumes that most progressives are Democrats,” another woman shouts. “But most millennials don’t see themselves in the party platform. So they don’t feel an obligation to show up for the party. I’ve worked in politics ever since I was a teenager, but I’m not a party loyalist.”

It’s as though a quarter-century of frustration with the Democratic Party has boiled over in the space of a minute. The moderator for the panel is Milia Fisher, a former Hillary Clinton staffer in her twenties who recently launched the Defiant Network, a grassroots group dedicated to creating a “powerful crowdsourced vision to save our democracy.” She asks how many people in the room identify strongly with the Democratic Party. Fewer than half raise a hand.

It’s hardly a rousing vote of confidence. If Democrats aren’t giving their most energized members a clear and inspiring sense of why the party matters, then what hope do they have of winning back the Rust Belt or middle America, or turning red states blue? In July, the party establishment unveiled a modest agenda called “A Better Deal,” calling for a $15 minimum wage and regulations to cut prescription drug costs, but it did little to change minds that the Democrats stood for more than being anti-Trump.

I’m still puzzling out what these crosscurrents mean for the Democratic Party when Ravi Gupta closes out the summit that afternoon. Gupta chooses to end the event by pointing to a recent thread on the Slack channel that Arena members use for group messaging. The discussion, he laments, had devolved into a contentious back and forth in which people accused others in the group of being racists, assuming the worst about their peers. “The Slack discussion was completely at odds with the vision President Obama had for this country,” Gupta says, citing Obama’s 2008 “A More Perfect Union” Philadelphia speech on race as his personal “North Star.” He admits to being saddened that much of the country, including many Democrats, have veered from that speech’s lesson of inclusion and forgiveness. Hate crimes are up, the president has singled out immigrants and transgender citizens for punitive attacks, and Trump himself has begun openly defending white supremacists. Gupta wants the Arena to be both an accelerator for social change and a sanctuary from the storm. “I want to take this opportunity to explain what we as a progressive community believe in,” he says. “If you disagree, that’s fine. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this vision. It’s important to describe our values.”

He shares the story of his paternal grandfather, a cloth merchant with nine children who lived in one of the poorest provinces in India. His grandfather gave up his business and jeopardized the well-being of his family, Gupta says, to follow Gandhi’s nonviolent movement for independence. “He made a conscious choice to embrace a certain level of love and grace toward your enemy that was totally irrational but, in my opinion, grounded in a vision of what needed to come after,” Gupta says. The Slack discussion, which seemed to lack that generosity of spirit, troubles Gupta because it recapitulates the racial strife he knew from Staten Island and the Deep South—tensions that are now tearing apart American society. But he manages to end his reproach by returning to the high optimism of his favorite Obama speech. “Somehow we as a progressive community have been able to open our doors and bring people together and be kind to each other and start to think what a common America could look like if we did it together,” Gupta says as valediction. “That’s what I heard this entire weekend—that we came together around a spirit of leading this country.”

It’s undeniably heartfelt, but the civility of Obama doesn’t seem like a platform on which to build a movement today. Earlier in the day, at the end of the seminar where all the Democratic Party disaffection surfaced, I caught up to the Brooklyn web developer who first mentioned Sanders. His name is Justin Charles. He works for Fast Company magazine, and he’s also an organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America. As a Bernie supporter, he tells me he’s fine with the Arena’s emphasis on political inclusivity. “There are a lot of Obama and Clinton alums here,” he says. “That may not align 100 percent with me, but I’m here. I want to fix what’s broken.” And he appreciates what the Arena can do for him and everyone else at the summit who is eager to unseat Republicans. But when it comes to how the Arena’s ecumenical approach might benefit the Democrats over the long term, he is still not sure.

“I don’t know,” he says, his uncertainty leaving him lost for words. “I’m a registered Democrat.” He searches for a way to explain why that matters. “I mean,” he says, “it’s, like, better than the other guys.”