Why the Democratic Party Needs Keith Ellison

Politics Features Keith Ellison
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Why the Democratic Party Needs Keith Ellison

For a fleeting moment, all the political stars seemed to be in alignment for Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) to ascend more or less unchallenged to the position of DNC chair. Upon announcing his bid for a position that will profoundly shape Democrats’ electoral efforts in the years to come, Ellison quickly secured the backing of progressive champions Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. Even Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the ultimate centrist Democrat, threw his support behind the Minnesota representative.

However, the Democratic establishment, eager to maintain its hold on the party apparatus, has repeatedly taken steps to stymie Ellison, first in the form of former DNC chair Howard Dean (who quickly withdrew from the race after failing to generate support) and subsequently, former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez. Perez, favored by former Obama administration officials, boasts the high profile backing of former Vice President Joe Biden, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, among others. He also draws upon substantial union support.

Technically speaking, Perez has mounted a successful campaign. On Feb. 15, he announced the support of 180 DNC members, a majority of the 224 he will need to win the race. Although the Ellison camp is pushing back against the notion that his most formidable opponent has secured a decisive lead, it is conceivable given his current support that Perez may well emerge victorious with the help of party insiders reluctant to give up power. But he is the wrong candidate for the job he seeks.

Keith Ellison is the right candidate for the job. Whether or not he is able to overcome the headwinds generated by his groundbreaking, unapologetically progressive candidacy will have major implications, both symbolically and substantively, for the Democratic Party. He is, without a doubt, the best candidate to weave the disparate strands of the left together into a cohesive movement, a necessity if the Democratic Party is to consolidate sufficient support to achieve electoral success in 2018 and beyond.

And yet, few see Ellison as a unifier, in large part because his opponents, aided and abetted by conservatives, have cast him as outside the mainstream, at times by means of shameful dog whistle politics. The media has played into this narrative, framing the race for DNC chair as a proxy war between the “Clinton and Sanders wings” of the Democratic Party (the other candidates have little chance of winning), the implication being that the latter is an insurgent force seeking to usurp control of a party that “belongs” to the establishment that has in many ways contributed to its ruin on the state, local and federal levels.

This narrative is false on multiple levels. To start with, Keith Ellison may be a progressive, but it is not true that he is a “radical,” at least not in pejorative sense that his detractors intend. What is true is that Keith Ellison backed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, incurring the simmering wrath of a Democratic establishment that united behind the ill-fated candidacy of Hillary Clinton. In retrospect, Ellison’s decision to endorse the Vermont Senator seems prescient. Ellison, like Sanders and unlike Clinton, understood the vital role populism would play in the 2016 presidential election on both ends of the ideological spectrum. During the primary, Ellison argued that: “[Democrats] have to stand for a strong, populist economic message.” He went on to claim that “the way the working class is always controlled is that it’s divided.” The Clinton campaign, alas, neglected this demographic in crucial Rust Belt states, providing an opening for Trump and contributing to her defeat.

Keith Ellison, in contrast, understood the elemental, populist appeal of Donald Trump to a certain segment of the American electorate, which included many Democrats. In a July 2015 segment of ABC’s This Week that has since gone viral, Ellison correctly anticipated Trump’s success at a time when most establishment figures considered the candidate a joke, a ratings machine with little chance of winning the Republican primary, much less the presidency. All assembled literally burst into laughter when Ellison made his prediction but, alas, time proved him correct. Like Bernie Sanders, Ellison correctly read the anti-establishment mood of the electorate. He understood the role economic populism could play in broadening the appeal of the Democratic Party. And so he endorsed Sanders in the primary.

And yet, Keith Ellison is far more than just a knee-jerk populist. He does not seek disruption for disruption’s sake or harbor unrealistic dreams of overturning the two-party system. Ellison, living proof that partisanship and progressivism are not mutually exclusive, is a committed Democrat. Thus, when Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primary and endorsed Clinton, Ellison did the same. He even offered praise for Clinton, highlighting her “progressive roots.” He described his role in the campaign from that point onward as: “[helping] progressive activists and Bernie supporters understand that we don’t lose by supporting Hillary Clinton.”

Ellison’s endorsement of Clinton, while sacrilegious to some, did not constitute “selling out,” nor should it diminish his progressive bona fides. Rather, it was an act of both prudence and principle. He made clear at the time his conviction that: “no true Bernie supporter could vote for Trump… This guy is talking about change, yeah — for the worse.” Ellison understood that it was in the interests of the American people for the Democratic Party, however imperfect, to halt the rise of a racist, authoritarian demagogue and keep the levers of power away from a Republican Party in thrall to its most reactionary elements. Like Sanders, Ellison considered the interests of Americans who would suffer most under a Trump-Ryan regime and made his endorsement accordingly.

Ultimately, Keith Ellison is the best choice for DNC Chair not because he backed Bernie Sanders in Democratic primaries or because he supported Hillary Clinton in the general election. He is the best choice because he had the ideological flexibility to do both, boldly and without apology. Because he is a populist unafraid to get his hands dirty working within the system. And because his approach to organizing is ideally suited to channeling the grassroots energy generated by the Resistance into victories for progressives. As a bonus, Ellison is a charismatic figure who gives a mean stump speech. He is uniquely equipped among those running for DNC Chair to articulate a progressive vision for the Democratic Party, as opposed to just running an unwieldy bureaucracy that relies on big donors to blanket the airwaves with ads.

Tom Perez, on the other hand, is a pure technocrat. While a reliable liberal in many respects, he is not committed to the kind of structural change the DNC needs to pitch a wider tent and mobilize voters. He symbolizes the establishment at a time when establishment politics are toxic, a political third rail. His 50-state strategy is just that: a strategy. Perez has failed to demonstrate that he can generate the grassroots support necessary to execute it. And he certainly hasn’t done a good job or appealing to progressives over the course of his campaign. His refusal to commit to banning donations to the DNC from corporations and lobbyists was disheartening. Worse, Perez’s ill-fated pandering to progressives convinced that the Democratic primary was rigged, followed by a quick retraction, made him seem desperate and insincere. In an attempt to reach a demographic – Berniecrats – that is not overly fond of him, Perez clumsily ripped open a primary wound that could still divide the left at a time when it must set its sights on the future.

Keith Ellison doesn’t need to pander. He already boasts well-earned credibility among progressives and a record of appealing to a deep, broad constituency in Minnesota and beyond. And most importantly, he has proven time and time again that he can convincingly meld economic populism and identity politics into a coherent, compelling message. He sees activism as a synergistic process in which the grassroots generates momentum for change on the ground and public servants in government direct that energy into electoral and policy gains. Although undeniably populist in his rhetoric, Ellison’s willingness to work through institutions (Congress and the DNC) places him in the proud tradition of progressive reformers.

Keith Ellison’s approach, rooted in a bold, inclusive, unifying progressive agenda attuned to both class and identity politics, can be the future of a Democratic Party that has exhausted the potential of technocratic, incrementalist liberalism that Tom Perez, fairly or not, has come to represent. Ellison, like Sanders, offers a sharp, compelling contrast to a Republican Party that embodies the worst tendencies of authoritarian demagogue Donald Trump and anti-government, Ayn Rand fanboy Paul Ryan. Crucially, Ellison can help present an alternative view of government not as a den of corruption and dysfunction, but as a source of genuinely progressive policy solutions behind which to build momentum for 2018, 2020 and beyond. As DNC chair, Ellison would be the ideal figure to mobilize support not only against Trump, but for policies like single-payer healthcare, tough financial regulation and campaign finance reform. Perez is to a greater or lesser extent compromised on every one of these issues due to his connections to the Democratic establishment.

Perhaps, with the benefit of a common enemy in the form of Donald Trump and a commitment to nuts and bolts political organizing, Ellison and like-minded progressives can channel the kind of energy President Obama generated during his 2008 presidential campaign but failed to sustain once in office. Perhaps, vote by vote, race by hard-fought race, a new, empowered progressive movement can win elections and transform government in its image. Keith Ellison is the only candidate for DNC chair with the organizing experience and grassroots support to make this a reality.