We went into this election cycle knowing that both political parties faced real challenges. Republicans had created and fostered a radical populist movement they had intended to use to oppose President Obama but which, in the end, turned on the GOP and devoured their establishment. Trump’s victory may, for a time, serve to mask this internal crisis, but it will no doubt resurface in short order.
As the Sanders’ candidacy demonstrated, Democrats also faced an internal challenge. Many rank and file Democrats had lost confidence in their establishment and were looking for an authentic message that spoke to their needs. Because he was authentic and had a powerful economic message that spoke to the realities faced by young and working class voters, Bernie won the trust of those who had given up on politics and the Democratic Party.
The postmortems I have read analyzing the Democrats’ loss of 2016 (and their accumulated losses on the local level during the past 6 years) require that the party face its problems, head on. There must be changes in message, structure, and leadership.
In fact, the party is currently undergoing just such an intense internal debate, asking questions like: How will the party elect its presidential nominee? How will the national party be structured and relate to state parties? What will the message of the party be? And, most immediately, who will serve as the next chair?
I’ve been a member of the Democratic National Committee for twenty-five years, serving on its Executive Committee for more than a decade and a half. During all this time, I have had the privilege of working with some extraordinary people who were committed to insuring a better life for all Americans. It was Chairman Ron Brown who projected a powerful economic message that paved the way for victory in 1992 (he was also the first chair to welcome Arab Americans into the party). Chairman Don Fowler launched the ethnic council, righting a wrong that had left the descendants of European and Mediterranean immigrants feeling ignored by party organizing efforts. It was Chairman Terry McAuliffe who forcefully responded to the post 9/11 backlash against Arab and Muslim Americans. When Governor Roy Romer was Chair, he articulated, better than anyone, a simple and clear message of what it meant to be a Democrat. And it was Howard Dean who understood that the party needed to be strong in every state, and Tim Kaine who made a determined effort to reach out to all of the party’s constituent groups with an authentic and coherent message of inclusion.
Despite the extraordinary efforts of these great leaders, the party lost its way during the past several decades. It lost touch with the working class voters who had been its core constituency and focused its message, instead, on a litany of progressive social causes. Democrats were right to attend to these issues—but were wrong to have forsaken their traditional progressive economic program. It was a mistake to have seen these two agendas as competing or mutually exclusive. For the party to once again become the leading force, it once was, it is important that they project a message that unites “class and race” and elect a leader who can authentically carry that message to voters.
Based on my past experiences with these great party leaders and looking forward to what Democrats need to do in the future, I will be supporting Keith Ellison for chair in 2017. I have known Keith since before he was elected to Congress 10 years ago. He is a passionate advocate for working people. He has a vision that is inclusive, progressive, and understanding of the needs of all Americans.
There are, to be sure, those who have opposed Keith’s election as Chair. The most vocal opponents have posited that because he has been supportive of Palestinian rights and has been critical of Israeli policies, he is insufficiently pro-Israel and should be disqualified from consideration. His defenders argue that his views are, in fact, balanced and well within the mainstream of the Democratic consensus. More than that, the very fact that Keith has been an honest and authentic voice for Israeli-Palestinian peace has made him appealing to disaffected millennials who are looking for real leaders, not political hacks who “toe the line”.
There are also critics who have made the case that as an African American Muslim Keith is the wrong face for a party that needs to win back support from the “white working class”. This argument is, at best, wrongheaded, and, at worst, insidious.
Democrats didn’t lose the support of the white working class because of the race of the messenger. Rather it was because the party wasn’t advocating a message that spoke to the needs and concerns of this disaffected group of voters. In his Congressional campaigns, Keith has consistently appealed to and won the support of a cross-section of voters. And as the endorsements of Bernie Sanders (who won significant support from the white working class) and the AFL-CIO make clear, Keith is a champion for American workers of all races.
I remember when I first met Keith we had a long conversation about his politics and his faith. What I found most fascinating about his views were the degree to which they tracked my own. I am a Jesuit-trained Catholic whose politics are shaped by the Christian social gospel message. While I don’t wear my faith on my sleeve, the values derived from my faith infuse my commitment to the poor, the outcaste, and those in need who cannot help themselves.
As I listened to Keith describe his personal political philosophy, I heard echoes of this same message—the Judeo-Christian-Islamic prophetic message of compassion and responsibility. These were his values and this was how his faith directed his action.
We have also talked over the years about the Democratic party’s need: to restructure and reform; to build sustainable groups in every state enabling us to recoup from our devastating losses in governorships and state legislatures (especially in Midwestern states); to revitalize the Democratic National Committee so that it makes better use of the talent and experience of its extraordinary grassroots membership; and, finally, to reform how we chose our national candidates.
The party needs to change and Keith understands that. A good place to start making that change happen would be to elect Keith Ellison as Chair.