The selection of the next chairperson of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has enormous implications for the future of the party. There is currently a strong movement within the party to select Rep. Keith Ellison (MN) as chair.
Ellison is an outspoken and active progressive. He represents the Paul Wellstone tradition of Minnesota Democrats. He served as Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (with Rep. Raul Grijalva, AZ). He was a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primaries. He has the support of Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar (of his home state of Minnesota), and even new Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer. He has been endorsed by a number of unions.
He has a unique opportunity to lead the Democratic Party into a new progressive identity.
But he is also black. And Muslim. He is critical of Israel’s policies of occupation and separation. At one time, he held views favorable of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
His selection would be a gift to the right-wing opponents of progressive change. As the face of the Democratic party he would divert any discussion from a conversation about party policies to a demand for explanation of Ellison’s putative anti-white, anti-Semitic, and, ultimately, anti-American views. His personality, not his polities and those of his party, would eclipse any potentially substantive analysis by “journalists” and “pundits.”
Already, conservative activists in the “Israel lobby” have launched attacks on Ellison, labeling him “anti-Semitic” and arguing that he represents an attempt to move the party away from its generally uncritical support of Israeli government policies. (Notwithstanding the growing split between Israeli PM Netanyahu and Democrats, as Netanyahu and his advisors vocally support the Republicans.)
There is a chilling possibility that the debate over Ellison’s views on Israel can descend into an open conflict between blacks and Jews within the Democratic Party, reminiscent of the conflicts between the two groups in the 1970s. Fortunately, the support of Senators Schumer – possibly Israel’s strongest supporter in the US Senate – and Bernie Sanders, both Jews, might calm the anxieties of Democrats who are sincerely concerned about the party’s position on Israel under Ellison’s leadership. But there is no sign that the attacks labeling Ellison as anti-Semitic are about to diminish.
Ellison is not the only candidate for the DNC chair. His strongest opponent is Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who has the de facto endorsement of President Obama. Perez has strong liberal credentials. His work as Maryland Secretary of Labor and as Assistant US Attorney General for Civil Rights has brought him endorsements from unions and progressive organizations.
There is some risk that the selection of Perez over Ellison will cause resentment among black Democrats. They might interpret it as a rejection of a member of a consistently loyal constituency in favor of the much sought after rapidly growing Hispanic population. However, given the general passiveness of establishment black Democrats, and Perez’s civil rights record, his selection might make few waves.
The greatest opposition to rejection of Ellison might come from the “Bernie” faction of progressive Democrats, who would once again see themselves as betrayed by the party’s corporate elites. It would be up to Senator Sanders, and perhaps also Senator Warren, to keep them within the party.
Democrats have an important choice to make this February. They must reconnect with the electorate at the local, state, and national levels. They can spend the next four years campaigning to win elections and save our democracy. Or they can spend them explaining and defending Keith Ellison to bloodthirsty right-wing politicians and pundits and their scandal-hungry media parasites.
However shameful the reasons, Democrats must make the right decision.