Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Disappointed, but not distraught

The defeat of Congressman Ellison for the DNC chairmanship was a disappointment, but change within the Democratic Party is inexorable now

Like many other progressives, I was disappointed that Congressman Keith Ellison lost the election to be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee to former Labour Secretary Tom Perez. I was disappointed, but not distraught. Here’s why.

It was clear from the outset that Keith wouldn’t have an easy go of it. The party insiders, operatives, and major corporate donors were never going to surrender the reins of control without a fight.

During the course of the campaign, the congressman was subjected to deeply disturbing and even vicious attacks. Some disgustingly questioned why Democrats would want to elect an African American Muslim as chair when the party needed to win votes from the “white working class”. It was equally troubling that conservative elements in the Jewish community baited Keith as anti-Israel and shamefully quoted articles he had written as a young student, terming him “extremist”, “anti-Semitic” or “a bigot”. Building on these attacks, some then questioned whether with all these “strikes against him”, he could raise the funds the party would need to win elections.

Despite this slander, Keith won 200 votes out of 435 votes cast in the contest. Many who cast their ballot for him were repulsed and embarrassed by the attacks and wanted to send a strong message of support for and confidence in Keith’s leadership. They understood that he represented a new generation of Democrats and that he was a principled progressive leader who could unify the party, and an effective organiser who knew how to win elections.

While those who slandered Keith are now gloating over his defeat, in fact, it is they who were the losers in this contest. Because the congressman took the high road and did not sink to the level of his attackers, he emerged as a leader and unifier, while they have been exposed as dividers and bigots. By naming Ellison as deputy chair, Perez delivered the ultimate repudiation.

Another reason not to be distraught is because this was never an ideological contest between competing political philosophies. Progressive ideas didn’t lose. Listening to the debates among those who ran for the several leadership positions being contested in this election, it became clear that the “Bernie agenda” of the 2016 presidential race has become the dominant programme of the party. It has eclipsed the now discredited Clinton-era centrist agenda.

The new chairman, Perez, will be a champion for change. He and Ellison will join together to advocate for policies that will: support workers’ rights and women’s rights; protect the environment; support quality healthcare for all; improve the public education system; bring justice to the criminal justice system and advocate for policies that keep the American people safe and secure, while protecting their civil and political rights.

When some Democrats said that they wanted the chair to be a full-time job, Ellison responded that, if elected, he would resign from his seat in Congress. It’s important that Ellison will not now be forced to honour that pledge. He will remain in Congress where his voice as a leader of the Progressive Caucus is needed more than ever. In many ways this campaign has served to catapult Ellison into a national leadership role. He didn’t lose. Instead, he has become a leader in the party and will now be an even stronger voice in Congress.

Finally, there’s no reason to be distraught because the fight to change the party and our politics is just beginning. As I noted, this contest was not about differences in policy. It was a continuation of the insurgent campaign run by Bernie Sanders that was focused on reforming our politics and making the Democratic Party more responsive to its grassroots and less attentive to its donor class. As Sanders demonstrated in 2016 by raising over $200 million from small donors, it is possible for Democrats to be competitive by relying on principled ideas, trusted leadership, and grassroots organisation.

This movement continues to manifest itself almost daily, as evidenced by the mass demonstrations that greeted the inauguration of Donald Trump, that gathered in airports to welcome refugees and immigrants in defiance of Trump’s Executive Orders, that have denounced the new administration’s Islamophobia and tolerance of anti-Semitism, and that have challenged Republican efforts to gut healthcare reform.

Led by Our Revolution and other progressives, this movement is currently running and winning elections on the local level and in contests for party leadership posts in Blue, Red, and Purple states across the country. They are creating, from the bottom up, a new Democratic Party, the significance of which will become clear in the years to come.

Given this, I can’t feel distraught. Instead, I’m hopeful. Democrats have a progressive chair and deputy chair; a true progressive retains his position in Congress; and the movement for change is alive and well. The donor class and party “establishment” may have had their last hurrah. Despite the claim of some in this crowd who boast that they won, their boasts are hollow. The country and the party are changing and there’s no going back to the “good old days”.

The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

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