In normal circumstances, the men and women who chair the Democratic and Republican National Committees labor in a rather just obscurity. As the state and local party organizations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries withered and dissolved before a host of challenges—a national welfare state, television advertising, the rise of primaries and the fall of conventions—the role of the national party chairperson shrank to that of exalted fundraiser. Prominent chairs are now the exception, not the rule. It took hacked emails to give Debby Wasserman Schultz her 15 minutes of notoriety, while Reince Priebus emerged from some dank hole only because he was one of the few Republican officials last spring to stand by Donald Trump. Closer to the norm of anonymity is Preibus’s new replacement at the RNC, Ronna Romney McDaniel.
That there is now a hotly contested race for the post of chair of the DNC is only further evidence that the Democratic Party is in an odd kind of crisis—soon to be in the minority in all three branches of the federal government, and in control of the government of just six states. What makes the crisis odd, however, is not just the breadth of the party’s powerlessness but, at the same time, the majority it commands in the national popular vote, the popularity of its more progressive tenets, and the intense commitment to liberal values that millions of its activists and other progressives have demonstrated since Trump took power.
The main challenge before the Democrats just now is to deserve, and thereby win, the sustained commitment of all those who’ve taken to the streets, the malls, the civic centers, and airports over the past few weeks. Unlike the nations of Europe, where parties matter more, America is a land of social movements—abolitionist, populist, isolationist, labor, black, feminist, antiwar, conservative, Tea Party—that now and then infuse one of the parties with their energy and propel it into power to legislate their goals. Such a movement, however inchoate and hydra-headed, is the one that has pushed back against Trump and the Republicans over the past three weeks. The Democrats are nothing without its energy, foot soldiers, and ideas.
That’s why the Democrats should elect Keith Ellison to chair the DNC. Ellison—since 2007, the first African American congressman from Minnesota, as well as the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Congress’s first Muslim member—boasts a stellar liberal record, but that’s not what sets him apart from some of his fellow DNC candidates. His leading opponent, Tom Perez, led the Civil Rights Division of President Obama’s Justice Department, and during Obama’s second term, became the most successful and innovative secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins, enacting regulations to extend overtime pay to millions of workers who’d worked extra hours without it, and to require federal employers to offer better pay and benefits to their employees.
Perez and Ellison are two of the most outstanding progressives on the Democrats’ bench. Why, then, Ellison, and not Perez or one of the other liberal and well-qualified candidates? Because Ellison is a man of the movement—and the moment. He’s the DNC candidate most likely to transform the energy in the streets into real political power.
At one level, Ellison’s political evolution laid out the path that today’s activists have taken—from particularity to intersectionality. As an understandably—perhaps the better word is inevitably—angry black young man, Ellison plunged into black nationalist causes. In time, he realized not just the particularities but also the commonalities of oppression, and that it took coalitions, broad and diverse, to win even particular battles. It was the same course that activists in movements like Black Lives Matter were to take a couple of decades later—realizing the need for activists to stand up for one another’s causes, all of them at once different and similar.
Ellison is also an organizer of the unorganized. In his campaigns for the Minnesota legislature and then for Congress, as Tim Murphy has reported in Mother Jones, he developed a core of organizers, well in advance of his elections, who sought out, talked to, and mobilized the many immigrants—Somali, Hmong, Eastern European—who’d come to Minneapolis in recent decades. He also mobilized the fair-weather student voters at the universities, the very kind of voters that Democrats most need to get to the polls. Last year, Ellison was one of a handful of members of Congress who endorsed Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, for which he worked assiduously, as he did for Hillary Clinton’s after she won the nomination.
Broadly, then, the case for Ellison is that he personifies the politics and energy of the party’s rising electorate, disproportionately young and ethnically diverse, and has the kind of organizing chops that will foster a culture of sustained base-building among these and other constituencies as well. More narrowly, as chair, he would help bring together the Sanders forces and the party’s official structures—but on the terms that progressives set during the 2016 campaign. With Ellison chairing a party that is furiously opposing Trump and his GOP enablers, and recruiting a new generation of candidates to take back Congress and the statehouses, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Democrats would have access to the list of millions of progressive activists and low-dollar donors that the Sanders campaign amassed. These are among the reasons why such pillars of the party establishment as Chuck Schumer, the AFL-CIO, and (even) the Teamsters have endorsed Ellison.
An Ellison chairmanship is not without some risks. His religion and his youthful black nationalism will surely invite Republican attacks. But with millions of progressives in the streets and thousands of young liberals now beginning to consider running for office, the Democrats need a chairman who both embodies their values and knows how to organize. That is, they need Keith Ellison.