Would Keith Ellison Pursue Reconciliation or Lead Insurgency Within DNC?

Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara says the political battles ahead must not be limited to Trump but should include a fight against establishment Democrats

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KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown, in Baltimore.

Minnesota Congressman, Keith Ellison has picked up some key support from labor unions in his bid to be the next Chair of the Democratic National Committee. SCIU, UAW, and AFL-CIO, have urged their members to back Ellison against a field of about a dozen others when Party members meet in Atlanta to vote on February 23rd. And to discuss the viability of Keith Ellison, as head of the DNC, we’re joined by Bhaskar Sunkara, from New York City. Bhaskar Sunkara is the founder and editor of Jacobin Magazine and like I said, he’s joining us today from New York. Bhaskar, thank you so much for being here.

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Thanks for having me.

KIM BROWN: So, Keith Ellison’s main opponent is former Labor Secretary, Tom Perez and Tom Perez has said openly that he is only a few dozen votes short of securing the votes needed to become the next Chair of the DNC. So, getting into, like, the nuts and bolts of this, how is this race looking right now?

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Well, I think it’s impossible to tell, partially because of how opaque some of these votes and procedures are. At first it looked pretty good at the state-wide and kind of Governor votes, because Ellison was more or less splitting support. And the thinking at the time was that that means that, you know, if he’s doing well in that crowd, he would do well at other layers. He was kind of off to a very good start with the endorsement from Sanders, endorsement from, even Chuck Schumer, that wing of the Party.

Then it seems that there was kind of a concerted counter-offensive by kind of the Obama wing of the Party and that a lot of people formerly in the Obama Administration didn’t want Keith Ellison, for a variety of reasons in this role.

And it’s very telling that they encouraged and put forward Tom Perez in this role, partially because he has a reputation for actually being, you know, the most left-wing of the Obama appointees. You know, he as Labor Secretary always embraced something that you could say was firmly within the kind of spectrum of third-way Democratic Party politics, but was really on the left-wing of it, much in the way of De Blasio, and others. He spoke about the need for workers to be able to have union rights and things like that, which was kind of out of step with some of the varieties of Clintonism that we’ve seen predominantly in the Democratic Party in the ’90s and 2000s.

So, it is telling that they chose him as an opponent. But as far as the horse race, you know, it’s just very hard to predict.

KIM BROWN: Indeed. So, let’s talk about some of the critiques of Keith Ellison, and they have ranged from straight up personal attacks regarding his affiliation with the Nation of Islam when he was a younger man. Some of his critiques at the time of Jewish people and individuals. And also now, there’s been a lot of criticism about Keith Ellison being head of the progressive caucus which many view as sort of not very effective especially, pushing a progressive agenda in the face of overwhelmingly Republican control of Congress.

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Right.

KIM BROWN: So, what are some of the pros and cons about Keith Ellison in this role?

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Well, I think all this criticism is kind of ridiculous for a variety of reasons. You know, to begin with, Keith Ellison at no point this kind of… there was a scandal, this cloud over him about anti-Semitism. But anyone who’s seriously and honestly examined kind of what was said, when it was said, and what not, would say that that’s kind of, you know, ridiculous.

Like, you know, you could say maybe for a time as a young man he flirted with certain varieties of Black Nationalism — maybe. And to me, that’s not anything kind of abhorrent and obviously, he had a political evolution. But at no point did he kind of come close to anti-Semitism. I think a lot his critics, you know, even wouldn’t say that much. What they did want was they wanted the cloud around him. They wanted a few headlines. They wanted a reason for him to drop out or at least to cast doubt about him. And at the time it seemed, you know, I mean, this tells you something about the Obama wing of the Democratic Party and a lot of these people. They were willing to put this cloud around a front-runner, you know, a person who very well might be DNC Chair, might have to, you know, play that role in their Party just for the sake of gaining some maneuvering for their faction or just to see a Sanders-aligned candidate fail.

So, I think all those charges were just ridiculous. I think it is a more interesting question to point out that the Congressional Progressive Caucus has not been effective. It not only is a body that represents the closest we come to consistently articulate, kind of, social Democratic values in Congress. And especially, in American society where these ideas have not been competently put forward for a very long time by politicians.

But of course, very little of their agenda points went through. Very few members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Keith Ellison is one of the very few, like actually even endorsed Bernie Sanders, which tells you something.

But I think a lot of this has to be with a structural nature of the Democratic Party and the way in which left voices are maybe elevated around election time, during election cycles, but are often cast into the background when it comes to the nitty gritty of actually conducting policy. It has to do with the broader climate of the country in the ’90s and 2000s and I really don’t think it has to do with the ineffectiveness of one particular leader. To the extent that there was a bold and decisive thing for him to do as a progressive Congressperson, he did it. He endorsed Bernie Sanders, which was a difficult thing to do within that Party. And I think for that, that you know, to me is the reason why he’s worth supporting in this race. I think there are other reasons to have doubts about Keith Ellison, but that’s not it.

KIM BROWN: You know Bernie Sanders adds a pretty interesting wrinkle to this because many of the hardline Party folks are still mad at Bernie Sanders as you well know.

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Right, right.

KIM BROWN: And we’ll quickly point out that Bernie Sanders himself is not a Democrat, in spite of seeking the Democratic nomination for President. So, perhaps, Keith Ellison endorsing Bernie Sanders might not work for him, as he seeks to be the head of the Party.

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Well, Sanders is still the most popular politician in the country as far as favorability ratings. At the national level, he’s still extremely popular within the Democratic Party. He has actually, a base of supporters. He hasn’t demobilized that base. He isn’t, you know, hiding in the woods or wherever, or you know, Hillary Clinton was in the early months after the election and in the first months since the Trump Administration.

So, I think the Sanders kind of connection is a big boon for him. I think there is a certain question within certain segments of the Party. They’ll say things like, “Well, you know, the whole point of the campaign was that the Democrats aren’t relating to white workers and white small business people. So, why are we putting forward a black, Muslim candidate? And to me, that’s one on the face of it, of course, completely reactionary, that we should oppose it on those grounds.

But even practically, I mean, the lesson of the election for the Democrats should be some variant of the internet meme, you know, Bernie would have won. And there’s someone who knew from the outset that Bernie’s rhetoric and approach to politics was, you know, fit a country, fit in kind of an anti-establishment populace mood and that offered real solutions to people.

So, you know, I think those criticisms are wrong but I am nonetheless still wary of Keith Ellison. And I’m wary partially because I don’t think he’s as politically consistent as someone like Bernie Sanders was. If you look at let’s say, where he’s drawing his support from in his campaigns in the past, his Congressional campaigns, they’ve been from the financial industry. It’s been from, you know, some donations from insurance companies, from the real estate sectors and what not.

I mean, this isn’t a moral condemnation. He’s a Democrat in a big city who has to battle through potential primary challenges and all these other things. This is the way this Party is funded. You know, it’s a Party of capital and it requires kind of a degree of funding that’s not going to come from a dues-paying membership. It’s not going to come from just labor unions. It’s going to come from a variety of sources.

So, I don’t think we should look uncritically about Keith Ellison’s voter record. And also, where he’s getting his money from, who’s he beholding to, and just because he’s opposed by the wrong people, should we completely let our guard down? And I think that we can say that while still saying that Keith Ellison right now is a proxy fight within the Democratic Party. And we want the Bernie Sanders to win and we want, therefore, Keith Ellison to win. But you know, I have my skepticisms but it isn’t the ones that are commonly voiced from mainstream Democratic circles.

KIM BROWN: You know this is turning into a pretty contentious fight, really between the front-runners, as you said, Ellison and Perez. But this comes on the heels or relatively on the heels, several months, after the former head of the DNC, Congresswoman Debby Wasserman-Schultz was in effect, forced out after it was widely understood that in a sense she was colluding with Hillary Clinton during the Democratic Presidential Primary–

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Right.

KIM BROWN: …To ensure that Mrs. Clinton won the nomination and this… not just that, but Debby Wasserman-Schultz was problematic for a variety of reasons. She supported some policies that were viewed as decidedly not progressive. She was for continuing the War on Drugs. She opposed the legalization of marijuana. She, you know, stood opposed to what many in the Democratic Party felt as if the party’s platform represented. So, what are some of the key differences when it comes to policy between Keith Ellison and Tom Perez?

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Well, let me actually take this question back to the question of Debby Wasserman-Schultz and her role. I mean, this is one of my, for many years, one of my least favorite politicians in America. So, I completely understand a lot of the ire that was directed towards her. We need to think seriously about what actually happened with the DNC and with what was revealed in the leaks. And I think not a whole lot was actually revealed.

You can definitely say there was collusion over the debate schedule. There was little, kind of clear evidence of a lot of the staff in the DNC didn’t particularly like Bernie Sanders, but materially, was it enough to throw the election? Did it even influence the election really in a serious way? I don’t think necessarily it did and that’s partially… But now because we shouldn’t think that having Keith Ellison in and having a different set of appointees at the DNC, is actually going to necessarily benefit much, a left populace candidate in 2020, you know.

And fundamentally this position isn’t really a position that’s entirely political. The DNC Chair isn’t writing platforms, and what not. He spends a lot of his time, or she was spending a lot of her time just coordinating between the state and local Democratic Parties. Coordinating fundraising, you know, it’s a very technical role and I think what it would mean if a person like Ellison won, was a sign that this wing within the Democratic Party is going from victory to victory and this can snowball into something. And I think that is important but the gains and for me, the stakes in the battle are largely symbolic.

As far as Perez, I mean I think the main difference is less kind of a programmatic difference in their kind of world views and approach. I think Keith Ellison, has definitely shown himself to be willing to throw in with these kinds of new and emerging social forces around Bernie Sanders. I think he’s also had a lot of backing from some of the more progressive unions and some other, you know, forces within the labor movement that we definitely want to win to left-wing ideas. But you know line by line, I think they’re both candidates that are left of let’s say Hillary Clinton. That doesn’t mean though that Perez isn’t ensconced in this kind of like, milieu of Obama and you know, a lot of these people around his Administration and that the DNC appointments that he will make aren’t going to be from that milieu as opposed to kind of consolidating the stronghold that Sanders-types have over the Party.

So, I think that that’s where you’ll see the difference — over the appointments, the networks they’re beholding to. But if you break them down line by line, you know, there isn’t a whole lot of difference.

KIM BROWN: So, what awaits the next Chair of the DNC? You’re dealing with an obstinate, some would argue, ignorant Republican President, in Donald Trump. Republican-controlled Congress, overwhelmingly the Governorships, the Governors’ houses and state legislatures across the country are Republican-controlled. I mean, it appears as if the Democrats not really doing that great of a job of picking up seats on the state level and at the national level as well.

So, in terms of looking at 2018, before we even get to 2020, what does the next Chair of the DNC have to do in order to mitigate this gap in how many seats Democrats hold at various levels?

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Well, yeah, a tremendous rebuilding process has to go on at the state and local level. I think the Democratic Party has not really been able to inspire their base and actually motivate and activate them. You know, they’ve been so afraid of upsetting kind of the, you know, moving too far from the so-called center, an illusionary center I think, of American public opinion. And you know, fending off any possible challengers from the left. They don’t really have the energy and the kind of dynamics that let’s say the Republican Party had in large part because of the Tea Party.

So, I think fundamentally, we need a DNC Chair that will stay out of the way and if anything, encourage people to go and, you know, do things like what happened in California, where Our Revolution and the National Nurses Union, a whole host of pro-Bernie forces, you know, launched a campaign to take over the state-wide Democratic Party. You know, I myself question some of the utility of these efforts. I question whether the Democratic Party can be realigned but I do think that this is the kind of dynamics we need to see. We need to see insurgencies. We need to see fights. We need to see these questions being drawn up on a real political basis.

My fear is that as DNC Chair, Ellison will have to take the responsibility to be a conciliatory force within the Party. He’ll have to reconcile these competing interests and wings and kind of build a certain new coalition that might incorporate some of the rhetoric of the Bernie Sanders of the world, but might very much leave in place a lot of the bureaucrats and apparatus of the Democratic Party machine. That’s my real fear.

KIM BROWN: What does intra-party insurgency look like within the Democrats? Because we saw what it looked like on the GOP side with the advent of the Tea Party and you know, the propulsion of people like Sarah Palin, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Jason Chafez and all these Tea Party-backed Conservatives who were elected to Congress albeit via the means of the Koch brothers and their pocketbook. But it doesn’t appear as though the Democrats have, you know, billionaires ready to bankroll a counter-movement within the Democratic Party. So, what does that look like in your opinion?

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Well, I don’t think the Koch brothers made the Tea Party. I don’t think billionaires made the Tea Party. I think it fundamentally was a grassroots phenomenon that had a lot of backing. You know, it had…

KIM BROWN: It had a lot of money backing, too. The money didn’t come from nowhere.

BHASKAR SUNKARA: The money didn’t come from anywhere but the… I would say this, I definitely agree, it was a combination of Astro turf and I think there was a real grassroots base. But it wasn’t just money though, it was some sort of sense of identity, a sense of, you know, “Here’s what we stand for,” and a willingness to take on people within their own party.

You know, someone like, Orrin Hatch is like a crazy person. You know, Utah Senator, Orrin Hatch and he’s in this Primary by the Tea Party. You know, he wasn’t crazy enough. I think in other words, the Democratic Party needs to have people who adopt that kind of mentality, who are willing to create the polarization, not just against Trump, and Trump is terrible and his Administration is terrible. We are constantly defending all the stuff coming from Trump. But we need to be able to have that sword against Trump, but also, be able to move forward against, you know, lots of establishment Democrats.

We can adopt the mentality of, in order to beat Trump, we need to unite just about everyone who isn’t Trump. You know, this is the kind of anybody but Bush mentality that we suffered through in the 2000s.

So, I think that’s what it would look like. It would look like a willingness to fight. As far as, where the funding and support is going to come from, I think in many ways, you know, they have corporations. We need on the left support from militant labor unions. I mean that’s the only force in society that really has tens of millions of members. It has resources, that has the experience and training of organization and dealing with campaigns, that you know, we could really use.

So, I think a lot of this will have to start in kind of rank and file struggles and labor movements, mobilizations in the streets. But I don’t think we should dismiss the example of just kind of militancy that we saw from the Tea Party.

And you know, the one thing I’m afraid of is increasingly as we get closer to 2018, there’ll be this kind of mentality of us needing to maintain kind of unity, you know, to defeat Trump. I think it’s quite the opposite. We need polarization to actually challenge the centrist’s ideologues, people like Hillary Clintion, who created the conditions for Trump to, you know, rise in. That doesn’t mean individual liberals. We shouldn’t be attacking individual liberals. We should be trying to win people over with arguments and through organizing. But it does mean that we need enemies that are in the Democratic leadership class. You know, the Tea Party wouldn’t have been the Tea Party, wouldn’t have got anything done if it had, you know, Bob Dole as one of its figureheads when it emerged.

And I think it’s important also to note that, you know, a lot of the recent phenomenon as far as the evolution of the Tea Party, how it bled into kind of Donald Trump’s campaign, and things like that, you know, they do mention at the start the Tea Party got tons of corporate funding and backing. But it’s also worth noting that by the end of let’s say 2013, the Chamber of Commerce was aggressively pushing against the Tea Party. You know this kind of alliance between the business wing of the Republican Party and the Tea Party was eventually broken.

KIM BROWN: Indeed. We’ve been speaking with Bhaskar Sunkara. Bhaskar is the founder and Editor of Jacobin Magazine. And we’ve been discussing the impending election at the DNC for who is going to be the next Chair of the DNC. It’s a pretty contentious race right now between former Labor Secretary, Tom Perez and Minnesota Congressman, Keith Ellison. Bhaskar, we’re going to check back in with you closer to the election and possibly the weekend of, or shortly after to see how this eventually ended up shaking out in Atlanta.

BHASKAR SUNKARA: I avoided making a strong prediction, so I think I covered all of my bases.

KIM BROWN: Alright, excellent. Well, fantastic, thanks for speaking with us and we’ll check back in with you soon.

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Take care.

KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.

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