Ellison Bid for DNC Chair Exposes Party Divisions

James Early breaks down the battle emerging in the Democratic Party between pro-Wall Street elites and the progressive reformers who could push the party towards social democratic politics

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KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown. Well, if you think that you’ve had a bad 2016, it has been a tough year politically for the Democratic Party. Unable to gain a majority in either chamber of Congress, and seemingly facing an Electoral College defeat for the White House on the horizon, the DNC finds itself in disarray, leaderless and with a muddled agenda.

So, enter Congressman Keith Ellison. He is looking to be the front-runner to head the DNC, but should he win, will he be able to pull the party away from the middle and more towards the left?

Joining us to discuss this, we’re joined by James Early. James is the former Director of Culture and Heritage Policy for the Folk Programs at the Smithsonian Institution, he’s also a board member at the Institute for Policy Studies, and he’s also a board member here, at The Real News Network. He’s joining us today from Washington, DC. James, thanks for being here.

JAMES EARLY: Thank you.

KIM BROWN: Well, James, let’s get right up to speed about Congressman Ellison. He has been endorsed, not only by Bernie Sanders, whom he supported for the Democratic nomination for president, but he’s also had endorsements from Senator Liz Warren, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Congressman John Lewis, Congressman Elijah Cummings. Also, he received an endorsement for Democracy for America and from the AFL-CIO. So it seems as though Congressman Ellison has his ducks in a row to take this leadership position of the party. What are your thoughts?

JAMES EARLY: Well, I think this represents that there is an internal ideological and political battle that has come to the surface, since the roundly defeated Democratic Party, having thought that it would simply have a coronation with Hillary Clinton. I would not say that they’re in disarray. These sentiments have been seemingly under the table for a while, and I think what we are now seeing is that there an attempt to push back the more traditional accommodation that’s centrist in the Democratic Party, and move more towards progressive reformers. I would not use the term “left”. That term is thrown about, but certainly these are progressive reformers — they are not anti-capitalist or pro-socialist. They are looking for more flexibility for working people, for oppressed and exploited people within the party, and Keith Ellison represents the unified candidate on the part of those who want a change in the ideological and political direction of the Democratic Party.

KIM BROWN: Well, I have to maybe disagree with you a little bit there, Mr. Early, because it does appear that the Democrats are in disarray, especially as we look forward from July of this year, because there was a very contentious Democratic presidential campaign, which really magnified this fissure between the centrists who supported Hillary Clinton and the more progressive arms of the party who were supporting Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. And also, this led to the forcible resignation of the DNC head at the time, the Chairwoman, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I mean, Debbie Wasserman Schultz sort of got put out of the party, at least the leadership arm, kicking and screaming. She didn’t want to step down, but she was forced to do so, or strongly encouraged to do so, because of the disagreements that were happening internally within the party.

JAMES EARLY: To be in disarray means that the party thinks that it is unified and moving in the same direction and it just cannot coordinate all of its parts, and that it is in disarray because it can’t coordinate that. What we have is not disarray. We have an open now, battle, a split within the party of what direction it will take. What will be the new stability of the party? And so, that is the difference from a party just floundering and not being able to get itself coordinated, as right now this is an insurgent movement on the part of a more progressive reform set of people within the Democratic Party.

KIM BROWN: I’m not sure about that, Mr. Early, because there was a Congressman from Ohio, and tragically his name his name escapes me at the moment, but he was challenging Nancy Pelosi for Minority Leadership in the House, and one of the points I saw him make on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, was that there is a need from the Democrats to sort of, reclaim the Trump voters that they lost, and the pushback that has come, especially from Democrats of color, is that actually, “you lost us,” rather than losing these white voters. So, it does seem as if that people who have traditionally considered themselves part of the Democratic base and who the Democrats would themselves have considered their base, are not all in step with the party as of right now, and a lot of that does stem from the party leadership because there was a lot of disenchantment with Debbie Wasserman Schultz and then her inevitable successor, who was the interim DNC Chair, that of Donna Brazile.

But, let’s talk about where the party tries to gain progress, so to speak. Because we don’t have a majority in the House, don’t have a majority in the Senate, Donald Trump seems to be poised to assume the White House barring something completely unforeseen and unprecedented happening. So how do the Democrats move forward? Because it has to go beyond Keith Ellison or whoever will be tapped to be the head of the DNC.

JAMES EARLY: Well, first, here, the Democratic Party, which is different from the Democratic base, the Democratic Party is comprised of different sectoral interests. They do not have unity on all of the issues and that is why you’re seeing this battle within the party, the elected officials, of which, who will lead the party, and around what primary issues.

Secondly, with regard to the Democratic base, there are people who are loyal to that base, but there are people who are independents — large numbers of independents — who tend to vote with the Democrats but are not loyalist to the organized party structure.

So, what we see emerging now with Ellison as being an ally of Bernie Sanders, and the message that Bernie Sanders brought — this is really not about the individual personalities of Sanders or Pelosi or whom have you — it is about the analysis of the correlation of interests that is being made, and how that will be instrumentalized in representative democracy. What Bernie Sanders has called for, and what Keith Ellison is supporting, is not a simple representative democracy and where people vote for candidates and then wait to see what happens, but calling for a permanent revolution that is an active, ongoing participation of citizens in the decision-making process. And Keith Ellison has emerged as the steward who would champion that kind of orientation in the party and try to build unity with those traditional sectors who have simply been representatives and have become a kind of political elite, who wanted to bring forth the coronation of Hillary Clinton.

KIM BROWN: And, as you mentioned that, Keith Ellison is — or I mentioned it — he is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and a lot of people who are progressives themselves, have had a bit of issue with the Progressive Caucus because they don’t seem to be doing much or initiating much policy or standing firm on some of those issues that you mentioned that Bernie Sanders brought up during his presidential candidacy. For example, the Progressive Caucus, at one point during the debate for Obamacare, whether or not to pass it, said that they wouldn’t vote for it if it didn’t involve a single payer option. Well, Obamacare didn’t involve a single payer option and the Progressive Caucus voted for it, regardless.

So, the kind of issues that the Democrats need to be firm on and need to do to unify their base, as opposed to, as you said, party loyalists, what do those issues include? Because there’s a lot of disappointment with the Obama Administration on the front of climate change, when it comes to civil rights and some issues, especially, along illegal immigration, or the deporting of over 2.5 million undocumented people. So, how can the Democrats firm up on issues where a lot of people assume that they are strong, but they appear to have some weakness?

JAMES EARLY: Well, what we have seen is sector-specific issues do not comprise a coherent political operation. It brings together a group of people on the same side of the line who share some individual interests, but who do not share a coherent progressive political outlook. What Bernie Sanders brought to the table that now Ellison has endorsed from the outset, is a firmer ideological orientation that would bind those issues together. And that is social democracy. Social democracy is an outlook of consistent reform that attempts to harmonize, to lower the tension, between the exploitation of this economic system against its citizens, and to build up the social welfare dimension of that system.

So, it’s not a matter of bringing in new issues. The issues are there: climate change, LGBQT issues, anti-racist issues, economic equity issues, gender issues, climate change and the like. But how you bring those issues into a common package, where all of the players within the progressive dimension of the Democratic Party see those as their issues — not just looking at issues because they are in a certain region or they are from a certain racial agenda background.

But that is still limited, because where the Progressive Caucus has been limited, is in the international arena — and this is where both the Bernie Sanders campaign, of which Ellison was one of the first to step forward and to support Bernie Sanders, has been weak on the international issues. How do they use the vantage point of the interests of working people in the United States to give an orientation to what foreign policy should be?

So, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, is it in the interests of working people, oppressed and exploited minority people and LGBQT people who are being discriminated against, to support the Zionist government, which is different than the Jewish citizens of Israel? There is a peace movement in Israel. There is a left movement in Israel. There is a progressive movement among citizens. And so, we now have to challenge that party not only to cohere around domestic issues, but to cohere around international issues.

What will be their position regarding the poorest country in this hemisphere, which has been punished since the early 1800s, when it defeated France? And if France and the United States have punished(?) the country of Haiti, will the foreign policy be a cross-sectoral issue among the representatives of the Democratic Party? What will be their position on drones of the Obama Administration, which has brought forth this dehumanized killing of people around the world without a full legal authority? Will they come together and have a common vantage point?

These are the orientation points on some of the standing issues, and these are additional issues in the international arena, that if the Democratic Party is going to be a new party — not just try to win back the White House for the same old kinds of representative politics, where they say one thing and then feed the hands of Wall Street. This is the critical question before the Democratic Party and before the potential voting base for that party.

KIM BROWN: And one of the controversial issues that has been surrounding Keith Ellison’s bid to lead the DNC was supposedly his anti-Semitic stance against Israel and against the Jewish people. Keith Ellison has come out and said on a handful of occasions that he certainly does not hold anti-Semitic views. He actually had to clarify his relationship with the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, where Congressman Ellison said that he was involved with the Nation of Islam for a period of about a year and a half, in the lead-up to the Million Man March in 1996, and at the time, he was unaware of Minister Farrakhan’s opinions about the Jewish people. But since then, Congressman Ellison has come out and disavowed the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions Movement, the BDS Movement, against Israel and their policy of effective apartheid against the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territory.

James, when people are looking at Keith Ellison, especially so-called, the leftist or the real progressives, of the Democratic base, they may look at his approach towards Israel specifically, and think that it’s problematic, in that it just represents the old relationships, the old takes on these sort of issues, especially when it comes to Israel-Palestine. What are your thoughts about that?

JAMES EARLY: Well, I think this is going to be a huge problem in developing a consistent, progressive politic. First of all, this is not about all Jews or all Israelis, it is about the governance perspective of Israel, which oppresses and exploits Palestinians, in which even the African National Congress had called it apartheid, saying that they never experienced something so devastating, as they see about how the Palestinians are treated by the governance structure of the country of Israel.

What Keith Ellison and other progressives should be doing, is aligning themselves with progressive, anti-war, peace-making, justice-oriented, Palestinians and Jews, who are citizens of Israel — and not supporting the largest US aid packet for this horrendous exploitation, this inhumanity that goes on against the Palestinian people — and that a consistent progressive view within the Democratic Party has got to resist this absolutism, that any critique of the policies of the government of Israel is seen as anti-Semitic. That is simply irrational, absurd and unacceptable. And that if we are going to really advance democracy, then we have to take on these narrow perspectives that have hindered the freedom, in the particular case of the Palestinian people, but has also hindered the peace movement of Jews who are citizens of Israel and of the progressive reform groups among the citizens of Israel.

So, this is going to be one of the test cases, and we have to break with this liberal hypocrisy. Barack Obama threw his minister, Reverend Wright, under the bus, disavowing him. But yet, we’re asked by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, to respect the position of the presidency, and give Donald Trump a chance — this contradictory view of not holding the President-elect, and these right-wingers, to the same standard that we now want to hold Ellison to, is unacceptable. And it’s in the interests and it’s the obligation of the voting citizens to come forth and push forward what should be the perspective, and not be on the sidelines simply observing the theater that goes on among political representatives.

So I would call on voters to step forward and to say to Keith Ellison that there is another way to go about this. We cannot stop the Democratic free press voice of US citizens who want to criticize the policies of the Israeli government, and uphold that kind of inhumanity that the US government is supporting with the largest foreign aid packets to any country.

KIM BROWN: Well, it seems as though Congressman Ellison has an ever-shrinking field of opponents, those who are challenging him to be the Chair of the Democratic National Committee. We heard that former Governor of New Hampshire Howard Dean, was potentially throwing his hat in the ring. I think he has since backed out. Also, there were murmurs of former Governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, entering the fray, but for certain, he will be facing Ray Buckley, who is the party chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. And he will also be facing Jamie Harrison, who is chairperson of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Also, rumors that Labor Secretary Tom Perez, may enter this race, as well, but Democrats will be making the decision as to who will lead the DNC in February. So, we will be looking forward to that.

Any predictions James, do you want to offer up any?

JAMES EARLY: I don’t have any predictions — I’m certainly hopeful that Ellison will be successful. But some of the names that you mention, like Howard Dean and others, they represent a traditional status quo elite within the Democratic Party, who has been in the pocket of Wall Street, and they talk to the voters about liberal reforms and then they turn right around and do the same thing.

And so that, one of the tests, even if Ellison wins this position, is to see how some of those other people who are vying for the position, are they actually now going to step forward earnestly and support a new direction? So, therein, I think we’re going to continue to see some fracture lines. Again, I would not say disarray — some fraction lines — within the Democratic Party, and from the vantage point of the active voting citizenry, in the context of the permanent revolution that is an active voting citizenry that Bernie Sanders has called for, we have to push to make sure that those traditional elite Democrats step forward and fully support the new direction and not just cover themselves by the general term “Democratic Party”.

KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with James Early. James is the former director of Cultural Heritage Policy for the Folk Programs at the Smithsonian Institute. He’s also a member of the Institute for Policy Studies, and also a board member here at The Real News. James, we appreciate you joining us. Thank you.

JAMES EARLY: Thank you.

KIM BROWN: Thanks for watching The Real News Network.

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