“There must be something in the water in Minnesota,” writes Keith Ellison (D-MN) in his new memoir My Country, ’Tis of Thee, “because historically, despite its seemingly homogeneous population, the state has produced some of our more radical political thinkers, and its people have put their prejudices aside to vote for them.” Granted, Ellison was born and raised in Detroit, but the four-term congressman from Minnesota’s Fifth District is boldly following in the footsteps of Humphrey, McCarthy, Mondale and Wellstone.
“Paul Wellstone was my model”; he writes, “my exemplar of an effective politician.” Wellstone “answered to the people and did so with honesty and conviction, and people appreciated that.” Within the context of the do-nothing 113th Congress, Ellison’s reasonability seems downright revolutionary. “When you’re a leader,” Ellison writes, “you cannot ignore parts of your constituency, even if you know they’re not going to vote for you.” There are Republicans in Minneapolis, too—a lesson that countless members of congress have forgotten vis-a-vis their own hometown opposition.
Perhaps most representative of Ellison’s efforts (and of Congressional intractability) is the bipartisan Preserving Homeownership Act of 2012, which Ellison co-introduced with Representatives Gary Peters (D-MI) and John Campbell (R-CA). The bill, which includes a principal-reduction program and which the Republican majority has precluded from passing, is a “win-win proposition that resulted from a moderate Democrat, a progressive Democrat, and a Republican working together to help home owners. When members of Congress talk informally about the things happening in our individual districts, we find that we share many common issues.” Nevertheless, the bill remains a victim of “politics [trumping] common sense,” a non-starter (or half-starter) in a legislature focused on maintaining acrimony across the aisle.
Ellison is a believer in activism, and he believes that so-called “regular folks” can influence their legislators. With Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Ellison is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a position he ran for “to connect working Americans with members of Congress who want to partner with them.” Not only is Ellison eager to work with Republicans, he’s also intent on increasing citizen participation in government (If you stay disgruntled yet sit idle on the sidelines, he believes, then you’re just a complainer.) And participation is crucial. He sees himself (and Congress) as part of a vast ecosystem comprising activists, movements, politicians, and voters. “What’s the matter with Congress?” he asks. “Nothing that wide-awake and active Americans can’t fix.”
On foreign policy, Ellison decries unilateral action and condemns US behavior after 9/11. Iraq was a “colossal failure,” and in Afghanistan, “We allowed ourselves to lose track of the goal.” Ellison knows that our current strategy is failing, both militarily and culturally. He’s disappointed by the coldness of the reception he received on a 2011 trip to Pakistan, and he compares it sadly to the warm welcome he experienced there just two years earlier. Pakistanis rightly ask Ellison if he “thought that we should be able to come into their country and make war,” and he bitterly notes, “We’re supposed to be allies.”
Ellison sees American aid as one of the most powerful tactics we can use against terrorism, decrying the fact that our foreign-aid budget is one-twentieth that of the military’s. “Surely,” he asks, “we can find value in doing some preventive maintenance?”
Ellison, of course, was the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, and he admits that his faith plays a role in his politics. Not surprisingly, his opponents (and some colleagues) have gone bananas over his religion. His GOP opponent in 2006 taunted Ellison as “Keith Muhammad, Keith X, Keith Hakim” (all at the same press conference); his campaign was compared to a “Japanese American being elected to the US Congress five years after Pearl Harbor”; and in 2012, a “Democrat–Tea Party candidate” ran an ad asking Minneapolis voters, “Do you really want someone representing you who swears his oath on a Quran, a book that undermines our Constitution and says you should be killed?”
But notably, he waits until Chapter 16 of ’Tis of Thee to really delve into religion and to address such nonsense, and he underlines the fact that he is a congressman who is Muslim, not a Muslim congressman. Indeed, the story of Ellison’s life and family (agnostic father, Roman Catholic mother, Christian preacher brother, etc.) reveals a polyglot definition of “American”—a Republican fascination/obsession—as well as the absurdity of even having such a definition in the first place. Addressing the “whole gaggle of operators who have made a lucrative cottage industry around stirring up fear and hatred toward Muslims, Ellison responds plainly: “It is un-American to single out or persecute any American because of his or her faith. I am a congressman who is Muslim. I am also black. I also happen to be from Detroit. I also happen to be a father of four.”
Is this the guy you want protecting your Constitution? I think so. Ellison is optimistic—”hopelessly” optimistic—about the future of America, and his own story is worth examining to see why. “Our democracy is not something to be taken for granted. You have to fight for it. You have to commit yourself to working for it—for the long haul.”