The Democratic Party hasn’t faced this serious a crisis of confidence and direction since the 1920s. Republicans control the White House, Congress, 33 governorships, and 67 of 98 partisan state legislative chambers nationwide. Even as Americans fill the streets demanding resistance to the extremist agenda of Donald Trump, congressional Democrats often lack the numbers for the pushback.
The right response to this crisis is a retooling of the Democratic National Committee to align it more closely with movements for social and economic justice. The party must make the inside/outside connection that will strengthen immediate resistance to the Trump regime, while improving the long-term electoral prospects of Democrats. Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is prepared to do just that. In an impressive field of contenders for the position of DNC chair—including party leaders that The Nation has often praised, like former labor secretary Tom Perez, as well as energetic newcomers like Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana—it is Ellison who combines the ideals, skills, and movement connections that will revitalize the party.
That’s why The Nation enthusiastically endorses Ellison in the contest to lead a DNC that must repurpose itself in order to derail Trump, while at the same time speaking to young voters who won’t settle for anything less than an aggressively progressive opposition party. The job of DNC chair is to build a party that can win elections on every ballot line and in every state. But in an age when party loyalties are weakening, and when movements matter more to tens of millions of Americans than partisan labels, Ellison is ready to build an activist party. In fact, the high-energy congressman (who says he’ll quit his House seat if he wins the DNC post) is already doing that: calling for mass rallies to oppose Trump’s Muslim ban, taking part in those rallies, and then appearing on the Sunday-morning talk shows to rip discriminatory policies as un-American.
Ellison is recognized as a pioneering political figure—the first Muslim congressman, the first African American to represent Minnesota in Washington—who has boldly opposed wars, defended civil liberties, protested racial injustice, and rallied for “$15 and a union.” His leadership bid has excited activists who have marched with him for labor rights, women’s rights, and criminal-justice reform. It has also inspired blowback from some party insiders, who gripe that Ellison is too outspoken in his support for Middle East peace, too close to Bernie Sanders (though he joined Sanders in ardently backing Hillary Clinton last summer), and too passionate in his belief that the DNC must campaign not just for candidates but for justice.
Ellison is certainly conscientious and courageous. But he is also a disciple of the late Senator Paul Wellstone, whose disciplined approach to politics proved that principled progressives could win transformational victories. Ellison has won 16 elections since his first (as a Minnesota state legislator) in 2002. He was among the first House members to endorse Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential bid and Sanders’s 2016 campaign. He now proposes to bring this idealism and energy to a revitalized DNC—one that relies on small-dollar donations to battle big-money influence with voter mobilization and education drives in rural communities and urban centers.
What makes Ellison’s vision exciting is the fact that he’s already implemented it in Minnesota. As former Minneapolis mayor and DNC vice chair R.T. Rybak says, “I have never seen him campaign only for himself…. Keith has used every campaign to protect every voter’s rights, expand our party’s base, include those left behind, and elevate new leaders. That is exactly what the Democratic Party needs right now.”
Rybak’s right: What distinguishes Keith Ellison is his experience as a progressive who has won and won and won again—and who knows that Democrats can turn red states blue by transforming their party into a movement.