Who shall guide Democrats in their effort to mobilize against Donald Trump? That question is now front and center, as the party prepares to vote for a new leader in February.
With Democrats almost totally shut out of government, the most important position in the party is now the chair of the Democratic National Committee, who would be in charge of organizing the attempt to retake power. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), perhaps the second- or third-most prominent member of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, presented himself as a candidate.
Centrist liberals in the White House have challenged Ellison, putting up Labor Secretary Tom Perez as an alternative. But the underhanded way they have conducted their campaign is politically blinkered and morally hideous.
After losing in the 2016 presidential race, centrist liberals were stunned and disorganized, and so initially it seemed as though Ellison would cruise in unchallenged. He has very strong working-class bona fides, and is a black Muslim in a party composed in large part of minorities. He seemed like the perfect choice to unite the working class of all races that failed to turn out sufficiently for Clinton, and demonstrate the party's commitment to social justice. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren endorsed Ellison, but then so did Chuck Schumer (a relative centrist and upcoming Senate majority leader) and several large unions that had supported Clinton.
But the White House reportedly did not like the choice of Ellison. A series of objections materialized, and Perez entered the race. First, they said the DNC chair should be a full-time job, so Ellison dutifully promised to resign from Congress should he win. Then, liberals dredged up a bunch of opposition research from decades ago (in the '90s, Ellison had defended Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the religious group Nation of Islam, then recanted and apologized). On cue, Clinton mega-donor Haim Saban called him an anti-Semite.
As Alex Shephard writes at New Republic, the odd thing about this is that Perez is also a pretty strong left-winger and a Latino. He could easily have challenged Ellison on the merits alone. But instead, centrist liberals are trying to beat Ellison with a lot of cheap shots. It smacks very much of Clinton's campaign against Sanders, which leveraged right-wing propaganda about single-payer, or her campaign against Obama in 2008, which had odious racist and Islamophobic undertones.
And this last aspect is particularly nauseating.
Ellison is a Muslim, the first ever elected to Congress, and Donald Trump just won the presidency partly on the back of shockingly bigoted rhetoric about Islam. Many centrist liberals are palpably uncomfortable with allowing a black Muslim to run the party in such circumstances. As one "longtime Obama political ally" told Politico's Glenn Thrush: "But is he really the guy we need right now when we are trying to get all of those disaffected white working-class people to rally around our message of economic equality?" Since Obama himself is black, it's clear he's talking about religion.
This also smacks of Clintonite politics. In 1992, Bill Clinton famously triangulated against black radicals, and in 2008 Hillary argued that you need to cater to white identity politics to get enough white voters to win. But President Obama himself already decisively disproved the strong version of this thesis, rolling up enough working class voters of all races with a powerful working-class message — one-third of his 2012 coalition was made up of whites without a college degree — to win convincingly twice. (It's worth noting as well that Ellison's congressional district is 63 percent white, which he won by 47 points in the election.)
It might be a political risk to have a black Muslim at the head of the party. But the moral stakes here are high indeed. Muslims are unquestionably America's most besieged minority, and things promise to get much, much worse under President Trump. They need all the protection and help they can get in these dark times. Placing a Muslim at the head of the party would send a powerful signal that our fellow citizens, both Muslim and otherwise, will not be abandoned simply because Trump managed to win the presidency by a whisker with a bigoted campaign.
On the other hand, as Jeff Stein argues at Vox, beating back one of Bernie Sanders' most high-profile allies with an underhanded campaign is no small political risk, either. Many Sanders supporters are already quite annoyed at how the DNC was obviously in the tank for Clinton during the primary, and the fact that Ellison and Perez are quite close ideologically only adds to the frustration. It seems as though Ellison is unacceptable only because he didn't kiss the right rings during the primary. It risks re-opening the primary divide at a terribly unfortunate time, and further alienating young voters, for no real substantive reason.
It's anybody's guess who would be the most tactically wise choice to head up the party. But the Democratic Party is at its worst position in nearly 90 years after running a white centrist liberal for president. Perhaps it's time to give the full-throated lefty a shot.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated the number of Muslim congressmen. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.