What Keith Ellison’s Defeat Says About the DNC

Insider Dems simply do not accept the fact that the party must break its bonds with big money and link itself with grassroots activists.

 In December of 2016, Keith Ellison listens as Ray Buckley speaks during a forum on the future of the Democratic Party. (AP Photo / David Zalubowski)
In December of 2016, Keith Ellison listens as Ray Buckley speaks during a forum on the future of the Democratic Party. (AP Photo / David Zalubowski)

By John Nichols

The most significant election result for Democrats on February 25 wasn’t the selection of former labor secretary Tom Perez as the new party chair at an all-too-predictable gathering of Democratic National Committee members in Atlanta. It was the result announced that evening in Middletown, Delaware, where environmental attorney Stephanie Hansen won what was supposed to be a close special election for an open State Senate seat with 58 percent of the vote. That win gave Delaware Democrats something their party now has in only five other states: “trifecta” control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature. In other words, they can govern.

The point of political parties is to win elections, thousands of them, in communities like Middletown, and to add those victories together so that people with a shared set of values—as opposed to the same campaign donors—are in control of city councils, legislatures, and Congress. Democratic insiders lost sight of that point over the years, becoming so presidentially obsessed that they told themselves they could somehow survive without legislators and governors, congresspeople and senators. If they could just keep the presidency, these Democratic partisans imagined, everything would be OK—and the media, which is more focused than ever on Washington, reinforced that fantasy. Then Hillary Clinton lost, and the Democrats suddenly recognized that they were at their weakest point since 1928 in the House, and at their weakest point since 1925 in the states.

No matter who won the competition between Perez and Representative Keith Ellison to lead the DNC, the new chair’s only real job was always going to be to end this losing streak. That’s not some crass partisan calculus; it’s an absolute necessity if America is going to undo not just Trump and Trumpism but the program of inequality and injustice that contemporary conservatives advance. Ellison had the bolder vision for merging the “demonstration energy” of the resistance to Trump with the “electoral energy” that Democrats must muster in 2018. His approach extended from the left-wing, small-donor-funded, millennial-energizing presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, which Ellison backed—and which Perez, and most of the party establishment, opposed. The Working Families Party’s Dan Cantor described Ellison’s narrow defeat as “a missed opportunity”—and so it is. But it’s important to recognize that a majority of DNC members were willing to miss that opportunity, as they’ve missed so many others over so many years.

The Nation

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