Keith Ellison and the Battle for the Democratic Party

The Minnesota progressive’s run for DNC chair demonstrates the pressures for the party as it tries to recover from a disastrous 2016 election.

Keith Ellison with Bernie and Jane Sanders at a rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, in January 2016
Keith Ellison with Bernie and Jane Sanders at a rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, in January 2016 (Eric Miller / Reuters)

Deciding who will chair a political party probably isn’t the most effective place to fight for the soul of that party. Did Reince Priebus or any of the people who supported his run for Republican National Committee chair foresee president Trump? But DNC chair is the slot that’s open now, so that’s where Democrat are hashing out their differences.

Almost all of the pressures on and contradictions within the party can be projected onto Keith Ellison, the U.S. representative from Minnesota, who announced his bid for the spot shortly after the disastrous election for Democrats. That follows several years of disastrous cycles for the party—despite President Obama’s two terms, Democrats have been pummeled at the state and national levels—and the party stewardship of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, which is widely viewed as shiftless and failed. With the Democratic field for 2020 diffuse and enigmatic, the chairmanship is one place to fight the battle.

The central disagreement within the Democratic Party is being described as a debate between economic populism and identity politics, which were supposedly represented by the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns, though that gloss is so simplistic as to be misleading. And of course that’s also not really the question: It’s less about which approach to pursue, than how to reconcile those two strains. The Democratic Party can’t afford to abandon the espousal of minority rights, but as the presidential race showed, it also faces difficulties winning a presidential race without appealing to white working-class voters. There’s also a generational struggle, between the aging, typically more centrist wing of the party and a younger, more liberal wing.

Ellison, who at 53 is part of the younger guard, sits at an interesting intersection for these issues. On the one hand, as a black man and one of two Muslims in the House, he can’t really avoid identity politics. (This is also the refrain from people of color, queer people, and others during the debate: We didn’t choose identity politics; we have no choice but to live them.) But Ellison is also an economic progressive and the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and he was an early and fervent endorser of Sanders’ presidential bid, back in the days when Sanders was struggling to gain supporters of color. (In a moment that has gone viral, he also predicted that Donald Trump could win the nomination when few others believed it.)

Ellison has already collected a hefty list of endorsements, ranging from middle-of-the-road Democrats—like outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and his presumptive successor, Chuck Schumer—as well as leaders of the party’s progressive wing, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Sanders. On Thursday, he released a platform for his run for DNC chair, which emphasizes a “focus on working people,” putting “accountability and inclusion” not far behind it. But the leading bullet points are about the nuts-and-bolts work of building grassroots support and revitalizing a party whose local parties have been battered.

In a speech last week, Sanders criticized what he portrayed as a myopic focus on identity issues among Democrats. “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” he said. “No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.” The Vermont senator wasn’t saying it wasn’t important to have women and people of color in leadership; he was saying it was insufficient.

Ellison has tried to reconcile these two ideas in a slightly smoother fashion. “It’s about the money. A lot has been made about the white working class. I think we’d better take a look at the working class of all colors,” he said on the Keepin’ It 1600 podcast. For many young liberals and leftists, Ellison’s attempt to fuse these ideas may look like the future of the Democratic Party, fluent in both identity issues and progressive economics.

But the biggest impediment to Ellison winning might be his past. Critics are focusing on statements he made, particularly involving Israel and Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Ellison has said he was never a member of the Nation, but he was involved with the group, including helping to organize a Minnesota delegation to the 1995 Million Man March. He also defended Farrakhan, an open anti-Semite. He has also been critical of Israeli policy toward Palestinians.

These statements have been known for a while, and Ellison has apologized for them in the past. He said he should have looked into Farrakhan more closely and disavowed the leader once he had, and during his run for chair he has said that he supports the Democratic Party positions in favor of Israel and its right to self-defense, for a two-state solution, and against the Boycott-Divest-Sanctions Movement. For the most part, that seemed to satisfy the Jewish left. The progressive group J Street backed Ellison, and so did Schumer, a stalwart defender of Israel. The Anti-Defamation League issued a long, carefully worded statement, basically saying that Ellison needed to be very clear about distancing himself from past comments but that they took him at his word.

On Thursday, CNN published a report detailing more of Ellison’s past statements. One episode involved a speech by Stokely Carmichael, the civil-rights leader, at the University of Minnesota. The university’s president criticized Carmichael, then going by the name Kwame Ture, for suggesting collaboration between Nazis and Zionists. Ellison, in turn, defended Carmichael and his right to speak on campus: “The University's position appears to be this: Political Zionism is off-limits no matter what dubious circumstances Israel was founded under; no matter what the Zionists do to the Palestinians; and no matter what wicked regimes Israel allies itself with—like South Africa. This position is untenable.” That comment upset conservatives, although many on the right have spent the last year warning that liberal students trying to bar controversial speakers from college campuses posed a threat to free speech.

In addition, a tape emerged that is apparently of Ellison speaking in 2010, complaining that U.S. policy in the Middle East was too focused on Israel. “The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people,” he says in the tape. “A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. Does that make sense? Is that logic?”

In response, the ADL changed its mind. “Rep. Ellison’s remarks are both deeply disturbing and disqualifying,” CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. His words imply that U.S. foreign policy is based on religiously or national origin-based special interests rather than simply on America’s best interests” and added that they “raised the specter” of myths about Jewish control of the government. Ellison responded in an open letter that the audio had been “selectively edited and taken out of context” and restated his support for Israel.

Will this be enough to derail Ellison? It’s likely that younger Democrats as a whole, which is to say the party’s base going forward, are less concerned than the ADL. They tend to be less tied to Israel and more friendly to Palestinians, while Louis Farrakhan is a dim and distant figure, assuming they have any idea who he is, or what the Nation of Islam stands for. (The very oldest Millennials were 14 at the time of the Million Man March.)

Schumer, meanwhile, has not changed his mind.

"I stand by Rep. Ellison for DNC chair,” he said in an emailed statement. “We have discussed his views on Israel at length, and while I disagree with some of his past positions, I saw him orchestrate one of the most pro-Israel platforms in decades by successfully persuading other skeptical committee members to adopt such a strong platform. As C‎hair of the DNC he has committed to continuing to uphold that platform and to convince others that they support it as well.”

Is there anything Ellison could say to redeem himself in the eyes of critics for these comments, and if so, what it would be?

Even if he can find those words, or even if the current controversy is not enough to stop him, Ellison still won’t have a totally clear path to the chairmanship. For one, there’s more than one vision for changing the party, and Ellison may still focus too much on identity issues for some Democrats’ tastes—he’s also still a long way from the lunchpail economic liberalism of Tim Ryan, the Northeast Ohio congressman who unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi for the Democratic House leadership this week. Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment still carries some punch, as demonstrated by both Clinton’s nomination and Pelosi’s reelection as leader. Obama loyalists are also said to be uneasy about Ellison and seeking alternative candidates. Ellison could represent one future for the Democratic Party, but the current leaders aren’t necessarily ready to accept relegation to the past.