During an unusually charged race for leader of the Democratic Party, analysts and liberal commentators argued that former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who won, was basically just as progressive as Representative Keith Ellison, who was backed by progressive standard-bearers Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But they missed the point. The race for DNC chair wasn’t about policy or, for that matter, facts. It was about ideas, ideology, and symbolism—the very things that mainstream liberals are (still) uncomfortable talking about.
As Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum has argued, the very fact that the race had become so charged was “ridiculous,” since Perez and Ellison are “about equally progressive.” Or as his colleague David Corn wrote: “There’s truly not much ideological distance between the two. They are both grassroots-minded progressives.”
Perez, whatever his positions, was encouraged to run against Ellison by the Obama White House, with Obama’s top aide Valerie Jarrett whipping votes and telling Democratic National Committee members “I’ll let the president know you’re with Tom.” This happened after Ellison had already established himself as the early front-runner, with strong union support and the endorsement of figures like Senator Chuck Schumer. The left flank was looking for evidence that it would be fully accepted and incorporated in a party that was known for neutralizing and ignoring its base. Instead, the Democratic “establishment”—is there anyone more establishment than the president?—worked to undermine the candidate of the party’s left.