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Democrats would be smart to embrace Keith Ellison as DNC chair

It’s time to bring Sanders’s most committed supporters into the party.

Rep. Keith Ellison Holds Town Hall Meeting At Detroit Church Photo by Sarah Rice/Getty Images

Many members of the Democratic Party establishment remain profoundly angry at Bernie Sanders and the leading supporters of his 2016 primary campaign. Conversely, many grassroots Sanders supporters remain profoundly angry at the leadership of the Democratic Party. Rehashing the origins of this situation would be pointless, but it hangs like a cloud over the race for chair of the Democratic National Committee.

The people who are actually voting in this election — largely state party officials with lots of mundane-but-important concerns that have nothing to do with the primary — would really like this to not simply be a proxy battle about Sanders. And they have a point. From their perspective, the key question about Congress member, Sanders supporter, and DNC race frontrunner Keith Ellison is his fitness to do the mundane-but-important work of a national party chair — the kind of work that might be better done by a bland non-entity, some hypothetical Democratic version of Reince Priebus.

But committee members ought to consider two important points from outside their narrow perspective. One is that the race is, in the eyes of every Sanders activist in the country, a proxy fight about Bernie Sanders. The other is that precisely because it’s seen that way, the race is an opportunity to accomplish something much bigger and more significant than improving the day-to-day workings of DNC management — bringing a whole new generation of progressives into the Democratic Party fold.

Keith Ellison is the right choice for unity

The number one job of any defeated political party is to lick its wounds, survey the scene, recognize that its members all have more in common with each other than they do with their opponents, and set about doing what it can to resist the new government.

If there were no Sanders-backed candidate in the race and no hint of a 2016 primary campaign proxy war, everyone would agree that the top task facing whoever got the nod was to put the wounds of the primary behind them and unify the party. But there is a Sanders-backed candidate in the race, and realistically speaking the best way to unify the party is to let the Sanders faction have their way and put Ellison in.

It’s true, of course, that Ellison isn’t an ideal choice in every possible respect. But any honest Democrat in Washington would tell you that Ellison is the most capable and best-regarded of any of the handful of Sanders loyalists in Congress. What’s more, Ellison is the ideal choice to signal that Sandersism isn’t code for some agenda of abandoning Democrats’ commitment to ethnic minority groups. Conversely, if Ellison doesn’t get the gig, Democrats will find that with no African Americans among the top leadership in either the House or Senate caucus, they are suddenly badly short of black representation.

Signaling to supporters of Bernie Sanders that they have an ownership stake in the party while reassuring the party’s core African-American supporters that they aren’t being ditched in the post-Obama era is solid step toward unity.

Deaniacs became Democrats, and Sandernistas can do the same

Looking back historically, one of the only past DNC chairships that anyone remembers is Howard Dean’s turn running the committee. This was a smashingly successful era, not so much because there was any particular genius behind the “50 state strategy” but because it helped bring new people and new energy into the party.

People whose first major intellectual and emotional engagement with politics was as Deaniacs ended up becoming Democrats. Instead of sniping at Democratic Party leaders, netroots bloggers trained their fire on George W. Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security. Dean campaign veterans went on to found companies like Blue State Digital and moved into jobs on Capitol Hill and for other campaigns. Democrats beat back many of Bush’s key initiatives, ended up winning a couple of congressional majorities, and ultimately elected a president who shared Dean’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Many became entrenched enough in the establishment that by 2016 they found themselves on the other side of familiar sounding arguments about a previously-obscure Vermont politician’s insurgent primary campaign.

The promise and the peril of the current generation of people under 30 is that they very much hate the Republican Party but they don’t like the Democratic Party very much either. This kind of negative partisanship is on the rise, and, as Julia Azari has written, the combination of strong partisanship with weak institutional parties is a big problem.

Sanders anchored what amounts to a negative partisanship mass movement on an unprecedented scale. His campaign grew far larger than Dean’s ever did, despite even less support from party insiders. If that mass of people remains where they were throughout the 2016 election, they’ll be a potentially dangerous force that ends up undermining progressive politics despite itself. But if they can be brought inside the Democratic Party and turned into the kind of party regulars who vote in midterms and volunteer for local races, they’d be an extraordinarily powerful force.

Since what they want is, in some ways, different from what existing party leaders want, they’d also be a bit of a disruptive force. But ultimately both young insurgents and older establishmentarians are going to be happier with that disruptive force taking place inside the context of a party politics paradigm rather than on the sidelines.

None of the other stuff matters much

There are, of course, a lot of objections you can raise to Ellison. And in the spirit of a political campaign, they’ve pretty much all been thrown at him.

These complaints have some validity, but they fundamentally pale in importance compared to the possible upside of a unified party that brings Sandernistas into the fold. The best of these objections is that the DNC deserves a full-time chair, and Ellison showed his seriousness by saying he’s willing to step down from his House seat and do the job full-time. It’s also true that in many ways on a practical basis, the job needs a seasoned political operative more than a politician. But this is why you have an executive director — finding a good one is important, but it’s eminently doable.

People who think it’s obviously absurd to believe that a black Muslim from Minneapolis can help Democrats win white working class votes in the Midwest would probably be fascinated to hear about what a black guy from Chicago named Barack Hussein Obama managed to pull off.

If anything, one lesson of Hillary Clinton’s campaign should be that in today’s circumstances, white Democrats may actually have a harder time explicitly crafting a message that crosses racial lines. While African-American and Latino politicians can start from a position of security regarding the Democrats’ base among people of color and then make the case for their agenda as serving all people, white Democrats risk tying themselves up in pretzels of contradictory appeals.

Party national committees in America have somewhat vaguely defined functions and are in a practical sense often less powerful than people think they are. That means Ellison’s ability to do one thing really clearly and really well — bring the party together and show Sanders supporters that they have a seat at the table — can and should outweigh a great deal of other possible doubts and worries.

Tom Perez should run for governor of Maryland

That Ellison’s leading opponent is shaping up to be Labor Secretary Tom Perez truly only strengthens the case for Ellison. Perez is Latino, a labor union ally, and closely identified with progressive causes. That makes him a good “don’t let Bernie Sanders get his way” option, but also means he doesn’t meaningfully address any of the downsides to Ellison. It just means he comes without the upside in terms of bringing Sanders supporters into the party.

Meanwhile, Perez is a longtime resident of Maryland and former Maryland state government official. Maryland happens to be a very blue state that has a Republican governor who will be on the ballot in 2018. The thing Democrats need from Tom Perez is a strong bid to win that race.

It’s easy to see what Perez is thinking — namely that GOP incumbent Larry Hogan is currently popular, and he’d rather keep his name in the mix with a few years as DNC chair and then run for the open seat in 2022. But that kind of logic is exactly the kind of thing driving Democrats’ current problems.

To make a comeback, an out-of-power party needs a dose of good luck, unity of purpose, and to recruit strong candidates for midterm elections. Luck is in God’s hands, Ellison is the best choice to deliver unity, and recruiting a big-name candidate for what will unquestionably be a tough race would be an excellent down payment on the broader recruiting challenge. Given where the 2016 campaign ended up, Sanders and his faction of the Democratic Party clearly have something coming to them. A well-qualified Sanders ally who is willing to make it a full-time job at the head of the DNC is a reasonable ask, and if Democrats are smart they’ll give it to him.