Can Keith Ellison Save The Democratic Party?

The Democrats have nothing to lose.
02/24/2017 12:48 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2017

When the Democratic National Committee votes on Saturday for a new chair, let’s hope the result will mark a new beginning for a party that has failed the country in recent elections. Of all the candidates, Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison is the most likely to tap into the new grassroots social movements that have emerged since Jan. 20 and harness their energy for the electoral benefit of the party.

Recently we’ve heard a lot of commentary comparing the anti-Trump protests of 2017 to the “Tea Party” of 2009, but the two social movements couldn’t be more different.

First, a sizable chunk of the “Tea Party” was little more than white people who couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of a black president. The racist signs at the “Tax Day” rally in April 2009, the “birther” smear campaign (that Trump rode to power), the “Obama Bucks” and “Obama phones,” the “terrorist fist jabs” and innuendo about Obama’s faith, all attest to this undercurrent of racial animosity.

Second, there was always an “astroturf” component to the “Tea Party” that cannot be applied to the anti-Trump grassroots movement. The people out protesting Trump today don’t have any billionaires setting up organizations for them, chartering buses, scheduling events, as the Koch Brothers did with “Americans for Prosperity.” The “Tea Party” also had Fox News and right-wing AM radio amplifying its message and its earliest rallies featured “conservative” celebrities like Neil Cavuto, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and many local shock jocks.

Third, the “Tea Party” Republicans in 2009 did not face the structural barriers and disadvantages that anti-Trump protesters confront today, such as the shameless computerized gerrymandering applied with “Maptitude” software that has locked in Republican control of Congress and effectively stripped millions of Americans from being represented in the “People’s House.”

Fourth, Democratic leaders from the DNC on down, unlike the Republicans, have repeatedly shown hostility toward their own base. Since the 1980s, the national leaders of the party have run away from leftist street protesters like the plague, choosing instead to pursue the imaginary “moderate” voter in swing states and districts who might be turned off by the unkempt people who show up to protest. Everything Reagan passed, from tax cuts for the wealthy to a giant peacetime military build-up, was done with the help of about fifty “Blue Dog” Democrats in the House of Representatives.

The DNC didn’t lift a finger to register voters and tap into the potential electoral strength of the giant Nuclear Freeze movement that exploded in the early 1980s and organized some of the biggest demonstrations in American history.

Under President Bill Clinton Democratic leaders, following the “Blue Dog” script of the “Democratic Leadership Council,” chose to side with Wall Street and Wal-Mart over the enormous coalition of labor unionists, consumer activists, and environmentalists that organized anti-NAFTA and anti-WTO protests, which culminated in the “Battle in Seattle” of 1999.

In 2002-03, Democratic leaders not only ignored the record-breaking number of anti-Iraq War protesters but also even joined the Republicans against them. Senators Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Diane Feinstein, and other Democrats sided with President George W. Bush in what today just about everybody concedes was one of the most costly and catastrophic foreign adventures in American history.

In 2011, Democratic leaders sat on the sidelines sucking their thumbs while the most amazing and prolonged sit-down strike broke out on Wall Street and spread like wildfire to hundreds of towns and cities across the United States (and the world). The DNC made no effort to incorporate the grassroots energy of Occupy Wall Street into their ranks for potential electoral gain.

More recently, the DNC has distanced itself from Black Lives Matter, which can be seen as this generation’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) even while it was confronting in the streets the stark racial injustices in America’s cities. Similarly, the DNC has been mum about the courageous water protectors who are putting their lives on the line to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Finally, the leaked emails of 2016 show that the DNC did everything in its power to throw dirt into the gears of the Bernie Sanders movement during the primaries, which was the only meaningful expression of grassroots politics in 2016 from progressives inside the Democratic Party winning over 13 million votes.

Given this historical record of failure on the part of the Democratic Party to tap into grassroots social movements, the party needs a dynamic leader who can reach out to the growing anti-Trump activism.

That leader is Keith Ellison!

To fight the rapid rise of fascism in this country the Democratic Party must enlarge its base, register new voters, and drive turnout and enthusiasm. Over and over again the DNC has ignored protest movements while the Republicans, with the Kochs and the Mercers, recognized right away the electoral potential of the “Tea Party” and spent millions of dollars to absorb it into the GOP ranks. The midterm elections of 2010 and 2014 prove this strategy worked.

The DNC should wise up, elect Keith Ellison to be its chair, and follow the commonsense strategy of doing everything possible to bring into the party the extraordinary explosion of grassroots energy we’re seeing today in the form of anti-Trump protests.

Bernie Sanders, who early on endorsed Ellison to be DNC chair, worked his tail off in 2015 and 2016 to bring new voters into the Democratic Party only to be undermined by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz who worked hand in glove with the out-of-touch Clinton wing of the party. This infighting failed not only the party, but also the nation (and the world) by losing the election to an ethically challenged billionaire demagogue.

The party must rediscover its roots as the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that succeeded in including labor organizers, activists and agitators (even communists) into a lasting progressive electoral bloc. The Democrats will continue losing elections if it chooses to ignore the social movements that give Leftist politics its lifeblood.

And if the Democratic Party passes on elevating Ellison and falls back into its old pattern of ignoring its own base it will be proof that the party is not up to the task and it’s time to form a new Progressive Party.

Corporate money, policies that undercut its base, willfully ignoring the grassroots energy of mobilized citizens, losing an election they should have won easily – all of these show the Democratic Party has reached a turning point: Either continue this failed path or go in a new direction with new dynamic leadership.

So let’s vote in Keith Ellison as DNC chair and follow the Republicans’ “Tea Party” script of 2009. Let’s find a few Democratic billionaires to pump money into organizing and mobilizing voters (the Right is always whining about George Soros so let’s give them something to cry about), create a new progressive media free from the corporate business model, and tap into the grassroots energy we’re seeing all over the country.

The Democrats have nothing to lose: Either help us in the fight or step aside so we can create a new party that isn’t hollowed out by corporate money and has the guts to confront power.

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