Ellison rejects the choice between supporting the working class and supporting religious and ethnic minorities.
With the country still reeling from the outcome of the presidential election, another high-stakes election approaches. The Democratic National Committee — having lost control of the White House, the House of Representatives, the Senate, most state legislatures and governorships, and soon, the Supreme Court — is preparing to elect its new leader. As the left argues over what went wrong over the past few years and how to recover, many are calling for fresh blood in the top ranks of a party that has long been controlled by older, white officials from coastal states.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) — the first Muslim ever elected to Congress as well as the first black congressman from Minnesota — is gunning for the job. A leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, one of the few members of Congress to back Bernie Sanders in the primary, and the representative of a midwestern swing state, Ellison argues he is uniquely qualified to be the face of a party attempting to come back swinging from a series of devastating losses.
In a conversation with ThinkProgress, Ellison described his vision for a party that prioritizes religious and ethnic diversity, reforming the primary process, standing in solidarity with labor unions, and building relationships with voters years before an election takes place.
Just a few months ago, Democrats were confident that they would not only win the White House, but take back the Senate as well. Democratic lawmakers said openly that they didn’t even have a contingency plan for Donald Trump’s victory, since they couldn’t picture it happening. What does the party need to learn from such a shocking loss?
We learned that voter turnout is absolutely essential, and turnout is driven by three things: a great message, some credible evidence that you’re going to do it, and a delivery system. You have to knock doors, make calls, and build a relationship with voters long before Election Day. A year before. Two years before. That lesson was painfully learned.
You can’t just do get-out-the-vote. You can’t come to town the weekend before the election and saying, “Hey, y’all. Let’s go vote.” If the message and your relationship are weak, they’ll pass.
I also think [the DNC] is perceived as too top-down. We do a good job at fundraising from labor and having them go knock on doors, but they’re not at the table enough. The party needs to have the labor voice featured at the table much more prominently. They could help us form the message and deliver the message. They don’t feel as included as they should be.
And finally, we really have to come to grips with how awful wage stagnation and income inequality is for people. In certain parts of the country — D.C., New York, San Francisco, LA — you might not feel it. But in other parts of the country, even when the unemployment rate goes below five percent, there are still a lot of people not working, still a lot of people who haven’t seen a raise in years.
You might ask, why do people like that vote for Trump? Well, many of them didn’t. His voter turnout was pretty moderate. It wasn’t some big wave. But it was enough. Even if Trump is a fraud, and not a credible messenger, for some people, he’s talking about jobs, renegotiating trade deals, taking on the elites and the establishment, and they say, “That sounds good to me.”
But Democrats campaigned on cracking down on Wall Street, raising the minimum wage, expanding paid family leave, ensuring equal pay for women, and other pro-worker policies. Why didn’t that appeal to voters?
People are going to be trying to figure that out for a long time. But we do know that we really needed to have a stronger presence in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania. I mean, we need to strengthen the grassroots in every state and every county. I’m not against TV advertising for campaigns, but we need to emphasize field campaigning much more than we do.
There is one other basic fact that Democrats have to come to grips with: that character assassination is item number one in the Republican playbook. Whether they’re saying Obama’s a Kenyan or making a big hairy deal about Hillary Clinton and Benghazi, these are not sincere allegations. Their purpose is to make sure that instead of talking about your plan, you’re defending yourself from these falsehoods.
People spend money on negative campaigning because it works. I believe their relentless program of character assassination put a damper on our turnout numbers. What do we do about it? We have to find a way to say, “I know you’re trying to change the subject, but I’m not going to let you.” We have to fight back.
But having lost the White House, both chambers of Congress, and most state legislatures, how can Democrats best fight back? You’ve said that Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin — winning by more than two million votes — is a mandate for Democrats to stand up to Trump’s policies, but how will you do that?
The First Amendment and the right to address grievances is still in full effect. If people want to protest, to get out there and express themselves, as long as they do it peacefully, they should be encouraged to do so.
And as public officials who have a platform, we ought to highlight stories of people. I mean, we’ve seen hate crimes spike in this country since Trump was elected. We have to elevate those stories. We have to boldly and unapologetically assert our solidarity, assert that all people truly are created equal. Trump is trying to return our country to a time in which people were not equal. I suppose in his opinion, that was when America was great.