Keith Ellison’s radical plan to save the Democratic Party

Ellison rejects the choice between supporting the working class and supporting religious and ethnic minorities.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. speaks at a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, held by low-wage contract workers. CREDIT: AP Photo/Molly Riley
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. speaks at a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014, held by low-wage contract workers. CREDIT: AP Photo/Molly Riley

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.

“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.”

But I caution fellow Democrats: make your focus the American people, not Trump. We will defeat him one day, and when we do, we better have something to offer people. We need to highlight his failure to live up to his campaign promises, but we shouldn’t construct our whole lives around him.

Republicans are openly celebrating the ease they will now have pushing through a host of controversial policies, from Wall Street deregulation to the voucher-ization of Medicare. Being in the minority in Congress, what can Democrats do when such bills start coming down the pike?

We can be on the floor. We can speak against them. We can try to slow things down. We can tell our constituents what is going on. We can vote no and make it clear why we’re voting no. We can show solidarity with the people who will be harmed by the policies Republicans want to implement, like kicking 20 million people off health care.

But the main thing we have to do is organize the grassroots. Organize, organize, organize. We have to have goals and a vision. We need to lift up people and voices all over this country. I will be absolutely committed to an agenda that empowers labor, empowers students, empowers people at the grassroots.

What are your thoughts on the cabinet and staff nominations Trump has made so far, including Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for Attorney General, Steve Bannon for chief strategist, and General Michael Flynn for national security adviser?

After a thorough process, the Senate found Senator Sessions so racist he wasn’t fit to be a federal judge. So how he’s fit to be Attorney General, I don’t know. It’s a scary proposition, particularly when we’re seeing very tense relations between police and the community. We need someone who is going to bring communities together and lift up justice, not make everything worse by ignoring the cries of people out there in the street.

As for Steve Bannon, what can you say? He led the most prominent platform for the alt-right, the digital KKK. And Mike Flynn is a well-known Muslim hater. He endorsed torture. He said that fear of Muslims is “rational.”

Since you’ve launched your candidacy, you’ve been attacked for your religion, called a “radical” and a “Muslim Brotherhood shill.” With all the Islamophobia bubbling to the surface this year, what message would it send to elect you as the first Muslim leader of the DNC?

Well, the party needs to be very clear that we have to stand for a strong, populist economic message and we have to care for everybody’s rights and uphold everyone’s human dignity. If we try to trade one for the other, we’re going to lose both.

The way the working class is always controlled is that it’s divided. When you don’t stand together in solidarity, the other side starts picking off groups, and they end up hurting everybody.

You see so much in the punditry about Democrats doing too much to reach out to people of color and not doing enough to reach out to the white working class. Everyone is seeming to forget that most of the working class are people of color.

Right, and many people in the white working class voted for Obama twice, and then they voted for Trump. The way I see it, the alt-right movement is parasitic, trying to insert itself into the legitimate grievances of the American working class. If they are allowed to be successful, everyone’s situation is going to get worse. Once they turn us against each other, they get people competing against each other, our focus turns, and the economic situation gets worse.

Why is the south historically the poorest part of the country? Because when they held black people in slavery, they didn’t have to pay white people much of nothing.

So we are all better off when we have solidarity. We need to unify because if we’re together, we can make a common demand for more fairness and more prosperity.

There is a lot of concern about the future of voting rights and an increase in voter suppression laws. How do you plan to combat voter suppression going forward having lost all three branches of government and most state legislatures?

The Democratic Party first has to embrace the fact that Republicans have embraced voter suppression as a primary strategic goal. Photo ID laws were never, ever, about voter integrity. They’re about suppressing the vote. I don’t think we’ve accepted that reality.

Going forward, we will have a legal strategy. We will work with lawyers to protect the vote all over the country. We will put resources into the states where we do have the legislatures to enact pro-voting policies, like making sure people with felony convictions have their right to vote automatically restored. We can do what Oregon does and have vote-by-mail everywhere. We need to better enforce the Motor Voter law. Every time people are interacting with government, they should be asked if they are registered to vote. We need to explore prosecuting states when they violate the right to vote. Even cities can do a lot: promoting early voting, setting up more vote centers.

But we also need to get people active and engaged, and make sure they understand that not all the eggs are in the basket of voting. If you know that you can do democracy by attending a meeting, by writing an op-ed, by being active in your church, I think it’ll help voting. If you tell people the one and only way to help shape society is voting, and they believe the system is corrupt and doesn’t care about your vote, they might not vote. But if they see that citizenship is a multifaceted thing, and voting is just one of the tools, they can see it as a whole system of social justice change.

The DNC faced sharp criticism this year for the way it ran the primary with many accusing the body of rigging the process against Bernie Sanders. You yourself have said the DNC needs to run its primaries in a more democratic way, but what would you change specifically?

The Unity Commission [of Sanders and Clinton supporters brainstorming reforms for 2020] is still going on, and I’m looking at what their proposals are going to be. But I will tell you, we have to get rid of this idea that superdelegates can just decide everything. People can argue whether they did or they didn’t this year, but there needs to be a perception that the candidate selection process in the primary is fair and open. We need to come up with some clear reforms that prove that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UPDATE: In an interview with the Star Tribune published December 7, Ellison announced that if he wins the DNC Chair election, he will resign his seat in Congress to be able to devote himself to the Democratic Party full-time.

“Whoever wins the DNC chair race faces a lot of work, travel, planning and resource raising,” he said. “I will be ‘all-in’ to meet the challenge.”