Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Keith Ellison for Chair of the Democratic National Committee is a golden opportunity for the Democratic establishment in general, and the DNC in particular, to mend fences from the 2016 primary. With the DNC itself being viewed by half the party as corrupt and hostile to progressivism, the elevation of Bernie Sanders’ most prominent endorser to the top office would go a long way towards giving Sanders supporters, and others disgusted by the behavior of the Committee during the primary, a high degree of confidence that they can trust it going into the next two election cycles. Some major establishment figures such as Chuck Schumer, recognizing the importance of winning back this trust in order to secure progressives’ support for the party, have endorsed Sanders. They know where the future of the Democratic Party lies, and they know that a big, substantive public embrace of the Sanders movement is necessary to secure that future. Unfortunately, there is a sizable faction of the party that have no interest in doing so, or at least, value that interest less than denying the Sanders faction a win.
Many incumbent Democratic elites, (and their wanna-bes on the internet), are actively repelled by the ascendency of the Sanders coalition, and hostile towards them and their grievances about the nomination process. It is from them that the Tom Perez campaign comes. Not just the support for his campaign, but its very existence. Notably, Perez, along with former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and Vice President Joe Biden, were approached by White House figures and urged to run for DNC Chair. This was not a case of the White House choosing among the candidates in the race, but of getting their guy into the race. Tellingly, they began casting about for a candidate only after Ellison vaulted into the lead on the strength of Sanders’ endorsement.
Why did this happen? What made it so important that Keith Ellison be stopped? The usual answer in this situation is to prevent someone who is considered too liberal from ascending to the office, but that answer makes no sense in this case. Perez’s supporters themselves are quick to insist that there is little-to-no difference between the candidates on policy or ideology – and they are largely correct. Tom Perez is a very progressive leader, one who championed voting rights and fought police abuse while running the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, then turned the long-moribund Department of Labor into a vigorous defender of workers’ rights in areas like wage theft, union organizing, and workplace conditions. I supported putting Perez on the 2016 ticket instead of Tim Kaine, largely so he could serve as a progressive influence on Hillary Clinton and, who knows, maybe use the office of Vice President to become, arguably, the most progressive POTUS in American history. I fully expect to support him in future races. Some of the commentary about him from Ellison supporters, such as describing him as a “neoliberal” or a “centrist,” has been quite unfair. His record shows him to be, depending on one’s point of view, the most progressive figure in the Obama administration, or the most acceptable progressive to the party establishment. So, clearly, this motive here is not about ideology. Another possible explanation is that they consider Perez to be better on the organizing and strategizing aspects of the DNC Chair job – but once again, there is very little to choose between them. Ellison is renowned for his organizing skill, having turned his Congressional district from the lowest-turnout in Minnesota to the highest. The two candidates’ statements during the campaign on these matters have been nearly identical. The biggest difference seems to be that Perez opposes a ban on accepting donations from lobbyists, while Ellison supports it but makes clear that he will not push the issue in the Chair role. Again, the Perez supporters themselves laud Ellison as an organizer and strategist, and acknowledge the lack of daylight between them.
But if the differences between the two candidates are so minuscule, why was it so important to the establishment Democrats to get Perez into the race in the first place? Clearly, there is something more going on in the Ellison-Perez contest than the merits of the two men individually. The answer is factional power. Ellison’s candidacy is a continuation of the Sanders campaign (which itself was the continuation of a longer effort to move the Democratic Party in a progressive direction). This effort has never been limited to policy, but also to make the Democratic Party a more grassroots organization, in which the role of mega donors is reduced, greater participation by ordinary voters is encouraged, insiders are not given unfair advantages in party nominating contests, and outsiders are drawn in and welcomed – in short, to weaken the grip of party insiders and big money. We Berniacs openly acknowledge this. Bernie Sanders acknowledges this, though with enough polite misdirection to avoid serious offense.
There has, however, been a concerted attempt by people who identify with the Old Guard to claim that this is a one-sided fight, and that only Ellison supporters are thinking in terms of the ongoing debate between the establishment and insurgent wings of the party. This assertion is nonsense. At its core, the Perez campaign (initially begun as the “Find Someone To Run Against Keith Ellison Campaign”) is an attempt to resist that reformist movement – if not on ideology and policy, then on matters like how the nominating process works and who the party responds to. In choosing a solid policy-progressive like Perez to be their candidate, the Party establishment has demonstrated an awareness of the importance of progressivism in their political appeal. This is very good, and represents a major win for the progressive wing. Tom Perez is certainly no Tim Kaine or Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (the last two Democratic Party Chairs). But structurally, in the role he plays in this race, Perez is the Clintonite establishment’s pick nonetheless, and while I applaud the move to the policy left, his campaign is still fundamentally about countering and limiting the influence of the Sanders movement.
The Clinton faction wanted to use the Tom Perez candidacy to send a message about who has the upper hand in this party. I’m sure the outcome of Saturday’s vote will do exactly that, but I’m beginning to suspect it won’t be the message they wanted to send. With the recent endorsement of Ellison by former opponent Ray Buckley, the momentum in this race has shifted. Most outlets are now treating Ellison as the frontrunner.
Good. This party needs change we can believe in. I only hope that the promising political future of Tom Perez doesn’t suffer as a result of the establishment’s ill-judged effort to throw its weight around.