One of the conflicts between Bernie and Hillary supporters is the supposed clash between identity and class politics.
Sanders received criticism after challenging the party’s orthodoxy on identity politics in a speech in late November. An audience member asked him how she could become the second Latina senator in American history, and Sanders responded.
I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country and is going to take on big money interests, It is not good enough for somebody to say, I’m a woman, vote for me. No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.
Shortly after the speech Talking Points Memo published the inaccurate headline, “Sanders Urges Supporters: Ditch Identity Politics and Embrace the Working Class.” But like much of the criticism, this headline missed the point of his reply.
Our rights and economic lives are intertwined, Now, more than ever, we need a Democratic Party that is committed to fulfilling, not eviscerating, Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial, social, and economic justice for all.
Now we have another battle between Hillary and Bernie supporters—the race for chair of the Democratic National Committee. Though the vote will come down to a number of state officials, it has become a proxy war between Bernie and Hillary factions of the electorate.
Keith Ellison is well liked by many Bernie supporters because he was among the few to break away from his party to endorse Sanders during the primary. He is also instrumental in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, putting him well left of most of his colleagues. His most formidable opponent is labor secretary Tom Perez, considered one of the more progressive members of Obama’s cabinet. Perez is considered a stand-in for the Obama-Clinton establishment of the party.
As Vox (a center-left outlet) wisely suggested, it would be smart for Democrats to go with Ellison. It would be a way to welcome the Sanders supporters into the party—and into the organization many blame for tipping the primary to Clinton.
But there’s another reason Ellison is an ideal choice at this moment—especially to the Obama-Clinton faction who deeply value identity politics. Ellison is black and the first Muslim elected to congress. Making him chair signals that the Democratic Party not only pays lip service to the civil rights of Muslim Americans, but acts to make them a vital part of political life.
This makes him a controversial figure as well. Ellison has been the target of vicious attacks online. Social media and forums are filled with vitriol directed at his religion. Many of these are part of the Trumpian Alt-Right, eager to feed the fires of Islamophobia.
But what’s even more disturbing is the attacks Ellison is receiving from his own party. Reportedly the White House did not like the choice of Ellison, and around this time attacks against him appeared in the press. Opposition research from decades ago was used against him. Seemingly on cue, Clinton mega-donor Haim Saban called him an anti-Semite.
The controversy involves Ellison defending Louis Farrakhan—the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam—as a student during the 90’s. Ellison has apologized numerous times, and has disavowed Farrakhan. He’s called association with the Nation of Islam a mistake from his past.
Numerous outlets, including Vox, The Intercept, New York magazine, and The Huffington Post have all delved deeply into the allegations of anti-Semitism, and have come to the same conclusion: Keith Ellison is not an anti-Semite.
That he also broke away from his party to endorse the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary makes the accusations especially absurd.
That these attacks are coming from Democrats—the party that is supposed to fight for the marginalized—is especially egregious. Ironically, Obama faced similar attacks during both his candidacy and presidency (an argument I often make: the right has been accusing Obama of being a socialist Muslim for 8 years, so let’s give them the real deal with Sanders and Ellison).
Instead of devolving into divisive attacks, Democrats need to make good on their commitment to civil rights and make some tough, risky choices. Otherwise their use of ‘identity politics’ is just what many critics on the right assume—shameless pandering to certain voter blocks.
This is why choosing Ellison sends a strong message about the Democratic Party. Trump ran a divisive campaign that fed into racial fears and xenophobia—including Islamophobia. Two especially noxious policy proposals involved banning Muslims from entering the U.S. and enacting a Muslim registry.Choosing @KeithEllison sends a clear message that we won't accept Trump's Islamophobia.Click To Tweet
Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was the chairman of Breitbart—which has a vicious anti-Muslim bias. The notorious website includes headlines like “Stopping Islamic Immigration is a Matter of Survival.” As an article by Dean Obeidallah in The Huffington Post pointed out, the mainstream media called out Breitbart for much of its sexism, anti-Semitism, and general racism, but was mostly silent on its Islamophobia.
It seems that anti-Muslim bigotry is not treated the same as other forms of prejudice.
Because of this bias, choosing a Muslim for a high position is a political risk. But it’s also a bold political statement—that of a truly inclusive Democratic Party in a time of oppression. It also shows a political backbone, one that’s badly needed as an incendiary right takes the reins.
For those who truly value civil rights (the rightful term for identity politics), Keith Ellison is the obvious choice for DNC chair.