Columns, Opinions

Hyland GS: Ellison — a progressive future for the Dems

staff columnist
Wednesday, February 8, 2017

There has been terrifyingly little introspection by the Democratic Party in the months following the election. It has instead preferred to blame anyone but itself for what happened on Nov. 8. James Comey, Russia, Wikileaks, the media, Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein and the rural, working class have been targeted to deflect responsibility and preserve the status quo. But I am not interested in the extent to which the party forsook its progressive base and supported the nomination of a deeply flawed candidate. I am instead concerned about ways the party must transform if it hopes to offer real resistance to the neo-Nazi ideology now in executive and legislative power.

Later this month, the party has an opportunity to redefine itself, to demonstrate its commitment to the marginalized communities that it has long relied on for support yet so often ignored: The party must elect progressive Rep. Keith Ellison, D-MN, to chair the Democratic National Committee. Ellison — the first Muslim elected to Congress — would offer a significant change to the dominant political culture of the party. His candidacy, which has the support of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, would mean a commitment to grassroots organizing and mass mobilization rather than high-dollar fundraisers attended by the political elites and the neoliberal dogma that has long defined the party’s platform.

The tension between these two visions of the Democratic Party was certainly visible in the recent debate among the DNC chair candidates. It is a fundamental characteristic of politicians confronted with uncomfortable truths to direct attention elsewhere — away from themselves, the party, prominent supporters and donors. Nowhere is this more obvious than in conversation about the Israel-Palestine conflict. When discussing the region, American politicians navigate a delicate balance of demonstrating knowledge of the region and its history while avoiding scrutiny of the foremost purveyors of violence: the United States and Israel. On Jan. 18, Ellison and former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez ’83 — the two favorites to win the position — and five others gathered at George Washington University to discuss the ideological state and future of the party. In the moments following the debate’s conclusion, Zaid Jilani, who writes for The Intercept, met Perez and said, “People are quick to condemn the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, but there have also been really strong actions against human rights by Israel. For example, 1,600 Palestinians lost their homes last year to home demolitions.” Perez’s countenance quickly became filled with angst and frustration, and he turned to walk away, telling Jilani, “Absolutely, I understand it’s a complicated issue.” Jilani followed him, asking, “Secretary, would you condemn the home demolitions by (Israeli Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu?” Perez disappeared behind the stage, leaving the question unanswered.

Perez’s profile in courage is not an aberration. It is, in fact, a peculiarity of the Democratic Party to espouse in the same moment profound love and empathy for ordinary people engaged in struggle and a commitment to the interests of oppressive states, bankers and major industries. The evidence of this dichotomy has become rather plentiful in recent decades. Former President Bill Clinton implemented a corporate-friendly trade policy that adversely affected labor and the working class as well as the destructive Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s neoconservative foreign policy was illuminated during her time as Secretary of State and again in her failed presidential campaign with her support of coups in Haiti and Honduras, campaigns to bomb Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria and admiration of accused war criminal Henry Kissinger. And though former President Barack Obama’s presidency seems to be a distant, blissful memory, the left must remain cognizant of his most disappointing failures as well. These include his refusal to prosecute the financiers responsible for the recession  or to hold accountable torturers of Muslims; the $38 billion in military aid to an Israeli state that killed 551 Palestinian children in the span of 50 days in 2014; and his astonishingly immoral and illegal drone program that has killed hundreds of civilians, including 12 at a Yemini wedding party. Forgive those of us on the left whose faith in the Democratic elite has become extinct.

The DNC has before it two distinct doctrines with which to define itself: the Obama-Clinton school of thought that retains deep extant sympathies toward various neoliberal policies, or the more progressive school nearer to the convictions espoused by Sanders. The distinction between them is stark, and the party’s choice of how to resist the neo-Nazi sycophants currently leading the right will have, quite literally, life-altering consequences for the myriad populations targeted by them. This country is in a fight for its soul. If we are to ensure its future does not continue to be usurped by unabridged hate, we must resist more milquetoast policies from the liberal Democrats and embrace a progressive future.

This debate over contemporary party ideology is also active in Rhode Island. Gov. Gina Raimondo supports the more centrist-minded Perez, while 22 state legislators and many other municipal elected officials are endorsing Ellison. Their support of Ellison seems to reflect the wishes of most Rhode Islanders, who fervently supported Sanders in the primaries. The dissonance between what most local legislators and Rhode Islanders want and what its senior leadership actually supports is illustrative of the larger national debate in which the party finds itself.

Absent the ability to overcome the barriers to a new progressive party, we are fighting to raise the moral standard of the Democratic one. The party should not ignore that. On Feb. 24, it has the opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to the progressive ideology, marginalized voices and oppressed communities that so desperately need and deserve its focus. Ellison’s election would do just that.

Sean T. Hyland GS can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to


  1. There is, and always has been, a huge difference between neo-liberal, conservative-lite, right-of-center corporatists, and progressive, equitable and fair, science-based public-policy advocates and supporters. The Democratic leadership either needs to reflect the future, or surrender their nominal differences and rejoin the GOP in their determination to stay locked into the demonstrated failures of the past.

  2. Man with Axe says:

    Ask Ellison (aka Keith Hakim) if he still believes the black Muslim doctrine that whites are inferior beings destined to be destroyed when blacks take over the world, if he still supports the anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan, if he still thinks, as he has said, “European White Jews are oppressing minorities all over the world,” if he still thinks that Jews ran the slave trade.

    And then ask yourself: Do you want Democrats to ever win another election?

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