Keith Ellison’s Praise For Clinton Could Be Trouble For The Democratic Party [Opinion]

Rep. Keith Ellison, the new deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and a former supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ failed presidential primary bid, is suddenly in love with Hillary Clinton.

In recent weeks, Ellison has repeatedly tweeted and spoken out in support of Sanders’ former primary rival. Sanders supporters and other progressives aren’t too happy about it. Many see it as the latest in a long series of betrayals and disappointments coming out of the Democratic Party. That could be problematic for the party’s wavering efforts to reunite its liberal base with its progressive wing.

The Democratic Party establishment has long had a rocky relationship with progressives. While the latter criticizes the party for moving too far to the right on everything from foreign policy to the environment, the Democratic leadership counters that progressives are a bunch of purists who are incapable of compromise.

Never mind that the Democratic Party’s idea of compromise increasingly rest on the assumption that they get to do whatever they want as long as there are still a handful of issues they can point to and say, “Look, we’re not as bad as the Republicans.” If you don’t like that brand of “we get to do whatever we want and you have to accept it” compromise, well, then you’re just a stubborn and naive purist who’s helping the Republicans win. Of course.

Things took a turn for the worst during last year’s primary, which pitted progressive folk hero Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton, a candidate many viewed as the epitome of the Democratic shift to the right via Third Way politics and the Democratic Leadership Council. The primary had all the makings of a bitter contest from the beginning, and it did not disappoint in that regard.

The vitriolic mudslinging began — for the most part — on social media, where Clinton and Sanders’ supporters gave each other no quarter. While the candidates themselves stayed above the fray to a considerable extent, their surrogates and operatives quickly got down in the mud.

There was the myth of the Bernie Bro, the suspicious security lapse that repeatedly exposed the Clinton campaign’s voter data to the Sanders campaign, the controversy over the Democratic National Committee allegedly rigging the primary in favor of Clinton, and then the contentious Democratic National Convention that saw Clinton officially win the party’s nomination.

The schism didn’t end with Clinton’s nomination. Many from the “Bernie or Bust” camp held fast in their refusal to support Clinton despite efforts of party luminaries to unite and focus on defeating Trump. Even Sanders’ attempts to rally his supporters behind Clinton received a mixed response, with some accusing him of selling out by endorsing Clinton.

Then the so-called Sanders Revolution entered a new phase, one that envisioned changing the Democratic Party from within. This manifest primarily through the work of Sanders’ nonprofit organization Our Revolution. The hope was that progressive candidates and politicians like Zephyr Teachout, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Keith Ellison, Sen. Cory Booker, and Rep. Raul M. Grijalva would rise to the top of the party leadership while a new wave of grassroots progressive activists would also seek elected office.

This plan met with some success, as progressives and “Berniecrats” took over some state Democratic parties and won a few elections. However, there has also been plenty of disappointment and disillusionment. Cory Booker lost some of his progressive credentials when his vote against importing more affordable prescription drugs and his ties to Secretary of State Betsy DeVos’s lobbying efforts to drive school voucher and privatization programs began receiving more attention. Even former progressive champion Elizabeth Warren has fallen from grace in the eyes of many progressives after she refused to endorse Bernie Sanders during the primary — but then enthusiastically endorsed Clinton in the general — and remained silent on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests until it obviously became too late.

After progressives faced such a grueling series of disappoints coming from the party that is supposed to represent them — and the above instances are by no means an exhaustive list — Ellison becoming the DNC chair and leading the party in a new direction was the last chance to retain or win back many Sanders supporters and progressives who’d had their fill.

Then the Democratic Party said “Nah” yet again. If that wasn’t bad enough, Ellison responded to the party that had actively worked against both Sanders and him with a foolhardy “I’m with you!”

Early in the race for the DNC chair — which had been vacated by Debbie Wasserman Schultz after leaked emails suggested she had indeed tipped the scales in Clinton’s favor — Ellison was poised to earn an easy victory. He had been endorsed by Sanders, Warren, and several prominent labor unions, as well as establishment Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer and political icons like Rep. John Lewis.

The Democratic establishment, including then-President Obama and then-Vice President Biden, wasn’t having it. Obama, Biden, and others in the Democratic leadership urged former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to run against Ellison because they feared the latter was too progressive. Perez entered the DNC race in December and quickly gained the backing of the party leaders.

There was still hope that Ellison could win, but he ended up losing the race for the DNC chair by a narrow margin in the second round of voting in February. As a gesture of compromise and unity, Perez quickly appointed Ellison as “deputy chair” of the DNC, the duties of which were not exactly clear.

Ellison wasted no time in rewarding the party for granting him his new title.

“We don’t have the luxury to walk out of this room divided,” Ellison said after hugging Perez, according to a report from the New York Times. “If we waste even a moment of going at it over who supported who, we are not going to be standing up for those people.”

Since then, Ellison has more or less fallen in line with Democratic Party elite. And progressives have noticed.

In a recent opinion piece for the Observer, Michael Sainato — who stridently supported Sanders during the Democratic primary — took aim at Ellison for continuing to “Cringingly ‘Stand Up’ for Hillary Clinton.”

Sainato focused on several recent tweets issued from Ellison’s official account that praise Clinton.

Some of what Ellison says here may be true, but it also suggests a certain ahistoricism — intentional or otherwise — that overlooks Hillary Clinton’s political and public support of her husband and then-President Bill Clinton’s draconian “Wellfare reform” that cut social services to millions of Americans who were most in need.

To be fair, Ellison’s newfound love for Clinton didn’t necessarily begin with his appointment as deputy chair. There were earlier tweets, particularly some issued during his run for the chair, that praised Clinton and rebuked her progressive retractors.

While Ellison’s tweets have gotten many positive responses, it’s clear that they’ve also frustrated many progressives.

Ellison is free to support whomever he wishes, but if his goal is to truly unite the Democratic Party and bring progressives back into the fold, talking up Clinton seems like a remarkably ill-conceived strategy. The “Bernie or Bust” crew and other progressives, by and large, aren’t going to be convinced that Clinton is on their side. They simply aren’t. Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that. This makes Ellison’s constantly complimenting her reek of an attempt to earn the good graces of the party establishment rather than reaching out to disenchanted progressives.

The Democrats, Ellison included, seem to be under the illusion that if they can just get a bonafide progressive to say, “Hey, Clinton is one of us,” then that will do the trick. They clearly — clearly — haven’t been paying attention. If Sanders lost some of his thunder by endorsing Clinton, why on earth would anyone think that Ellison — who never had anywhere near the following of Sanders — could be any more successful? He’s going to turn far more progressives away from the party — many of them perhaps for good — than he is going to trick into thinking that Clinton and the party establishment are on their side.

If he really wanted to woo progressives, he shouldn’t even mention Clinton’s name at all. He should instead focus on the issues and candidates that progressives care about. His doting on Clinton only says — yet again — that the Democratic establishment is completely out of touch with the progressive wing and that once you become a part of that establishment you’re sucked into the same game, no matter how progressive you may or may not have been before.

After progressives have given the Democrats countless opportunities to make amends, Ellison moving towards the party’s neoliberal core is bound to be the final last straw for some of them. It’s almost as if the party simply refuses to learn from its mistakes.

[Featured image by Alex Wong/Getty Images]