Keith Ellison
Keith Ellison Credit: Lorie Shaull/Wikicommons

I’m somewhere between undecided and indifferent about who the Democrats elect to lead the Democratic National Committee, but Chuck Todd is at least willing to touch the third rail few people want to discuss.

As DNC members travel to Atlanta to choose the party’s next chair on Saturday, there’s an elephant in the room that no one is talking about it — but that everyone is thinking about: Keith Ellison’s Muslim faith.

Don’t get us wrong, this isn’t an issue among the 447 DNC members. As we’ve written, many/most voting members would be happy with either Ellison or Tom Perez. But some outside the party seem to be goading Democrats to pick Ellison, as David Duke did earlier this month. Even President Trump weighed in on Ellison yesterday, tweeting: “One thing I will say about Rep. Keith Ellison, in his fight to lead the DNC, is that he was the one who predicted early that I would win!”

There is a certain sense in which November’s election results can be seen as an example of the Republicans winning the identity politics game. Democrats relentlessly tried to highlight the racism that is prevalent in our society, in our courts, in our police departments, in our access to the ballot, and in Donald Trump’s campaign, and the result was that rural America voted for Trump in such unexpectedly high percentages that he won states like Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that no one thought he could win.

Both before and during the campaign I warned that the Republicans would try to get whites to vote as a racial group. I called this strategy various things at different times, finally settling on the Southificaction of the North. I did not think the strategy could work on the Electoral College level, but I saw it as devastating even so. I saw it as devastating because I consider it a moral catastrophe for one of our major political parties to deliberately try to get whites to vote along lines of racial solidarity, and I saw that it would increase racial tensions and solidify the right’s advantages in state legislatures all across the country.

All of that happened, and the presidency was lost, too.

If this were the only thing I was looking at, the idea of electing a DNC chair who is black, Muslim and from an urban community would seem like some kind of oblivious death wish. It’s like, “What part of the ass-kicking you just took did you not understand?”

And that’s definitely how David Duke and Donald Trump see things. They know that Ellison will be a gift that never stops giving them fodder for their ethnoreligious, anti-urban scaremongering and bigotry.

It’s ironic, though, that the roles have been reversed here. The Republicans are always accusing the Democrats of engaging in identity politics. It’s the Democratic candidates who feel obliged to tick off every vulnerable group (blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays, etc.) in every campaign speech. Yet, I don’t think there are any Democrats who think Ellison’s biography is a political asset for them. They’re practicing what they preach and looking beyond race and religion. They’re judging Ellison by the content of his character and by the proposals he’s offering.

The main alternative to Ellison is Tom Perez, a Latino whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic. Given that Trump is formulating plans to aggressively deport Latinos from our country, and that this promise was a key driver or his white rural appeal, it’s pretty obvious that the Democrats are dismissing any strategy that would involve trying to use the identity of the next DNC chairman as an asset. They’re so far from engaging in that game that they’re not even trying to play defense.

Some people think this is insane, but it’s only insane if you think it’s more important how the rural voters we need to win back perceive the DNC chairman’s race and religion than it is that the DNC chairman actually have a good plan for the party and that they do a good job.

The Republicans think this way quite often, which is why they believe that they’ll get a lot of women to vote for them if they put Sarah Palin on the ticket or a lot of blacks to vote for them if Michael Steele is the RNC chairman. It doesn’t usually work out for them.

It’s often forgotten that the majority of the rural voters the Democrats need to win back are people who voted for Barack Hussein Obama at least once. They gave him a chance despite his race, his name, and his urban background. All things being equal, it would have been easier to win without a guy with ‘Hussein’ in his name, but all things weren’t equal. The same is true for either Ellison or Perez as DNC chair.

If the Democrats wanted to use identity rather than talent or substance to choose the DNC chairman, they’d find a white Protestant man from a rural community and hope that the lost voters would come home based on that alone. But that’s the kind of move the Republican would make (and have made).

Personally, I think Perez and Ellison would both make fine chairmen, which is why I don’t really have anything invested in the outcome of Saturday’s vote. Some Democrats I know feel like the future of the world depends on the outcome, but I just can’t fathom why they feel that way. They are two good men, and the Democrats are lucky to have such a fine choice to make. I don’t think they can make a bad decision here.

Whoever wins, though, they’re going to need to get those rural Obama voters back or the party will be in a permanent minority status in the House, in a big majority of our state legislatures, and most of the time in the Senate.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at