Last Saturday, the Democratic National Committee, the formal governing body of the national Democratic Party, held its first contested election for its Chair position since 1985. It comes at a historical moment when center-left parties across the world are in disarray against a rising tide of far-right populism. In France, the incumbent Socialist Party is running fourth in the polls, and Emmanuel Macron, a popular former minister who formed a new center-left party with the intent of preventing far-right candidate Marine Le Pen from taking the presidency, is predicted to lose to her in the first-round election. The past year has also seen insurgent far-right populist challenges in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy that have mirrored the run of Donald Trump last year.
The DNC race was thus a moment for the Democratic Party leadership to decide where the future of the party lay. The two candidates—Tom Perez, former Labor Secretary in the Obama administration, and Keith Ellison, Representative from Minnesota and head of the Progressive Caucus—could be said to represent the Clintonite and progressive wings of the party, respectively. Perez narrowly won 235 votes to Ellison’s 200 and immediately named Ellison Deputy Chair in an act of reconciliation and party unity.
What does this mean for the Democratic Party? Perez is a veteran of the Obama administration, received the endorsements of President Obama and Vice President Biden and (broadly speaking) shares the center-left ideology of Clinton and the former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida. Further, Perez, whose parents are Dominican immigrants, fits with the Democratic strategy of capturing Latinx votes as that population continues to increase. Ellison, a black Muslim, represents a Bernie Sanders-tinged progressive persuasion and was endorsed by Sanders, New York City mayor Bill De Blasio and (surprisingly) Chuck Schumer, thought to be a mainstay of the Democratic establishment. Ellison presented a vision of a more boldly progressive Democratic Party that may have been tougher on both Wall Street and campaign finance reform and sought to pull back on the current unwavering alliance with Israel.
Many progressives have bemoaned the results of this election, which in many ways represents a decision on the part of Democratic Party to stay their previous course. In some respects, picking Perez feels a bit like the choosing Tim Kaine as Clinton’s vice presidential candidate—an anodyne pick that can be seen as a paean to demographically crucial Latinx voters. It is interesting to see how these identities were instrumentalized during the race: Perez was seen as someone whose identity was crucial to the future of the party, while Ellison’s Islamic faith was seen as a threat to Democratic commitments to Israeli relations.
Perez’s decision to bring on Ellison as deputy does point toward broader unity between the warring factions within the party, at least at a superficial or symbolic level. However, it presents a stark contrast to the current situation of the Republican Party. When Reince Priebus went onstage at CPAC alongside Steve Bannon, it solidified the Republicans as unified under Trump’s presidency and ideology. The closeness of this race shows that the Democrats are still undergoing the convulsions of an identity crisis. For young liberal-inclined students, it presents an opportunity for getting involved in the formative shaping of the future of the American left.
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