Keith Ellison and Bernie Sanders: How To Remake the Democratic Party

The two congressmen discuss Donald Trump, Ellison’s bid for DNC chair and how progressives can actually win.

Keith Ellison and Bernie Sanders

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) watches at the Dec. 14, 2016, Our Revolution event in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On December 14, the political advocacy group Our Revolution hosted a livestream event with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) discussing the need to reform the Democratic Party. Both Sanders and Our Revolution have endorsed Ellison in his campaign to be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). What follows is an abridged transcript of their remarks, edited for length and clarity.

We don't need to decide between social justice and economic justice—we got to have all of that justice together. Do we not?

Bernie: What we are doing tonight is not sexy, and it’s not going to make the headlines in the newspapers all over the country, but it is unprecedented for the Democratic Party and for the long-term future of our country, and it is of enormous consequence. At a time of low voter turnout, at a time when millions of Americans are demoralized politically and are sick and tired of establishment politics and establishment economics, we are gathered here tonight not only in this building but all over America to begin the process of transforming American politics and of creating a government which works for all of the people — not just the 1%.

That is what we are here to do, and in order to make that happen our first step is to transform the Democratic Party from a top-down party to a bottom-up body, to create a grassroots organization of the working families of this country, the young people of this country. I will tell you, having been all over this great nation of ours, there is an incredible idealism of millions of young people who believe in this country and who love this country and are prepared to fight to make this country all that we can become. I want to also urge all Americans regardless of income, regardless of their race, their nationality, their sexual orientation, to jump into the political process and make the Democratic Party a democratic party with a small d,” not just a capital d.”

This election for chair of the DNC is not a personality contest — the media may think it is, but it’s not. From what I can gather, Keith’s opponents are decent people who want to improve the Democratic Party and want to see us become victorious. The key difference here is whether we continue the status quo or whether we bring forth a very different vision for the future of the Democratic Party. That is what this election is about, and here is why we need to go forward in a very different direction than currently exists.

The painful truth is that despite President Obama’s strong victories in 2008 and 2012, the Democratic Party has lost enormous political ground over the last eight years. The Republicans have just won the White House. The Republicans now control the Senate. The Republicans now control the House. Republican governors now control almost two-thirds of the statehouses in this country, and over the last eight years Democrats have lost some 900 legislative seats from one end of America to the other. That is the simple, indisputable truth. Clearly, whatever the leadership of the Democratic Party has been doing over the last few years has failed, and we need fundamental change.

The Republican Party advocates cutting the Social Security that the American people want to expand. Republicans want to throw million Americans off of their health insurance. They now want to cut Medicare. They want to cut Medicaid. They want to cut federal aid to education. Despite competing against a Republican Party that not only does not want to do anything substantive about climate change, to a large degree they do not even recognize the scientific reality of climate change — despite all of that, and much more — the Democratic Party has lost significant political ground. We have got to ask why that has occurred.

Brothers and sisters, the status quo is not working, and we will not succeed if we continue along the same old path. Now is the time for real change in the Democratic Party, now is the time to revitalize the Democratic Party and bring in people who have not been welcomed in the past. We should not be afraid of new energy and new faces; we should welcome and embrace new energy and new faces. Now is the time for a chair of the Democratic Party who has a very different vision of the party then those who are in control today. Now is the time for Keith Ellison to become chair of the Democratic Party.

As I know many of you are aware, Keith is currently the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and has been one of the leading progressive voices on all of the major issues facing the middle class and working families of our country. He has been there on picket lines. He’s been up front and out front in terms of workers’ rights, in terms of the environment and climate change, in terms of the need to create a healthcare system that guarantees healthcare to all people as a right. He has been out in front on women’s rights, on the rights of the LGBT community, on the need for real criminal justice reform, on the need for immigration reform and on the need for real tax reform, so that Donald Trump and the other billionaires start paying their fair share of taxes. For many, many years Keith has been there not as a follower, but as a leader. Unlike some of the other candidates running for chair, Keith knew from day one that the TPP was a disaster for working families and helped us defeat the TPP. Keith is by nature a grassroots organizer — that is what he does and that is who he is. He is not a creature of the inside-the-beltway world; he is a person who lives in the real world, feels comfortable in the real world, and is going to bring the real world into the Democratic Party.

Keith already has the support of some of the strongest grassroots organizations and trade unions in this country, and we have the support of many, many progressive elected officials. But we have something even more important than all of that right now: We have the support of more than 600,000 men and women in every state in this country, who have signed petitions to demand and urge that Keith Ellison become the next chair of the Democratic Party. 600,000 people. Our goal, and I urge all people to get involved in this process, is to take that 600,000 number and make it a million. Please get your friends and co-workers involved, please go to Our​Rev​o​lu​tion​.com and get your friends to sign up.

Brothers and sisters, we are in a perilous and momentous moment in American history. You all know that, and we are going to need a political party that has the guts to stand with working families, has the guts to take on the big money interests that control to a large degree our economic and political life.

It is my great privilege to introduce to you someone who I believe is going to be the next chair of the Democratic National Committee. Please welcome congressman Keith Ellison.

Keith: If there was ever a moment when people who love this country and the people in it need to step up and do everything they can to improve the lives of their fellow Americans, that moment is right now.

If I told you that you had an opportunity to fight for people who felt vulnerable and scared in this Trump America, would you do it? If I told you that you had a chance to stand up and fight for working people, would you do it? If I told you that you could be the hero of folks who pour the cement, who teach the classes, who take care of the folks in the hospital, who take care of the children, who cook the food — I mean the hard-working people of America — would you step up and do something for them?

Well that’s good, because we need you to do all of that right now. Because let me tell you, it’s hard to imagine somebody like Donald Trump being elected president, but in a few days he will be the president. I don’t know what stage in the whole spectrum of grief you may be at, but I think we need to arrive at acceptance that he’s about to be the president. And that means that each of us and all of us have to do every single thing that we can to protect our fellow Americans and to advance the cause of economic and social justice. This is a historic moment, this is a movement moment and this moment may well be the moment when the American people thought to reclaim their democracy of, by and for the people.

Now Trump ran saying stuff like, more jobs, new trade model.” As soon as he got in there he said he was going to drain the swamp. You remember that one. Well, he’s filling up with lobbyists, billionaires, corporate executives, hedge fund managers, all these folks. We’re going to have the richest cabinet ever: If you just had a few million dollars, you’d be like the poor guy in that bunch.

Trump said he said he’s going to fight for little people, yet he nominates as Secretary of Education another billionaire who’s against public schools, when 90 percent of American school children will go to a public school. Betsy DeVos wants to privatize them. Trump said he was going to help working people. His nominee for labor secretary is another billionaire who makes billions on the backs of low-wage fast-food workers. He is actually against the minimum wage and would lower it if he could. This is the cabinet he’s picked so far. He said he was going to appoint the best and most qualified, and yet Dr. Ben Carson admits he knows nothing at all about housing. 

So I guess it’s no surprise that Trump also nominated a guy who says that there’s no such thing as climate change to be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. At a time when people are living in toxic areas all over this country, he picks an EPA leader who is not in favor of protecting people from environmental hazards. So people, we got our work cut out for us.

We can always count on the right wing to say that rich people don’t have enough money, and the poor folks have too much money. We can always count on them to say the rich folks need one more tax cut, one more regulation that they don’t have to follow, and regular working people need one less thing that’s going to help them make it through the week. Okay, so that’s them, what about us? Are we going to hit the streets? Are we going to organize?

This is what we got to do: Right now we got to reset the future of the Democratic Party. We got to reset the Democratic party on the basis of grassroots activism. We got to reset the Democratic Party on the basis of working people who are striving every single day to make a better life for themselves and their families right here in America. I’m talking about African Americans, white Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans. I’m talking about Asian Americans, about people who are Jewish and Muslim and Christian and Buddhist and Hindu and those who have no faith at all. I’m talking about folks like you and me, folks like us that need to say that the Democratic Party has got to be democratic, and it starts with getting some leadership in there that’s going to fight for that democracy. I’m telling you right now, this is the moment we have been waiting for: The time for us to stand up and fight back and reclaim our nation. Y’all ready? 

Now I want to tell you that I am very proud to have your support, and I’m so amazed at the tremendous turnout we have here tonight. Big shoutout to the folks on the livestream. If the Democratic party’s going to make any reforms, one of them has got to be that we use moments like this one — mass meetings of hundreds of thousands of people — to get together to talk about what we’re going to do to make our country better for everyone. We got to include everybody, and if technology can help us get more folks on the table, well then let’s do it.

The Democratic Party should be the party of the people. The Democratic Party should be the party for those who want a better future for their children and grandchildren. It should be a party that invests in workers and protects their ability to organize and fight for a fair wage in good working conditions. The Democratic Party should be a party that believes everyone should have equal access to the American Dream and equal rights before the law. The Democratic Party should say it doesn’t matter what your color is, we’re going to treat you with fairness and equality and respect. It doesn’t matter who you love and go to bed with at night; it doesn’t matter who your closest of kin is, they are your choice and we respect and honor that choice. That’s what the Democratic Party should be. The Democratic Party should say whether you were born in America or whether you came here, we respect you. We believe that the Democratic Party should be the party of, by and for the people. 

And yet, we know that even a good car sometimes needs a tune-up. You know what I mean. It needs new wheels, new brake pads, new belts, new hoses, new oil; it needs new spark plugs, maybe needs a paint job, needs to get that window that’s been cracked fixed. You got to maintain and update and invigorate everything. If you just let it slide, it tends not to work so well.

Well now, I know some folks don’t want to hear it, but Democrats have lost 935 legislative seats and Republicans now control two-thirds of governors’ offices — and let me tell you, the state legislature is very, very important, because that is where our voting rights are made. If you have a lifetime ban on voting if you have a felony, like they have in Florida, it’s because the state says so. If you never lose your right to vote, like they have in Vermont and Maine, that’s because the state says so.

How is it impacting the American people’s right to fully participate in democracy when 935 legislative seats and state legislatures have been lost by Democrats? How has it affected redistricting? It has devastated us. How has that affected a woman’s right to choose in Ohio? Governor John Kasich said he has a 20-week ban on the right for a woman to choose abortion. Let me tell you something: This is none of his business. It’s unconstitutional, but he did it because he wants a constitutional challenge, because he wants the case to go up there, because he wants to see the Supreme Court strip away a woman’s right to make decisions for her family and herself and her body. That’s something we have got to take very seriously, but it’s going on at the state level.

You know what? Raising the minimum wage is winning on ballot initiatives, but Democrats aren’t winning. They like our ideas, but somehow our candidates aren’t getting through. We need a retool. I don’t recommend folks smoke marijuana, but I tell you it is crazy to throw people in jail for it, and when you see that all over the country these ballot initiatives are passing the right for medical and even recreational use. Why fill up the jails for something like that? That doesn’t make no sense at all.

I’m running for DNC chair because it’s time to turn all of this stuff around. It is time, and all of us have to step up. Each of us know no DNC chair, no elected official, can make the changes that have to be made. They’re going to have to be made by the millions of Americans all across this country who believe in equality for all people, who believe in a fair economy, who believe that people have the right to choose and make their own personal decisions, who believe that climate change is going to destroy this world and our ability to live on it unless we do something right now. This is what we’ve got to do. We can remake this party right now.

I am a person who believes in unity, and I do absolutely thank the folks who have been around for a long time and honor their institutional memory and thank them for their service. But I also believe that it is absolutely time for a very serious injection of energy and reinvigoration. These two things don’t need to be at odds; these things actually, if they work together, can serve us all very, very well. We all have our ideas about how things should go, so we need leadership that is going to say we’re going to stick together and stay together. Maybe cuss each other out a little bit, but at the end of the day we’re going to come out holding hands and be a team.

I also believe that we got to stand up tall for small. Now, what do I mean by that? You know, Howard Dean was right to say we need a 50-state strategy, but we got to go beyond that now. We need a 3,141-county strategy. We need strategy that gets granular. We need a block-by-block, a precinct strategy; we need a strategy that gets right down to the nitty-gritty, because the resources of the Democratic Party need to be moved right down closest to the voter. That’s where they need to be. I’m talking about the money, the training, the data, the resources. But I can tell you that city officials and state legislative folks, and local county people, and just grassroots rank-and-file do not feel like they are being heard or listened to or included.

This a fact. I’m just telling the truth. If we want to win, we will listen to our local officials and our grassroots rank-and-file. We got to get small. I already mentioned to you that we have got to communicate, we got to use live-streaming like we are right now and this has got to be our regular practice. All of us together are smarter than any one of us, but if we don’t share information and access, we cannot make maximum use of all of the intelligence and creativity that people are coming up with every day. We will do these things, we will make use of the talents that we have available to us, so abundant if only we would let go of our need to control everything and hand over the power to the people closest to the voter.

The Democratic Party must always be a party that stands for the respect and dignity of all people. Walter Reuther was the farmer who spoke at the March On Washington, which was not only for civil rights but for jobs as well. When Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers got up there, he said that there’s a direct line between the bread box and ballot box.

He was right, wasn’t he? We got to fight for economic justice; we got to make sure that prosperity for working people is available to them and that they have it. We don’t need to decide between social justice and economic justice — we got to have all of that justice together. Do we not? You know I’ve heard people talk about the white working-class versus the rising new American electorate. Well let me tell you something, we got to stand for both. We got to stand for all; we can never sacrifice between the two. If we don’t stand up for both, we’re not going to have neither one. Because they would use tribalism and racial manipulation to lower our wages. Once they get us fighting with each other on the basis of these things, they’re always going to come take the money. We’ve got to stay together.

We have also got to turn out the vote. In 2014, we saw a 70-year low in voter turnout. In 2016, over 90 million eligible voters did not vote. We say we’re only going to campaign in the swing states, and we’re only going to go to the likely voters, and we leave literally millions of people not participating. When we do that we leave ourselves to lose Wisconsin, which is a blue state. We leave ourselves to lose Michigan, which is the home of the UAW. We lose these states that we should win because we have this strategy that we’re only going to talk to certain people. What if we started talking to everybody?

We need to stop looking at each other and segmenting each other; and see each other as true allies to rebuild this party. We’ve got to energize activists at the grassroots and unite all throughout this country. We’ve got to give Black Lives Matter people a place where they can express themselves electorally. We’ve got to give the Fight for 15 a party where they feel good about expressing themselves electorally. The immigration activists have got to have a place where they feel that there’s a party that’s listening to them. We’ve got to have a place for the folks who fight for climate justice, a party that they can support.

We are off to a good start, because Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton combined to create the best platform the Democratic Party has ever seen. I was privileged and honored to have Bernie appoint me to the platform drafting committee, and let me tell you, good things came out of it. Because of that collaboration and that unity, we got the best platform we’ve ever had. We’ve got to use it to move forward. We can organize with this very important tool, and if you will take up this battle and you will pledge to yourself and each other that your love for this country outweighs any beef you may have with anyone, if you will promise to yourself that you will work hard every single day to make this Democratic Party really work for the people, then we are not only looking at victory in 2018 and redistricting in 2020. We are looking at a generation full of success for working people.

Republicans in 1964 thought that they were at the bottom, that they were down and out. People said conservatism was dead as a philosophy because Goldwater lost to Johnson in historic numbers, and yet those guys are so committed to making themselves more money and excluding people that they climb back up. They won, and then they won some more. And in 1980, this culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan, I’m telling you I don’t want to be like them, I don’t believe what they believe, but I will say that I appreciate determination when I see it. And you and I better have the same level, if not more, determination for working people.

Democrats, liberals, progressives, the Left — we stand for the right values. I think that because we stand for the right values, we think that’s all we have to do. The people on the Right, they know that the program they’re pushing is only going to benefit about 1% of the people, but they still live in a democracy, so they have to figure out a way to win. We also have got to understand that just being right is not enough. We’ve got to be unified. We got to be active. We got to be fighting together. We’ve got to be pushing the right program; we’ve got to strengthen and unify at the grassroots level, and we need a Democratic Party that’s going to help us do that.

If you’re ready to do those things, we are ready to win. I need to ask you to do just a few things. Bernie said that we need to sign those petitions. We absolutely got to get a million signatures, okay? If there are DNC members in your state, gently and politely tell them that you would like them to support Ellison for DNC chair. Also, we need to be doing meet-ups all over this country. I’m talking about meet-ups where people can meet like once a month, get some cookies, tea, coffee, whatever you like, and just say you know what? What if we did this, or what if we did that? And then maybe you could have a listening session to really feel how people are doing.

Here’s the other thing, there’s a lot of folks who voted for Trump. Don’t reject them; ask them what are you thinking about? How do you feel now? Are you willing to work with us? Now did he disappoint you or do you still feel satisfied? Because there’s a whole lot of folks after they lose their healthcare, they are going to be a little bit annoyed. Don’t push them away, bring them in.

And the last thing I want to ask you to do is just understand that there’s a lot of folks who might have their family roots south of the border, and a guy who just got elected said, Build a wall.” These people need our support. These are our brothers and sisters, and we can’t let them feel vulnerable and afraid. A dear friend of mine said to me recently that she was called to a meeting with her friend. She brought her little five-year-old daughter with her. And she said to my friend, if me and my husband are picked up and deported, you know Juanita is born in America, she’s a citizen: Would you take care of her? You understand? Think about having that conversation. That’s real for a lot of people. There are other people who were told that they were going to be banned from immigrating here based on their religion. People who are Muslim, be a friend. People who are gay and lesbian, people who are Jewish — a lot of anti-Semitism has really popped up. You got to stand with everybody who is feeling vulnerable right now. Because one of the things Trump has uncorked is that hate machine, and we have got to resist it and stand up against it. Our best weapon against it is our own solidarity. Let’s remake the Democratic Party, everybody.

Please consider supporting our work.

I hope you found this article important. Before you leave, I want to ask you to consider supporting our work with a donation. In These Times needs readers like you to help sustain our mission. We don’t depend on—or want—corporate advertising or deep-pocketed billionaires to fund our journalism. We’re supported by you, the reader, so we can focus on covering the issues that matter most to the progressive movement without fear or compromise.

Our work isn’t hidden behind a paywall because of people like you who support our journalism. We want to keep it that way. If you value the work we do and the movements we cover, please consider donating to In These Times.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and a candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is a democratic socialist who ran for president in the 2016 Democratic primary.
Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.