By Maya Kosoff
Thursday, March 30, 2017
In February, one month after President Donald Trump took office, some 400 Democratic leaders convened in Atlanta to assess the damage and elect a new Democratic National Committee chair—a perhaps unenviable job that includes rebuilding a party in disarray. While establishment candidate Tom Perez won the title, he immediately appointed his more progressive runner-up, Keith Ellison, a populist Minnesota congressman and Muslim who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to the newly-created role of deputy party chair. A month later, Ellison is leading the charge against Trump’s travel ban, calling on Republicans to collaborate on infrastructure and tax reform, launching a nationwide “Democratic Turnaround Tour” to bring the party’s message to states it lost in 2016, and, among other things, restarting his podcast. We the People covers how working-class Americans affect the economy. The first episode will focus on women in the age of Trump, and includes an interview with NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue.
“If you look at the podcast in general, it really is about how people outside of the millionaire and billionaire classes experience the economy,” Ellison told me. “It really is about dealing with people who are struggling to get a union or right to work. How people’s faith informs their economic outlook. How money informs politics.” Past episodes have touched on working-class issues such as payday loans and prison phone rates. Here, Ellison talks about the recent health-care debacle, how his party can win back women who voted for Trump, and how to get millennials on board with the Democratic message.
Vanity Fair: You had a front-row seat to the G.O.P.’s health-care debacle. After eight years without the White House, is this Republican Congress incapable of governing?
Keith Ellison: It’s hard to see how they’re going to get their act together. People tend to do what they’ve been doing. So will they learn? I don’t know. We’ll see. The question is: will we learn? Will we learn that we have to promote unity, stick together, organize the grass-roots and always, always, always be on the side of the average American working person, male or female? Because women don’t get much attention when we talk about how the economy works. We sort of ignore the fact that women live longer, and therefore depend longer on Social Security, but they don’t get to earn as much because of discrimination. Therefore their pensions and retirement funds are lower. This is something the podcast is really going to focus on. We know that if we can correct this economy and make it fair and equal for men and women, America will be better off.
Republicans clearly have a different view, given how the American Health Care Act would have disproportionately raised premiums for women. What's the strategy for Democrats going forward in terms of health care? Will you oppose Trump or try to work with him?
We’re not going to simply obstruct them for political purposes.
So what is the strategy?
Work for the American people. Prioritize the American people’s interests in wages, pay, health care, Internet privacy. Like yesterday, the Republicans just voted to take away privacy rules on the Internet, which to me is outrageous. If this bill gets signed into law, the I.S.P.s will be able to sell your data and information, everything from when you get up in the morning, what sites you visited, all to try to sell you stuff. If they can do it for commercial purposes, they can do it for other purposes. Why not spy on you? Why not sell your data to someone who’s trying to whip up an oppo research file on you? The bottom line is that the possibilities are scary and endless. This is what the Republicans are up to.
You and Tom Perez were held up as proxies for the Democratic Party's apparent identity crisis. Should it seek to focus its messaging on economic issues that might appeal to a broader base, including the white working class, or double down its outreach on racial and social justice issues. Is that a false dichotomy?
It’s a Fox News dichotomy. The truth is, white working people need civil rights and inclusion, and people of color need economic inclusion. At the end of the day, white people want to be treated with respect and fairness, just as people of color have been fighting for for centuries. To imply that people of color don’t have economic concerns is crazy. What we have to do is build solidarity. We have to show people, whether they’re in Southern Appalachia or Detroit, Michigan, or Flint, that they may have come over on different ships, but they’re on the same boat now. We’ve got to show them their similarity. In their diversity, they’re actually quite unified, in that the economy’s not working for either one.
Right now the Democratic Party seems to be at an impasse where establishment liberals are seeking to continue Obama and Clinton-style policy and messaging, and more progressive activists are hoping to push the party left. Where do you see the party moving?
I don’t see the party so much moving left or right. I see it moving down. And what I mean by that is reconnecting with the roots. Reconnecting with what people want. It’s not a matter for me as deputy chair of the Democratic Party to go tell people, “We’re going left!” or “We’re going right!” No, I need to go sit with them in the V.F.W. hall, in the legion hall, in the union hall, in the church basement and say, if we organize, what do y’all think we need to prioritize? What are your pressing concerns? And I know what they’re going to say. They’re going to say, “I’m not making enough money; we need better housing; the schools need greater investment; we need an economy that works.” We’re still listening. At the end of the day, the Democratic Party is about two things: economic prosperity for working people, and respect for everybody.
A surprising number of women voted for Trump. How do Democrats win them back?
I think neither the Democrats nor Republicans have focused intensely enough on how four decades of wage stagnation has really undermined the fortunes of working families. We have not really focused on how the negative impacts of globalization on working people have really made the American dream out of reach. If it’s impacting working people in general, it’s no doubt impacting women, who have additional burdens when it comes to family responsibilities, child-rearing, childbearing, sexism, discrimination, sexual harassment. The Democrats are channeling our message of economic viability for all Americans. We’re focusing our attentions on wages, pay, and health care. We just mobilized to defeat the effort to get rid of the Affordable Care Act.
We’ve built up this expectation that there is an American dream to be obtained, and if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to get that American dream. But what if you’ve done every single thing and you still are just working to work? What if you still work two or three jobs at K.F..C and McDonalds for $10 a piece, got to find a babysitter? That might make any woman, white or any color, think that somebody saying “we’re gonna do infrastructure, fair trade, and jobs”—you might believe that person because you haven’t heard that message clearly enough. He’s new and he’s different and he’s not one of the other party people, so you might think he’s actually going to do it. But the truth is that he’s a charlatan. You might ask: why didn’t black and brown women vote for Trump? I think it’s true that in America, we’re just totally used to people like Trump. We don’t think he’s for us. We know he’s not. I think people of color just look at Trump far more skeptically than a person who grows up in a white working class community. We just think—you know, people of color, we’re used to white men doing mean things to us. That may not be politically correct to say but it’s demonstrably true and historically accurate.
Would you support a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood?
I would call that sort of a false choice. I’m not going to let them defund Planned Parenthood. We’re not going to do it; it’s just not going to happen. If they do it, it will be over my best effort to stop them from doing it. Now, Democrats don’t like shutting down the government. That’s not what we’re into. We don’t think that’s the best thing; when the government shuts down, who’s inspecting the meat and the water? Who’s doing the research? Who’s processing the V.A. claims? That’s a bad thing. But if they’re going to take away a very important tool for women to have a better quality of life and more choice and control in their lives, are we willing to go to the wall to protect that? I am, and I think there’s a whole lot of people who are too.
The Democratic Party is suffering from a lack of young political talent. This seems to be in stark opposition to the surge of young voter involvement that occurred during the Obama years, and it certainly didn't mobilize for Clinton.
The Sanders campaign proves that you can be in your 70s and still attract young people. You don’t have to be a millennial to attract millennials. So the question is not: how old is this person or that person. The question is: are you speaking to the reality of millennials? So here’s the deal: I’m 53. My son, when he was born, I was about 23. And my son is facing a much tougher economy than I am. When I got out of law school I had a job waiting for me, I had manageable debt, I was making enough money so my wife and I could get a place of our own. Him? He has three times the debt I had, the job market is tougher, the pay is lower.
So what’s ailing millennials? Why are they pissed? Because we told them: you’re an American born into the richest country in the world, where if you work hard and play by the rules you’re gonna be successful. And they’re like: Hey, things aren’t going the way you said they were going to do, dad! I got this big debt on my shoulders. I got limited job prospects. We’re offshoring American jobs.
People didn’t get into Bernie’s charisma. They got into two things: one is content. He talked to them very straight and very direct about how money was concentrating at the top, and they were not allowing policies that help working people to be passed through. And if you wanted to have a better society we need a massive surge in democratic participation, and if we were able to do that, we could change this thing.