By almost all accounts, both Tom Perez and Keith Ellison are strong progressives with a commitment to organizing. Sure, Ellison defended Louis Farrakhan back in the day – and sure, some Perez backers played to the Islamophobic assumption that a black working-class Muslim could never connect with white working-class Christians. But on policy and strategy, there was very little daylight between the two men.
Why, then, all the fuss about Perez’s narrow victory on an unprecedented second ballot of the DNC chair race last Saturday? Why fight over an election that was almost purely symbolic?
The answer, as anyone who has paid attention to politics could tell you, is that symbolism matters in politics. And for those in the progressive wing of the party, Ellison’s loss carried a lot of symbolic meaning.
To a lot of people, it symbolized exactly how power would be distributed in the party: The positions of real power would still be reserved for people who had paid their dues to the establishment. Even a sitting congressman, a lifelong Democrat who was actively uniting the party, would be blocked from a position of real power and instead given the participation trophy of “deputy chair.”
It symbolized a continuation of business as usual at the DNC. Especially here in Iowa, a bloc vote for the establishment candidate was a tone deaf move that reminded many of Andy McGuire’s management by fiat. Derek Eadon ran a great state chair campaign that promised a more transparent and internally democratic way of leading the party. A lot of that goodwill was squandered last Saturday.
And finally, for many, the chair election symbolized that dissent is not tolerated within the party. Every challenge to the establishment will be fought tooth and nail, even a candidate whose critique of the party was almost purely implicit. Vigorous internal debate is the mark of a healthy party, but last Saturday showed that criticism is not tolerated within today’s Democratic Party – a party which has been thoroughly defeated at every level of government, and which desperately needs to take a long hard look at how it’s been doing things.
Again, all of this is abundantly clear to anyone who listens to those of us who are angry about the outcome of the chair election. Symbolism matters, and even if you disagree with every point laid out above, you can’t disagree with the fact that this is how thousands of Iowa Democrats interpreted the national chair election last Saturday. Until party leadership comes to terms with that fact, and acts accordingly, party unity will be just a catchphrase.