Sorry, Garrison Keillor: Keith Ellison for President could have beaten Trump, and still Can

Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

I am a fan of Garrison Keillor, of “Prairie Home Companion” fame. I am also a fan of Keith Ellison (D-MN), the prominent liberal representative from Minneapolis and happens to be a Muslim.

Unfortunately for me, I have to choose between them because Keillor, deep in depression over the advent of the Trump Gilded Age, blasted the idea of Ellison becoming the Democratic National Committee chair. Keillor doesn’t think all the children of Lake Wobegone are above average. He thinks Ellison is a “lackluster black Muslim” who would have difficulty connecting with the white factory workers of Youngstown, the kind of people the Democrats need if they are to win in 2020.

Keillor is quick-witted and generally insightful, but why he chose to be so wrong, and wrongheaded, on this issue is probably a mystery that would stump even the great sleuth Guy Noir.

So here’s a counter-proposition for Mr. Keillor to consider. If the Democratic Party had been less dynastic and had run Keith Ellison as its presidential candidate in 2016, Ellison would have beaten Trump. And, moreover, if the Democrats were smart they would try to convince Ellison to run in 2020.

In order to understand why I say this, you have to understand why Hillary Clinton lost the election. It was because in some key states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, she suffered from a lack of enthusiasm on the part of Democrats. In those states, it is true that perhaps 14% of the white working class defected to Trump. But another 21% just stayed home. As Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr argue at Slate, the idea that Trump flipped the white working class is incorrect. It was Sec. Clinton’s inability to get them to come to the voting booth for her that was decisive.

Moreover, Clinton lost the African-American vote in two ways. First, she couldn’t inspire as many of them to vote as did Obama. They were only 12% of the electorate in 2016, down from 13% in 2012. Second, she couldn’t get as many of those who voted to vote for her. Only 88% did so, about the same level as Kerry attracted in 2004 but way off Obama’s percentages (93%). She performed especially poorly with younger African-Americans and with well-educated ones. And she was way off among African-Americans in Florida, at only 84%.

Sec. Clinton also suffered an enthusiasm gap among Latino and Asian voters compared to Obama. In 2012, Obama won 71% of the Latino vote. She got only 65% of Latinos to cast their ballot for her. She performed poorly among youth across he board, compared to Obama. She did not do as well as Obama in 2008, and while her popular vote totals are near his for 2012, her support was distributed differently (it doesn’t do her any good to have extra millions vote for her in California and New York but for Michigander Dems to stay home).

In short, Clinton lost in key states because she could not put back together the Obama coalition.

But Ellison can? Ellison can.

Ellison is substantially to Clinton’s left and those factory workers in Youngstown know that he is their champion. The AFL-CIO is jumping up and down over the moon with enthusiasm for him. He has been at the forefront of the struggle for the right to unionize, the right to strike and the right to be paid a living wage. Maybe you think the white working class is racist. It may be in the deep South and the West, but most of those states weren’t decisive in the presidential contest. It isn’t in the Northeast and the Midwest, where its votes matter:

“In Democracy Corps’ combined interviews for 2012, Obama won white non-college voters in New England by 51 to 42 percent, tied Romney in the West North Central states by 47 to 46 percent and trailed by only 7 points in the Mid-Atlantic by 44 to 51 percent.”

Ellison, being to Obama’s left on workers’ issues, has the potential to do even better than Obama among white workers in the Midwestern states that Trump narrowly won, and he certainly has the potential to get them out to vote in much larger numbers than Sec. Clinton did.

There is one person on the political horizon who could put back together Obama’s winning coalition. It is Keith Ellison. You couldn’t imagine Hillary Clinton winning North Carolina. Ellison at least certainly could, putting together the liberal whites of the Research Triangle Park with an enthusiastic African-American vote. Ellison could handily win Michigan and of course Minnesota and Wisconsin. The blue firewall did not hold for Clinton but it would, for Ellison.

If we can cede to Ellison the youth vote, the working class vote, the African-American vote, the liberal white suburban vote (which he wins in his home district), and the Latino vote, it is hard to see where we could go wrong with him.

There is that Muslim thing, of course. And billionaire arch-Zionist Haim Saban called Ellison an anti-Semite because he cares about rights for Palestinians.

In fact, Ellison has been pro-Israel, despite attempts to smear him by phonying up interview clips (the Trump fake news division). In fact, he is to the right of the Democratic Party on most issues having to do with Israel. As Bernie Sanders showed, it is possible to care about basic human rights for Palestinians while at the same time supporting basic human rights for Israelis. It cannot be assumed that Ellison would do worse nationally with Jews, especially those under 60, than Obama. But it also has to be noted that Jews are an ever-shrinking proportion of the electorate and that crowd-funding has made fanatics like Saban increasingly irrelevant. Trump took plenty of risks with the Jewish vote, down to playing to Neonazis, which is not something you could at all say about Ellison!

As for being Muslim, it could hurt him in some quarters. But likely those are the same quarters where it would hurt him to be Black. I doubt African-Americans, Latinos or Asian-Americans would care very much. As for white suburbanites, ever since Trump and the GOP far right began attacking Muslims, the view of Islam among independents and Democrats has improved markedly in just a year, according to Shibley Telhami’s polling:

“From November 2015 to June 2016, Americans views on Muslims have gone from 53% favorable to 62% favorable , while Americans with favorable views o f Islam have increased from 37% to 44% in June over the same period. During that same time frame, the percentage of people who think that Islamic and Western religious and social traditions are compatible increased from 57% % to 64 %.”

Given that Trump is filling his administration with crazed Islamophobes, this trend could well continue and accelerate, making a Muslim like Ellison not only reputable but even beloved as an underdog. Besides, if Americans will vote for a pussy-grabbing narcissistic erratic white nationalist with a bad comb-over, it is hard to rule them out voting for almost anyone at all.

Mr. Keillor, your Democratic Party, and your idea of winning politics, is so twentieth century. Keith Ellison is the future of America, which is what makes me optimistic about, well, the future of America. Ellison for President, 2020!


Related video:

The Young Turks from last week: “Anatomy Of A Political Hit Job (Brought To You By The Establishment)”

30 Responses

  1. Keillor’s radio shows haven’t changed in 25-30 yrs , like the the Democrats. The reason they lost the 2016 election is ’cause THEY RAN THE WRONG CANDIDATE!!!! (Bernie not Ellison)

  2. I find Keillor’s voice impossible to listen to and his supposed humor intolerable. From that perspective, and with no idea in what context he uttered the words quoted in this piece, I wonder whether the words were uttered as a contribution to his idea of humor.

    • GK retired from his radio program earlier this year, and has written columns in inimitable style for the Washington Post throughout the campaign. The Ellison comment was part of one sentence that was also critical of the choice of Pelosi as leader, in a column with some cogent and witty takes on this dismal transition period.
      (And taking over this year on Prairie Home Companion is Chris Thile, a virtuoso musician and very charming host, worth checking out.)

      • I was in a car with the radio on for Chris Thile’s first Prairie Home Companion. As one who could not stand it with Keillor I regard Thile as Keillor’s revenge. Others — most of those whom I know — share your views, not mine.

  3. You raise some good points. After 4 years of Trump I think America would be almost ready for anything. And Ellison would certainly be a contrast to Trump. I support him for DNC chair, and holding that position would be a good place from which to launch a Presidential campaign in 3 years. Of course we have to wait and see what happens in regards to any conflicts you might have with Islam in the next 4 years. But I would think that electing a Muslim would go a long way in softening the dislike many Islamic countries feel towards the US.

  4. I don’t know, Juan. You’re more optimistic than I am. After the last half year watching this country, I can’t help but conclude that tens of millions of my compatriots still can’t shake prejudice and a fair number of them are shameless bigots. No, not all. But too, too many are indeed deplorables. Would Ellison have been able to beat Trump? Perhaps – if this was a normal nation where we choose candidates based on what they stand for, not the color of their skin or their faith.

    No, I’m not very bullish about America these days. For good reason, I think.

  5. i like Ellison and would have no problem voting him into the White House and actively working for his campaign. If I had the Magic Button that would make the world run as I’d want it to, Sanders would be taking the Oath of Office next month, Ellison his VP and Howard Dean back running the DNC as he did years ago.
    Plus a few other things, but I don’t want to get too greedy about it all.

  6. Like you, Juan – I’m very pro-Ellison and have greatest good
    feeling for Garrison.
    You may have read Keillor’s book ‘Why I am a Democrat’
    and currently may read Krugman.. I found your phrase
    ‘so twentieth century’ so appropriate’. Many people are!

    • ‘so twentieth century’ so appropriate’. — Yes, well, I’d like to think religion itself is so twentieth century. And, I think that for many people who are now in their 20s, religion is being looked at as divisive and not worth the trouble. If true, I view that as a positive development.

      I generally find myself agreeing with much of what Prof Cole writes, but I have a difficult time with the idea that a majority of US voters will soon vote for a Muslim. The hatred runs deep, as do memories of 9/11. — Then, of course, you have G W Bush who said that God told him to smite Saddam…..

      I don’t want anybody in the white house that relies on faith in some G/god/s to decide who to bomb. I want somebody with some humanity, a rational mind and a desire to discover the facts, wherever they take them.

      • The 20th century saw 160 million people killed in wars and genocides that were not based on religion. Get rid of religion and you still have the greed and insanity that cause problems. And, having faith does not require you to be inhumane and irrational.

        • I agree that greed and insanity are still problems. — Having faith requires you to give up your intellectual honesty and intellectual integrity.

  7. Given Ellison’s pro-Israel stance there is not much hope for his cleaning of the Augean Stable known as the Democratic Party. Its oligarchy is too entrenched, and most of its key players and candidates for office are owned by the Israel Lobby that would very likely be opposed to Ellison even if he gives voice to pro-Israel talking points. The alternative of an alternate party would be a much better solution, but given the fact that almost all of the electorate considered Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as acceptable for the office of the president of the United States, there doesn’t appear to be much hope for an enlightened and humane third party.

  8. … You may think there are millions anxious to vote for someone like Representative Ellison, but this is just not true. I like to rely on facts, not hope. Outside of political wonks like people who come here, Ellison is unknown outside of his home state. Obama was lucky in that he succeeded maybe the worst president in US history. Under other circumstances he probably would not have won. That is because, as it should be obvious by now, there are still a lot of racists in this country. Secondly, there is a whole lot of anti-Muslim sentiment. In a poll 38% said they could not vote for a Muslim. link to
    More people identify themselves as consevative than liberals (44% to 29%). Also, you quote a lot of labor leaders who would love to vote for Mr. Ellison. However, labor leaders were 100% behind Clinton. Many rank and file would never vote for Ellison. Since Reagan won, we have seen time and again how the white working class will vote against their economic interests because of social issues (racism, fear of crime, homophobia, etc. ) raised by the Republicans. I would love to see someone as left wing as Bernie Sanders or Keith Ellison as President, but that won’t happen any time soon. Wishing doesn’t make something so. We have to learn to live with the reality we face. Clinton won the popular vote and lost the electoral college because of a lot of untoward events. Republicans still control both houses of Congress and almost two thirds of state governments. Change that to Democrats controlling all those institutions and then someone like Ellison might have a chance.

    • >Obama was lucky in that he succeeded maybe the worst president in US history. Under other circumstances he probably would not have won. That is because, as it should be obvious by now, there are still a lot of racists in this country. Secondly, there is a whole lot of anti-Muslim sentiment.

      You are in luck! The next Democrat to run will face a Trump every bit as bad as W.

      >In a poll 38% said they could not vote for a Muslim. link to

      Do not sweat this 38% They are already en bloc GOP voters. They show up every election for the GOP. Juan is correct, the voters we need are the ones who need a candidate of hope and a candidate that is free of Wall Street taint. Give them another Wall Street compromised candidate and they’ll sit home again in 2020.

  9. I live in MN and Keith Ellison is not my rep, but I am skeptical on this one… if the Dems pivot to the far left they will lose again as no one in the far left that I see can attract those Reagan Democrats in Macomb County and you will not gain the coalition of urban and non urban that you need to have long lasting gains. And I fear that the enthusiasm bringing out urban voters would be offset by similar enthusiasm among Trumpists who would be ginned up strongly vs. a Muslim candidate . I think the Dems need to make hay on economic issues, if the GOP hands them to them…. higher gas prices, big tax cuts for the upper classes, lower farm prices and more bankruptcies due to more emphasis on crude oil and less on renewables and of course a trade war with China, gains from the Trump entry skewed toward the top, Goldman Sachs uber alles. It becomes a fight to coordinate economic populism, anti cronyism and bringing a leader with charisma who can unite and enthuse the Trump opposition. (it would be a mistake however to go toward the 1992 Clinton triangulation toward the right ).

    • I’m sorry, but in this particular situation, I have to agree with Mr. Cole and disagree with you. Audacity is what drove Donald Trump’s success. In his case, he was simply the biggest bastard among a bunch of right-wing talking-points stooges who were so accustomed to blaming the country’s problems on others that they were unequipped to handle Trump’s direct, personal attacks.
      On the other hand, Bernie Sanders nearly unseated an extremely well-entrenched, well-financed, well-connected, establishment-backed, extremely ambitious political operative, with nothing more than the audacity of straight talk and a history of integrity.
      Now, if the Democratic party is going to do its job, which, frankly, will be to prevent a Trump administration from leaving the country in ruins, well, hopefully we’ve learned enough about audacity to recognize the value of a sharp, progressive, effective leader who also happens to be both African American and a Muslim. At a time when the President-elect became so by harnessing and aggravating American bigotry, having someone like Ellison willing to serve as DNC chair is an opportunity we miss out on at our peril.

  10. “Ellison is substantially to Clinton’s left and those factory workers in Youngstown know that he is their champion.”

    I love Ellison, but as someone with a pretty good understanding of the Mahoning Valley, let’s just take a deep breath for a moment and understand a few things about this area:

    1) Clinton won the city of Youngstown, and the county in which it exists – Mahoning.

    2) Mahoning Co. is a Democratic party stronghold, and the Dem leadership here supported Hillary over Bernie. The leadership here has strong ties to the party elites. (NOTE: Tim Ryan,separate of his attempt to unseat Pelosi, has always been a supporter of the Dem party elites, and keep in mind, he’s from Trumbull County, which borders Mahoning Co. to the North, so he’s not a native of Youngstown, even though he represents it.)

    3) While you could be correct that Youngstown and Mahoning Co might support Ellison (as well as the county bordering Mahoning to the North – Trumbull), that’s not necessarily the case in the rural counties surrounding Mahoning, places like Columbiana or Jefferson Counties, which are Republican strongholds, and went heavily for Trump.

    Think of Youngstown & Mahoning Co as a tiny blip of blue in a large red state. (Stark [Akron] & Cuyahoga [Cleveland] counties are similar.)

    Ellison isn’t a known quantity here yet, and given how successful Trump was, and will continue to be, of demonizing Muslims, I can’t see how his supporters would go for Ellison.

    But after 4 yrs of Trump, who knows, right?


  11. Sorry, but you are wrong and Garrison Keillor is right. Apparently one of the great turn offs for white working class voters was identity politics.
    I believe with you tha tHillary lost the election; Trump did not win it.
    And I believe that Ellison is a great representative of the true Democratic party. But, unlike Trump, he is unknown; unlike Hillary he has no real government managerial experience; and again unlike Trump, he is a professional politician.
    And I believe you too easily dismiss the “muslim thing”. Despite your citation of one poll that may or may not be accurate, Trump of all people would have ridden that racist card very hard against Ellison and in today’s climate , Trump would have been successfulwith it. There is an amazing amount of baseless fear out there, much of it engendered by the media that still believes that , ” if it bleeds, it leads”, and fear of Islamists sells papers.

    • No, I think you are missing a great deal in your analysis. If you are faced with a bigoted bully, there are two reasonable responses.
      The first is to back away, try to hide, try not to get the bully’s attention. And it’s a guaranteed way to fail, to lose, to appear weak and powerless.
      The second way to deal with a bigoted bully is to stand firmly and squarely in his way, directly challenging every act of bigotry and bullying. And there is no better way to do that than to publicly stand with people who are smart, skilled people who have the very characteristics the bully is most bigoted against.
      If ‘fear of Islamists’ sells papers, and the President is the fearmonger-in-chief, how do you present a viable opposition to him if you’re willing to use words to challenge his bigotry, but not back people who inherently are opposed to it?

  12. Professor, do you even know any members of the working class? Your comments on the Middle East are insightful but you seem totally disconnected from the realities of the working class in this country.
    I live in Ellison’s district. I’m a disabled Vietnam Veteran and had a problem with the VA. I contacted Ellison’s office and got to speak with a very nice Somali woman who didn’t seem to understand what the VA was. She told me to write a letter and they would look into it.
    Like Hillary, Ellison has a lot of good proposals that he, like she, knows would never get through Congress. Working people have been getting this run around for years from the Democrats and are sick of it.
    My story had a happy ending, I called Al Franken’s office and spoke to a staff member who knew what I was taking about and he contacted the VA for me and got things straighten out.
    If your looing for a real Democrat to replace the Clinton Gang, why don’t you look at Al Franken? He’s honest, realistic and working people vote for him.

  13. If Ellison could pull numbers from the religious crowd for actually being religious it might be a game changer.

    I mean crazier things have happened in election politics. Like a three time married gambling house builder getting 81% of the evangelical vote…

  14. They should have run Ellison, yes. (Some also have said Biden would have won.) The “next in line” principle for choosing a candidate prevents an alternative, more flexible, principle from operating: That, given the current conditions and mood of the electorate, the candidate that has the best qualities to respond to these conditions should be chosen.

    A side note: I think the reason the rural areas and the all white communities who went for Trump have such a maladaptive conventional mentality is precisely because of their lack of diversity. People who know and socialize with Muslims are less likely to have anti- Muslim attitudes. Internal diversity is a desirable quality for any community, and it is the way of the future. Let’s glory in our diversity and make Trumpism the last gasp of parochialism.

  15. Keillor is old and out of touch. Keith Ellison is a great Congressman and a real progressive and could have beaten Trump. He would make an excellent progressive DNC chair. He’s a little too nice though. I wish he’d be meaner and angrier like a Ted Kennedy or Paul Wellstone, but he has the same ideas from what I know of him. To describe him as a “lackluster Black Muslim” is disgusting. Keillor should stick to writing fiction.

    • Ellison’s not ‘too nice.’ He’s developed a first-rate method of facing opponents calmly while skillfully directing conversations in a manner of his choosing. I’ve seen him pull off some media wins that I had not imagined would have been possible until I witnessed them…

  16. Great thing about Ellison is that he speaks from the heart and connects very well with any person.

    I would recommend anyone to verify this to youtube Ellison’s talks when he was on any news media for example…he doesn’t come across as contrived as most politicians. And he does not connect to people like Trump in a demagogic or manipulative way but just through a logical, ethical, and common sense way. He is careful in what he says but goes to the heart of the issues, speaks from his heart, and connects with hearts.

    • I agree entirely with your comments :-). The DNC chair has a lot of media time, and Ellison’s media presence is exceptional.

  17. Who is really behind the surge of media interest in possible Russian involvement in the election? Could it be a last, desperate attempt of the Clinton machine?

    The US has relentlessly tried to influence foreign elections throughout the world at least since WW II, covertly or overtly. If the ‘wrong’ party won, opposition would be generated and armed to overthrow them, often with the direct or indirect us of the US military, or the winner would simply be killed.

    When asked if he thought the US had been involved in the 2010 coup attempt against him, Ecuador’s President Correa replied, “Well, there have been some 49 known coups or coup attempts in Latin America. If the US was not involved, it would have been the first time.”

    The US has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for more death and destruction, outside their country, than the total of all the rest of the countries of the world combined. US interventions, at least since the Korean War, have made things worse, often horribly, horribly, tragically worse.

    It is hard to believe that so many US journalists are really so ignorant of this critical perspective, or is it willful ignorance? People who so gullibly and uncritically swallow this line are not worthy of respect, especially when honest and respected news is available, such as Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept.

    Does this make me a fan of the likes of Assad, or Saddam Hussein? Of course not, although it must be pointed out that there are ‘friendly’ Middle Eastern regimes that have long been more systematically repressive, including Saudi Arabia and Israel (Some have given millions to influence the recent election in Hillary’s favor, either directly or laundered through the corrupt Clinton Foundation).

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