Forty-five years ago, I entered the halls of Congress representing one of the most progressive communities in the nation, but the fullness of my humanity was suspect because of my race and political views. There were attempts by members of both the Democratic and Republican parties to marginalize and ostracize me. But I refused to be marginalized. I showed up every day, learned all I could as fast as I could, and was more than willing to engage with heart, dignity, passion and commitment to the values that I was sent there to advance.
I learned that the measure of our character resides in how we behave when we are in the extreme minority. At this juncture, we are confronted with several burning questions: How do we stay true to our values and be effective as an opposition voice? How do we transform what at the time is perceived as the impossible into the eminently possible? To the Bay Area communities that I have represented for 50 years as a Berkeley city councilmember, congressional representative, and mayor of Oakland, I humbly offer you my thoughts on where we go from here.
First, we must never forget that Donald Trump, and his agenda based upon bigotry, chauvinism, and nativism, did not win a political mandate. Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by an estimated two million votes. This election does not represent a sea change in American politics. We can’t allow the pundits to convince us that America is now anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-climate change science, and anti-government. We must draw from this knowledge to galvanize the majority of Americans to prevent the decimation of environmental and social protections.
[pullquote-1] We must not allow our nation’s political history to repeat itself, and we must not allow a new normalization of bigotry and bullying to set in. Cowardice, like courage, is contagious. I lived the Reagan years and there are important lessons. The Reagan Administration succeeded in changing the whole nature of the debate. Ideas that had been considered right-wing lunacy before the election became the center of the mainstream debate. Too many in Congress rolled over to support Reagan’s agenda.
But some of us knew that our job was to fight with all our strength against an administration that disrespected human and civil rights at home and abroad. Working with the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus, we created alternative budgets and worked to prevent the decimation of safety net programs. And we led efforts to stop Reagan’s nuclear warfare systems. Today, we must create our own wall of humanity and justice and organize like our lives depend upon it.
We must stand up and engage this country on the issues of racial and economic justice and fight to realize our core values as Americans. This is not the time for silence and disengagement. This is the time to build broad-based coalitions among the people and causes who will be gravely injured by president-elect Trump’s 100 day agenda — the 20 million Americans threatened with the loss of healthcare, the one million undocumented young people threatened with deportation, women whose reproductive rights are under attack, the people subject to increased hate crimes including Muslims and LGBT people, the rollback of banking regulations on the same behavior that led to the Great Recession, and the very survival of our planet. And we also must reach out to the people who voted for Barack Obama twice but voted for Donald Trump this time because of their economic insecurity. This, I firmly believe, is a winning coalition and represents American patriotism at its best.
We must also work with our progressive champions in Congress like Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Senator-elect Kamala Harris, and Senator Bernie Sanders. This is how we build our wall of humanity and justice. This is how we implement a progressive platform. And this is how we begin to lay the groundwork for 2018 and 2020.
Remember, the Democrats won the national popular vote and actually net gained seats in the Senate and House this election.
Finally, serious soul-searching and transformative work must occur withing the Democratic Party if we are to achieve a different outcome in 2018 and 2020. This election, like the 2000 election, was close. It was won by 12,000 votes in Michigan, 27,000 votes in Ohio, and 68,000 votes in Pennsylvania. What will it take to change the outcomes in two and four years? This is not the time to run away from the historic progressive policy platform that came out of the Democratic Party Convention. This is the time to embrace and fight for it.
But it will take the Party leadership engaging in authentic partnerships with progressive activists. And activists must be willing to engage with Party leadership.
I know from personal experience that this work is not easy, but it is essential for the security of our nation and our communities. I was one of the first Democratic Socialists in Congress. I chose to stay in the Democratic Party and fight for its heart and soul from its left wing. The Democratic Party is not a monolith — it is made up of many diverse interests and groups. There is not a singular “they” who controls the Party. As exemplified with the election results, and also the 2016 Democratic Party Convention’s adopted platform, it’s a matter of who shows up and fights to advance their ideas.
An extraordinary opportunity exists for the Democratic Party to elect Congressman Keith Ellison as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He is a demonstrated leader with great integrity. What better way to advance the Party’s adopted progressive platform then using his position as a sitting Congressman and member of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus. The selection of an African American Muslim and progressive leader as the DNC leader would be historic, significant, and would prepare us for victory in 2018 and 2020.
I conclude with a message to young people: do not allow the outcome of this election keep you from organizing your community, or from becoming a political candidate yourself. Giving up hope or becoming cynical about change allows the forces of oppression and intolerance win. Achieving justice takes time and perseverance. It took us fifteen years of persistent commitment to the liberation of black South Africans for us to pass the anti-apartheid divestment legislation that was the the death-knell of apartheid. May we always remember Dr. King’s words that the arc of history bends towards justice. And the arc bends towards justice because of people power. And people power starts with you. The only way that the forces of injustice can win is if you step back. I’m saying to you, step forward in your creativity, your commitment to social justice, and your love of humanity. And in so doing, continue the legacy of Dr. King.
Ron Dellums was Oakland’s 48th mayor and served thirteen terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He now leads the Dellums Institute for Social Justice.