Opinion: Michigan Democrats and the myth of viability
For Michigan Democrats, winning trumps all. But the fixation on victory, forgivable for the minority party in the Trump era, has caused Democrats to bypass the party’s core ideal of inclusion. Whether stated bluntly or dressed in allusions to “viability,” a tired refrain persists within the party’s leadership: Abdul El-Sayed, a gubernatorial candidate who happens to be Muslim, can’t win in a general election due to his faith.
Democrats who fancy themselves gatekeepers of political viability urge El-Sayed to surrender to this myth, rather than the will of voters. In a recent interview, El-Sayed said “very powerful people” in the Michigan Democratic Party told him he’d have trouble winning because of his religion and name.
No matter the intent, such admonitions only serve to remind certain candidates that their aspirations have limits.
The dissonance emanating from the party’s top brass should make us all uncomfortable. El-Sayed is a Rhodes Scholar and public health expert who, at the age of 30, led the rebuild of Detroit’s health department following the city’s historic bankruptcy.
The gatekeepers of viability would have us believe that despite his innumerable qualifications, he faces long odds due to his cultural and religious background. They urge fellow Democrats who may favor “other” kinds of candidates to wait for the ethereal promise land, that more placid political environment that fades ceaselessly into the future like a mirage.
The myth of viability not only sidesteps the ideals of fairness and inclusion, it also deprives the state of Michigan of the exciting and transformative political leadership it needs now more than ever. Such standards betray an implicit bias that insidiously dissuades citizens from nominating and electing the most talented amongst us, regardless of skin color, sex, religion, or how many vowels appear in one’s name.
Our moment demands an unapologetic conviction that any person in America can aspire to serve without shadow boxing the enemy without and within. Michigan Democrats should espouse a simpler and more effective antidote to fear and exclusion, which is courage and inclusion.
A lot is at stake in Michigan. There is a decimated public health infrastructure that has failed to provide a basic set of investments, including access to clean, reliable water for Flint and Detroit; an eroding American Dream that pegs life outcomes to zip code; an underfunded public education system that ranks in the bottom third nationally in subjects from early literacy to middle-school math, and is the second most segregated in America; a state government ranked worst in the nation in transparency and accountability.
The urgency of these priorities demands the most effective leader for the job. The party should make this case, rather than insist upon the emptier case of electability.
While we don’t doubt most Democrats’ desire for a more inclusive state and nation, we believe these goals should be reflected in the political process, including endorsements. That means supporting the best candidate without conceding an inch to those who believe people of certain backgrounds are not politically palatable.
Ali Abazeed is a presidential management fellow and graduate of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and School of Public Health at the University of Michigan.
Bilal Baydoun is a policy associate and was the Inaugural Gerald R. Ford Presidential Fellow at the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.