Michigan Democrats and the Myth of Viability

By Ali Abazeed and Bilal Baydoun

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: Dr. 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 an interview that aired Monday night, 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. As Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who in March joined other Democrats in endorsing Senator Gretchen Whitmer, explained when asked if she believes Michigan is not ready to elect a Muslim as governor: “I don’t want to say that because I think [El-Sayed’s] fabulous, and I represent one of the largest populations of Muslims in the country…but there are people trying to divide us, and [Trump] is one of them.”

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed could become the first Muslim governor in United States history

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. These gatekeepers ask El-Sayed — “fabulous” on substance, but apparently less palatable on the identity front — to wait out the politics of division rather than fight it head-on. 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.

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.

Our moment demands an unapologetic conviction that any person in America can aspire to serve without shadow boxing the enemy without and within. El-Sayed, whose diverse background and progressive tilt embodies the party’s trajectory, shouldn’t have to answer questions borne of the irrational hatred of those “trying to divide us.” Michigan Democrats should espouse a simpler and more effective antidote to fear and exclusion, which is courage and inclusion.

El-Sayed has drawn thousands at rallies across the state of Michigan (El-Sayed in Flint, July 28, 2018)

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. Across the state of Michigan and throughout the country, those traditionally underrepresented in party politics are asking the question: when will the imperative of inclusion finally prevail over the facade of viability? We believe the answer is a resounding now.