The Vital Possibility of Abdul El-Sayed
Saturday, July 21: 17 days until the primaries.
5:37 pm: There’s a gray, summer rain spitting outside, and I don’t want to tell Tom his driving is scaring the shit out of me. Also, the passenger seatbelt in his beat-up coupe doesn’t click in anymore—just hold it down, he grunts.
We’re careening through southeast Michigan like a janky, scotch-taped spacecraft firing into Earth’s atmosphere. Bits of anxious, postindustrial sprawl scream past and Tom, a local boy, talks about how so much of this landscape is the product of white flight, while munching on the Tornado® sticks I bought him at the Speedway—altogether, that roadfood and a full tank of gas was his price for being my wingman on this assignment.
In less than an hour, Abdul El-Sayed, the thirty-three-year-old Democratic gubernatorial candidate one journalist called “the new Obama” will be speaking at DeCarlo’s Banquet and Convention Center in Warren, Metro Detroit’s biggest suburb. That’s where we’re headed.
6:25 pm: In the DeCarlo’s parking lot, we try blending in with a sizable cluster of people briskly making their way to the entrance. We fail. About twenty paces in, it dawns on me that we’re surrounded by black families and couples who look like they stepped right out of a magazine cover. Each one of them is dressed to the nines—gorgeous white and black-eye-blue dresses, immaculate wine-colored suits. Tom and I slow our walk and look at each other like the scruffy, shorts-wearing assholes we are.
It turns out there’s a wedding reception on the second floor. I stand by the entrance next to a smiling, fancy-dressed gent who’s holding the door open for everyone and pointing folks in the wedding party toward the stairs. His smile’s infectious. The parking lot is sunset-pink, and bubbles of wedding people and El-Sayed people are floating toward the door. People are chatting and grinning. There’s a lot of energy. It’s a joyous scene, and everything seems connected.
6:41 pm: We’re still waiting for things to get under way. El-Sayed’s staff and the campaign’s team of interns are flitting around like honeybees, passing out stickers, checking microphones, mouthing things to each other from across this green-carpeted ballroom that feels like it came from a cruise ship that sank in the ’70s.
One thing that immediately stands out is that, from Abdul on down, this is an undeniably youthful campaign. Almost everyone with a lanyard appears to be between twenty-three and thirty-five years old—an augur of the kind of voter that the El-Sayed team needs to turn out in droves to reverse the usual geriatric composition of the mid-term primary electorate.
It looks like we’ve got about another five minutes before things get rolling. This is as good a time as any to give a few quick background notes.
As with any election, there are so many moving parts here, so many competing interests and demographic factors and state-specific quirks shaping the landscape of this race, and I could spill a lot of ink trying to explain them all and what they mean and how important they are. But with minimal effort, you could find some solid, sober coverage of these things. What I’m trying to do here is convey what this campaign looks and feels like on the ground. What I’m trying to show is the real and radical possibility of Abdul El-Sayed, which is so easy to miss if all you know about him is what you’ve been able to glean from self-serving media narratives and what El-Sayed’s campaign claims are questionable polling numbers. It’s hard to make head or tail of what’s actually going on. So, on the eve of Michigan’s primary vote, there are three big things everyone needs to know to get a basic sense of this race’s peculiar dynamics and broader political significance.
First big thing: Whether they’ll say it out loud or not, everyone—from El-Sayed’s diehard supporters to his most virulent opponents—is looking at this election as a serious temperature check on the “progressive wave” and what people in the audience and I are calling the “AOC effect.” It was less than a month ago that the twenty-eight-year-old democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set the country on fire with a chorus of incredulous gasps after sinking one of the Democratic establishment’s most unsinkable ships. In New York’s 14th congressional district, the grassroots campaign mounted by Ocasio-Cortez defeated the far better funded and elite-endorsed re-election juggernaut of longtime Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley, who was in line to succeed Nancy Pelosi as House majority leader or speaker.
From now through the primary ballot on August 7, everyone is locked in a tense waiting game to see if this progressive insurgency has real teeth, or if AOC will be the exception that proves the Democratic establishment rule. No one is willing to say with certainty that it’s one or the other. Because on top of AOC’s victory, the left-leaning forces in Michigan politics are whipsawed by recollections of Bernie Sanders’s “Michigan Miracle” win in the 2016 Democratic primaries together with Donald Trump’s subsequent, world-shattering presidential upset over Hillary Clinton (in which Michigan’s own unexpected lurch into the Trump column played a critical role).
From now through the primary ballot on August 7, everyone is locked in a tense waiting game to see if this progressive insurgency has real teeth, or if AOC will be the exception that proves the Democratic establishment rule.
In short, people who are cheering El-Sayed on are less sure of themselves and the predictability of the world, and that makes them anxious. At the same time, though, they’ve also embraced the palpable sense that there’s been a cosmic bend in the physics of the possible, which, in turn, has blown a hole in the limits of the thinkable.
Second big thing: The potentially enormous consequences of this governor’s race will come down to how much people are willing to embrace, or how easily they can be convinced to ignore, the opening of new possibilities within this anxious political moment.
A good number of the people urging El-Sayed on are expressly receptive to his message—but at the same time, perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from undecided voters is that they are “unsure” about whether a young, brown Muslim progressive can win in Trump’s America. And, even if El-Sayed does prevail, they wonder whether his progressive vision can survive the Democratic Party establishment. (See, for example, the long procession of cold shoulders from Democratic leaders in Maryland that’s greeted Ben Jealous’s primary win in the governor’s race there.)
From my own admittedly biased vantage, the voters voicing such hesitations seem to be mired in a stagnant universe in which the titans of corporatist politics have beaten out of them any and all belief that they have any power to redraw the boundaries of what is possible. In this regard, it should surprise no one that the corporate-backed, party-establishment favorite and former state Senate Democratic Leader, Gretchen Whitmer, has tried to fortify the inevitability of her campaign against the possibility of an El-Sayed upset by cultivating this very same sense of voter fatalism. She’s studiously reinforcing, whenever possible, the general powerlessness of progressive activists to shift the core definition of what’s imaginable for voters who want something better than what the broken political establishment is willing to offer.
Whitmer has tried, in the same general vein, to brand El-Sayed as inexperienced, cavalier, impractical, and even hypocritical. But mostly Whitmer’s defense strategy has boiled down to a stalwart posture of elite nonchalance. She’s been trying to make El-Sayed go away, that is, by acting as if there could be no reason at all for her—and, by extension, the voters—to see his campaign and its progressive message as a legitimate contender. At the same time, her campaign has regularly touted poll numbers that show her maintaining a commanding lead, even though the methods such polls employ have typically produced grossly misrepresentative pictures of voter trends that are arguably unethical for media outlets to cite. But the larger point here is that Whitmer and her influential supporters have tried to hold the establishment line by firmly and condescendingly reassuring voters that what they want is not possible—and that a thoroughgoing progressive platform that has proved more and more bankable in Democratic contests is hopelessly unrealistic.
Third big thing: I would like to talk as little as possible about Shri Thanedar, the third contender in this Democratic primary, but he has the potential to spoil this entire race, so . . . a few words.
Thanedar is . . . something else. He’s been referred to as the “bizarro-world Trump,” an Indian-born “rags-to-riches” millionaire entrepreneur in the chemical industry who fawned over Marco Rubio and was reportedly unsure about whether he should run as a Republican or Democrat. Just a few months ago, Thanedar appeared to have the lead over Whitmer in the polls, with Abdul trailing far behind both. But it seems that the comedy of errors that has been his campaign may finally be catching up with him.
Thanedar’s relatively transparent con game is not just a Michigan anomaly—he embodies a genuine, pressing threat to the progressive movement, one that will continue to see shallow opportunists like him trying to co-opt and exploit progressive fervor for their own gain. Many, though, have started wising up to Thanedar’s status as a poser and a charlatan—in no small part to Thanedar’s inept work in covering up that status. He has made gaffe after gaffe, revealing just how little “progressive” content there is in his thinking or his politics. He has been hemorrhaging money and staff. He refused multiple opportunities to condemn the anti-Muslim vitriol aimed at El-Sayed. Oh, and he’s also been trying to deflect and run away from the revelations of the horrifying treatment and abandonment of test animals at one of the labs of his company Azopharma after it went bankrupt. Thanedar is, to put it bluntly, a wolf in Bernie’s clothing. However, there’s a dispiriting chance that he will end up splitting the “progressive” vote and clearing the path for a Whitmer victory.
Thanedar is, to put it bluntly, a wolf in Bernie’s clothing.
Here’s one more thing people need to know, and it’s probably one of the most depressing realities of this race: there are a significant number of people in Michigan who don’t understand that the two brown candidates, Thanedar and El-Sayed, are different people.
7:30 pm: Damn, this guy can speak. There is, indeed, a certain Obama-esque quality to the way El-Sayed talks on the stump, but it’s still quite distinct. Where Obama folds his hands and speaks with a measured, preacherly gravitas, punctuating sentences with pauses for meaningful looks and closed lips, El-Sayed holds the mic like a professional wrestling star, with one burly mitt always gesturing toward the crowd, and he speaks with an almost millennial-style rapidity. He never goes so quickly that you can’t follow, but he ramps up with an impatient flare that, in turn, starts to burn in you. He makes you impatient—not with him, but to begin creating the change he’s describing.
He starts off slow: “When I decided to run for office most everybody looked at me and said, ‘You’re crazy.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I might be just a little bit crazy.’ But this is not about one person running for office, because if it was we would have failed a long time ago. And I don’t say that as a joke, I say that seriously. But if we were girded by a bigger fight for the kind of Michigan and the kind of country we all want to live in, if we could identify with that, and ask every day to see that more clearly, to speak about that, to center that, and the people who are working, and frankly, unfortunately, living on the wrong side of that injustice. . . .”
He turns the dial up: “ . . . if we center them, and we talk about them, and we talk together with them, and we are always pointing to the responsibility that we collectively have to them, and we start walking the path together, then soon enough it’s not just going to be me walking the path. It’s going to be us walking our path . . .”
He tries to slow down and bottle the energy: “And so, at the end of the day, this is not just about a campaign. And I’ll say this—and I’m not supposed to say these words seventeen days before a primary—if I don’t win, it’s not gonna change the path I walk. If I don’t win, it’s not gonna change the path you walk. But that’s why we’re gonna win. Because we’re walking on a path that is far bigger than a stupid election, we’re walking on a path that is far bigger than our primary, it’s far bigger than a general election.”
And now the roof blows off: “It is a path about who we want to be and whether or not we are willing to do the work against those who would take us off of that path. If we are willing to demand that we have the right to justice, that people should have the right to a living wage, that people should have a right to control their own body, that they should have a right to be healed when they get sick in the richest, most powerful country in the world, that they should have a right to water . . . if we are walking that path, then that’s the only thing that should matter. But right now, walking is not enough. We’ve got to start running.”
8:32 pm: I’m chatting with a couple in their early thirties—one of them is in a wheelchair and explains how much they struggle to pay medical bills when only her partner can work. We’re going over the speeches we just heard from El-Sayed and his inspiring co-panelists, activists Ady Barkman and Cynthia Thornton. The couple is excited, and after tonight’s event, they tell me that, for once, they “feel seen.”
The air in the ballroom is lively and hopeful, and I have no idea where Tom went. He’s an almost seven-feet-tall mass with a beard, belly, and hipster glasses—not an easy person to lose in a crowd. I’d tell people he’s my body guard if he wasn’t such a Maoist teddy bear who wanders off all the time.
I’m milling around while El-Sayed shakes hands and takes pictures with audience members, hoping to snag some time to chat with him afterwards. Then, like a firework going off, the dark heart of our American reality, which was so easy to forget for the past two hours, shows itself.
A group of “anti-Sharia” nuts ambush El-Sayed as he’s shaking more hands and chatting with folks. They were wearing Abdul T-shirts, which they apparently bought before the event so they could fit in and lie in wait until now. Some of El-Sayed’s supporters get into it with them, both groups are talking quickly and heatedly right past each other. The room is two-thirds empty at this point, but all of us who are still left are so focused on the exchange between Abdul’s supporters and these hateful jackasses that we don’t realize that El-Sayed’s folks have ushered him out of the ballroom.
The Inside View
Thursday, July 26: 12 days until the primaries.
2:12 pm: I’m getting coffee in Ann Arbor with a member of the Huron Valley DSA chapter who’s been canvassing for El-Sayed around town. Canvassing has been good so far, he tells me. “A good number of people were hitting the pavement with me—eleven yesterday. Mostly young people, but everyone’s fired up.”
I ask about the kind of responses he’s been getting from people when he knocks on their doors. In terms of gauging voter sentiments, this is a very unscientific method I’m using here, and I’m taking everything with a pinch of salt. I know from living here that, mainly because of the university, Ann Arbor is a pretty liberal town. It is also a painfully white and expensive one.
“I’d say that a third of the people who answered the door were for Abdul, one tenth said they were for Whitmer or said they knew how they would vote but wouldn’t tell me, and maybe another tenth said they liked Abdul but electability in terms of his religion or otherwise was an issue.”
One exchange with a roughly-seventy-year-old white woman sticks out in his mind.
“She said ‘I know who I’m voting for. I’m voting for the lady [Whitmer].’ And as I’m walking away she says, ‘And you can tell your candidate I know what he did to those animals at his lab.’”
I shake my head. “Jesus.”
4:11 pm: I’m waiting for my phone to ring for an interview, looking past the chicken scratch on my little notepad, thinking.
From an aerial view, my brain looks like a cheap rice-cooker—mushy inside, dripping steam pearls from the clear-glass top back down into the starchy soup. It’s a real chore keeping a clear head amid the many roiling perceptions, heated exchanges, and bad-faith debates converging on this race.
Curiously enough, though, these grim vapors haven’t at all stymied the lush and dynamic microclimate within the El-Sayed campaign braintrust. If anything, the opposite is true. The lead figures in the campaign—very much including the candidate himself—have known from the beginning what hellish obstacles they’d face in this political climate, and they are all acutely mindful of how far the whole endeavor stretches beyond the establishment vision of Democratic electioneering. They are banking on a big swath of still-undecided primary voters to buy in to their effort to build a more expansive movement politics from the ground up, and that requires playing a different sort of game entirely. This is precisely the sense you get talking to Rhiana Gunn-Wright, El-Sayed’s chief policy hand.
Gunn-Wright is what you’d call a phenom, and every progressive should know who she is. She’s a late-twenties black woman from Englewood, on the South Side of Chicago. She graduated with honors from Yale and, like El-Sayed a couple years earlier, attended Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship (that’s how they met). Now, she’s working as El-Sayed’s policy director.
Gunn-Wright and her team are the ones behind the over-225-pages of detailed, extensive, thoroughly researched, bold, and plausible policy proposals that the campaign has put out on issues like de-DeVos-ifying Michigan schools, urban renewal, clean and safe water, criminal justice reform, and even socialized Wi-Fi access. But the jewel in El-Sayed’s platform is a potentially game-changing proposal for implementing a statewide single-payer health care system.
Here’s the thing: in any run-of-the-mill gubernatorial campaign, you just don’t get this kind of heavy, policy-loaded offensive. It sure as hell isn’t the sexiest part of the campaign for your average voters, including progressives. But it should be. And the left should be making influential figures out of people like Gunn-Wright, who are doing their best to fight the fight on the level of policy.
Having tapped Gunn-Wright to be at the helm of the policy team, El-Sayed’s campaign has essentially emerged as one of the most high-powered progressive think tanks in the country. Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, the work Gunn-Wright’s team has done could well serve as a blueprint for candidates around the country who want to show that a progressive vision of governance is not only vital but feasible. And after talking to people around the campaign you get the sense that everyone thinks this is fundamental; the problem, they say, is that policy is so often written by and for the same kinds of people, corporations, and interest groups that campaigns like El-Sayed’s are taking on.
I’m on the phone with Gunn-Wright now, and she’s filling me in on her own critique of the calculated priestcraft of policymaking—a sort of elite political branding that her whole career, especially her work on Abdul’s campaign, aims to upend:
Gunn-Wright: “Policy is about . . . you know, people make it sound very complicated, but ultimately all it is is a collective effort to solve a set of problems. . . . But often, because policy is a very opaque field to get into, the pathways into it are not clear. A lot of people don’t know it exists. So, what that means is a lot of the same type of people continually make policy.
“It’s really important to have people in the room . . . who have different perspectives, because they bring different understandings of problems and different approaches. My approach to policy is deeply influenced by where I come from, and by the fact that I’m a black woman, and that I’m a young black woman . . . And that’s something that other people who I have worked with don’t always [understand]. But, also, I still have my own blinders on, right? I’m still cisgender, I’m still an American citizen, you know?”
Alvarez: “Right. But it seems very much like you are trying to get past those blinders as much as possible in the policy. I was really struck, for instance, that you made sure to have a section in the MichCare proposal about undocumented folks.”
Gunn-Wright: “Yeah, totally. And that’s because of where I’m from. I know what it’s like to have policy written that forgets you. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I constantly ran up against policies that did not treat me, and people who looked like me . . . like we were of value, like we were worthy of all the opportunities and all of the support and all of the investment that other areas or other people got. So, when I approach policy, because of that knowledge, I am very serious about pro-actively seeking out the experience of others and understanding problems from their perspective . . . It’s just a matter of respect. We’re running and asking people to vote for us. And when you’re in government, people employ you to solve problems for them. It is a sign of respect to proactively be curious about the lives of the people you serve and the problems that they face.”
And, rest assured, Gunn-Wright’s team does its homework. “It’s crucial,” she tells me. “We are idiots if we are trying to solve problems without ever talking to people about them . . . So, we do a lot of field research. We basically start every policy by talking to residents, experts . . . local activists, to really make sure we get it right.”
Before interning for First Lady Michelle Obama’s policy team, Gunn-Wright cut her teeth in the policy-writing world working for two years at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in D.C. She reminisces about how one of the gravest errors you could make there was opting for banal platitudes in your policy writing over citations and scrutinized research. Clearly the experience was a formative one for Gunn-Wright—the bibliography for El-Sayed’s Rural Agenda alone is more than fourteen pages long. “Yeah,” she laughs, thinking about her days at the IWPR. “That’s where the rigor comes from.”
Along with making Gunn-Wright a diligent crafter of policy, I’m interested in hearing more about how this rigorous approach fits into the larger progressive project campaigns like El-Sayed’s are building:
Alvarez: “And your time there [at the IWPR] also helped shape your distinct approach to policy?”
Gunn-Wright: “My focus was then, as it is now, intersectional policy . . . instead of just looking at a problem and trying to come up with the most broad-based solution, it’s essentially about digging deeper and thinking about how multiple oppressions can affect people even within the context of a single problem, and then designing policy that is specifically centered around people who suffer the most.”
Alvarez: “Am I reading too much into it to say that that’s been a big aspect of your policy writing for Abdul? Because I was struck by the fact that, even just in the MichCare policy . . . you connect things like single-payer to the opioid crisis, and you’re showing the interconnectedness of what are typically kind of presented as singular political footballs.”
Gunn-Wright: “Exactly . . . because to me, and to this campaign, it’s not about single issues, it’s about systems. Right? Like, single issues are often symptoms of larger systems. And so, if you are actually going to effect change that’s meaningful and long-term, you have to be attacking systems, not single problems.”
Regardless of how it bears out as an electoral strategy, there are clear tactical justifications for El-Sayed’s policy push: if you’re a thirty-three-year-old Muslim man running for governor, you have to show people—and especially your opponents—that you’re more than just some hot-headed kid railing against the establishment. You have to prove how serious you are. Looking beyond this specific race, though, El-Sayed’s campaign team is helping to show how serious the progressive movement itself is.
Gunn-Wright: “Obviously, Abdul is highly credentialed, skilled, qualified. But, you know, just being a person of color and having dealt with this myself, I knew that people are going to want to know that he is serious, and we have to show them why he is serious and that this is not some hot-shot guy, but that he is deeply committed to solving these issues, and that we are deeply committed and know what we are talking about and know Michigan deeply.”
The AOC Effect
Sunday, July 29: 9 days until the primaries.
2:12 pm: Fresh off her trip down to Wichita to campaign for congressional candidate James Thompson, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has come up to the Mitten State to rally for El-Sayed. And people are going wild. Tracing the long line of folks waiting to get into the event, I see as many AOC shirts as Abdul shirts.
The venue is Brown Chapel AME, a historic site whose history stretches all the way back to the first black settlement in Ypsilanti. The chapel and its history sit on one edge of a scar that runs through the entire region. Washtenaw County, which includes Ypsilanti (whose black population percentage more than triples that of neighboring Ann Arbor), is one of the most economically segregated in the country. So, it’s impossible not to notice that, while the crowd here is relatively diverse in age, and while there appear to be a decent number of people with Hispanic and Asian roots, there aren’t a whole lot of black folks.
The line starts moving, and I’m trying not to back into anyone as I’m interviewing a local woman in her thirties who tells me she’s been following El-Sayed on social media for two years now. “You know, back then, I didn’t think that he would really have a chance,” she admits, “but now more socialists and progressive Democrats are finally having a chance and being heard, so I’m excited. I think we have a chance, and I think November will prove that.”
I ask her if that means she doesn’t buy these notions that a Muslim man can’t be Governor in Michigan, and that the Midwest is not ready for progressive or socialist politics.
“Oh, I absolutely don’t. You know, we might have the first African American female governor in Georgia [Stacey Abrams]. So, I think if they can do it down South we sure as hell can do it in the Midwest.”
4:35 pm: The church is packed and sweltering. The fire marshal had to keep the overflow of people outside. In fact, all of the events this weekend—Grand Rapids, Flint, Detroit, Ypsilanti—have been at or over capacity. They don’t feel like rallies for a candidate who has no shot at winning. I point this out to Tom—enthusiasm gap, bro, he says.
El-Sayed’s stump speech goes down without a hitch. It’s kind of awkward following a campaign around and hearing the same speech being made to different people. You feel guilty for knowing the punchlines. But you also get a clear sense of the issues that unanimously fire people up wherever you are on the campaign trail. Every time I’ve heard this speech, for instance, the crowd has exploded at the first mention of: “single-payer,” “clean water,” and “de-DeVos our schools.” And, of course, the single biggest eruption has come at the same point of the speech, every time, right on cue: “ . . . Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
She’s a rock star in these parts. The roar of applause would be deafening if half the people in the audience weren’t using their hands to hold up their phones.
In the faces and breath and eyes of the people in the crowd you can pick up on a serious tension between wanting to marvel at AOC as a Cinderella story from another world and believing that everyone here can help write the Michigan sequel. But that’s why AOC is here, after all.
In this church, she unleashes a firestorm. Almost every other line is punctuated by raucous applause.
“We know that there is no way forward except to fight for the economic, social, and racial justice for working-class Americans.”
“We have to decide if we’re going to change for the worse, or if we’re going to change for the better, but the status quo is not an option anymore.”
“The progressive movement was born in the Midwest. It was Detroit that unionized, it was Indiana that unionized!”
“The economic reality of working-class people is the same everywhere in this country. And fighting and joining across race, across creed, across income, in solidarity, is not just what we can do in some districts, it’s what we must do in all districts.”
“I’m here because we can’t get single-payer in the Bronx until we get it in Michigan.”
“Our swing voter is not Red to Blue, it’s non-voter to voter.”
Applause so loud my teeth hurt.
5:18 pm: We’re in the little press room. Each of us gets to squeeze one question in. This was mine:
Alvarez: “Alexandria, you said yesterday [in Detroit] that ‘The future of the progressive party is working class,’ and, as you know, there was a lot of talk after 2016 about this divide between economic issues and ‘identity issues.’ I wanted to ask if either of you buy that, and how you see Abdul’s campaign specifically uniting these issues into a coherent progressive vision?”
Ocasio-Cortez: “Yeah, they’re not either-or. And so long as we think of them as either-or, we’re going to lose. [We can’t] move forward as long as we keep pretending that working-class people are not people of color, that they’re not women, that they’re not LGBT. We have to champion each other as our whole selves. And I think that Abdul really proves that—that it’s not a choice between one or the other.”
El-Sayed: “I mean, the structure of the way the world works is that you have a disproportionate burden of poverty among people of color. That’s just the truth of it. Now, that’s not to say that the highest proportion of working people are people of color. But that is to say that the idea that, somehow, it’s either-or just is not born out in the evidence.
“I think what we have to do is be able to speak to the intersectionality of the challenges that poor and working people face, and the challenges of racism that often doom people of color into those circumstances. And I think we can do it at the same time. . . . The challenges that poor or working people face in this state are the same challenges. So, we’ve got an opportunity to start connecting people, in places like Kalkaska and Detroit, in places like Flint and Marquette, to see the reality of what they share, and to recognize that when we push for pro-poor and pro-working policies, and when we push for dignifying all of us, that everyone benefits.”
5:33 pm: We’ve piled into the campaign bus (well, it’s more of a van, really) and we’re about to pull out of the church parking lot. The bus (van) pulls alongside a man who’s set up his homemade hotdog stand right by the exit. The dogs smell good as hell and I want one, but I’m not about to be the asshole who pipes up from the fourth row of the bus (van) to ask if we can make a pit stop.
Luckily, I don’t have to.
One of the team members throws open the sliding door so Hot Dog Man can shake hands with El-Sayed and tell him he can’t wait to vote for him. It’s one of those great, spontaneous, and genuine interactions that every candidate hopes to capture for their campaign ads, and I want to pay attention to the conversation that’s happening, but I keep looking over at the grill.
Suddenly, El-Sayed turns to the media people, “Anyone want a hot dog?”
Everyone is silent. I’m sweating. I need someone else to jump in and save me here. I can’t be the only one on this bus (van) who takes a hot dog. I couldn’t bear it. I’m just a man, for God’s sake.
“I’ll take one,” the reporter next to me says.
“Me too,” I chime in immediately.
To Karen Tumulty from the Washington Post: thank you.
5:51 pm: We’re about ten minutes away from the final event of the weekend: the #MyMuslimVote rally in Dearborn, the city with the largest Arab-American population in the United States.
I’m looking down at my notepad and prioritizing my questions. All weekend I’ve listened to El-Sayed answer boilerplate questions: Can a Muslim really win a race for governor in 2018? Do you think Michigan is ready for progressive politics? What are you going to do if you don’t win? Etc. But these questions fail to appreciate the urgency of our moment. And it is in large part due to the fact that El-Sayed’s campaign is a response to this urgency that he is drawing so much serious attention from people on the left, and from segments of the forgotten many whom the left is trying to mobilize against the oppressive, interlocking systems that exploit and dehumanize us.
That Abdul El-Sayed is even possible in the dark terrain of our present moment is a sign that history is moving.
That’s what I want to ask about. I want to know why it is so important for El-Sayed to win and to win now. I want to know if he believes that socialism in the future is the antidote to the barbarism of our present. And I want to ask how his campaign is appealing to the more progressive and lefty crowds who know in their bones that we can’t waste any more time on politicians paying lip service to change that will never come. So that’s what I ask him.
Alvarez: “Why is it so important that you win now, and carry on this wave that Alexandria [Ocasio-Cortez] brought here this weekend?”
El-Sayed: “I think America’s got to believe in herself again . . . I think our winning right now tells a very different story about America, a redemptive story about America—an America that is willing to be a more perfect union. That, after having elected Donald J. Trump President, we can turn around and elect his polar opposite governor. More importantly, America’s got to believe in our ability to come together around something, around movements, that we the people actually have power. And I believe we can do that in this election. The minute this becomes about me, we fail . . . It has to be about believing in ourselves.”
Alvarez: “And have you reached out to groups like DSA or sought their endorsement?”
El-Sayed: “We’ve had great conversations, and we share a lot of ideals, [but] I don’t like labels. Here’s the thing: in science, one of the concepts you start to appreciate deeply is that a large portion of science is about replicability. And replicability implies that you can communicate the same shared set of ideas universally. If a word has slippery meanings, and there’s slippage in the way the word works for people, then you miscommunicate, and when you miscommunicate you can’t replicate, and when you can’t replicate that’s the death of science.
“I come from that world, where we pick our words very carefully and very thoughtfully. And I think that the term “socialism” is too slippery of a word right now, and it evokes too many different things to too many different people. I think for a millennial the word “socialism” is spelled with a lower-case “s,” and it implies an engagement of government in some of the most important aspects of our lives to ensure and address a level of equity that we have not had . . . And then, I think for people who are over the age of sixty, it implies a history that was some of the most fearful in their lives. And I think because it evokes different meanings politically it’s just not a useful term.
And so, I don’t really care that much about the [socialist] label, I care about the work . . . I respect what DSA is working on and what they do. We have a lot we share—a lot in common. I consider us to be sister and brothers in the work.”
Alvarez: “Talking to a lot of DSA folks . . . there’s a lot, obviously, that you’re saying that people are digging. I mean, you in the “Abolish ICE” shirt, I think, really clinched it for a lot of people. But, still, being clear and honest about what you mean by “Abolish ICE” is a non-negotiable thing for a lot of people in the millennial socialist camp. And for a significant contingent, [supporting] the BDS movement is also non-negotiable . . .”
El-Sayed: “I’ve always been very clear about that. Look, I’m running for governor. You know, I couldn’t abolish ICE if I wanted to. But what I can do is make sure that our state is, in effect, blind to ICE, that we will not participate with them. And we will seek to pass legislation that preempts our municipalities from participating with them. . . . And we will take a very clear stance about the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Department of Corrections—and, frankly, any state agency—[that they] will not participate, will not cooperate with ICE. That’s what I can do as governor, and I think that’s pretty clear.
“And then, look, I just don’t believe that anybody trying to take away anyone’s right to protest is constitutional, right? The First Amendment says that your right to protest is obvious, and, you know, Citizens United has said that corporations [are] people, which I disagree with . . . but under that idea, money is speech, and if money is speech, then, you know, I just don’t think it’s constitutional to allow any sort of anti-BDS legislation to move forward.
“My responsibility is to the 10 million people in this state, and that’s what I’m always going to be focused on. As somebody who has been to that part of the world, I realize that on the ground it’s far more complex. And, to me, I think your values—you can never check at the door. I believe every life is worth the same. I mean, [as a doctor] I’ve been inside of people’s bodies, and I can tell you our insides look exactly the same. And I believe that the responsibility to protect human life is paramount. And I believe that international law should matter in the decisions that governments make. And that, to me, is the way that we, as a society, should be approaching what is a very contentious issue.
I’ve got people I love on both sides of that divide, and I respect them, and I dignify them as people. And I will condemn the loss of an innocent Israeli life the same way that I’ll condemn the loss of an innocent Palestinian life. But let’s be clear, those two are not equal. And the degree to which there has been more on one side than on the other cannot be denied, and the use of disproportionate force cannot be denied. . . . We have to call facts what they are. But, I’m going to be governor of the state of Michigan. Ten million people in this state—they are my responsibility and my focus . . . Insofar as I run for federal office, I’ll have a much more complete and thorough position on that, but I’m not running for federal office, I’m running for state office.”
The driver announces that we’re pulling up to the venue—so that’s it for my string of questions.
But as these and other questions continue to rattle around my brain, I try to tamp down my own gnawing uncertainty. Listen, progressives and others farther on the left have every reason to suspect that electoral politics cannot or will not offer substantive solutions to the oppressive systems we’re fighting against. I’d certainly put myself in that category most days. The question is about possibility; it’s about capacity. Is a world in which Abdul El-Sayed can become governor of the state of Michigan one that will bring us closer or farther away from the possibility of dismantling and rectifying the vicious, systemic evils of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, imperialism, and so on? Will a victory for El-Sayed build our capacity to achieve the ultimate victory? These are the only questions that matter.
There are things about El-Sayed’s politics, and about the political system he is taking part in, that will inevitably fall short of what many left-leaning people want to see in the here and now. But we would be foolish to dismiss out of hand the facts about who he is and what he stands for, or to ignore the role his campaign is playing in the real, ideological, and material unfolding of the country’s political future.
That Abdul El-Sayed is even possible in the dark terrain of our present moment is a sign that history is moving. That history will move in a more just direction is, as always, an open question—one whose answer depends on us and what we do now.
The Cavalry Arrives
Tuesday, July 31: 7 days until the primaries.
7:40 pm: My phone buzzes—it’s an email. Press release from Abdul’s campaign: “BREAKING: Senator Bernie Sanders to campaign with Abdul El-Sayed in Detroit and Ypsilanti amidst surge in momentum.” Hot damn.
Bernie wouldn’t be coming here at the last minute if this thing wasn’t close. He must smell the potential for a second “Michigan Miracle.” I think I do, too.