Ilhan Omar: “Real Change Is Possible”

Ilhan Omar

You might be feeling down about how the primaries are going. But the socialist left is stronger than ever. We spoke with Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar for some words of inspiration.

Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, introduces Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally ahead of Super Tuesday in Springfield, Virginia, on Feb. 29, 2020. Sarah Silbiger / Bloomberg via Getty

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

Things can seem pretty bleak right now.

Bernie Sanders has fallen out of front-runner status in the Democratic primary. The coronavirus is rocketing around the globe. And some congressional Republicans are outflanking Democratic leaders in their response to COVID-19.

But this isn’t a time for despair. Democratic socialists have made enormous gains in recent years, and the public supports the signature policies we’re pushing.

In a recent interview on the Dig, a Jacobin Radio podcast, host Daniel Denvir spoke with one of the leading lights of the democratic socialist movement, Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar. You can hear the Dig and all of the Jacobin podcasts by subscribing at Jacobin Radio, and support the show at Patreon.


DD

A lot of people are let down and downright terrified right now. This felt like such a big shot, and people feel like it’s slipping away, which is why I wanted to talk to you today. You were born in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1982, and your family fled the civil war there. You spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before moving to the United States. Today, of course, you’re a member of the US House and a leader in our resurgent US left. What lessons can you share from your own experience to help everyone out there listening, to help us get our heads straight and push forward?

IO

The lesson is to make sure that we are always hopeful and optimistic about what is possible.

I reflect back on my first election, when I ran against a forty-four-year incumbent to win a seat in the Minnesota House. In Minnesota we have a caucus process, and you go through a convention to get an endorsement. I had 56 percent of the votes. You had to hit the 60 percent threshold in order to get the endorsement from the Democratic Party.

It was a three-way race. One of my opponents had nine delegates and refused to release his delegates. After fourteen hours, we were denied an endorsement, and I most of our delegates were people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four — people who were getting involved in the political process for the first time, people who’d never caucused or come to a convention. For them, on a Saturday to stick around for fourteen hours on only to be denied an endorsement with 4 percent to go was really a huge blow to the energy and the spirit and the hopes that they had of what was to be.

Towards the end of the night, I had an opportunity to address our delegates and many of our supporters, and some of the other delegates who held their support and commitment to their candidates until they were going to be released and were never released. So I spoke to them and said, “This really was a great opportunity for us to understand what this fight was going to be about. The fact that we were denied this endorsement isn’t the end of our campaign. It’s the beginning of our campaign.” Because oftentimes, I think, we forget how great opportunities are born from great challenges.

We can look back at the history of this country and see that every single challenge we’ve been presented with has allowed us to seek an opportunity and to push for progress. The only time we’ve had regress in many of the progresses we’ve made is when we have decided to not utilize the opportunities that are presented by the challenges. Today, I think it’s important for us to realize that the majority of the base on the Left is young people. They are people who live on the margins of society, people who have really been beaten up and neglected and set aside in this political process, people who don’t see themselves represented in government or their interests or their priorities.

We have an opportunity to make sure that this particular challenge that we have of turnout and commitment is used as an opportunity for us not to only get angry and go to rallies and tweet but to angrily and passionately organize our communities and have the difficult conversations that are necessary to urge people to come and fight for a seat at the table.

I learned a critical lesson from my grandfather, who was born in colonized Somalia, who was never afforded the opportunity to live in a democracy after Somalia gained its independence, and was really excited about coming to the United States because this was a country where eventually everybody became an American, and everybody eventually had the opportunity to participate in its democracy. He would tell us every day as he went to caucus and went to vote that this is a right, a privilege, and an honor. We must always remember to fully utilize it.

So I think it’s one thing to be an activated organizer, an agitator, an activist, an advocate; but it’s another thing to be a committed citizen who is voting and actively engaging in an equalized way at the ballot box.

DD

I have so much optimism because, like what you just said, young people have such great politics, and I’m so proud of everything that we’ve built on the US left in such a short time. But I also feel like we’re in the early stages of doing what’s necessary to build real power in this country, especially with regard to things like mass worker militancy and powerful left institutions. I think we’re doing that, but on the other hand I’m very worried because the climate change clock is ticking. How do you recognize the time crunch that we’re in without giving in to despair and also really honoring everything that we’ve accomplished and putting it into some perspective?

IO

Yeah, I think any time there is regress and there is an oppressive way of governing, people feel exhausted by the process. We just have to make sure that we are not giving up, that we’re not feeling exhausted by the many roadblocks that we currently see and utilize a lot of the gains that we have as an opportunity to energize ourselves to keep going.

I look at young people like my daughter who at the mere age of seventeen is very excited about what it means to build a community of young people who are fighting against climate change, and they never really feel like they can stop. I know that for those of us who are part of a generation who has felt like every time we stick our neck out and say, “This is what we want,” we are set back, we need to get rid of that cynicism and say, “This is the time. We have got to keep pushing.”

Our movement, the candidates that we’re supporting, and what we are trying to build isn’t just for today. It is long term, and we can see the impact that many of the new progressive voices have made in Congress in shaping the conversation nationwide. Every single state, whether we’ve won or not, the exit polls show that the issues we are emphasizing and prioritizing are also a priority for the majority of the people.

So, we have to remind the public and many of the people who are coming out to vote that this isn’t about one particular candidate. This isn’t about who you want to have a beer with or whose personality is most like yours or who is familiar to you, who makes you feel comfortable or who everyone tells you is a nice person. It’s about the policies.

We have to not only stay alert as the progressive left, but make sure that we are having critical conversations with people and making them recognize what’s at stake. We’re not only fighting the tyrant in the White House and reclaiming decency and integrity and the honor of the White House, but we are actually trying to elect someone who will produce legislation and a policy agenda that is a reflection of the values and the priorities of the majority of Americans.

DD

There was a lot that was indecent about this country well before Donald Trump was elected.

IO

Right. I think about the states that have the worst racial disparities and the cities that are the worst places for black and brown people to live in (often in the Midwest). I think about my visit to a penitentiary in Ayanna Pressley’s district and the places where there are policies that are not fully equitable and functioning for the whole society. They are places where there is a neglect in having critical conversations about confronting the injustices that exist in our system.

So, I think we can talk about what it means to live in a cohesive society, one that is prosperous for everyone, one that is equitable for everyone, one where people have economic equality, where there is policy to address the climate crisis we all face, to deal with the pollution that we have, the inability of many of our citizens to access clean water and have breathable air, the infrastructures around our schools and in many of our communities, and lack of access to food for many of our children and those that are vulnerable.

These are conversations that we need to have throughout the country because the majority of people need and want to see an improvement in their lives, and we have the resources to be able to implement policies that will create that positive impact. We just have to find a way to get people to have the willpower to get it done.

A friend of mine named Bathsheba Demuth has been touring with a book that she wrote about climate change, and she remarked recently that everyone she met over the age of thirty-five asks her for signs of hope. You know, “Your book is so depressing. Climate change is so depressing. Tell us why to be hopeful.” Everyone under thirty-five doesn’t ask that question. They ask what they can do.

DD

I think this is something that a lot of Bernie supporters have been struggling with — why so many of our elders seem resigned to such a bleak future and find it so difficult to put their hopes in these big visions of a better world. This isn’t obviously to beat up on our elders, but to point out that this is a very striking and urgent reality, this generational divide. How do you think about that, and how should we all organize with our elders and win the multigenerational coalition that we need?

IO

I think we have to place many of these people within the context of their place of growth in our country. I’m thirty-seven, so anyone who is ten years or twenty years or thirty years older than me, these are people who have not seen anything but incremental changes, people who have felt like there is a government that is truly not of the people and for the people, that nothing really grand or transformative takes place.

The earliest example of anything transformative they will point to is the Affordable Care Act. These are people that also have not lived through or are fully disconnected from the kind of challenges that presidents like FDR faced when they were implementing systematic changes that brought about real prosperity.

So it is to say, these policies are possible. Real change is possible. We must push for them, and not everything needs to come from the top. There is an opportunity for us to be visionary and bold and loud about what our better tomorrow looks like and push everyone who is in a position of influence to create an actualization of that vision that we have.

DD

Well, Representative Ilhan Omar, thank you very much.

IO

Thank you for having me, and keep on the fight.