Rashida Tlaib of Detroit made history on Nov. 7, 2018, when she became the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress.
This year, in the weeks leading up to the Michigan Democratic Party primary on Aug. 4, the capitalist media questioned whether she would get a shot at reelection. “Congressperson Tlaib faces a rematch with her closest challenger [in 2018], City Council President Brenda Jones, who finished the term of John Conyers,” wrote the Associated Press on Aug. 4. The Hill on Aug. 3 called Jones a “strong primary challenger.”
The media pointed out that the Detroit Council president, an African American woman, was running in a Congressional District where 56.5% of the voters are African American.
But polls showed Tlaib leading. On Aug. 5 she blew away all naysayers, winning with a 2-to-1 margin. “We have a resounding mandate to put people before profits,” Congressperson Tlaib said following the results. “Let it be known that in the 13th District, just like in communities across our country, we are done with establishment politics that put corporations first.” (New York Times, Aug. 5)
The doubts expressed may have been wishful capitalist thinking. Michigan’s richest person, Dan Gilbert — owner of Quicken Loans, the Cleveland Cavaliers and vast swaths of real estate in Detroit — had contributed to Council President Jones’ current and past election campaigns. Gilbert, Jones and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan have often teamed up to reward real estate developers with tax breaks — including about $500,000 for Gilbert himself.
Trump backers Stars and Stripes Forever and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee paid for numerous ads attacking Tlaib as “terrorist.” These forces have repeatedly vilified The Squad — Congresspeople Ilhan Omar (who won the Minnesota primary Aug. 12), Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (known as AOC, who won a New York primary) along with Tlaib — since they were elected. Trump himself subjected them to racist, sexist, xenophobic attacks.
The vote and the movement behind it
The multinational working-class voters in the 13th Congressional District have every reason to vote against “establishment politics.” The district, which contains a big part of Detroit along with seven abutting suburbs, has an overall poverty rate of almost 30%, with child poverty at 42.5%. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a genocidal impact on Detroit, an historically Black working-class city. Racist capitalist austerity has given crumbling neighborhoods the appearance of a war zone.
Tlaib lives in Southwest Detroit, the center of the city’s Latinx community. Her Congressional district is 7% Latinx and home to tens of thousands of Lebanese, Palestinians, Yemenis, Syrians and Iraqis. The district is next to, but does not include, the heart of the Arab community: Dearborn.
This unprecedented vote for a Palestinian Muslim woman, by mostly non-Muslim voters, took place in the context of the Black Lives Matter upsurge that has united working-class and oppressed youth since the lynching of George Floyd. The brave congressperson has herself participated in and spoken at BLM protests in Detroit, which have taken place every single night since the end of May and gained momentum after Detroit police killed Hakim Littleton on July 10.
Elections: form vs. content
Marxists have long appreciated the dialectical relationship between form and content (or essence). As Workers World Party’s late founder and Chairperson Sam Marcy wrote in 1984 — arguing for critical support for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid — “Program, personal qualifications, and so on, have their place in this type of struggle, but that is not what is decisive. What is decisive are the social, class, and racial relationships which govern the struggle.”
The venue of the historic vote on Aug. 5 — the Democratic Party — is part of the capitalist “two-party system” in the U.S. This form is in itself reactionary. But the “people before profits” class content behind Tlaib’s win is wholly progressive. Tlaib — a “democratic socialist” like Bernie Sanders and the three other members of “The Squad” — unified Black, Arab, Latinx and white workers around her campaign of “people before profits.”
This is not to suggest that the working class can ever end corporate domination by electing progressive or even “socialist” Democrats to Congress. Far from it.
But a vote for anti-racist, anti-Islamophobic unity is a huge step forward in the development of class consciousness and class solidarity. Revolutionaries should read its content for what it is.