Dear Abdul El-Sayed: A Letter to Michigan’s Gubernatorial Candidate

By Hira Baig
Associate Editor, Volume 23

Dear Abdul El-Sayed,

Life has been challenging for Muslims post 9/11 and has only gotten harder since the 2016 election. Hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise, and my neighborhood mosque now requires police security through the month of Ramadan and every Friday for our jummah prayers. My community is living with a heightened sense of fear since Donald Trump was elected and we are trying to figure out how to combat our country’s violent political landscape. Community conversations often conclude with realizations that we need to use our vote to change these circumstances. We are often left wondering, however, who should we vote for? I write this letter to you and all young Americans running for office because we want to support you; but we need some assurances first. Before I begin, I’d like to thank you. Our country needs you. We need more diverse legislatures on the local, state, and national levels and we appreciate your efforts. I just ask one thing: listen.

Listen to the people in this country that need you, and don’t get swept up by power and greed that pervade politics. You don’t need to be bound to people with money and influence. Nearly all of our elected officials have already succumbed to these pressures. We need people like you in public office because it is only after we challenge the very foundation of our political structure will we be able to change public policy for the better.

I’d like to share the words of Haney Lopez as you build your platform. Lopez tells us that the middle class is being used to propagate policy decisions that have ultimately hurt most Americans.[1] He writes that politicians use dog-whistles, or coded racial language, to gain white voters, motivating middle-class Americans to elect conservative politicians despite their own interests.[2]

I encourage you to remain steadfast in your mission to represent the people. Not the corporations. Not the deep-pocketed support engines that might help get you elected. You might not engage in a violent dog-whistle, like George Wallace, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, but you will use your own coded language.[3] Stay true to your pledge to take no corporate PAC money.[4] Your ends will be valiant, but you must remember how we got here. Decades of social policy supported by Democrats and Republicans alike have not met the needs of our now disappearing middle class. Lopez is right. Politicians have incited people to vote against their interests.[5]

Voters have not had many options, however, because the system as a whole is failing. We need a new generation of leaders that will disentangle money and politics. Representing your community ought to be about giving a voice to people without power and money. As such, listen to their concerns and tune out the voices of those in upper echelon.

We will expect more of you. Our progressive heroes have let us down, and I’m sure you will too. You are human, after all. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t strive every day to fight against those that blow the dog-whistle.

You can fight in several ways. The first is to think about race, class, gender, and religion. Think about those on the periphery and don’t other them. Next, strive every day to weaken your opponents’ dog-whistle. The dog-whistle is effective because it plays to people’s fears, it reminds them that they are not alone and it rationalizes their intuitions. The dog-whistle doesn’t challenge its audience, it panders and gives people reason to feel their elected officials share their convictions and experiences. Lopez tells us that this isn’t true, however. Conservative social policy has only curbed middle class Americans’ access to social services.

You will be able to weaken the potency of the dog-whistle by championing policies that serve the vast majority of Michiganders, rather than just the 1%. By enacting tax reform and expanding access to social services for low and middle income families, progressive politicians like you can show Americans how government is meant to serve us.

Lopez argues that since the Reagan administration, racism has destroyed the middle class.[6] He establishes that politicians exploit the implicit biases of their voters to lead them to believe that if the government cares about people of color, it doesn’t care about white Americans.[7] By using dog-whistles that suggest federal programs that provide social services are only meant to serve minorities, the Republican party has slowly turned many white Americans against policies that they would also be the beneficiaries of.

Progressives like you can undo this manipulation. When a politician blows a dog-whistle, call them out on it. Argue that it’s not just black and brown Americans that would benefit from higher state budgets, stronger unions, better healthcare, and a cleaner environment. Show them what middle America has to gain from more distributive and equitable public policy.

Don’t get lost in pandering. You might have to compromise some of your views, and there may be certain things that you’ll never be able say out loud in an interview. But the only way to show most of Michigan that we all have something to gain from a progressive economic and social agenda is to never let go of that agenda. Don’t work to expand tax cuts for the wealthy like President Obama did in his first term.[8] Don’t be beholden to Wall Street like Secretary Hillary Clinton. Remain unwavering in your duty to serve all Americans.[9]

I understand how difficult it must be for you to run for office right now. Popular opinion doesn’t favor a Muslim man in the governor’s chair.  But that is exactly why it is so important that you run.

The last thing I ask is that you encourage others to follow in your footsteps. A handful of progressives in office will not be enough. If we are going to rock the foundation of this country’s political process and disentangle it from greed and the exploitation of black and brown people, we need more men and women like you in elected office.

[1] Ian Haney-Lopez, Dog whistle politics: how coded racial appeals have reinvented racism and wrecked the middle class (2015).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Drew Philp, ‘The new Obama’: will Abdul El-Sayed be America’s first Muslim governor?, The Guardian, (last visited Nov 12, 2017).

[5] Noam N. Levey, Trump voters would be among the biggest losers in Republicans’ Obamacare replacement plan, LA Times (Mar. 12, 2017, 5:00 AM),

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Chris McGreal, Barack Obama gives way to Republicans over Bush tax cuts, The Guardian (Dec. 6, 2010, 8:46 PM),

[9] William D. Cohan, Why Wall Street Loves Hillary, POLITICO Magazine (Nov. 11, 2014),