The Rainbow: Storm Clouds Ahead?

Against the Current, No. 11, November-December 1987

Joanna Misnik

“WIN, JESSE, WINI” was the battle cry punctuating the Rainbow Coalition convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, October 9-11. The convention attracted some 1,200 delegates, members and observers from thirty-five states and the District of Columbia. Going for broke to secure the Democratic Party presidential nomination for Jackson proved to be the gamble that still holds the Rainbow together.

An official Rainbow was hastily called into being for the convention. Prior to it, only four states New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, New York-and Washington, D.C., had succeeded in meeting the exacting criteria for constitution as chapters. Some twenty-five states were granted provisional charters so that the convention could be officially delegated. Rather than a living, breathing body, the Rainbow is still a gleam in the eyes of those who seek to birth it.

The convention spent a lot of time asserting that the Rainbow was here to stay as an ongoing progressive organization and was not simply a second campaign committee for Jesse Jackson. Yet it was the Jackson candidacy that was the reason for being of this convention. The only plenary vote taken that did not concern procedural or structural questions was the unanimous vote to endorse Jackson in ’88.

A New Deal for the ’80s

Showing 26% in the Democratic preference polls, a confident Jesse Jackson officially announced his candidacy to a convention rally of 5,000 on Saturday, October 10. The rally was not a Rainbow event. It was organized by the Jesse Jackson Exploratory Committee, soon to emerge from its cocoon as the Jackson Campaign Committee.

It was Jackson’s show, with a lot of traditional electioneering ballyhoo but none of the “movement” flavor that is still discernible in the Rainbow. After the singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Rainbow delegates in the crowd spontaneously broke out with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the anthem of the Black rights movement.

Jackson’s 1984 candidacy suffered from being ghettoized as a Black protest campaign. His painstaking efforts since then to expand the base of his appeal were mirrored in his announcement speech. Because of the volatility of the candidate himself, the Jackson program can appear to be a make-it-up-as-you-go patchwork. Not so. The program is evolving with a clear objective: to reignite the torch of New Deal “progressivism” at a time when Democratic powers-that-be have formed a bucket brigade to snuff it out.

Jackson caused some consternation when he began his speech by declaring that “twenty-five years ago racial violence was the issue,” but it had been resolved. Just moments earlier, Mabel Teng, a representative of the Asian community, had delivered a stirring denunciation of the failure to convict the murderers of Vincent Chin.

Today “economic violence is the critical issue of the day,” Jackson asserted. The ’88 run is centered on the economic crisis and its devastating effects on all workers and farmers. As Jackson put it, ‘When the gates close and the lights go out, we’re all amazingly similar in the dark and we find common ground.” Some delegates felt that Jackson had gone too far in underplaying the fight against racial oppression.

Jackson explained that this “new economic common ground is the key to a new coalition, a new Democratic Party.” The intent is clear. In 1984 the Democratic Party veered sharply to the right in a futile effort to prevent its traditional corporate bank rollers from defecting with their checkbooks to Reagan Republicans. That campaign was unencumbered by any pro­labor image and thus could more readily deliver the blows to the working class that crisis-ridden U.S. capital found necessary.

To prove that they were willing to deliver the punches, the Democrats purged their program of the standard post-New Deal paper planks, beginning with those that called for full employment and expanded social services.

It was just at this moment that Jackson took his 3.2 million primary votes and 465 delegates into the struggle to “realign” the party. Jackson people watched helplessly as the party machinery pitilessly steamrolled their efforts.

With the Mondale debacle still fresh in his memory, Jackson is urging the Democrats to restore the image of the “party of the little people.” ”Expanding the base of our party is the key to success,” he counseled.

The Jackson Doctrine

The Rainbow is an impressive ingathering of many from the peace, anti-intervention, solidarity and anti-apartheid movements. It also includes organizations representing Latino, Asian-American, Arab-American and Native American constituencies.

Much of the Rainbow base comes from the “outcast” politics of protest structured outside the electoral arena, thus a strong theme of international solidarity ran through the convention. The main rally at the convention was devoted to Rainbow internationalism. Among others, spokespeople were present from El Salvador’s FMLN (Farabundo Marti Liberation Front), SWAPO (South West African Peoples Organization), the African National Congress and the Palestinian solidarity movement.

Jackson’s international positions remain non-interventionist. They are summed up in what he terms “the Jackson Doctrine: support for international law, respect for the principle of self-determination and human rights, and international economic justice.” He condemned the invasion of Grenada and supported the Arias peace plan for Central America.

But the doctrine has the ring of political expediency, in contrast to the militant solidarity of the Rainbow. And it has some rough edges: Included is a call for a “strong military,” which was mystifying to many. Jackson sidestepped the issue of U.S. brinkmanship in the Persian Gulf by contrasting Reagan’s policy of sending mine sweepers to the Gulf while cutting back drug-smuggling surveillance in the Gulf of Mexico.

During NBC’s nationally-televised debate among all presidential hopefuls, Jackson was definite about not halting the policy of reflagging Kuwaiti tankers. Instead, he urged a push for multilateral responsibilities, saying that U.S. allies, like France and Japan, whose interests were threatened, should shoulder more of the burden in keeping the gulf open. Packaging Jackson as a presidential possible will no doubt erode any anti-imperialism that could make him appear as a fringe candidate.

Tallying Successes

The convention rejoiced at the impending defeat of Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork, and claimed it as a Rainbow achievement. In his speech Jackson used the Bork-bashing to illustrate what he can deliver to the Democrats. The Republican majority in the Senate was reversed largely by the election of ten senators from the South. They owe their victories to a solid Black voting base; none of the winners received 50% of the white vote. And these new men on the Hill openly told the media that their constituencies saw the Bork nomination as an attack on civil rights, requiring them to come out firmly against it.

The Bork defeat was the result of a complex set of factors and protest efforts spurred by the waning popularity of the Reagan administration in the post-Iran&gate era. The claim of the organizationally frail Rainbow that it was his executioner is a wild exaggeration. Many convention delegates expressed dismay at the slim delegations present from the pivotal southern states. Outside of North Carolina, few, if any, Deep South states boasted more than ten representatives, and some far less.

Jackson forces claim to have registered 2 million new voters in the South during their ’84 efforts. This may also be an exaggeration. But it is undeniable that the Jackson efforts in 1984 and since have helped create a new “solid South” for the Democratic Party, replacing lost Southern whites who have crossed over to the Republicans with an expanded loyal force of Blacks.

During the Rainbow convention the news came through that a recent poll gave Jackson 66% of the Texas farm vote. Convention organizers, and Jackson in his speech, took great pains to highlight the labor-farm dimension of the new populism. In the past several years, Jackson has campaigned hard to make himself a credible candidate in rural America. Several farm organizers, notably Merle Hansen of the North American Farm Alliance, were prominently featured at the convention.

Jackson’s popularity among farmers, white and Black should not be underestimated. The devastation of the family farm, which has driven some 600,000 off the land since 1980, created a social crisis that has permitted some alarming inroads of extreme right-wing and fundamentalist ideologies. Jackson’s one-of-a-kind populist appeal has helped the more radical wing of the farm protest movement to block these developments.

The House of Labor Hangs Back

The weak link in the Rainbow realignment scheme is clearly the absence of a significant showing of organized labor. The convention proved that little progress has been made in attracting official support since the Rainbow was founded in April 1986. The thin layer of already-won­ over were there — Ken Blaylock, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees; Jan Pierce of the Communication Workers of America; Henry Nichols, national president of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees; and Clark Johnson of the Machinists union.

The lack of progress in attracting labor is not surprising in view of the conservative role that the pliable labor officialdom plays within the party.

It should be noted that the Jackson program is hanging remarkably tough against the protectionist fever gripping organized labor. Jackson’s speech contained a stinging denunciation of the multinationals. “Don’t get mad at the Japanese or the Koreans,” he exhorted. “General Motors took your 29,000 jobs this year and put them in South Korea Slave labor is a threat to organized labor anywhere.”

Jackson urged a Marshall Plan for Third World countries to raise the standard of living so that “they can buy what we produce.” His “Put America back to work” program is a vague call for reducing the military budget in favor of public works, making the corporations pay their share of taxes, and government intervention into the economy to foster reindustrialization, retraining, research and reconversion.

Underscoring the importance of the Rainbow’s economic program was the full plenary discussion-the only remotely political one-that was held on the program. AFGE’s Blaylock chaired a panel of trade unionists and farm organizers who took the same approach as Jackson. A woman leader of the Watsonville strike, speaking in Spanish, received a hero’s welcome. Jackson had actively supported the strike, as well as that of P-9 against Hormel in Austin, Minnesota. No P-9 heroes were on the convention dais, however, and their landmark strike was not even mentioned.

Trade unionists caucused throughout the convention. Rank-and-file unionists with a struggle perspective, like the North Carolina-based Black Workers for Justice, urged that the Jackson momentum in the South be turned to aiding Southern organizing drives. They proposed a conference to help unify the diverse efforts underway.

They were told in no uncertain terms that the focus for the future was building Labor-for-Jackson committees to get out the vote. Nevertheless, a resolution was put forward urging the Rainbow to go on record in favor of organizing the South.

Labor leaders supporting Jackson fear a move by the AFL-CIO to plant “phony” Jackson delegates at the convention who will swing to a “realistic” candidate at the first opportunity. Securing “real” Rainbow labor delegates for Jackson will be a prime preoccupation.

Predictably, the recent AFL-CIO convention made no presidential endorsement, and the convention asked individual unions to refrain from endorsements while the search for a “consensus” continued. The hardline stance against xenophobic protectionism built into Jackson’s program is a sign that Rainbow forces are not willing to give every­ thing away for the sake of such a “consensus.”

The Hue Missing from the Rainbow

Conspicuously absent from the Rainbow convention was representation from the mainstream women’s movement and its chief organization, the National Organization for Women (NOW).

In 1984, NOW ignored appeals from women who supported Jackson. Armed with the theory of the “gender gap” and reeling from the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and strident right-wing attacks on abortion rights, NOW sank deeper into an exclusively electoral strategy. It endorsed Walter Mondale and burrowed into “acceptable” Democratic Party circles to broker delivery of the “gap” vote.

The reward was the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro for vice president, a nomination that did not sit well with Jackson supporters. Ferraro is a vocal opponent of busing to achieve school desegregation and represented one of the most segregated districts in New York.

The Rainbow convention pledged an all-out effort to heal the rift with the middle-class, predominantly white women’s movement. With Democrat Pat Schroeder out of the race, the theory is that NOW will have nowhere else to tum. A standing women’s commission, the only such body in the Rainbow, was established, and a women’s staff desk in the Jackson effort was promised.

The Real Social Base Expands

Blacks made up nearly 50% of convention participants. Jackson’s drawing power in the Black community remains the only solid social base attracting the other constituencies to the Rainbow. Within a month after his 1984 announcement, 90% of the Black religious network had endorsed him.

But the Black Democratic machine hung back for the most part. Jackson was an “outsider” with no credibility in the party. The task at hand was to defeat ”Reaganism” and its strangulation of the social-welfare programs that are the lifeline of urban pork-barreling. So the Black machine opted for the party realpolitik, leaving protest for later.

The right tum of the Democratic Party is proceeding unabated while Jackson’s ability to galvanize the Black vote offers the possibility of renegotiating the terms of Black dependency from a position of enhanced strength. Events have shown that the Democratic Party needs the Black vote, and the Black machine needs Jackson as much as he needs it.

In 1984 the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) went for Mondale without a second thought. In Raleigh in 1987, however, Mervyn Dymally, head of the CBC, announced that eighteen of its twenty-three members were on board for Jesse. Nine of them were on the podium when Jackson announced, along with some forty other Black elected officials from across the country-a marked contrast to the two or three white officials who were there to endorse.

It would be inaccurate to say, as some predicted, that Jackson’s program is moving to the right. More correctly, Jackson’s expansion I of his base inside the party to include the Black machine introduces a powerful new component whose objectives are often tied to cautious intraparty brokering and compromise. The civil rights struggles and the second Reconstruction ushered in an era of co-optation of the Black movement into the two-party system where it could be kept under control. For the Black masses, the new “empowerment” is an unfinished experiment that still hangs in the balance. Given the historic lack of political parties to represent real class interests and the docility of the white workers, it could hardly be otherwise.

Before the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act, there were fewer than 500 Black elected officials in the United States. By 1985, this figure had risen to 6,056, still only 1.2 % of all elected officials. Though over 70% of these officials are concentrated in small municipalities and in educational offices, major cities like Chicago and Baltimore have elected Black mayors. Through their control of city coffers and affirmative-action plans in hiring and contracting, these big-city machines are a mainstay of the Black middle class.

As the economic crisis dries up federal funds and sends Black unemployment statistics soaring, the interests of these middle-class Blacks increasingly diverge from the masses of Blacks who vote for the machine. Unable to deliver real solutions any more than white politicians can, the Black power structure opts for self-preservation and protection of its privileged enclave.

Even with Jackson’s impressive lead and a momentum greater than in 1984, two decades of the pragmatism of dependency is proving to be hard to shake in favor of a populist rebellion. The Nov. 16, 1987, New York Times reports on the fight conducted by Jackson forces at the recent New Orleans meeting of the Conference of Southern Black Democrats.

At stake was the primary strategy of the entrenched Black Democratic machine in the South, where March 8 “Super Tuesday” will yield nearly one-fourth of the convention delegates and where Black Democrats are a deciding factor. A strategic alternative to supporting Jackson gained strong endorsement at this gathering of 200 Black Democrats. That plan, to nominate favorite-son candidates from a few states or at least to endorse more than one Democratic candidate, was eventually defeated.

Figures such as Joe Reed and Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington Jr., leaders of the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC), the official Black caucus of the Alabama Democratic Party, expressed the fear that monolithic Black support to Jackson will lessen bargaining power with the inevitable white nominee. Arrington and Reed told the New York Times that “emotional” support for Jackson weakened their trading position, though they hoped the ADC could still be instrumental in getting out the Black vote for the Democratic nominee in the general elections.

A similar hedging-your-bets strategy had already been defeated on the Alabamans’ home turf. The November 6 convention of the Alabama New South Coalition (ANSC) beat back an Arrington-sponsored resolution to release ANSC delegates on the first ballot if their candidate showed “no viable chance of obtaining the party’s nomination.” (Frontline, Nov. 23, 1987)

The Black machine, with its time-honored method of loyalty and premeditated timidity, is threatened by the Jackson “emotion” at the Black base of the party. As more and more of this machine is forced to concede and join the Jackson effort, its expertise in inner-party maneuvering will be pitted against the Jackson hotheads. There will be constant pressure from this and other quarters to frame a strategy of tepid and apologetic protest.

No one really believes Jesse can win the nomination, despite the fact that his nearest competitor is Gov. Michael Dukakis with only about 11% in the polls. One of the reasons is racism. With Jackson’s 26%, the media — and the party — don’t take him seriously. He is still side-lined as a protest (read Black) candidate. In campaign article after article, Jackson is given a few sentences, while nobodies like Richard Gephart are featured at length. This racist treatment of the national front-runner should be roundly condemned by all — Jackson supporters or not.

Jackson’s strategy is to build up sufficient delegate strength so that his forces will not be shunted aside the way they were in 1984. They will most likely be in a position to broker this convention, bartering their delegates for concessions. Deciding what those concessions should be may tear the Rainbow apart.

During the coming months the energy of Rainbow activists will be turned nearly exclusively to registering voters and raising money for a campaign treasury that will receive few if any big PAC bucks. A target of 2 million new registrations by Super Tuesday in the South is projected. After that, there is the party of the non­voters, the 84 million eligible who sit out elections, to reach for.

In 1984 Jackson waged a holy war against the unfairness of party rules governing delegate selection. His campaign did much to expose how easily the established machine can thwart an insurgent. Though Jackson polled 20 % of the primary vote, he received only 11% of the convention delegates. His efforts resulted in lowering the minimum threshold for being accorded delegates in primary states from 20 % to 15%.

This time, there isn’t a whimper about the rules. Apparently, it would be unseemly for the “winner” to say much about how unfair the rules are.

Rainbow Left Against the Mainstream

Because Jackson was shunned by the machine in 1984, leftists, socialists and leaders of the “issues” movement filled the vacuum in his campaign. They assumed key posts and helped to shape its direction. This experience led to the idea of forming the Rainbow Coalition.

These veteran activists are not so naïve as to have a purely electoral strategy. The idea of the Rainbow was to preserve the momentum of Jackson’s successes through an organizational form outside — or rather alongside — the Democratic Party, in order to create a new “progressive movement.”

With the entry of the Black machine into the ’88 effort, it is inevitable that tensions of perspective will arise between the formal Campaign Committee and its foot soldiers in the Rainbow. And as the Raleigh convention showed, aside from the laudable desire for a new Black-white unity, the only thing that holds the Rainbow together is Jackson’s Democratic Party project.

The tension is already apparent. Behind the skirmishes to “democratize” the notoriously top-down Rainbow was a fear that the Rainbow will be dictated to by official campaign structures, stunting its growth and threatening its ability to exist beyond the ’88 run.

The powerful New Jersey delegation came prepared to lead a major bylaws fight. They were defanged through closed­door compromise with the Board of Directors of the Rainbow, Incorporated.

Some changes were made. State chairs will be added to the all-powerful Board of Directors. The minimum number of members required to receive a local charter was halved, and a more equitable sharing of dues between chapters and the national office was agreed to.

However, the Rainbow chartering system still requires a minimum membership in each of a state’s congressional districts. Using this as a basic unit is fine for vote­getting, but foreign and unwieldy to movement activists accustomed to city-wide mobilizing. Even the labor caucus complained.

Since the convention, Rainbow militants have seen unmistakable signs that running a credible, winning Democratic campaign is at cross purposes with the broader progressive objectives assigned to their Coalition.

Mainstream Managers

The formal Jackson Campaign Committee has taken steps to further eclipse the identification of Jackson’s candidacy with the Rainbow project. On November 13, Jackson announced the appointment of two mainstream Democrats to top positions in his campaign apparatus. Willie Brown, former speaker of the California Assembly, was named chairman, and Gerald Austin, manager of two winning campaigns for Ohio Governor Richard Celeste, became Jackson’s campaign manager.

The Nov. 14, 1987, New York Times reports that both men stressed “a new pragmatism” at their inaugural press conference. Austin explained that “people from all walks of life are supporting this guy, and that’s a centrist campaign.” Brown assured the media that “we will not appeal excessively to so-called Black concerns.”

Perhaps more telling was the reaction of the National Committee for Independent Political Action (NCIPA) to the possible transfer of Rainbow Executive Director Ron Daniels from his full-time post to the Jackson campaign staff for the duration.

NCIPA is a formation of left activists who have an understanding of the need to develop an independent class alternative in the electoral political arena. More than any other grouping, they represent the strategy of bolstering the Rainbow as a quasi-independent force that can somehow miraculously destroy the Democratic Party by joining it-the “inside-outside” strategy that many Rainbow leftists profess in their own version of today’s pragmatism.

The Rainbow convention often credited its new executive director Ron Daniels with near singular responsibility for fleshing out the idea of the Rainbow into a body capable of pulling off a reasonable semblance of a convention. Hearing that Daniels might be moved onto the campaign staff and out of the separate Rainbow offices, NCIPA’s leadership voiced its post-convention concerns.

In the November-December1987 Newsletter report of its National Steering Committee meeting, NCIPA had this to say:

“There were other criticisms …. A major one is the concern expressed by a number of people about the influence of the Democratic Party over the Jackson campaign. Another was the fact that in at least some of his speeches, Jackson is not talking about the Rainbow Coalition, or even a rainbow coalition.”

We agreed that we would support the Jackson for President campaign. We will also support building the Rainbow Coalition as an independent, permanent progressive organization. .We agreed that we would encourage local Rainbows to do emergency fund-raising for the National Rainbow office, to strengthen it, and to follow through on a decision made at the Raleigh convention for a major Rainbow membership drive. . .We agreed to go on record as opposing a transfer of Ron Daniels completely out of the National Office of the NRC.”

The Rainbow Coalition, left-version, is finding a formidable obstacle in a campaign committee that is seeking to sell an acceptable, centrist Jackson candidacy to the party. Straight through to the convention, the not-really Democrats will be fighting for space for their agenda against heavy odds.

Crafting the Dialectic of Retreat

In her recently published The Rainbow Challenge: the Jackson Campaign and the Future of U.S. Politics, Rainbow leader Sheila Collins explains:

“The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 shocked many left activists into discovering the dialectical relationship between social movements and electoral institutions Electoral politics was no longer seen as a substitute for movement-building, but as a necessary complement. Although it was difficult to do both simultaneously, there was a growing realization that the two forms of political activity were dialectically related.”

Collins thus summarizes the “new­thought” of the 1980s that is the basis for the entry of many left activists and socialists into the Rainbow-Jackson campaign. The argument is dangerously flawed and shortsighted. Over the next months all the left, Rainbow and non­Rainbow, would do well to analyze events fraternally and discuss strategy together in an atmosphere of mutual respect for our common anticapitalist objectives.

The project of coalescing the social protest movements with Blacks, Latinos and other oppressed national minorities, farmers, and organized labor is a long-felt need. The question is: to what ends? No one is suggesting that electoral ends should be excluded, that the ballot box is “unprincipled.” But to equate electoral politics with the Democratic Party is to default on an historical imperative that confronts us in the United States in a unique and somewhat frightening way.

If Jesse Jackson’s campaign had been run in any other advanced capitalist country where parliamentary systems prevail, a “Rainbow Party” would now have a sizable number of parliamentary deputies, national credibility and the opportunity to recruit directly to its program. One has only to look at the German Green Party to see an example of how political program and class alignments are reflected both in electoral party formations and independent social-protest movements.

The U.S. two-party, winner-take-all system is not just another way of conducting elections. It is an anti-party system that prevents any real social antagonisms from finding organized electoral-political expression. It perpetuates a false “consensus of citizens” that is forever manipulated in the interests of the ruling rich and its version of the “American way of life.”

Why the U.S. working class never produced a political party of its own is the subject of broad historical discussion. But it explains why we cannot afford an inside-outside strategy, since there is nothing for “us” to be inside. All efforts to shift the social relation of forces — from the rise of the CIO to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War victories — have had only one recourse to empowerment: the outside, the transitory social movements that have directly confronted the governing institutions from which historically our class interests have been locked out.

There could not be a worse time to forget what we used to know. The capitalist economic crisis has resulted in an image crisis for the no-party system. Tweedledee and Tweedledum are being revealed as ever more alike and ever more exposed in their subordination to capital. The economy has shrunk their margin for concessionary maneuver substantially. Now is not the time to waste the real power catalyzed by the Jackson vision in bartering for platform language and maybe a few posts.

The Black base of the Rainbow is a powerful social force that has shown inspiring success in drawing to it other segments of society. This combines with the increasingly class-skewed nature of American elections in general. No more than 50% of the U.S. working class has been voting for decades in this deep alienation from the voting process. The best way to “realign” the Democratic Party would be to start the uphill process of creating a third, independent political party that could pull apart the false class consensus.

The Rainbow Coalition’s attempt to shortchange history through a bloodless coup in the Democratic Party is a tragic miscalculation. The Rainbow plans to hold another conference after the Democratic convention to assess results and to regroup. By then, it will likely be clear that what appeared to be a rainbow in Democratic heavens was little more than low-flying pie in the sky.

November-December 1987, ATC 11

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