From Locked Out to Locked In?

Against the Current, No. 14, May/June 1988

The Editors

JESSE JACKSON’S SMASHING electoral victory in the Michigan caucuses and his impressive showings in the subsequent Wisconsin and New York primaries are important signs that conditions for the revival of left politics in the United States are significantly improving. They are therefore cause for optimism. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Jesse Jackson’s campaign, which voices, with ever fewer doubts and qualifications daily, the goal of building a Black and progressive block inside the Democratic Party.

This strategy has the uncritical support of much of the left. But it is bound to disappoint the hopes for greater power and improved conditions of Jackson’s own “locked out” constituencies of Blacks, poor, and working people; to frustrate the political aims of the majority of Rainbow activists; and to rechannel, still another time, important opposition sentiment back into the political mainstream.

What the Vote for Jackson Means

In voting for Jackson in the primaries, large numbers of white workers and farmers were willing, for the first time in U.S. history, to support a Black presidential candidate in order to express their backing for a program that speaks to their interests. In 1984, Jackson’s vote came almost exclusively from Blacks. But, by the spring of 1988, he had significantly expanded his base.

In Michigan, Jackson drew powerful backing from discontented factory workers. In Connecticut and Wisconsin, something like 20 percent of the white vote went for Jackson, and this included numerous workers from striking picket lines that Jackson had walked. By the New York primary Jackson was no longer merely a protest candidate. The political establishment and mass media exerted enormous pressure upon the electorate not to “waste” their votes. Even so, 15 percent of white voters still backed Jackson — perhaps five times the proportion who did so in 1984.

These totals remain small in absolute terms. Nevertheless, they constitute a hopeful sign that white workers in the United States are beginning to confront the racism that, historically, has been perhaps the greatest cause of their disunity and weakness against the employers.

The large vote for Jackson also shows that many people are fed up with the Democratic Party establishment and want to voice a protest. In a recent editorial, Against the Current argued that we are witnessing the opening of a new political period, which will contain a whole range of new opportunities. Ronald Reagan and the right-wing forces he helped bring to power have suffered a lengthening series of defeats, which started with the Republicans’ setback in the 1986 elections, continued through the fiasco of Contragate and the defeat of Robert Bork for the Supreme Court, and culminated, in recent months, in the Central American peace accords and the stock market crash. These developments, taken together, give evidence not only of weakness inside the present administration, but disarray and confusion within the political establishment more broadly. In their wake, the big turnouts for Jackson demonstrate that workers, oppressed people, and liberal and radical activists are increasingly confident that the right-wing steamroller has broken down and that the time is ripe to initiate struggle for more progressive political alternatives. But what alternative can Jackson offer?

Commitment to the Democrats

As Jackson’s campaign has become more successful, the candidate has made his commitment to the Democratic Party and its mainstream ever more explicit and ever more unqualified. Indeed, Jackson has sought to assume the image of the candidate most devoted to party unity.

Even worse, Jackson has taken major steps to trim his program to the pattern demanded by the party establishment. At a time when the Central American peace initiative was exposing contra aid as U.S. intervention, Jackson warned the Sandinistas that they face hostility from the United States if they continue to depend on the Russians.

At a time when the Palestinian people were in massive revolt against Israeli occupation and when the U.S. Jewish community was more profoundly split than ever before over Israeli policy, Jackson came out against negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, although he has since partly retracted this line. At a time when racist attacks against Blacks have become more open and perhaps more frequent, Jackson has concluded that we can move on to tackle economic violence, because we have already conquered racial violence.

Unfortunately, these political moves cannot be dismissed as aberrations, for they follow all too directly from Jackson’s own strategy and from the logic of Democratic Party campaigning more generally.

It is obvious that by making his commitment to the party increasingly strong and by moderating his policies and programs, Jackson improves his chances of gaining the sanction, if not the active support, of the party’s political establishment and of eliciting funds from moderately liberal sources of campaign finance.

And the fact is that, as Jackson has made himself increasingly acceptable, much of the top Democratic leadership has welcomed him into the party’s mainstream–no doubt hoping to co-opt and to domesticate him–and wealthy Democrats from such liberal strongholds as Los Angeles’ West Side have offered him substantial contributions. Of course, as Jackson successfully seeks legitimacy in the eyes of the party and wins greater resources from the liberal establishment, he relinquishes something of his image as rebel and outsider-but he also gamers many more votes.

Jackson’s moves toward the Democratic mainstream also conform to the strategy of Jackson’s most important allies, who are drawn from among the leading Black elected officials. In 1984, many of them initially feared Jackson and refused to support him. But since then, they have come to realize that Jackson’s strategy of constructing a powerful Black and progressive force to influence the party coincides with their own Today, Black establishment political forces dominate Jackson’s campaign and, broadly speaking, the Rainbow Coalition.

Finally, Jackson voices ever stronger support for the Democrats and their politics simply because his entire political approach, in both the short and long run, is premised upon politics within the party. As he has now explicitly stated on scores of occasions, often to his own most militant followers within the Rainbow, the Democratic Party is “our” party and, despite its flaws, an invaluable instrument of the oppressed that should not be discarded. It is by influencing the party from within that Jackson seeks to achieve his goals for American politics and society.

But if Jackson’s campaign is Democratic through and through and involves a long-term commitment to the party, where does that leave the great mass of­ Jackson’s supporters?

After the Primaries

Jesse Jackson will not be the Democratic presidential nominee. Even if Jackson had won more of the primaries, the party’s decision-making circles would not have nominated him. This is because they are devoted to winning above all else and are convinced that Jackson is not electable, mostly because he is Black, and partly because his politics are on the party’s far left.

In fact, it is virtually certain that, in order to win middle-of-the-road voters, the Democrats will nominate, to run with Michael Dukakis as its vice-presidential candidate, a party moderate from the South or West.

It is possible, though far from certain, that Jackson will demand and receive significant concessions on paper in the party program. Should he do so, he may cause Dukakis and the party some discomfort and embarrassment in their attempt to run a cautious and moderate campaign. But the fact is that the party’s convention platform has no binding effect on its actual policy or for that matter even on its candidate and his campaign.

One thing is therefore clear: Jackson will fail, in practice, to move the party one inch away from its defining commitments — to austerity and to imperialism.

To restate a fundamental reality, which this magazine has sought to stress: as the capitalist economic crisis worsens, the Democratic Party, committed as it is to capitalist property and to the primacy of profitability as the mainspring of production, sees little choice but to remain committed to its traditional domestic and foreign policy.

At home, it seeks to cut living standards as the way to cut costs in order to increase competitiveness and elicit investment. Abroad, it aims to project U.S. military and political power on a world scale in order to ensure the protection of manufacturing and raw-material capital­ ism in the increasingly unstable developing countries.

Needless to say, these are formulas for further decay in public services, educational opportunities, medical care and welfare programs; for intensified assaults on wages, union rights and working conditions; and for U.S. direct or indirect intervention in the Third World from Central America to the Middle East.

Although the Democratic Party will in1988thusrepudiate,implicitly or explicitly, everything Jackson says he stands for, Jackson and his allies in the Black political establishment will undoubtedly call upon their supporters to back the Democratic ticket. This is so for two main reasons.

First, as loyal Democrats, Jackson and the Black elected officials are committed to the party’s winning the presidency at almost any cost, for this is the single greatest prize in American politics. They are therefore more or less fully committed to the Democratic Party electoral logic of moving to the right in the presidential election in order to compete with the Republicans for the in the middle, on the realistic assumption that liberal and left voters will have no choice but to vote Democratic. It is in deference to this sort of reasoning that Jackson and his allies have stated more or less explicitly that Jackson will not push for the vice-presidential nomination and may even moderate his demands for concessions on the platform at the Convention. Second, and perhaps even more important, Jackson and his supporters have no choice but to accept what the Democratic Convention decides, because, despite their massive success in winning votes and delegates in the primaries, they have very little power to compel the acceptance of their own program.

Why? For the simple reason that their strategy commits them – -openly and emphatically — not to break from the party. Since they cannot credibly threaten to split and to take their followers with them unless the party meets their demands, the party has no reason to give in to them, for it knows that it will receive their support no matter what.

One certain upshot of the Jackson campaign, therefore, will be to once again line up the votes of Blacks, Latinos and working people for the party. This has been the defining predicament of the labor officialdom, which has pursued a similar policy of leveraging the party for more than fifty years but has always ended up by being leveraged by it.

But, if Jackson and the Black politicians who constitute the leadership of the Rainbow seek to bring the mass of their followers into line behind the Democratic candidate and, implicitly, the party’s pro-imperialist, pro-austerity politics, what will be the response of the Rainbow left?

The Left Inside the Rainbow?

A significant section of the left entered the Rainbow with the intention of using it to rebuild the mass struggles, to forge alliances among the different movements, and to get across a reasonably progressive message. However, as we enter the run up to the Atlanta convention, these activists face the prospect of having been used by, much more than having used, the Rainbow Coalition.

These radicals have provided much of the dynamism, and indeed a significant part of the organization, for the Jackson electoral effort. Nevertheless, in view of the stranglehold fastened by Jackson and the Black political establishment on the leadership of the campaign and on the Rainbow, these leftists have found it very difficult to use the Rainbow organization as an instrument for movement — building and radicalization.

Their task has become all the more formidable as the overwhelming pressure to try to elect Jackson in the primaries has forced them to put aside all other tasks, making it impossible to organize inside the Rainbow for a different sort of Rainbow than the current leadership desires.

The Rainbow left has consistently asserted that they can use the Rainbow to build a following, to radicalize it and, on that basis, ultimately to split the Rainbow from the Democrats.

Against the Current has, in contrast, argued that the worthwhile goal of breaking up the party so as to make possible effective independent political action cannot be achieved by the Rainbow left’s method of using the party, or the Rainbow inside the party. This is simply because the powerful social forces that control the party — and the Rainbow — will not allow it and because the machinery through which the party and the Rainbow are organized prevents it.

The left of the Rainbow now faces a fundamental challenge to its entire strategy: how to respond to the inevitable call by Jackson and his allies for unity behind a Democratic ticket, in a situation where the left itself has been able to organize very few forces within the Rainbow in support of its political perspective.

Whether the Rainbow Coalition, or some successor organization, has a future as a social movement rather than merely as an electoral machine may nevertheless depend heavily upon whether the advocates of independent political action inside and around the Jackson campaign can, in the immediate future, in cooperation with potential allies outside, take steps to establish an alternative pole of attraction to lesser-evil electoralism.

How can this be done? At least a part of the answer is, as always, to sustain the independent mass activity of social-protest movements, which traditionally fade at election time and are, indeed, traditionally subordinated to the requirements of election campaigns.

The struggle against U.S. intervention in Central American must not slacken, but intensify, following the Nicaraguan truce, for the administration will be doing everything it can not only to undermine the peace accords but to subvert the Sandinista government. A public outcry is needed, too, in defense of the Palestinian uprising against the massive power of the Israeli occupation. Also, the growing response to racist violence in U.S. communities and campuses must be sustained and made more militant and effective.

All of these issues are obvious priorities for radical activists. But a struggle to make them public, central, practical issues for the Jackson campaign and the Rainbow Coalition will meet the determined opposition of Jackson and the Democratic Rainbow leadership. The best way, in other words, for the Rainbow left to begin to achieve its long-term goal of building a feasible political alternative is to seek to hold the Rainbow Coalition to its own fundamental strategy: building the mass movements of workers, Blacks, Latinos and women.

May-June 1988, ATC 14

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