What Jackson Built — And Didn’t

Against the Current, No. 15, July/August 1988

Joanna Misnik

SOLIDARITY TAKES NO pleasure in the now apparent failure of the Rainbow Coalition project to become a material reality. Solidarity’s pamphlet, “Jesse Jackson, the Rainbow and the Democratic Party — New Politics or Old,” presents an historically grounded argument against lesser-evilism and attempts by the left and the social movements to “transform” the capitalist Democratic Party into an instrument for radical social change. The full argumentation presented by this pamphlet can&not be repeated in this short contribution. We urge readers of Against the Current to write us for a copy.

Throughout the primary period, Solidarity has been helping to organize public discussions on the meaning of the Jackson campaign and the different strategic visions of it on the left. We have not campaigned in this way because of any self-identification as the “one and true” socialist group. We have vigorously sought comradely exchange among leftists for eminently practical reasons.

However programmatically “imperfect,” the importance of Jackson Action cannot be dismissed or minimized. At bottom, a sizeable segment of the Black and white working population (the minority that votes and the majority that does not) view Jackson’s presidential bid as much more than traditional big-ticket electioneering. They have responded favorably to the defiant qualities m Jackson’s populist appeal — the defiance resident in the legacy of the locked out and the civil rights movement, defiance in the face of corporate greed and anti­human government priorities.

Given the failure of organized labor to mobilize a fightback in the austerity economy, Jackson’s campaign provides one of the few gauges of working-class sentiment and combativity around. The response of white workers and farmers to this Black-led revolt has struck a real blow against racial divisions in our society.

Admittedly, this is an unorganized, atomized, individual pull-the-lever-and-then-go-home protest. The Rainbow Coalition was supposed to be the vehicle for making it into much more — a “permanent progressive movement” uniting the social issues movements with the oppressed and dispossessed both in and out of the ballot box. The NRC was to have been an independent leveraging tool against the Democratic Party. Some saw the Rainbow as a stepping stone to a break from the Democrats; others saw it as a means of hastening the long-illusive “realignment” of the party along the lines of the mythicized New Deal coalition.

What happened? The Rainbow as an organization has faded (or been pushed) into the background, lost to the giddiness of the Michigan landslide, the primary numbers game and the drive to force “respect” from party powerfuls. Jackson Action went behind the scenes, negotiating demands on the platform committee and the convention as a whole that are exclusively backed by Jackson’s score in the voting booth and the reward allegedly due such a score.

Boxed In

There is no cause for smugness on the part of those who did not join the Rainbow. The genuine potential for beginning to build an independent, radical political (and, yes, electoral) alternative surfaced by the Jackson campaign is being misdirected and dissipated. This leaves us all in a weakened condition for the battles ahead, and they will come no matter which party wins.

Had a real rank-and-file Rainbow been built as a membership organization separate and distinct from the political calendar of Democratic Party presidential politics, it would have had a different objective dynamic than that of the 1988 Jackson campaign. It would have offered the possibility of lively political debate on strategy and a genuine unification of the social movements that would have pushed in an independent direction.

At this juncture, such a development was and is conditional on some sector of the Black elected officialdom deciding to at least tactically break with dependency on the Democratic Party and mobilize its base along more militant lines. In the absence of such a perspective on the part of the Black political leaders, those components of the Rainbow that had a more radical agenda did not have sufficient social weight to swing the campaign away from a classically insider strategy.

We contend that the Democratic Party cannot be “transformed” by presenting it with a pile of votes for “our” program-even Jackson’s impressive pile of nearly 7 million-and expect it to respect that vote. In the end, it is not a new progressive movement that is confronting the Democratic Party with its demands.

The loyal Black vote, energized by the Jackson campaign and pivotal for the Democrats to take the South in November, makes Democratic leaders anxious to observe proper protocol. More conservative Democrats hope to secure an unquestioning Black loyalty in order that a Dukakis/Bensten ticket can more comfortably lure back Southern white voters who have strayed into the Republican camp during the Reagan years.

The pressure is on, and it’s not a pretty sight. The Rainbow left must now go into contortions in order to snatch victory from the jaws of the inevitable. The logic of making the Democratic Party “our party” now means support to Michael Dukakis in November. That’s what Jackson’s call for “expanding the party and empowering the common people” will boil down to in the concrete. Jackson has already somewhat unilaterally announced to the press that Rainbow preoccupations this fall will be more massive voter registration to get out the vote (for the Duke) and establishing a Jackson Action Political Action Committee to fund progressive Democratic candidates.

As we have stressed, the locked out have just been boxed in. And not just because Jesse Jackson didn’t get enough votes, despite the mammoth efforts of Rainbow activists. But because the Democratic Party cannot and will not run on Jackson’s program or hand over the reins of decision-making to the Jackson army. The crescending chorus, “We’ve made a good start but watch us in 1992,” tragically misses the point.

Succinctly put: the U.S. capitalist system is in a spiraling crisis. The cost of that crisis is being placed squarely on the backs of the laboring population in deference to the need to raise profit margins and restore U.S. competitiveness on the world market. A Democratic administration, if it comes to the White House in 1988, is no less committed to this social program than the Republicans.

The Rainbow left has been disarmed by a fatal illusion. It accepts the self-serving explanation offered by Democratic Party myth-makers that we are suffering the effects of “Reaganism.” Supporting Dukakis will now be justified in the name of the need to oust right-wing “Reaganism” from government and save the day by ushering in a new “ism” under the banner of the Democrats. This illogic ignores the bipartisan consensus that “Reaganism” has by and large enjoyed.

Quietly, while the ballyhoo of the primaries has been played out, a Democratic-controlled legislature has been doggedly pursuing a program for “capitalist recovery” that was begun under the Carter administration, well before Reagan and his ideologues came to ascendancy in the Republican Party, let alone the White House. This program rests on cutting social programs, building up imperialist military might, and enshrining supply-side giveaways to the corporations as the way of life for this epoch. All this with hardly a glance back at Jackson Action in the polling booth.

There are, to be sure, differences between the two capitalist parties that may make themselves felt in the post-Reagan era. The Democrats tend to represent a sector of capital that is concerned about how deeply the social safety net has been slashed. This sector is farsighted enough to know that going too far in immiserating the working class can prove self-defeating to resuscitating their system.

But any disagreements about how to manage the crisis are entirely secondary to the austerity and interventionist foreign policy accord between the two parties. We can safely predict now that a Michael Dukakis presidency is not the means to undoing Reaganism; it will just be repackaged.

The Rainbow claim that Jackson’s campaign pushed the political debate to the left is only partially true. Particularly after Michigan, Dukakis and Gore were converted into “full employment Democrats” and adapted their rhetoric to undercut Jackson’s “common ground” success story. Most recently, Dukakis has responded to Jackson’s tireless hammering and pledged to work to get South Africa declared a terrorist state — one of the key planks Jackson has sought to include in the 1988 platform.

Unfortunately, this type of hypocritical politicking is as American as apple pie. The response to Jackson’s program did serve as a barometer of voter expectations that couldn’t be ignored. Walter Mondale and Bruce Babbitt had already discovered that telling “the real economic truth,” capitalist version, to working people just isn’t a good vote- getting technique.

As Samuel Bowles, David Gordon and Thomas Weisskopf, radical economists helping out on the Jackson campaign, wrote in the April 16,1988, Nation: “Leading Democratic Party figures have not yet presented a persuasive case that the party will be able to do right for the poor and working people and also make the economic arithmetic reckon. … The Democrats must reconcile the old-time, social-justice religion with the new-age, fiscal austerity creed.” In other words, in the age of capitalist crisis, the “lesser-evil” capitalist party is lesser and lesser.

Realpolitik and Self-Delusion

The schizophrenia inherent in the Rainbow project is illustrated by the flap around the V.P. slot. If the truth be told, no sector of the Rainbow wanted Jackson on that ticket.

Those who see the Rainbow as synonymous with the project of internal party realignment-and that includes most of the Black elected officials-have long-term loyalty to consider. They do not want to be held responsible for a Republican victory, a disloyal act indeed. So they acquiesce, though not out loud, to the “non-electability” argument.

After the national media had left town, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, a pronounced Dukakis supporter, helped to soberly adjust the Michigan delegation and substantially reduce Jackson’s 55% in the second rung of the selection process. This type of cautious outlook is at least grounded in the realpolitik. The Democratic Party is not a protest movement and never has been.

For the radical Rainbow, a Jackson vice-presidency would be a disaster. Jackson, the champion of the dispossessed and economically victimized, would find himself helping to administer an austerity-ridden, saber-rattling, old-fashioned capitalist government.

In some of the left press, the theory that the Rainbow has won itself a respected place (that it would be suicidal for Jackson himself to take) in the high counsels of the new Democratic government has assumed alarming self-delusionary proportions.

Wish lists of appointments and dream Cabinets have begun to appear, to be backed by the threat that Jesse and folks will “walk” if they’re not given their rightful opportunity to be pro-people, anti-profit representatives in the next capitalist government. (See, for example, articles by Michael Albert and Holly Sklar in the June issue of Zeta.)

Writing in the April 2, 1988, Nation, Andrew Kopkind takes this delusion to the extreme, explaining: “It is possible that a new kind of coalition party and coalition government could emerge with the Rainbow groups constituting a permanent progressive/populist ‘tendency’ within a popular partnership of Democrats.” Jackson has recently begun to tum the question of “What does Jesse want?” around to “What did Jesse build?” In his mind, the answer to that is that he “rebuilt the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and a movement to shift to humane priorities at home and human rights abroad.” (New York Times, June 19, 1988.)

Build the Movements

We do not share the criticisms of some on the left who state categorically that Jackson’s campaign “destroyed” the independent mass movements, or “counterposed” itself to them. In the first place, there weren’t any “mass movements” in the real sense of the term. Most social activists who participated in the campaign did not completely junk the ongoing work of independent committees and movements to which they belong.

Jackson’s run was contradictory. The Jackson campaign both misdirected hopes with its strategy toward the Democratic Party and hedged its bets by encouraging independent, self-reliant protests, strikes and mobilizations on many fronts.

On the other hand, we do not agree with Jackson’s contention that his campaign “created a new permanent force” in U.S. politics. A movement to “shift to humane priorities at home and human rights abroad” can achieve permanence and exert real power to shift the relation of social forces only if it is independent of the Democratic Party; only if it eludes the standing offer of the liberal capitalist party to “include” our concerns in order to bury them.

The whole history of twentieth century protest testifies to this. The U.S. working class and the oppressed do not have a political party that represents them. There is no skirting this fact by pointing to a rebirth of some Democratic “progressive wing” that, translated, only means captivity.

The Jackson campaign showed the potential for social fight-back and made us all, supporters or not, much more optimistic and confident. The media-created “Reagan Era” never was. If Jackson were to “walk” and run as an independent in November, we believe this would be the beginning of a whole new political day in the United States.

Though small and struggling, a new progressive movement, based in the Black community with allies in the trade-union and social movements, could really be launched. Jackson might lose the “respect” of the Democrats, but he would gain the course of history.

Though Solidarity is not a part of the Rainbow because of our opposition to working in the Democratic Party, we do not feel distanced from the thousands of activists who worked for Jackson thinking that this would hasten urgently needed social change. We look forward to continued discussion about the strategy for our empowerment, especially after the promised Rainbow post-Atlanta convention.

Still more important, we look forward to working together for our mutual social goals in whatever independent protest movements and national coalitions will be needed against the actions of the Bush or Dukakis government.

July-August 1988, ATC 15

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