The Rainbow and the Democrats After Atlanta

Against the Current No. 16, September-October 1988

The Editors

BY THE END OF THE 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, a new politics and a new coalition of forces were in command of the post-Reagan Democratic Party. It wasn’t the Rainbow Coalition. At the heart of the real politics to emerge from the 1988 Democratic Convention were a new “centrist” alliance between the neo-liberals of the North and West and the neo-Dixiecrats. Michael Dukakis, the cool suburban-bred technocrat, and Lloyd Bentsen, the cool Tory-bred millionaire, reflect the two trends that anchor this long-converging alliance.

On the one hand, there is the new generation of post-Watergate and post-Great Society Democrats with no ties to the Black community, labor or any of the social movements. Generally known as neo-liberals, they might better be called post-liberals. On the other hand, there are the post-segregation Dixiecrats, shorn of the old lynch-mob lingo, but conservative in domestic and foreign policy. The power of this post-liberal/Dixiecrat axis stems from its shared domination of a majority of the nation’s state houses, state party organizations and of the committee structure of both houses of Congress.

With the ascendance of the post-lib/Dixiecrat axis, came a national election strategy that both groups have favored since the defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984. Formulated before the last presidential election by arch-conservative Democrat Samuel Huntington, this strategy for winning a national majority concentrates on those white “swing voters” who abandoned the Democratic ticket in 1980 and 1984 to vote for Reagan.

The selection of Lloyd Bentsen is meant to send the message to the “swing voters” that the Democratic Party has not been captured by the populist forces assembled by Jesse Jackson or other objectionable “special interests” like labor or the women’s movement. The strategy takes for granted that the urban Black vote in all regions will be carried by the Black mayors and their machines. It thus assumes Black dependence, panders to white racism, and undercuts much of the multiracial unity that Jackson’s campaign message sought to promote.

The Dukakis-Bentsen ticket is also designed to send a message to those who finance U.S. elections as well: the capitalist class. The Wall Street Journal says Bentsen “is a safe Southerner with ties to the national business community.” It might be more accurate to say Bentsen is hog-tied to the corporate elite. He is America’s number one PAC recipient. As a member of the Senate Finance Committee he has done countless favors for business, including supporting Reagan’s 1981 tax bill.

Dukakis himself represents those post-liberals responding to capital’s demands in a climate of economic crisis. Theirs is a policy ensemble rehearsed in states like Massachusetts, New York and Michigan by Democrats and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey by Republicans. Many of their key ideas and prescriptions are embodied in the Cuomo Commission Report. These post-liberals reject programs that redistribute income downward in favor of “partnerships” with and “leveraged” incentives to business. They favor workfare for the nation’s poorest. Their concern about education and daycare stems from business worries over “rigid” labor markets that inhibit the supply of low-wage, entry labor. They do not propose to undo the regressive tax code of the Reagan era, but rather, as the Cuomo Commission Report advocates nationally, more cuts for business and a regressive value-added tax for the rest of us.

They do not propose cutting the bloated Reagan defense budget, but restraining its growth and redirecting its funds toward high-tech conventional weaponry. Dukakis’ “Massachusetts Miracle” is, in fact, the result of the disproportionate amount of military spending in his region combined with relatively low wages and declining unionism. But it’s no miracle. Massachusetts has lost 79,000 manufacturing jobs since 1984. In Black Roxbury, unemployment is 12%, 50% for youth-the same as the national averages. Union membership in the state has dropped by 25% since 1982.

A collection of Carter administration retreads and one Reagan reject advise Dukakis on foreign affairs. These Cold Warriors of varying degrees of fanaticism have guided Duke’s post-primary ride on the hawk There is also the post-liberal line, given the Reaganesque title of Convention ~J Defense Initiative (CDI) by Dukakis, that what we need are more sophisticated weapons of the kind we can actually use. This emphasis on usable conventional weapons, however, does not prevent the Duke from favoring Trident 2 DS submarine­launched nuclear missiles, cruise missiles and the stealth bomber. As for the future of the Palestinians under a Dukakis-Bentsen Administration: What Palestinians? Where? The Duke sees only the state of Israel and likes what he sees.

It Wasn’t Supposed To Happen This Way

In spite of the impressive rebellion mounted by the Jackson forces and the symbolic recognition of their existence, the Democratic Party has continued its long trek to the right and is firmly controlled at almost all levels by those who have led this forced march.

On the face of it, the 1988 convention should have produced a different result Jesse Jackson had won nearly seven million votes. What is more important, Jackson had helped to reveal a constituency for far-reaching political and social change. Its backbone, of course, was in the Black community. But even measured by the primary turnouts Jackson doubled his white vote over 1984. At the height of the primary contest, Jackson was pulling 35% of the union household vote, compared to 25% in 1984. The packinghouse workers from Austin to Cudahy and the paperworkers from Maine to Alabama who stumped for Jackson represented a new force moving left.

At the convention itself, the Jackson camp commanded over 1,200 delegates. Organized labor claimed over a thousand, 300 in the Jackson camp. The women’s organizations were strongly in evidence and, for the first time, the gay and lesbian movements had a visible presence. But in the end, the new “unity” of the Democrats was built firmly on the terms of the post-liberal/Dixiecrat axis. What seemed like a constituency for a new populism voted two-to-one against those Jackson-sponsored platform amendments allowed to come to the floor fora vote.

The Jackson camp was given a token fifteen seats on the 400-member Democratic National Committee (DNC). Asif to remind them of their limited role in party affairs, battle-proven anti-Jacksonite, Paul Kirk, was renamed chair of the DNC. To underscore the point, Jackson supporter New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy was made a vice-chair of the DNC with the specifically limited assignment of voter registration and turnout.

Jackson himself will probably be minister-without-portfolio of registration and turnout. Jackson, of course, has a demonstrated ability in this area. And new registration ties in with his own strategy of broadening the voting base in hopes of influencing the party’s direction. Yet the Jackson camp is being asked and has agreed to increase voter turnout in the context of a strategy over which they have no say, no matter how many new Black or Latino voters are registered.

What’s in It for The Left?

By no stretch of the imagination can the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket be conceived of as remotely progressive. Yet, for the moment, it retains the support of the only mass electoral force in recent history to have a left trajectory-the Jackson campaign.

There are two types of argument advanced by leftists and socialists for staying in the Democratic Party at this point. The first is pure lesser-evilism, a self-perpetuating mode of operation that ensures the left’s political irrelevance. The second, long-term, strategic argument maintains that the gains registered by the 1988 Jackson campaign in votes, delegates and recognition, make a future Jackson campaign even more viable and perhaps successful.

Maybe. But at what price? Loyal support of the party’s candidates is the price of admission for Jackson to become an accepted, if ghettoized, member of the party’s visible leadership. Whatever Jackson and his supporters personally think, they are the captives of the forces they fought through June. For Jackson to seek and accept a “role” within the Democratic leadership also means abandoning his status as an outsider, which allowed him, as opposed to any of the Black politicians, to mount two rebellions against the leadership and direction of the party.

Jackson himself doesn’t have to settle for crumbs. Unlike Black mayors in many cities, Jackson isn’t an officeholder trying to administer cities falling apart under the impact of capitalist crisis. His own incorporation into the party’s machinery is semi-voluntary–a response partly to ideology, partly to the desires of the Black officeholders who do rely on the Democratic Party for their personal political survival-and it is not complete.

Nonetheless, as Jackson is integrated into a “responsible” if junior leadership role, bringing his base with him, he is rendered as harmless as those Black mayors and labor leaders who gained a place in the party years ago. This long-term strategy of changing the party from within does not merely face the danger of co­optation, it is a design for co-optation.

The Democratic Party exists to elect candidates who accept the priorities of the system, not to raise consciousness, formulate bold economic programs or dismantle U.S. imperialism. Its themes are social harmony at home and U.S. competitiveness and power abroad. Its election contests with the Republicans are not forums for great ideas but exercises in media manipulation. When you campaign for Dukakis-Bentsen, you are campaigning on their terms for their politics, no matter what you say to yourself or your close friends. You respect the need to measure or silence your own views at those crucial times, such as general elections, when the public is listening.

You can be a rebel in this party, but you will be marginalized as the Mississippi Freedom Democrats were in 1964, the “New Politics” movement after 1972 and Jackson in 1984. Or you can play the statesman and adapt. But you can’t have it both ways because the power relations within the party structures are too unequal.

If, as now seems the case, Jackson adapts to the rules of the game, those forces that supported him will again become leaderless, co-opted into accepting the ever present “lesser of two evils.” The National Rainbow Coalition left an empty shell. The inspiring vision of the Rainbow lost in the post-liberal/Dixiecrat compromise. The Jackson campaigns and the Rainbow concept gave a glimpse of hope. A Dukakis-Bentsen-Bush-Quayle contest promises to cloud over that Rainbow hope in an overcast of mud-slinging and post-liberal techno-babble.

There is a potential Rainbow alternative. Jackson could be urged to break with the Democrats and create a new Rainbow political force. Not just an electoral campaign, but a massive campaign in the streets around the issues that motivate the Jackson constituencies, the social movements and, we believe, millions of working-class people of all races who have never voted or demonstrated because they saw no hope.

Whatever small chance might have existed to press Jackson toward an independent course was lost when the left wing of his activist base declined to organize and argue for that option. With no counter pressure against the party Black political establishment, there was no serious debate over his options-a lost opportunity.

So, the Rainbow left can go the lesser evil road to nowhere and share the responsibility for the high-tech austerity a Dukakis-Bentsen victory will bring. It can claim to itself that it helped send George Bush to a richly deserved retirement in Kennebunkport. But what will it really have to show for its support of the post-liberal/Dixiecrat axis? If the left cannot find a genuine left electoral alter­ native in 1988, it can at least advance its independence, principles and unity on the turf available to it and hit the streets. No honeymoon for Dukakis or Bush!

September-October 1988, ATC 16

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