The case for a neo-Rainbow electoral strategy
By Danny Glover & Bill Fletcher, Jr.
The frustrations of the 2004 election results, and the disappointment with the Kerry Presidential campaign has led many Left and Progressive activists to seek new solutions to the quandary of the struggle for power in the USA. It is within this context that a new or revised approach to electoral politics must be considered. In this case, an approach that derives to a great extent from the Rainbow insurgency of the 1980s, including the 1984 and 1988 Presidential campaigns of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, as well as the initial building of the National Rainbow Coalition . The approach that Rev. Jackson offeredâ€”building an organization and campaign both inside and outside the Democratic Partyâ€”points progressives in the direction we should be advancing. In suggesting this approach, we do so recognizing the failure of the Rainbow movement of the 1980s to live up to its potential.
Lessons from the Rainbow
The Rainbow Coalition movement and the Jackson â€™84 and â€™88 presidential campaigns were about far more than Jesse Jackson. One may need to be reminded that prior to 1983 there was a degree of growing distrust in Rev. Jackson in many quarters, in part because of the perception of him as jumping from issue to issue, raising a flag, and then disappearing to surface on yet another front. Yet, in 1983, arose the call for â€œRun, Jesse, Run,â€ in cities across the USA.
Although to many people on the ground it appeared as if the call for â€œRun, Jesse, Runâ€ came from nowhere, the reality is that Jackson had a well-developed national base. This base was the result of Jacksonâ€™s work in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the formation of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in the early 1970s, the campaigns in which he involved himself (e.g., Save Black Colleges movement) as well as his activity in the international arena. Thus, the emergence of Rev. Jackson-the-person as a presidential candidate should not have been surprising.
That said, it is critical to note that the emergence of Rev. Jackson took place within the context of a larger Black-led electoral upsurge which witnessed campaigns such as the successful Harold Washington run for Mayor of Chicago to the unsuccessful, but no less inspiring Mel King campaign for Mayor of Boston. These campaigns were both a reaction to the early years of the Reagan/Bush administration and its economic attacks on working people and veiled attacks on people of color, as well as being focused around the notion of Black political power in light of the weaknesses of the Civil Rights victories from two decades earlier.
Rev. Jackson seized the moment to speak nationally on behalf of these movements, but he did something even more important than that. He had the vision to articulate a set of politics that while based within the African American experience, did not represent solely a â€œBlack candidacyâ€ or â€œBlack politics.â€ In this sense, his effort went way beyond that suggested by groups such as the National Black Independent Political Party, formed in 1980, to open up a new sphere for Black political intervention.
Instead, Jackson tapped into a growing anger and frustration arising on the US political scene among groups of historically and newly disenfranchised sectors. He spoke to issues of economic injustice while not abandoning the question of race. As such, he did not fall prey to the classic error of white populists who attempt to build unity by only addressing economic issues. Jackson linked these issues. His appearances before white farmers and workers brought forth a response that hitherto had been unpredictable.
Jackson also tapped into three other key constituencies: the African American political establishment, the African American Church and the Left (anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist forces). Jackson, to put it in its bluntest sense, was not a threat to the political base or organization of established Black politicians. By seeking to operate at the national level, and specifically at the level of the presidency, he was not infringing on the sphere of other elected officials. Thus, established politicians could choose to hitch their wagons to Jackson, or remain separate, depending on their specific objectives. The role of the Black political establishment became problematic, particularly as the politics of election year 1988 unfolded.
The Left, on the other hand, became a key force both within the â€™84 campaign, but especially in its aftermath with the construction of the National Rainbow Coalition and the lead up to and actuality of the 1988 Presidential run. Sections of the organized Left, ranging from semi-Maoists through social democrats, as well as countless independent leftists involved themselves in the building of the Rainbow and the respective campaigns. In many cases, key positions in both the Rainbow and the campaigns were occupied by individuals who were of the Left (in some cases very openly). Mike Davis in his famous Prisoners of the American Dream ends the book with a pointed critique of the failure of sections of the Left to understand the importance of the â€™84 Jackson campaign. By â€™88 there was far more involvement by the Left, as individuals and organizations sensed that there was something deeply significant and different about what was unfolding.
Rev. Jackson was additionally able to tap into networks within the Black Church. These networks became major sources for campaign leadership and mobilization across the USA. In the 1984 campaign he was additionally able to tap into the Nation of Islam which, breaking with tradition, became integrally involved in the campaign in its earlier stages.
What was sensed by sections of the Left, as well as other social forces, was that the Rainbow Coalition and Jackson presidential candidacies suggested a means for progressive forces to involve themselves in real world politics that were connected to a fight for power. No one expected Jackson to receive the Democratic Party nomination, let alone win the presidency, but the power of the movement and the potential for something longer lasting signaled the importance of this initiative.
As obvious as it may seem, it is worth adding that the significance of this movement was also to be found in it emerging explicitly out of the African American peopleâ€™s movement. Thus, this effort was not one with which many of us have become familiar, i.e., a liberal or progressive white candidate stepping forward with people of color being add-ons. The campaign was Black-led, but was remarkably inclusive of non-Blacks. And, as noted earlier, it was not a traditional protest candidacy, nor a candidacy engaged solely in symbolic politics. The entire Rainbow movement, including the â€™84 and â€™88 campaigns, had very specific political objectives. These objectives were not always consistent, it should be noted. Within the Rainbow movement and the candidacies existed different agendas; sometimes overlapping, other times clashing. In either case, these were agendas that went far beyond simply shouting against racism and exclusion.
Let us add a final point. The Rainbow movement and candidacies had both the strength and the weakness of possessing a charismatic leader. Rev. Jackson is an outstanding leader and speaker, and succeeded in capturing the imagination of millions of people. Swift, humorous, well read, outspoken, and a master at timing, Rev. Jackson served as the maximum leader for the movement. In doing so, however, he did not consistently practice the approach taken toward leadership by his mentor, the Rev. Martin Luther King. King felt comfortable surrounding himself with very intelligent, independent-minded individuals. He did not feel threatened by this. Jackson, on the other hand, seemed insecure when he was not in the limelight. Many of his most loyal and hard-working supporters found themselves excluded from decision-making if they somehow seemed to out-shine Jackson himself. Loyalty, in the Rainbow movement, came to be based on personal loyalty to Jackson himself, rather than loyalty to the movement and its objectives. Understanding this helps one to understand the factors that influenced the Rainbow Coalition crisis of March 1989. For many people, including significant leaders in the Rainbow movement, silence rather than open disagreement with Rev. Jackson was seen as the best course of action in the face of differences of opinion.
Disappointment & Dilemma
In a fateful gathering of the Executive Board of the National Rainbow Coalition in Chicago during March of 1989, the Rev. Jesse Jackson sealed the fate of the movement that had emerged from his two presidential campaigns. In a move that shocked and outraged many of his most loyal supporters, Rev. Jackson turned the National Rainbow Coalitionâ€”the core of his movementâ€”into a personal political operation. All hope of a nation-wide mass, democratic progressive political/electoral formation faded almost immediately. Most local Rainbow Coalitions, with a few notable exceptions, such as Vermont, Alabama (which had already become the â€œAlabama New South Coalitionâ€) and New Jersey, devolved into oblivion. Irrespective of Rev. Jacksonâ€™s continued progressive rhetoric, the political strategy that he had originally advanced was abandoned. Many of the most dedicated Rainbow activists turned their backs on Rev. Jackson, and in some cases electoral politics altogether.
In the wake of Rev. Jacksonâ€™s coup against himself, so to speak, and the implosion of Rainbow politics, alternative views and strategies relative to progressive electoral and mass initiatives began to surface. These included:
â€¢ The former agricultural commissioner from Texas, Jim Hightower, advanced a proposal for a â€œDemocratic-Populist Allianceâ€ to fill the void left by the collapse of the Jackson Rainbow.
â€¢ The late, long-time fiery trade union leader Tony Mazzocchi, one time Secretary-Treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) pressed forward with the notion of the need for a Labor Party. Galvanizing thousands of trade union activists, the Labor Party was formed in the late 1990s.
â€¢ Suggesting a unique and provocative approach to electoral politics, Dan Cantor and Joel Rogers advanced a proposal for a fusion approach to politicsâ€”later undermined by a Supreme Court decision in 1997â€”whereby independent parties could achieve a separate voting line while votes for said party could also be used to support parties endorsed by the smaller independent party.
â€¢ Former National Rainbow Coalition Executive Director Ron Daniels decided to make a run as an independent for the presidency in 1992, attempting to base himself largely among dissatisfied African-American voters.
â€¢ The populist Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) during the 1980s and early 1990s flirted with establishing their own political presence, reminding activists of the history of the Midwest Non-Partisan Leagues of the early 20th century.
â€¢ The Green Party emerged on the local level often successfully running for municipal and county positions on a progressive platform.
While it is the case that these and other efforts, to varying degrees, contributed to advancing discussions concerning independent progressive political action, and some efforts more than others gained degrees of momentum, an honest appraisal would probably conclude that the balance sheet has not been favorable. This is true irrespective of intent, commitment and vision. Something has seemed to have been missing. The easiest answer, of course, is that there has not been someone of the stature of Rev. Jackson to lead such a new political movement, but such an analysis is superficial at best. It also misses the fact that we can do something now to introduce a new political practice.
The failure of post-Rainbow electoral initiatives
Time and space do not permit an exhaustive examination of the failure of each post-Rainbow electoral initiative. The failures had certain things in common, but largely failed on their own terms.
Among the problems shared in common, however, the conjuncture has been an important fact, i.e., understanding the political moment. The Jackson campaigns emerged under specific conditions, including the Reagan/Bush era, the demise of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and, as noted earlier and most especially, the Black-led electoral upsurge. Such conditions provided a popular energy reserve that cannot be invented out of thin air. While this does not mean that a Jackson-like movement cannot reemerge, it does mean that understanding the moment is always key in politics and that movements cannot simply be replicated, irrespective of the lessons drawn.
The importance of race and the political movements of people of color is an additional issue which is often overlooked. Certainly Ron Danielsâ€™ campaign understood race, but it failed to galvanize much of a mass response for other reasons. Most other efforts, however, have failed to appreciate the centrality of race as a central factor in the US political scene. Race is not simply an add-on any more than people of color should be. Race largely defines US capitalism and has since its founding. Thus, attempts to address US politics, issues of economic injustice, etc., in the absence of understanding race, inevitably fail. Certainly the collapse of the Populist movement at the tail end of the 19th century should be an example for all those interested in the future of progressive electoral politics. Yet, despite this historical rhetoric, white liberals, white progressives and all too many white leftists fail to grasp this lesson, evidenced in the practice of most union organizing, community organizing as well as various populist political efforts.
Related to race is the issue of a base among communities of color. The Rainbow movement not only addressed race as a programmatic and thematic point, but having a base among African Americans, this movement gained a certain moral authority to challenge the collective injustice of US society. Other sectors rallied to this movement in large part because it was so rooted. This was not a movement of the margins, but rather a movement of the dispossessed. The difference is decisive.
Most of the post-Rainbow efforts have failed to grasp the importance of a united front approach to politics. Jackson found a place within his tent for various political forces. As mentioned earlier, the Left, the Black Church as well as Black political establishment could be found within the Rainbow movement. This was not, it should be noted, a relationship of comparable power between these three sectors. The Black political establishment and the Black Church were always in a stronger position vis a vis the Left, but Jackson made overtures to include disparate forces, not allowing the movement to be defined by one specific tendency. His approach, while not as inclusive as Bostonâ€™s Mel King (the person who actually rehabilitated the term â€œRainbow Coalitionâ€ after its disuse for more than a decade), nevertheless included active outreach to and involvement of Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, the womenâ€™s movement, organized labor and the environmental movement. The outreach sought leaders from within those movements with which Jackson could ally.
The failures of most post-Rainbow initiatives for the most part shared an additional fact in common. They failed to appreciate and unite with a central strategic conception of Jacksonâ€™s, a conception that made the Rainbow movement that much more relevant. The Rainbow movement, exercising the legacy of the Non-Partisan Leagues and the Labor Non-Partisan League from the early-to-mid 20th century, was an effort both within the Democratic Party but as well existing independently. It is the latter factor that made the Rainbow so unsettling to the Democratic Party establishment and why they were so anxious to encourage Jacksonâ€™s personalist tendencies in undermining his own movement (this beginning with the successful effort to discourage Jackson from running as an independent for Senate in South Carolina in 1984). The former factor, however, that is of being also inside the Democratic Party frightened many people on the Left who have had a quite justified skepticism if not antipathy to the politics and practice of the Democratic Party officialdom. It is this central strategic conception that must be revived and serve as a basis for the next round of progressive electoral politics.
The realities of the undemocratic U.S. electoral system
The winner-take-all system of US electoral politics has always been an acknowledged obstacle to genuine democracy. 49% of the voting electorate can be completely disenfranchised due to the manner of this systemâ€™s operation. Added on to this is the entire conception of voter registration and the complexities of actually voting, not to mention electoral theft (as we witnessed in November 2000 in Florida, and, indeed, through US electoral history), and the US system actually discourages voting, accommodating itself to something that is cynically referenced as a â€œmature democracy.â€
The entire system of electoral politics in the USA encourages party-blocs rather than ideologically-defined or constituency-based political parties. The Democratic and Republican Parties, therefore, serve more as united front vehicles pulling together very diverse constituencies. These party-blocs are far from amorphous, but their manner of construction permits the possibility of electoral victories and the ability to overcome the demographic, financial and other barriers to achieving political power for any one particular group. Such a system, in addition to being undemocratic, is biased in favor of moneyed interests as well as favoring stability. In this sense, the famous 19th century aphorism about the US political system remains true: the two political parties are the equivalent of two wings of the same evil bird of prey. Yet this aphorism does not replace a concrete analysis of the realities of US politics and, therefore, does not answer questions of strategy.
Major sections of the US Left and progressive movements have attempted to avoid the practical realities of the undemocratic nature of the US electoral system. Seeing in the party-bloc system the corruption and dumbing-down of politics, many left-of center activists have simply made the call for breaking with the two party system and forming something else. While this may be the correct longer-term goal, such a call does not speak in any way as to how one gets there. The Labor Party is a case in point.
The late Tony Mazzocchi made an eloquent case for the need for the US working class to have its own political party. Yet, the construction of this party did not emphasize a programmatic vision, but rather the willingness of people to support the IDEA of such a party, i.e., if one believed that there should be a Labor Party, then one should sign onto the party process. Little attention was given to the political character of such a party. Secondly, the party being an IDEA rather than an expression of a political project, failed to acknowledge the central importance of the political movements of people of color. While Mazzocchi himself was a strong and dedicated anti-racist, the Labor Party effort in basing itself within organized labor, failed to factor in the larger political movements that have been essential in shaping and reshaping the USA. Third, Mazzocchi correctly cautioned against premature electoral interventions lest the Labor Party be forever consigned to the political margins. At the same time, the Labor Party had an approach that postponed electoral interventions pending fulfillment of a criteria (actually a good approach) but never quite factored in how to address the inevitable electoral losses that would be suffered if/when Labor Party candidates ran against both Democrats and Republicans (electoral losses not only to the Labor Party, but losses which would favor the Republicans period).
At the other end of the spectrum have been symbolic runs for the Presidency. This includes both Ron Danielsâ€™ â€™92 campaign but as well Ralph Naderâ€™s 2000 campaign, not to mention the various minor party campaigns that periodically surface. Independent candidacies normally have a rationale associated with them. One common rationale is that they will inspire local activists to run for local office. Another is that an alternative must be heralded in order to lay the basis for some future genuine, mass-based progressive politics. This is actually just another way of saying that all of the existing candidates are bad and that something new needs to be implanted.
Symbolic independent Presidential campaigns can bring with them great fanfare, and often get off to an exciting start. Yet, at the end of the day, they tend to accomplish little unless they are somehow attached to a political movement. The problem is largely to be found in the pragmatic reality of our situation. On Election Day, the voters must decide whether they are content to register a one-time protest or whether they will hold their nose and vote for someone who MAY happen to change reality in a manner favorable to the voter. Most US voters choose the more pragmatic course or they simply sit out the election altogether.
Independent protest candidacies for the US Presidency generally exist outside of any notion of strategy. Rather than analyzing the actual conditions under which a progressive political movement can grow in this country and the necessary building blocks, the independent protest candidacies simply assert the need for a new set of politics, sort of along the lines of running an idea up the flag pole to see who salutes.
In many respects the Greens have taken electoral politics most seriously. While they have backed specific independent presidential initiatives, e.g., Ralph Nader in 2000, they have tended to concentrate at the local level where they have realized some impressive victories. Nevertheless, they too have run into a specific quandary, i.e., how does one build a political practice that gets beyond school committee, town council, etc., and challenges for office in larger cities and counties, not to mention at the state level? The practice advanced by the Green Party is better suited for non-partisan elections, ironically enough, but here too, arises the question of what sort of electoral united front they are capable of building beyond a certain scale.
Exploring a neo-Rainbow approach to electoral politics
The failure of most post-Rainbow progressive electoral initiatives has resulted in several tendencies: (1)throwing up oneâ€™s hands and accepting the terms of operation within the Democratic Party, (2)throwing up oneâ€™s hands and accepting electoral marginalization through symbolic electoral interventions, (3)throwing up oneâ€™s hands and abandoning electoral politics in favor of what appear to be more pure social action movement, or (4)just throwing up.
In some respects what each of the four tendencies has in common is a degree of despair as to the possibilities of a progressive political practice in the electoral arena. Overcoming this despair must be tied directly to constructing such a practice because in the absence of a credible electoral movement, it is unlikely that any sustained movement for substantive, not to mention transformative, politics in the USA will ever see the light of day. Despite the high degree of abstention in the electoral arena, there is a deep belief that the system should work, even if it does not. Standing on the sidelines criticizing the political system without demonstrating the ability to bring into being an alternative is nothing more than a recipe for marginalization. The system must, itself, be challenged both as a step toward fighting for political power as well as a means of actually demonstrating the fault lines in the system itself.
The problem, then, is one of developing a progressive majoritarian bloc within the context of US electoral politics. This is a majoritarian bloc, it should be added, not in some idealistic or utopian sense, but rather a bloc within the context of the existing political system. Taking up this strategic challenge means coming face to face with the problem of the Democratic Party.
As much as many progressives may wish for the replacement of the Democratic Party by a left/progressive party of struggle, this is unlikely in the near-term. The establishment of independent political parties in the U.S. context in the recent past has simply failed to ignite widespread populist electoral activity. This does not mean, however, that one should expect that the Democratic Party will itself become the party of the dispossessed in the U.S. That is unlikely given all the factors familiar to progressives.
Instead activists should look upon the Democratic Party as itself a field of struggle, and little else. Such a view flows from a realization of the undemocratic nature of the US electoral system and the dilemmas that creates. In that context, the fight that needs to take place in the electoral arena must take place both within and without the Democratic Party. To carry out such a struggle necessitates organization, vision and strategy. It also needs the right core in order to anchor it in reality and build the sort of united front that such an effort or insurgency must represent. These represent the parameters for the development of a neo-Rainbow electoral strategy.
Before exploring the potential elements of such a strategy it is worth making some pre-emptive remarks, so to speak. Experienced activists do not need to go through a vitriolic exchange on the nastiness of the Democratic Party or the opportunists that often cling to its label. We know that. As mentioned earlier, the Democratic Party exists as a party-bloc rather than as a genuine political party. It is a front of various forces, many of which are at odds with one another. But it exists and is able to sustain itself largely because of the nature of the US electoral system which encourages the tendency toward two party-blocs rather than a proliferation of other political formations.
Second, it should be obvious, but it is often not, that discussions about a neo-Rainbow electoral strategy are grounded in a desire to win. Many of us on the left and progressive side of the aisle are so accustomed to losing and existing under siege, that the prospect of winning is not only beyond our belief system, but is often scary. Winning necessitates political alignments, compromises and often tactics that are far from pure. Winning certainly carries with it the potentiality of selling out. This is a risk, however, that any social movement must be prepared to accept if it is in the least bit serious about its own integrity and objectives, not to mention, the fight for power.
Third, building a strategy around a particular candidacy carries with it profound dangers as well. The collapse of the Rainbow movement through Jacksonâ€™s personalist decisions and approach were clearly evidence of this. In the more recent period, Congressman Dennis Kucinichâ€™s apparently failed bid for the Democratic nomination should have been additional evidence. Kucinichâ€™s campaign, particularly in light of his courageous anti-Iraq war stand, could have been a tremendous vehicle for organization and political action. It turned out not to be. Kucinich ran into the same problems as most white populists in shelving race in the name of economic justice. Additionally, he had the wrong core for both a campaign and a movement. While Kucinich could have used his campaignâ€”knowing full well that he would not get the nominationâ€”as sort of a strategy center or springboard for the building of a left/progressive bloc of political forces for the long-term, his campaign was no where near as inclusive as it needed to be. Driven, as it was by the demands of the campaign and the primaries, there was also little room for the sort of longer-term discussion so badly needed.
Thus, thinking through an alternative electoral strategy really must begin with a severing of the connection or dependency between that alternative and a particular personality. While an alternative electoral strategy will need strong personalities/candidates in order to champion the causes that must be championed, that is a different reality than building as the foundation of an alternative strategy a particular personality, with all of the strengths and weaknesses associated with such.
Key elements to work with
A neo-Rainbow electoral strategy needs to contain the following elements: (1)building an identifiable, accountable organization that operates inside and outside the Democratic Party, (2)has at its leading core, people of color, and a base among African Americans and Latinos (not to the exclusion of others), (3)has a united front approach to growth, encouraging diverse constituencies, (4)is pro-equality populist in its politics, heralding the unity of the struggles for racial, gender and economic justice as the cornerstones to a larger stand in favor of consistent democracy, (5)supports a change in US foreign policy toward what can be called a democratic foreign policy, (6)recognizes that while race is the trip-wire of US politics, class represents the fault line, therefore, rooting itself among working people and their issues, (7)develops a ground-up approach, with ward & precinct organizations, and a targeted effort to build political power in key strategic zones. The remainder of this article shall briefly summarize these components.
(1)An accountable organization operating both inside and outside the Democratic Party: Drawing on the history of the Rainbow candidacies and organization, as well as other efforts, such as the Non-Partisan Leagues, an inside/outside approach seems to most correspond to the actual political constraints of the US electoral system. The failure of the Rainbow movement lay not with following this strategyâ€”contrary to criticisms often raised by the ultra-â€œleftâ€â€”but by the failure to build a democratic organization that was both sufficiently rooted as well as independent of one personality. If there was a mistake in â€™89 it was that the activists who had truly been the foundation of the Rainbow movement permitted a situation to exist where Rev. Jackson could carry out the coup against himself with little significant opposition. The tendency, even among committed progressive activists, to defer to Rev. Jacksonâ€™s decision was disastrous. The fact, by way of example, that a prominent Black elected official could say, with a straight face, that Rev. Jackson had the â€œrightâ€ to his own organization, illustrated the political weaknesses of the movement itself.
To be clear, working inside and outside the Democratic Party means establishing an organizationâ€”which is not an independent political party, but is an independent organizationâ€”that runs candidates within the Democratic primaries, runs in non-partisan elections, and runs independently, all based on an assessment of the actual situation rather than on a cookie-cutter format. Working inside and outside the Democratic Party does not mean, however, placing a great deal of time and attention on occupying specific positions within the Democratic Party itself. Such decisions need to be made in the context of a longer-term political strategy.
(2)An initiative that has a leading core of people of color: As discussed, the Rainbow movement had the advantage of having been based, first and foremost, on the Black-led electoral upsurge of the early 1980s. In other words, it was rooted in a movement. In addition, the core was people of color who linked racial justice with broader social and economic justice issues. As such, this effort represented the continuity of the demand for consistent democracy within the USA. It avoided many of the problems of white populism, which seeks to an end-run around the question of racial justice. While white populism can and often does attract adherents of color, it does not achieve a political base among communities of color, at least in the current era.
It is not sufficient, however, to have a core that is majority of color. Those in the room in the very founding of such an effort must bring credentials to the table, i.e., they must be leaders in their own right, irrespective of their titles and positions. Thus, they must represent a constituency. A neo-Rainbow effort, in other words, cannot be defined alone as the gathering of a group of activists, the majority of who are of color, but must represent an initiative deeply rooted and carry with it popular credibility.
A final point: the changing demographics of the USA, along with a different strategic situation, necessitates that a neo-Rainbow approach does not seek to replicate the â€œBlack andâ€¦â€ approach of the past. The necessity for a partnership and the recognition of a key alliance, particularly between African Americans and Latinos, must be at the core of renewed progressive politics in the USA.
(3)A united front approach: The willingness and ability of Rev. Jackson to reach out to diverse constituencies marked one of the most significant aspects of the Rainbow movement.
Largely through the activities of the Left, additional constituencies were tapped, constituencies with which Rev. Jackson had little history. Asians and Latinos, particularly, became well-organized segments of the campaigns and movement.
An intriguing aspect of the â€˜80s Rainbow movement was its ability to gather together various political tendencies, including the Left, the Black Church and segments of the Black political establishment, as noted earlier. The growing class divides in the USA, and the emergence of more conservative political tendencies within the political establishments of people of color, may make such an effort more complicated today. Many of the assumptions from the Civil Rights and immediate post-Civil Rights era can simply not be made. This has again become evident in Black politics when, in the aftermath of the US-inspired coup against Haitiâ€™s President Aristide of February 2004, the Congressional Black Caucus as a whole was divided on how to respond.
That said, the project of neo-Rainbow politics cannot afford to be a project exclusively of the Left, but must represent a coalition of left/progressive forces, otherwise it will face certain doom.
(4)The need for pro-equality populist politics: This theme has run throughout this article, so little needs to be reiterated. An anti-corporate, anti-finance speculation approach to politics is essential if progressive politics are to re-emerge. This can be seen in the works and views of diverse political actors, including Jim Hightower, Michael Moore and Barbara Ehrenreich. Yet, US history repeatedly demonstrates that this is insufficient in order to sustain a progressive alternative. Building the linkage between the fights for economic, political and social justice and specifically between the fights for racial, gender and economic justice will lead to a movement resonating particularly within communities of color rather than limiting ourselves to social criticism.
When one considers once more the Kucinich campaign in 2004, one sees a missed opportunity. As good as were his stands, Kucinich did not represent a breakthrough on the race divide. His message was about those things that we have in common but did not speak to the Grand Canyon of the US reality. As such, he did not position himself to be a candidate of people of color, essentially deferring that role to Al Sharpton and Carol Mosley-Braun, to different degrees. The latter two, particularly Sharpton, became the â€˜raceâ€™ candidates, and Kucinich became the anti-war and economic justice candidate. Neo-Rainbow politics must establish a means of linking these. A similar criticism can be made of Ralph Nader in 2000 and again today, who seems to avoid race and racial justice issues like the plague.
Pro-equality populist politics is fundamentally about inclusion, and in that sense is not about watering down unity. Rev. Jackson began this in the â€˜80s, for example, in his open, public embrace of gays and lesbians at a point when many, if not most, traditional political leaders kept this sector at armsâ€™ length. 21st century pro-equality populism must be just as courageous and as inclusive.
(5)A democratic foreign policy: One of the strengths of Jackson as an individual, and his Rainbow candidacies, was his willingness to stake out new ground on foreign policy. Again, breaking from the notion that the Rainbow movement was simply a Black protest movement, the Rainbow movement spoke out on international issues, albeit inconsistently.
In light of the current international situation and the aggressive, maniacal US foreign policy matched by the generally spinelessness of the official Democratic Party, a neo-Rainbow movement would need to articulate an alternative vision of international affairs and foreign policy. This democratic foreign policy, so to speak, would need to be built on multilateralism, mutual respect among nations, against US interventionism, the search for non-military methods of problem solving, and the support of self-determination of nations. While this is not a Left program, it would represent a significant reform in the realm of US foreign policy.
(6)Class and the roots of the neo-Rainbow project: The Labor Party attempted to carve out the turf of class as its sphere. In so doing, it handled the question of race ambiguously. A neo-Rainbow project and politics needs to look at working people as more than simply another constituencyâ€”which is the standard approach in established electoral politicsâ€”but rather look at working people as the fundamental base of the neo-Rainbow politics. This means that the language of the movement as well as the literal base-areas, must be working people-centered. It also means that labor unions should have a central role in building a neo-Rainbow project.
The additional aspect of this is that the neo-Rainbow project itself should have as central to its existence the redistribution of wealth and power in the USA and the restriction on the right of Capital to run rough-shod over the people of this country and, for that matter, the world.
(7)Building with a ground-up approach: The neo-Rainbow project cannot be limited to being a formal coalition that comes together around a specific candidate or set of candidates. First, it must be a national project, although there will need to be targeted, geographic areas in which the project will first seek to take root. As a national project, it must seek to articulate a compelling social vision that helps to break the isolation of left/progressive activists and movements, focusing them on the strategies towards and possibilities of achieving political power. At the same time, this project must be rooted in communities, through ward and precinct organization, that begins with a process of consolidation of committed activist/leaders (leaders with a small â€œlâ€) around the mission and vision of the project. To that extent, the project must begin not with the notion of launching a candidacy for President of the USA, or for that matter, a candidate for any other office. Rather, the project must come together with a notion of fighting for power and to change the relations of power in the USA.
Building the neo-Rainbow project, then, would be connected with analyzing the power structures in various communities, understanding the real issues of the people, linking with community-based and workplace-based organizations, identifying potential candidates for office and the issues around which they should organize their campaigns, and, ultimately, running for office.
Taking the first steps are often the hardest
In the Rainbow movement of the 1980s we saw elements of what a new type of politics could be. It led some of us to believe that a political realignment could be brought into existence by the beginning of the 21st century. For a host of reasons this did not come to pass. Yet we can draw upon that movement for far more than inspiration. We can see in that movement the outlines of a direction that our journey must take us. In that sense, while the direction may look somewhat familiar, it will truly be a direction toward the fabled undiscovered countryâ€”a journey into the future.
Danny Glover is a long-time human rights activist and internationally recognized actor. He has been a spokesperson for many causes including anemia, HIV/AIDS, Haitian sovereignty and global justice.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time labor and global justice activist and was deeply involved in the 1984 and 1988 Jackson campaigns.
The opinions expressed here are those of the authors do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which the authors are affiliated.
NOTE from Stan: This piece raises some key questions about how the left breaks out of its impasse… as it may be doing in many ways now. I would only emphasize from my own point of view that organizational questions are paramount, but the pitfall associated with organizations and with movement archeology is the unwritten assumption that organizations of and by themselves can CREATE revolutionary conjunctures. They cannot. Movements are born out of social conditions that evolve past the point of being tolerable, and the best organization in the world cannot force this to happen with “correct” lines or superbly disciplined organizational structure. But a movement can – in varying circumstances – be midwifed and nurtured into a formidable political phenomenon, or caused to die in labor and delivery, based on the quality and theoretical clarity of its leadership. It is also important, I think, that we remain honest about our prospects. In periods where conditions create merely a crisis for the ruling class, but do not destabilize ruling class power in key ways, there is quite frankly NO possibility of social transformation (revolution). The best we can fight for when that ruling class power has not yet been destabilized, both ecomically and politically, is for some manner of restructuring wihtin the limits of the existing system (think New Deal). Having said that, there is an international dimension to this struggle that adds a powerful element of complexity to this schema. Finally, I would say that understanding the past does not automatically translate into understnading the present. Anyone who claims that we have to study the Bolshevik Revolution, for example, as the model for a Second American Revolution, needs to up his medication… we are not yet hiding from the Tsar’s police, and we are not mobilizing peasants just back from a devastating world war. But Fletcher and Glover are not engaging in archeology so much as an after-action review. This stuff is still fairly fresh, and the “grand canyon” of race they refer to is still the unacknowledged fissure running through our social living room. I would add gender to that metaphor as well.
Here are a list of questions, however, raised by a few colleagues, by this thinkpiece, that might help to stimulate a discussion:
(1) The Rainbow Coalition of the mid-80s was built on thefoundation of the Black Freedom movement of the late 60s, early 70s, the Black p[olitical upsurge (Harold Washington and Mel King, eg), significant sections of the New Left, and progressive Black churches (see my next post on this blog). Today, this turbulence no longer exists. the Congressional Caucus is fractured, and moving right. Black churches have also shiftred right, driven by a good deal of homophobia. What does this mean for building a “neo-rainbow”?
(2) The Rainbow Coalition did theinside-outside strategy with the Democratic Party establishment. Does the left have the power to pull this off without being overcome by the gravitational pull of the DP?
(3) The bottom-up strategy outlined here sounds just like Greens or the Labor Party. How will it differ in character and strength? Will is contribute to regrouping the left?
(4) How much attention can be paid to electoral work? Statewide initiatives (like defending affirmative action or raising minimum wage)? Schools? Big city-wide elections? Targeted Congressional seats (McKinney, Lee, et al)?
(5) Many activists under 35 don’t remember this. Will they understand or care?