Liberation Road

The Left and Jesse Jackson

With less than a month to go before the 2020 US Presidential Election, it’s worth taking a look back at some analysis of elections past to see what we might learn for the days ahead. This article from the November/December 1987 issue of Forward Motion considers the necessity of left support for Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful campaign for candidacy as Democratic party nominee in the 1988 Presidential election. While many readers would naturally compare Jackson’s unsuccessful bid to the Sanders’ campaign, the article’s summation of the intra-party contradictions within both the GOP and the Democratic party, and its strategic directives for the revolutionary left’s participation in electoral work may tell us more about our current moment. Likewise, the centrality of a united front led by the Black movement in the streets and at the ballot box animates the struggle for justice today just as then. Now, the reactionary movement that embodied Reaganism has expanded and grown into Trumpism, while the neoliberal regime maintains a fragile grip on power for the Democratic party in the face of massive crises for the economy, the environment, and for democracy itself. For the revolutionary left, today we find ourselves between a similar rock and a hard place as in 1988: compelled to support a neoliberal candidate (then Dukakis, now Biden) against a reactionary mass movement, knowing that Trump’s re-election guarantees an onslaught by the New Confederacy.

The Left and Jesse Jackson

There was a moment eight or nine months ago when the Democratic Party was riding high. The Iran/Contra scandal appeared to be devastating the Reagan coalition, and the fractious Republicans had no substitute waiting in the wings for ’88. Democratic presidential prospects looked good to most, and better than good to many.

Today that’s all over. The combination of Ollie North, neo-liberal foreign policy confusion, and Democratic spinelessness, while not saving the whole Contra policy, have salvaged the Reagan coalition. “No Excuses” Gary Hart’s sudden demise left the Democrats scrambling for a frontrunner with at least two minimal qualities: name recognition in more than three states, and white skin. Now recycling consultant Joe Biden has withdrawn to catch up on his studies. Because nobody takes Bruce Babbitt seriously, and because Jesse Jackson is both progressive and Black, the regular Democrats are looking at Dukakis, Simon, Gephardt, and Gore. That one of these men could become president is due solely to the unappetizing choices served up by the Grand Old Party: a wisecracking Bob Dole, whose only hope for the nomination is in romancing the right wing with promises of “little three-day invasions,” and the Imperial Toady George Bush. It seems that presidential politics in the U.S. have sunk about as low as they can get, but Pat Robertson and Jack Kemp have yet to really strut their stuff.

Reversing Reaganism

The major conflict in U.S. politics today remains that between the Reagan coalition and the diffuse forces aligned against it. Reaganism has been weakened, but mostly from internal contradictions–foreign policy disarray, shallowness of economic policy, and fractured unity–rather than from the successful attacks of a coordinated opposition. Left to themselves these contradictions will intensify, but not to the point of the coalition’s self-destruction.

What does the Democratic Party presidential campaign offer to hasten the reversal of Reaganism? There is nothing in the mainstream of this campaign for progressives, not to mention the Left. With the partial exception of Paul Simon and briefly Pat Schroeder, traditional Democrats have put forward nothing in the way of vision, program or candidate to stop or even disorganize the Reagan coalition, and Reaganism without Reagan is still the most likely scenario for 1989. For progressives, there is only Jesse Jackson.

There is only Jackson the peace candidate, who supports the Sandinistas, appears with the family of Brian Willson, and speaks at a national anti-war march. Who else among the Democrats would do this? There is only Jackson, who appears in Austin, Minnesota and Watsonville, California to herald the “Selma’s of the ’80s”. Only Jackson, who is not afraid to speak out against “those who try to divide us” at the October National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights in a time of hysterical homophobia, and who still defends the rights of Palestinians when Zionist logic remains one of the fundamental rules of U.S. politics. There is only Jesse Jackson, whose anti-corporate coalition of the dispossessed is unique for our era, even if today the snow-blind vision of many continues to deny the campaign the full support it merits.

Reversing Reaganism depends on strengthening the key social movements which have been centers of resistance to it. Yet the Democratic Party has generally filtered and defused anti-Reagan sentiment, instead of allowing it full national exposure. A perfect example is the recent Bork rejection in the Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee.

Press accounts indicated that the swing votes on the Committee (and in the Senate at large), particularly from the South, reflected grass roots pressure from Black constituencies as well as labor, abortion rights and other advocates. Yet instead of basking in the glow of this virtual revival of Democratic-led coalitionism, Party leaders chose to cut off testimony just as the various advocacy and constituency groups were to be heard. Yes, once again, they reportedly feared the deadly “special interest” tag.

It is mainly the Democratic neo-liberals that have made issue of giving in to special interests–from Gary Hart’s jumping on Mondale for his union support to Gov. Dukakis’ determination to rid Massachusetts of gay and lesbian foster parents. Capitulation to a conservative national trend is less a failure of nerve among former traditional Democratic liberals than ascendancy within that party of a distinct neo-liberal trend with its own political logic.

Basic economic changes have undermined the traditional New Deal policy. International politics and economics are quite different from those of the JFK and LBJ years. Meanwhile, changes in the electoral arena such as the lessening relevance of party apparatuses, the skyrocketing cost of elections, and declining voter turnout have disproportionately affected the Democrats. Especially relevant to the rise of neo-liberalism is the declining importance of the AFL-CIO in the Democratic Party: its numbers are decreasing, its financial contributions can’t grow at the same inflated rate of campaign costs, and its political and popular authority have eroded. Reduced to a “special interest,” the AFL-CIO can no longer compete with direct corporate intervention for Democratic Party influence. An often surprisingly overt anti-unionism among Democratic leaders today follows from the Democrats’ inability to continue to mediate liberal-led social movements (particularly organized labor) and corporate needs. The relationship was always unbalanced, but now it is totally one-sided.

Jackson’s Reform Economics

In debates ranging from welfare reform to trade policy, regaining the profit competitiveness of the U.S. economy and resurrecting an international stability conducive to U.S. imperial interests sets the Democratic agenda. Against this trend among Democrats, Jesse Jackson is a uniquely powerful voice. The Jackson campaign has rejected the forced-work premises of so-called welfare reform proposals and alone has coupled trade policy to ending U.S. support for reactionary regimes in South Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere.

Jackson has also given a number of speeches evoking clearly social-democratic and anti-capitalist themes, such as his labor-oriented attacks on corporate “merging, purging and submerging” and his calls for international self-determination and rights for Third World workers exploited by U.S. capital.

Jackson’s pro-equality populism has tied the widespread anger against “economic royalism,” “economic violence” and “corporate greed” to the need for justice and equality. In some situations, his effort to reach white workers and farmers among the dispossessed by targeting the parasitic corporate manipulators and unpatriotic profiteers has led to more typical American populist over-simplifications. When he tried to equate conditions in New York’s Howard Beach community to those faced by recent Black victims of violence and murder there, he did not entirely help the Black community response.

Similarly, Jackson has been consistently concerned with the plight of this country’s families because of declining social services and economic opportunities. But he has not consistently focused on the connection to the feminization of poverty and women’s rights that women’s movement activists have made.

Still, the hearing he has received and that he has helped progressive causes get is not to be denied. The Jackson campaign is where the Left–at least those of us willing to dirty our hands in the electoral arena–should be this year. Yet within the common tactic of “Jackson in ’88” there may be as many aims and methods as there are Left groups and grouplets. For those without sectarian ambitions, the Jackson campaign represents an opportunity unlike any other not to dominate and divert, but to advance a sharp progressive agenda appropriate to this defensive period. In light of this, those who can should pursue common goals.

The general goal of socialists in the campaign should be identical to that of every other campaign worker–to build the best campaign and the strongest movement possible, and to do everything necessary to get out the popular vote. But there are other contributions which the Left, especially those who consider themselves part of a revolutionary Left, have a responsibility to formulate, pursue and advance within the broader social movement that the Jackson campaign can be. Here we want to emphasize four, of which two concern the potential for electoral realignment coming out of the campaign, while two have to do specifically with labor, its opportunities and responsibilities.

Progressive Challenge to Neoliberalism

Our first goal should be to strengthen the anti-Reagan coalition by challenging the neo-liberal capitulation to the corporate agenda. This means using the Jackson campaign, especially its foreign policy and economic themes, to create a space for a progressive agenda. It means taking that agenda to the millions left behind by the neo-liberals, and reaching for a mass pole opposed to their policies as well as those of Reaganism.

The Jackson campaign will not reveal the mass base for a third party; progressives are simply not advanced enough for that today. Like almost all relatively successful progressive mobilizations in the ’80s–with the significant exceptions of the Anti-Apartheid and Black electoral struggles–this fall’s anti-Bork campaign was a battle fought on defensive grounds. Yet the swing against Bork shows some shifting away from a now weakened Reagan administration. At this juncture, a strong Jackson campaign in 1988 can help us take the next step: to consolidate a popular base for the notion that the dispossessed are the majority in this country, and that corporate politics have nothing to offer them.

Black Political Power

A second goal which can further electoral realignment has to do with strengthening the political power and independence of the Black people. The Black community has been the main social bloc consistently and uniformly rejecting Reaganism. The Jackson campaign of ’84 represents the most developed reaction to Reaganism yet, and the mobilization of the Black masses was obviously the heart and soul of that campaign. In its 1984 turnout for Jackson, the Black community gained greater respect both for its opposition to Reaganism and its electoral discipline. It multiplied the effect of Black protest by arousing the support of other oppressed nationalities as well as some whites. This is visible to Black communities even where it is minimalized by the white press. In the context of the Democratic Party’s disarray in the face of Reaganism, these achievements are a lesson in independent politics at the mass level.

The Jackson campaign clearly faces obstacles within the Black movement, even if the campaign itself is careful not to take its Black base for granted. To those Black activists who remain stand-offish towards Jackson out of a rejection of the Democratic Party or a mistrust of Jackson himself, we have to insist that the key to the future of any independent electoral movement is in the unity of the Black masses, and the Jackson campaign has clearly advanced that. But the greater problem comes from the more moderate element of Black leadership.

Popular backing for Jackson has generally outpaced spirited organizing for him by both Black elected officials and established leaders of the Black community, as the booing of Andrew Young at the 1984 Democratic convention demonstrated. Unfortunately, we can’t look to the Rainbow activist stratum as a replacement for established Black leaders who are lukewarm about Jackson. Though they may spotlight individuals previously unrecognized, election campaigns–no matter how vibrant–do not raise up whole new layers of mass leaders. And in ’88–though a large Black voting percentage for Jackson seems secure–the level of spontaneous popular interest will likely not be the same, if only because it is the second time around. There needs to be a stronger leadership response this time within the Black community; Mayor Washington’s early endorsement is a good example of what is necessary.

The generation of a Black united front behind Jackson is therefore an important issue. To the extent it happens, it will most likely happen outside the Rainbow Coalition, Inc. context. The Rainbow Politics slogan has had a strong and growing effect on wider circles of left-wing activists (Black and white) and progressives generally. But the Rainbow Coalition itself does not represent a united front within the Black community, and this is not the time to work this through. Now is the time to go all out for an election campaign unified and strong in the Black community.

Moderate Black leaders have generally advocated moving away from the ’60s outside protest orientation; but for them, this has meant accommodation to those within the corridors of power in business and government. Though his goals were far from revolutionary, one of Jackson’s distinctions is that he maintained a protest orientation in Operation PUSH. In other words, he tried to walk the line between the more radical and more moderate wings of the Black movement. In his presidential campaigns, Jackson has opted to give up the outside protest orientation without abandoning the independent thought–the social reform goals that represent the mainstream of Black liberation. His campaigns therefore firmly acknowledge that times have changed since the ’60s, but he continues to test the flexibility of supposedly democratic American institutions.

Jackson’s appeal for unity within the Black movement is therefore solidly-based and unmistakable. There is bound to be struggle with Black moderates who opt for a “winner” rather than Jackson’s “symbolic candidacy”; that struggle will be sharp at times, and some has already occurred. But in general, we should resist condemning Black moderates for their careerism or opportunism (Jackson himself is not immune to these) in favor of a high-minded appeal to give Jackson the chance to further test those democratic institutions, “to fulfill the best dimension of the Constitution,” as Jackson himself puts it. All of the Black liberation movement can learn from that experience.

Unions and the Black Movement

A third goal for the Left in the Jackson campaign is to push organized labor to deal with the Black movement. Certainly, the main institutional target of the campaign ought to be the AFL-CIO, and the trade union left has to be a key actor in that effort. A year ago, the issue was getting Jackson a fair hearing; it was apparent that Jackson had too powerful a labor message and the AFL-CIO was too weak to deny him altogether. Now that moment has passed: Jackson will be heard. His public opinion results among union members are high and probably will remain so. He will get a good primary vote among unionists, and he will gain the support of many local and some higher-level officials. A Jackson endorsement by the AFL-CIO would be the most significant breach by Rainbow forces in U.S. politics after the fact of Jackson’s campaign itself. It would break the downward spiral of pro-corporate adaptation by labor in the Democratic Party; it would explode Democratic Party politics as we know it. It would have some of the weight of those other rare moments in U.S. history when organized labor has allied itself with the Black movement. Yet today we press for such an endorsement with little hope of getting it.

The Jackson campaign in ’84 lacked the resources and orientation to make a full-scale, prolonged assault on AFL-CIO officialdom. Yet Jackson’s understanding of the importance of labor has been greater than the unions’ appreciation of him. While fighting for the official endorsement, we should push within the campaign for the kind of pro-labor initiative that Jackson has proven capable of taking in other arenas. Appearing on this or that picket line isn’t enough: the Left should help Jackson make a move that will express–as would an AFL-CIO endorsement–the historical promise of labor-oppressed nationality unity.

A tremendous labor need and obvious candidate for such an initiative is a Jackson-led drive for unionization of the South and Southwest. Labor leaders are under pressure for greater innovation than selling credit card services. What Jackson labor supporters ought to do is work for a major summit-style meeting among Black and Latino leaders from churches, communities, government and business throughout the South along with some national unions to reach an accord on unionization of major industry in the South, repeal of Taft-Hartley, and other related reforms. The focus on summitry would parallel Jackson’s international successes, and such a high-profile meeting would up the ante for the AFL-CIO in its bid to endorse someone else. If something organizational emerged from such a summit, imagine the excitement: a “Unions for the South Alliance,” with which Jesse Jackson could bring to the signing of union cards the same sort of moral crusade he brings to voter registration drives.

A final and related goal for us in the Jackson campaign is to unify labor’s left-wing. That left-wing has grown in depth, organization and experience during the past five years, but it remains dispersed and disunited in basic ways, not the least of which is its division along racial/national lines. It is among the radical rank-and-file, among the organizations of Black workers in the South, the maverick locals who supported P-9, within the anti-concessions movement, among the farmworkers and strikers of Watsonville that the Rainbow has the greatest chance of taking hold in a mass way. It is there that the chances of building multinational unity in action are greatest.

It has been hard for labor activists to settle on effective tactics for electoral politics. We seem to cycle between two poles–that electoral politics is a “trap for progressives,” echoing poor and working people’s cynicism about the political mainstream today, or the “support a winner” approach the AFL-CIO leadership stratum still foists on union representatives. The Jackson campaign should not be simply be flattened out to issues of electoral tactics in the abstract. This campaign offers the labor Left a vehicle with national visibility with which to legitimize its work and pull together its disparate strands. In unifying its own ranks and promoting the best possible Jackson labor program, a multinational labor Left can lead a fight for the type of practical alliance between labor and the Black movement that could change the outlook for mass organizing in the 1990s. And if Jackson does take a bold pro-labor initiative such as a Southern unionization campaign, what better place for a united labor Left than in the forefront of such an effort?

These then are the general goals on which we believe the revolutionary Left should focus its participation in the Jackson campaign. There is no telling now what the 1990s will bring for the U.S. Left; we can be certain only that they will not be a repeat of the ’80s–too many basic shifts are occurring internationally and domestically. The Jackson campaign affords us an opportunity to go into that decade with a revival of mass progressive politics in which the Left can play a dynamic role. But that opportunity will come and go before many of us have noticed. It’s time to get to work.