Two of The Nation‘s top political writers explore the consequences of the Democratic Party’s rightward shift and its rejection of Jesse Jackson as a potential nominee.
With hardly a backward–or forward–look, the bulk of the surviving American left has blithely joined the Democratic Party center, without the will to inflect debate, the influence to inform policy or the leverage to share power. The capitulation of the left–a necessarily catchall word, here covering the spectrum of progressive politics from old socialism to recent radical activism–is almost without precedent. This time out there is no McCarthy of 1968, no McGovern of 1972, no Kennedy of 1980; not even a John Anderson or a Barry Commoner to raise a standard of dissent or develop an alternative vision against a Democratic Party whose project is overwhelmingly conservative in attitude and action. The excuse for submission is easy to discern: Anybody But Reagan. But the consequences are likely to be dire, and they are already taking shape. By accepting the premises and practices of party unity, the left has negated the reasons for its own existence.
In the beginning, of course, there was a certain Somebody within the Democratic fold who was a candidate not only of principle but of opportunity of the left. Jesse Jackson, and the Rainbow Coalition he proposed, represented the historical base, the organized movement and the radical program for which the left has been hunting the last thirty-five years. But…no. Jackson is usually taunted for failing to broaden his coalition, but when he made personal pitches to each likely constituency, the invitees almost invariably declined. Jackson gave an impassioned call for the solidarity of racial and sexual movements last October in the keynote speech at the gay Human Rights Campaign banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria; by March, gays were openly supporting Hart in the New York primary and Mondale in other states. Jackson talks to unionists and women, and last November 12 he addressed marchers who had come to Washington to demonstrate against US intervention in Central America. But sympathy to his overtures rarely led to organized support. Barry Commoner urged the Citizens Party to endorse Jackson–if there was ever a natural white base for Jackson, it was there–but the party is putting up its own candidate, leaving a lonely Commoner to enter the Rainbow unattended.
Long before Louis Farrakhan slouched into the headlines, white leftists had run through every excuse to withhold support from the black candidate. First there was the argument that only a respectable black with a significant white following should be allowed to swim in the Democratic mainstream. Then there was the notion that any black candidacy would provoke a backlash from white voters. Next came charges that Jackson was, in turn, a charlatan, a crook, an anti-Semite, a capitalist roader, a poor administrator, a divisive force. Quickly the dark motif of Campaign ’84 changed from Anybody But Reagan to Anybody But Jackson. Once again, racism destroyed the promise of a populist, progressive, internationalist coalition within the Democratic Party.