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The Rainbow's Gravity | The Nation

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The Rainbow's Gravity

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In reviewing what happened with Rainbow politics after 1988, it is common to focus on Jackson. Certainly, he had sharp critics on the left long before he ran, people who called him, variously, an opportunist, a showboat, a capitalist roader, a man too concerned with getting "in" and not enough with the theory and practice of organization. To speak with Rainbow warriors now is to confront a persistent, deep disappointment that in the spring of 1989 Jackson decided against institutionalizing the Rainbow as a mass-based, democratic, independent membership organization that could pursue the inside-outside strategy he'd articulated vis-à-vis the Democrats and build strength locally and nationally to leverage power for progressive aims. Instead, as Ron Daniels, who'd drawn up various plans for such an organization, puts it, Jackson opted for "a light and lean operation." It was, he says, "a lost opportunity." Fletcher captures the general tenor of disappointment: "Jackson inspired a level of activity in electoral politics that I've never seen. He encouraged people who were cynical to get involved. The Rainbow pumped people up, and then it deflated them. And the problem is that it then becomes very difficult to reinflate. I think that he overestimated his own strength in the Democratic Party and was seduced by those, particularly in the black political establishment, that suddenly fawned all over him. But what he'd created, rather than a permanent Jackson wing of the party, was a very broad insurgency within and outside the party. And so, ironically, in demobilizing the Rainbow, he also committed a coup against himself."

JoAnn Wypijewski was a volunteer for the Jackson campaign in the 1988 New York primary.

About the Author

JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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It would take more than an article to unravel all the hurts and hopes, the calculations and miscalculations. And because that other organization--imagined as a left variant on the Christian Coalition--never materialized, the might-have-beens are frozen in the amber of conjecture. Jackson himself says, "I like that idea. It's a good idea. But it would've required infrastructure and resources and discipline. You can't just wish something like that into working." Privately, one of his close campaign associates said, "I think Jackson didn't want to have to referee between different parts of his coalition. By 1988 the tensions were already clear. The activists were getting supplanted by the elected officials; the Congress people were telling the lefty radicals to tone it down. The sectarians in various places were trying to take it over internally, and you know the left has never solved that question. We had the most diverse, most little-d democratic, most American delegation anybody's ever sent to a convention, in '88. But if we had just had grassroots little-d democratic votes everywhere, we'd have had a delegation made up almost entirely of black ministers, because they could outvote certainly the gay and lesbian representative, the white Central America activists. Some state coordinators are still catching hell for the choices they made." No doubt, says Anne Braden, "he probably thought he had a tiger by the tail, and maybe he felt he couldn't control it. But on the Rainbow board, people felt we were doing fine. He needed to trust the people more who really wanted to make it work." Privately others say Jackson is incapable of engaging in the kind of dialogue and delegation of authority that sustaining that type of organization would have required.

But if that debate is full of unknowns, plenty of knowns still prick the conscience. In 1984, as Andrew Kopkind and Alexander Cockburn wrote in these pages, Jackson and the Rainbow represented the historical base and radical message for which the left had been yearning in an electoral wilderness. Yet labor, NOW, Democratic Socialists, organized gays and lesbians, other likely constituencies went their own way or, worse, into the arms of Mondale, who, like John Kerry today, accepted the essential premises of the Republican program, except tax cuts, and quarreled merely with the execution. Between '84 and '88, as Cobble notes, "no one of any prominence among white progressives came to Jackson and said, 'We want you to run'; none of the magazines, none of the organizations, only a couple of labor unions (AFGE, the Machinists, 1199). In '88 the only large organization that wasn't black that backed him was ACORN. The Nation didn't endorse until April, which was pretty dang late. After '88 Jackson clearly now is the frontrunner for the nomination. Did the unions say, 'Jesse, let's go, let's start right now for '92'? Did any of the liberal organizations? No. NOW announced it was putting together a commission to study a third party. Jackson's the front-runner for the major-party nomination, and suddenly they're thinking about organizing a third party!"

"Front-runner" talk always disconcerted leftists who cared more about the Rainbow's movement potential. Yet whatever else he could or couldn't do, Jackson was a proven, powerful candidate. His grassroots forays helped the Democrats win back the Senate in 1986 and propelled candidates into office at all levels. By the calculus through which liberal institutions ordinarily support Democrats, the nod to Jackson should have been uncontroversial. A labor official, asked why, after '88, unions would not have seen where their own future best interests lay, said, "That's not the way those people do business; they don't do the outreach." But there was nothing business-as-usual about Jackson, who'd walked picket lines for decades. Frank Watkins was more direct: "The reason labor didn't do that is they're racist. The reason civil rights organizations didn't is they're jealous. The reason the women didn't is they're suspicious."

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