In 2004 the winner-take-all system of US electoral politics again proved an obstacle to genuine democracy. While progressives found little to get excited about in the John Kerry campaign, there were no viable third-party candidates, leaving them without a fully satisfying choice at the ballot box, even if most of us ended up voting for Kerry as a statement against Bush. More important, there was no candidate whose campaign offered progressives the opportunity to develop a real political/electoral base that could move us closer to building power and influence.
The most recent campaign that held that kind of promise was the Rainbow insurgency of the 1980s, including the 1984 and ’88 presidential campaigns of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, and the building of the National Rainbow Coalition.
The Rainbow movement and candidacies have much to teach us today. While the Rev. Jesse Jackson was a charismatic leader, the Rainbow Coalition movement and the Jackson presidential campaigns were about far more than Jesse Jackson. The approach that Jackson advanced–building an organization and campaign both inside and outside the Democratic Party–points progressives in the direction we should be moving now.
The political emergence of Jackson took place within the context of a larger, black-led electoral upsurge that witnessed campaigns such as the successful Harold Washington run for mayor of Chicago and the unsuccessful but no less inspiring Mel King campaign for mayor of Boston. Those campaigns were not only 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 but an outgrowth of the movement for black political power that emerged in response to the unfulfilled promise of the civil rights victories two decades earlier.
Jackson seized the moment to speak nationally on behalf of these movements, but he did something even more important than that. He articulated a political vision that, while based on the African-American experience, did not represent solely a “black candidacy” or “black politics.” Jackson tapped into a growing anger and frustration arising on the US political scene among both historically and newly disenfranchised populations. He spoke to issues of economic injustice without abandoning the question of race, thus avoiding the classic error of white populists who attempt to build unity by addressing economic issues only. Jackson linked these issues. His appearances before white farmers and workers brought forth a response that previously had been unimaginable.
Jackson tapped into three key constituencies in order to build and anchor both the Rainbow and his 1984 and ’88 candidacies: the African-American political establishment, African-American religious institutions (including both Muslim and Christian denominations) and the left. These constituencies had differing, though often overlapping, agendas, which inevitably led to both vibrancy and tensions within the movement. 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 [for a full discussion of the Rainbow Coalition and candidacies, see JoAnn Wypijewski, “The Rainbow’s Gravity,” August 2/9, 2004].
Of course, it’s also important to remember how the movement unraveled after the fateful gathering of the Rainbow Coalition’s executive board in March 1989, largely because of Jackson’s move to turn the coalition–the core of his movement–into a personal political operation. There is a lesson in this, too: Progressives should beware the charismatic leader who defines movement loyalty as personal loyalty to him- or herself rather than to the movement and its objectives.