Visualizing a Neo-Rainbow

Visualizing a Neo-Rainbow

History holds clues to a winning electoral strategy for progressives.


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.

After the Rainbow

In the wake of what we would describe as Jackson’s coup against himself, alternative views and strategies toward progressive electoral and mass initiatives began to surface. For example, former Texas agricultural commissioner Jim Hightower proposed a “Democratic-Populist Alliance” to fill the void left by the collapse of the Jackson Rainbow; the late trade union leader Tony Mazzocchi founded the Labor Party; through the New Party, Dan Cantor and Joel Rogers advocated a fusion approach to politics–later undermined by a Supreme Court decision in 1997–whereby independent parties could achieve power by cross-endorsing major-party candidates; former National Rainbow Coalition executive director Ron Daniels campaigned as an independent for the presidency in 1992; and the Green Party emerged at the local level, mounting successful runs for municipal and county positions on a progressive platform.

These initiatives, however worthy, had some problems in common. None of them fully grasped the political moment, which was characterized by the impact of the civil rights movement, the resistance to Reaganism and the black-led electoral upsurge. With the exception of Daniels, they did not understand the importance of race and the political movements of people of color, and for the most part they lacked a base among communities of color, thus denying them the moral authority Jackson and the Rainbow possessed to challenge collective injustice in US society. As a result, they weren’t able to build a united-front approach to politics.

Moreover, the post-Rainbow initiatives generally did not recognize and embrace a central strategic conception of Jackson’s: that success depends on wielding power both within the Democratic Party and outside it. The Rainbow as an independent effort was deeply unsettling to the Democratic Party establishment (hence its successful effort to discourage Jackson from running as an independent for the Senate in South Carolina in 1984). At the same time, working inside the Democratic Party troubles many people on the left, who have a quite justified skepticism, if not antipathy, to the politics and practice of Democratic Party officialdom. Nonetheless, it is this central strategic–“inside/outside”–conception that must be revived and must serve as a basis for the next round of progressive electoral politics.

A Neo-Rainbow Approach to Politics

The failure of most post-Rainbow electoral initiatives has led progressives to do one of several things: (1) throw up their hands and accept the terms of operation within the Democratic Party; (2) throw up their hands and accept electoral marginalization through symbolic electoral interventions, or else third-party races at the local level that have yet to move national politics in a progressive direction; (3) throw up their hands and abandon electoral politics in favor of “pure” social action movements; or (4) just throw up.

Each of these tendencies reflects a degree of despair about the possibilities of progressive political practice in the electoral arena. Constructing such a practice is key to overcoming this despair and to the creation of a sustained movement for substantive, even transformative, politics in the United States. 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. The immediate challenge is to develop a progressive majoritarian 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 party by a left/progressive party of struggle, this is unlikely to happen in the near term. Independent political parties have simply failed to ignite widespread populist electoral activity. At the same time, no one should expect that the Democratic Party will itself become the party of the dispossessed.

Instead, activists should look upon the Democratic Party as itself a field of struggle. Such a view flows from a realization of the undemocratic nature of the US electoral system and the dilemmas that creates. In this context, the fight 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 united front that such an effort or insurgency must represent. We believe these to be the key parameters for an effective neo-Rainbow electoral strategy.

It should be obvious, though it is often not, that discussions about a neo-Rainbow electoral strategy are grounded in a desire to win political power. 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 often scary. Winning necessitates political alignments, compromises and often tactics that are far from pure.

As we build this struggle, there are some pitfalls to avoid, such as yoking it to a particular candidacy, which contributed to the Rainbow’s collapse. Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s failed bid for the Democratic nomination in 2004 suffered from the same problem. Lacking a powerful and diverse core outside the candidate, Kucinich’s campaign did not become the vehicle for organization and political action it might have been, particularly in light of his courageous anti-Iraq War stand. Additionally, in shelving race in the name of economic justice, Kucinich ran into the same problems most white populists do. Thus, while an alternative electoral strategy will need strong candidates, it cannot depend on one particular personality for its foundation.

What the Neo-Rainbow Needs

A neo-Rainbow electoral strategy needs: (1) to build an identifiable, accountable organization that operates inside and outside the Democratic Party; (2) to have people of color in its core leadership, and a base among African-Americans and Latinos (not to the exclusion of others); (3) to have a united-front approach to growth, encompassing diverse constituencies; (4) to be pro-equality populist in its politics, embracing the struggles for racial, gender and economic justice as the cornerstones of democracy; (5) to support a change in US foreign policy toward what can be called a democratic foreign policy; (6) to root itself among working people and their issues, and develop a ground-up approach, involving ward and precinct organizations and a targeted effort to build political power in key strategic zones.

Let’s consider each of these elements of a neo-Rainbow strategy in turn:

§ Inside/outside. Drawing on the history of the Rainbow candidacies and organization, as well as other efforts, such as the Non-Partisan Leagues of the early twentieth century, an inside/outside approach responds to the actual political constraints of the US electoral system. Contrary to criticisms often raised by the ultra-“left,” the failure of the Rainbow movement lay not in following this strategy but in its inability to build a democratic organization that was sufficiently rooted in social movements and independent of one personality.

Working inside and outside the Democratic Party means establishing an organization–not an independent political party but an independent organization–that runs candidates in the Democratic primaries, runs in nonpartisan 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 placing a great deal of time and attention on occupying specific positions within the Democratic Party itself. Decisions about whether such tactics make sense need to be made with an eye to long-term political strategy.

§ The core. The Rainbow grew out of the black-led electoral upsurge of the early 1980s. 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. Likewise, for any effective neo-Rainbow effort, it is essential to have a core that not only represents the changing demographics of the United States but also comes to the table representing actual constituencies.

§ A united front. The approach toward activity and movement/organization building must be that of a united front. Jesse Jackson’s willingness and ability to reach out to diverse constituencies was one of the most admirable aspects of the Rainbow movement of the 1980s. In addition, largely through the activities of the left, additional constituencies were tapped, constituencies with which Jackson had little history. Asians and Latinos, particularly, became integral to the campaigns and movement.

§ Pro-equality populism. The politics of a neo-Rainbow initiative must be pro-equality populist. This means having more than an anticorporate message, as important as that is. It must be about more than class, though rooted among working people and seeking the support of labor unions. A movement that links the fights for racial, gender and economic justice will resonate particularly, though not exclusively, with communities of color.

Pro-equality populist politics is fundamentally about inclusion. Jackson embodied this principle in the 1980s, for example in his open, public embrace of gays and lesbians at a point when many, if not most, traditional political leaders kept the gay community at arm’s length. Twenty-first-century pro-equality populism must be just as courageous and as inclusive.

§ A democratic foreign policy. In light of the current international situation and the aggressive, maniacal US foreign policy–unchecked by the generally spineless official Democratic Party–a neo-Rainbow movement would need to articulate a compelling alternative vision of international affairs and foreign policy. This democratic foreign policy could be premised on multilateralism, mutual respect among nations, nonmilitary methods of problem solving, the self-determination of nations and opposition to US interventionism. While this is not a radical program, it would represent a significant reform in US foreign policy.

§ A strategic, ground-up approach. The neo-Rainbow project cannot be limited to a formal coalition that comes together around a specific candidate or set of candidates. Although there will need to be targeted geographic areas in which it will first take root, this must be a national project that articulates a compelling social vision aimed at breaking the isolation of left/progressive activists and movements, focusing them on strategies for achieving political power. At the same time, this project must be based in communities, through ward and precinct organization, bringing together committed activist leaders (leaders with a small “l”) around the mission and vision of the project. Building the neo-Rainbow project, then, would entail analyzing the power structures in various communities, understanding the real issues of the people, linking with community- and workplace-based organizations, identifying potential candidates for office and the issues around which they should organize their campaigns, and, ultimately, running for office.

In the Rainbow movement of the 1980s, we caught a glimpse of what the new politics could be. It led some to believe that a political realignment could be brought into existence by the beginning of the twenty-first 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 the Rainbow the direction in which our journey must take us. While the road may look somewhat familiar, it will be a journey to the undiscovered country–a journey into the future.

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