Jesse Jackson is a serious candidate for the presidency. He was always serious; it was just the the political scientists and the other politicians who belittled his campaign, trivialized his efforts. and disdained his prospects. Despite the contempt and condescension of the media — or perhaps because of it-Jackson went to the most remote and isolated grass roots in the American social landscape to find the strength for a campaign that has already begun to transform politics. For five years his distance from the funders, the managers, the mediators and the consultants who manipulate the Democratic Party and legitimize its candidates has allowed Jackson to do unimaginable things and say unspeakable words — about race, about class, about equality and, indeed, about democracy. To an extent that may be unique in presidential elections in this century, he derives his power from the people. The enormous energy that his campaign releases has created a new populist moment, overtaking the languid hours and dull days of conventional politics and imagining possibilities for substantial change beyond the usual incremental transactions of the two-party system. It offers hope against cynicism, power against prejudice and solidarity against division. It is the specific antithesis to Reaganism and reaction, which, with the shameful acquiescence of the Democratic center, have held America in their thrall for most of this decade and which must now be defeated. For that reason, The Nation is endorsing Jesse Jackson for the Democratic nomination for President.
The Jackson campaign is not a single shot at higher office by an already elevated politician. Rather, it is a continuing, expanding, open-ended project to organize a movement for the political empowerment of all those who participate. In the beginning, Jackson identified his basic’constituency as the most “dispossessed and disaffected” Americans of all, the blacks of the rural South and the Northern ghettos, people who seemed permanently disenfranchised from citizen- ship and thus denied entrance into the system of rewards and privileges that is every citizen’s right, In a real sense, the campaign became a new civil rights movement with an added dimension of economic justice deriving in spirit from the last campaigns of Martin Luther King Jr. with the black working poor.
“We work every day,” he reminds the crowds, which invariably respond with knowing assent. “And we are still poor. We pick up your garbage; we work every day. We drive your cars, we take care of your children, we empty your bedpans, we sweep your apartments; we work every day. We cook your food, and we don’t have time to cook our own. We change your hospital beds and wipe your fevered brow, and we can’t afford to lie in that bed when we get sick. We work every day.” He does not merely see the poor as victims; he calls them to struggle for their rights.
To include would-be followers in his new movement Jackson made a simple dehand: that they register and vote. They responded with groundbreaking enthusiasm. Millions of people who won the vote in the great civil rights efforts of the early 1960s exercised that right for the first time two decades later. The success of Jackson’s long march through the cotton counties and ramshackle slums of America was evident before his current campaign commenced, and in ways outside the realm of presidential elections. The “new voters” he inspired joined with millions more, motivated by the stirrings of populist potential on many fronts, and helped break the conservative stranglehold on the Senate in 1986.
More than that, young black-and white-activists from the new movement challenged the legitimacy of cynical and sometimes corrupt leaders who for years had dominated racial and ethnic politics on the local level. Jackson felt compelled to deal with many of the anachronistic demagogues, ward bosses and machines that were in place in his field of operations. He had not yet built an independent force strong enough to present a credible alternative, and his 1984 campaign suffered from that weakness. The pool of available, authentic leaders who shared his vision was smaller then, and he chose some who did his project discredit. His perplexing association with the charismatic but divisive Nation of Islam firebrand Louis Farrakhan can be seen more clearly now in terms of the contradiction it expressed: the tactical acceptance of a powerful rival who had considerable authority over the hearts and minds of the very people Jackson meant to organize.