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.
It is no longer necessary for Jackson to make such bad deals, if it ever was. His successful resolution of those earlier problems, by building his base and expanding his horizons, shows a skill and a sophistication that makes a powerful case for his candidacy. In Mississippi, in Vermont, in Maryland, in Michigan, California, Texas and across his sphere of operations a new breed of progressive leadership has penetrated and in some cases replaced the old power structures. In Detroit, the successful campaign is poised at Mayor Coleman Young’s door. And not only in elective office: The campaign has already begun to have important consequences for restructuring leadership of work, social and religious institutions at the base — in labor locals, church groups, community organizations and academic associations.
As the Rainbow Coalition reaches beyond its primary constituency to include an array of new ones, the values espoused are incorporated into the growing movement. When unionists, feminists, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, students, civil libertarians and community activists join or endorse the Rainbow campaign, they contribute their ideals and their energies while they share the coalition’s strength. In the end, it is their participation that catches Jackson’s attention and insures the campaign’s integrity. Jackson has struggled to legitimize his own leadership above the Old Guard, and he is strong enough now to transcend most of the regressive elements and see the parts of his coalition actually coalescing in practice as well as theory. The results are startling. Farmers from Iowa campaign in black Chicago, white ethnic hard-hats and young gays and lesbians work together in northern Wisconsin, genteel peace activists and black hip-hoppers leaflet in the projects of Hartford. The culture of American politics is being radically reformed.
The shape and substance of the Jackson campaign — in the long version — is essential to an understanding of his candidacy. For one thing, they offer evidence of Jackson’s extraordinary conceptual powers and political skills and constitute just the kind “experience” a President should have to organize the country around a transformative agenda. The argument that Jackson is unqualified for high office because he has never held one is bogus on its face. A modern President — or a postmodern one — is not primarily a business executive or even an engineer of a sterile consensus. There are plenty of managers, budgeters, policy analysts and public relations specialists who would love such jobs and can be hired to perform them. A seat in the Senate or an office in the statehouse has undoubted advantages in the electoral game, but neither has much to do with being President of the United States. A President who would bring real change must organize a social movement to do it, must re-cast the culture, must institutionalize a vision in politics from the grass roots to the halls of power.
Building coalition “on the ground” is one thing; using it as a model for an Administration that would redistribute power, reorder priorities and extend democracy is another. The Jackson campaign is woven around a dream whose realization would bring into Washington such doers and dreamers as have not been seen since the first age of Jackson in the infancy of America. They propose to shift the direction of foreign policy from its costly and dangerous obsession with cold war relationships in a bipolar world to a new partnership with the dispossessed and disenfranchised. In this vision, Third World countries would no longer be appraised as mere bases to be contested and their populations as markets to be exploited, but as organic components of an economic and political order in which development and independence take precedence over profits and the paranoia of empire.
Jackson’s shorthand on the stump for the new economic system he envisions is, “Stop jobs from going out.” What that entails is exceedingly complex. For starters, it involves the C.I.A. and its old assets in labor ceasing to manipulate foreign trade unions; U.S. corporations and transnationals curtailing their most exploitative practices and redirecting the profits from their foreign operations to the development of independent local economies; and a change in monetary policies and debt management in this country to end the economic enslavement of America’s clients.
At home, Jackson vows to end the “economic violence” evidenced everywhere — in the ravaged cities and crumbling factories and deserted farms, the homeless and the overcrowded and the underpaid, the uneducated and the sick and the alienated. Despite the blather of the social theorists, those conditions and those people did not. just happen; they are the grist of a specific economic order that is supported up and down the line by government policy. Jackson’s campaign proposes to confront corporate power with the challenge of populist power, something that sets him apart from the other candidates, who are still reeling from the corporate counterattack in full force since the early He has consistently urged real tax reform to reverse the regressive Reagan legislation (passed with many Democratic votes) and, beyond that, to begin a program to redistribute wealth and power from the corporate class to the consuming and working class, on a magnitude that has eluded even the best-intentioned liberals since the New Deal.
Electing Jesse Jackson means endorsing an increase in the minimum wage; measures to end gender pay inequities and reward work on the basis of “comparable worth”; an attempt to reverse the systematic destruction of family farms by corporate agribusiness; Federal action to halt factory flight, of both the offshore and Sun Belt varieties, and ameliorate its consequences among workers and their com- munities. Jackson’s Justice Department, free at last of the Meese curse, could begin to enforce and extend antitrust laws to deal with mergers, takeovers and acquisitions and their baleful effect on economic growth and employment.
In time, under such a presidency, the war economy that has defined the American Century for fifty years might begin to give way to a peace economy. Jackson’s first step, one that could be taken quickly, would be to freeze the defense budget, beginning to weaken apace the ideology of militarism that it has produced. The high-tech hardware firms that bankroll so many political campaigns — Democratic as well as Republican — would have to new ways to invest their surplus capital. More ambitious still, substantial new investment in education, housing, transportation, community services and infrastructure would lay the foundation for a full-employment society, promised and postponed by Democrats since the end of World War II. Jackson asks that the national education budget be doubled. He proposes job training (and retraining) and a national child-care program to help people stay off welfare. And he seeks a complete revision of the social welfare system as a concept: assistance to the needy not as a necessary evil or noblesse oblige but as a matter of human rights. Finally, alone among presidential candidates now or in the past, Jackson proposes a national health-care plan that would end America’s disgraceful attitude toward its sick and make preventive medicine and long-term treatment universally available.
All of Jackson’s critics ask, How would you pay for it? He would annually save $60 billion by 1993 from a freeze in defense spending, $20 billion by restoring the maximum personal income tax rate to 38.5 percent (affecting the wealthiest 600,OOO Americans) and $20 billion by returning corporate taxes to near their 1970 levels. The campaign has drawn up impressive budgets, and Jackson is offering ingenious new ways of liberating capital for public use, such as the investment of pension funds in federally approved projects. But the budget crunch that has deadlocked social development in America for a generation cannot be approached by limiting the range of possibilities to existing categories of revenue. Look at the wealth of America, weigh its resources, feel its power, There’s enough money in this country to do everything Jackson asks, more. The neoliberal formula manipulates available resources within the existing orders of priority; the progressive vision articulated by Jackson points to the country’s vast wealth, and the waste of so much on militarism and imperial adventure. On one side lie the values of the market and the counsel of despair; on the other, the values of citizenship and the sense of possibilities.
But are we only dreaming? Jackson is leading a movement for reform, not a revolution, and he would occupy the presidency as a radical reformer atop an essentially liberal consensus — with powerful-extremely powerful conservative forces battering at the gates. Even in the best of situations, he does not have the means or power to hold the whole country in his hands. Washington’s permanent government, which wakens all dreamers in the White House after their first fight’s sleep, would do its best to dash the fondest hopes of real reform.
The ability of the Chief Executive to act decisively remains immense, however: With a virtual stroke of the pen, Jackson could put an end to covert action, for example, institute a nuclear test ban or restore’ diplomatic relations with Cuba. He could reinvigorate the Civil Rights Commission, feminize family policy departments and end discrimination against gays and lesbians in Federal employment. The change in the political center of gravity that would make possible his election, plus the powers of the presidency, the arrival of new leaders in Congress and the city and state legislatures would give Jackson important strength to withstand an inevitable counteroffensive by the militaq and intelligence communities, the private banks, corpora- tions and multilateral financial institutions — even, perhaps, a recalcitrant Democratic Congress. It is impossible to foresee the final outcome of these conflicts. There would be wounding skirmishes and bloody battles, retreats and compromises, but all in the direction of the sweeping visions that inspirit the movement. The ideals set forth in this campaign are important in themselves, apart from their enactment in a land under a far-off Rainbow. They should stand as a new agenda for progressive America, a yardstick against which all others must be measured. For, after all, it is this set of values and the campaign that has formed around them that are of historic importance to America; they must oudast even the best leaders who espouse them. The campaign contains the dream, which will not die with defeat or delay. It already has strongly influenced the other Democratic candidates, who have appropriated not only the themes but in many cases the images and the words Jackson has long been using. If winning the presidency isn’t the only thing valuable about this interminable campaign, Jackson has already won something: He has set the tone and the terms of debate beyond anyone’s predictions.
Jackson has neither diluted his principles nor altered his positions, even as representatives of the party elite offer him help and support with each new electoral success. When he consults with Bert Lance Clark Clifford, he does so to seek what little protection they can provide in an increasingly furious campaign. Having failed, first, io get rid of Jackson by ignoring him, and then having failed to co-opt him as a good ol’ boy of Democratic centrism, the political and corporate forces he threatens most have begun to bash him with unprecedented ferocity. “Wait until New York,” one of his campaign workers said last week. “It’s going to be a nuclear war.”
Whatever happens in the big-state primaries still to come, Jackson cannot be counted the “front-runner” for the nomination, because the rich and powerful in the Democratic party fear not only his program but his prospects for election, and will do everything they can to stop him. Now that the euphoria of his Michigan-landslide has been curtailed by three straight losses (Connecticut, Colorado and Wiscon- sin), the heat on him may abate. That old bugbear “electability” needs to be confronted head-on. By running and winning, Jackson has demonstrated that he is as electable as any candidate need be to get the nomination. The impetus euphoria of his campaign in recent weeks lie in its ability, demonstrated repeatedly, ‘to reach beyond the core that explicitly shares Jackson’s ideological frame. There is evi- dence in the primaries of a broadening audience responding to the restoration of a politics that has profound roots in the American heartland; there is also a recognition that Jackson’s candidacy does not emerge from nowhere but rather pes squarely within a tradition extending from the earliest part of nineteenth-century Democratic revivalism through Midwestern Populism, the labor wars, the New Deal and the civil rights movement.
At the end of the day, it may yet be that racism and conservatism, and Democratic defections, doom Jackson to defeat. There is that risk. There is always that risk, but both principle and a sudden, pragmatic sense of what may be possible dictate that the risk on this occasion is acceptable, not foolhardy. There are worse things in the world than losing. Anyway, moving closer to the Republicans in order to stave off a Democratic defeat yields not only a bad candidate but a low-energy campaign. The means to victory is in energizing the voters, offering real change and expanding and recapturing the party’s base. In that respect, Jackson has already won more than anyone had hoped, and the longer and stronger campaign continues, the more he can make over the political face of America.
Jackson is not the perfect candidate; many of us at this magazine see serious flaws in the man. The flamboyant manner, the flair for grandstand gestures and the evident temper and ego must be calculated in any assessment of candidacy. Questions remain about past — his behavior in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., his careless financial management of the operation in Chicago and the provenance of some of its funding (which might eventually be raised against him). Nor has the intensely emotional issue of Jackson’s relations with American Jews been resolved. Despite several heartfelt apologies — including one on the rostrum of the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco — he has not won the forgiveness of the organized Jewish and many individuals for his insensitive “Hymietown” remark or his embrace of Farrakhan in 1984. Many Jews also fear his support for Palestinian self-determination and willingness to talk to their chosen representative, the Palestine Liberation Organization. The first were serious errors, but the last is a matter of principle for Jackson, and he has no reason to apologize for it. Indeed, the mainstream of American politics — George Shultz, Jimmy Carter, even Richard Nixon — has caught up with his courageous recognition that the Palestinians must be dealt with directly. He may have had vestigial attitudes of prejudice that are rooted in American culture, but they are unlike the virulent racism that characterizes the present Administration in Washington, and he seeks to transcend them.
Jackson’s roots in the rural, religious South and his distance from the development of contemporary movements of sexual liberation and personal autonomy also pose problems which must be overcome. He has made stopping drug use and teenage pregnancy central issues in his campaign — for very good reasons — and he has never associated himself with a strong feminist position on abortion, for not so good ones. Often Jackson’s attacks on social evils sound moralistic and condemnatory, suggesting the preacher’s sermon rather than the radical reformer’s demands. But only candidate Jackson marched with lesbians and gays in Washington last October. He asks for women to become an institutionalized segment of the Rainbow, and he consistently looks at the economic basis of women’s oppression.
On balance, we believe the importance of a black candidacy for President and a progressive movement for change in America overshadows any deficiencies in Jackson’s resume and the faults in campaign. Racism may be American as cherry pie, but it is a poisonous portion that fouls every dream and deforms every vision. It might have been that a candidate from the racial majority would lead a campaign to defeat racism, but that did not happen. History has come up with another and more fitting scenario: A candidate from the most oppressed minority will organize a national coalition to accomplish that end. March, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower brought Jesse Jackson into the Senate Chamber of the State Capitol his endorsement announcement. At the time, Hightower was the only white, elected state official in America publicly to support the black candidate. Under a portrait of Jefferson Davis, flanked by full-length paintiags of Lyndon and Barbara Jordan, Hightower read a short speech that caught the historic meaning — and illustrated the essential ironies of this extraordinary year.
“Frankly, it had not occurred to most populist leaders like me that our movement might become black-led, reaching out to whites,” Hightower drawled, “but there it is.” He added, “I would not escape the inner voice of integrity saying that the Rev. Jesse jackson was forcefully, proudly and successfully carrying the populist program that espouse.”
For us at the Nation too, the Jackson campaign now embodies what we believe is necessary acd just for America, and we proud to stand with it.