This article originally appeared in the issue of December 4, 1989.
The election of four black candidates to high office in important localities on the same day should indicate that a new progressive politics is developing around the country. If so, the indications have been largely ignored. Even before voters went to the polls in the scattered off-off-year elections, Democratic politicians and media commentators were straining to put a very different spin on the predicted victories of David Dinkins in New York, L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia, John Daniels in New Haven and Norm Rice in Seattle. The conventional wisdom quickly produced the line that “black moderates” won precisely because of their moderation, which in this case meant catering to white racial fears, keeping Jesse Jackson at more than arm’s length, stroking anxious Jewish voters and contributors, and avoiding the progressive political agenda like the plague.
A few days after his squeaker win (a re-count may follow) Wilder told a meeting of the centrist Southern-based Democratic Leadership Council that future Democratic presidential candidates should heed the lessons of his election and embrace “the values of the overwhelming majority of the people in this country.” In D.L.C. terms, that entails running on a platform of high military budgets, cold war foreign policy, reduced social spending and tax abatements. Virginia Senator Charles Robb, one of Wilder’s predecessors as governor, seconded Wilder’s suggestions and condemned the “liberal fundamentalism” of progressive Democrats, “activists and interest groups who exercise disproportionate influence over the party’s nominating process.” Whenever a Democrat with national aspirations starts condemning the nominating process, it must mean that his ambitions are about to take a giant leap.
Not for the first time, the prophets of the center are disregarding history and reality in their eagerness to rationalize their own interests. The success of African-American candidates was a direct result of the most far-reaching social mobilization in this century–the campaign to enfranchise blacks who by law or custom had been excluded from the political process. That drive began in the red-dirt counties of the Deep South in the early 1960s, and it continues to this day in the ghettos of the North. In its most recent form the mobilization has been led by Jesse Jackson, who not only helped register millions of new voters but injected enormous energy and a sense of possibility into black communities all over the nation. The resulting empowerment provided the base that led directly to the victories of the four candidates, and many others less publicized, in November.
From the beginning, the mobilization had a political dimension as well as a racial one. It is important that blacks be visible in positions of power, but the symbols must have substance. Too many times, a people’s representative once in power ignores the needs of the people–women, labor unionists, farmers or any other struggling community that Chuck Robb et al. disparagingly call “special interests.” Because needy communities rarely have enough electoral power to install their own members in office (if they did, they wouldn’t be struggling), they form coalitions with groups that have similar political needs–and thus give lasting, institutional substance to the symbols.
The Rainbow Coalition that produced Jesse Jackson’s presidential primary victories in almost every major city of the country last year became the base for many of the local black (and progressive) candidates this time. In New York City, the vast majority of Dinkins’s support–in campaign work as well as votes–came from the same area as the Jackson rainbow. This support is in no way automatic. A candidate who could not make a commitment to the coalition, even tacitly, would surely lose the election.
The problem comes when the candidate goes further and seeks votes and social legitimization, in the form of press endorsements and big contributions, from those who are opposed to everything the coalition stands for. Dinkins did some of that; Wilder did a lot more. (Daniels and Rice do not fit the catchall “black moderate” label attached to them.) By doing so, they make it all the more likely that they will remain merely symbolic figures, that they will sacrifice the needs of their broad base–for economic investment, social restructuring and extended empowerment–to the demands of the few outside the coalition who may have put them over the top.
Dinkins got less than 30 percent of the so-called white vote. Of that, a significant minority was already in the progressive coalition that promoted his candidacy in the first place. He got very little support from the “white ethnics” he spent so much time “reassuring” about crime, drugs, taxes and whatever else his pollsters came up with. Perhaps that was what he had to do this time. But soon another candidate will be able to extend the coalition right into that constituency with economic, class and empowerment issues. Neither politics nor society is static, as the Robb/Wilder theory holds. The point of politics is to change society, and thus move from symbol to substance.