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.