How the Democrats got over the Rainbow

July 25, 2016

After acknowledging that Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders called on supporters of his defeated primary campaign to continue working to transform the Democratic Party. But that strategy has been tried before. Lee Sustar, a veteran contributor to Socialist Worker, looks back at Rev. Jesse Jackson's "Rainbow challenge" in the 1980s--and explains how the Democratic Party absorbed that effort and killed the left's hope for a mass membership Rainbow Coalition.

CAN BERNIE Sanders succeed where Jessie Jackson failed three decades ago in attempting to transform the Democratic Party?

Following his speech last month in which he conceded that Hillary Clinton would win the nomination, a reported 7,000 supporters answered Sanders' call to declare that they would run for public office--including challenging Democratic incumbents in primary campaigns--and carry on the values that his campaign put forward.

Sanders claims that the party's platform to be adopted at this week's nominating convention will be the most left wing ever, and his drawn-out negotiations with the Clinton campaign before endorsing her raised expectations that the self-described socialist candidate will continue fighting for his billionaire-bashing, pro-worker talking points.

But if Jackson's campaigns of three decades ago are any guide, Sanders and his supporters will discover that the Democratic Party is highly adept at accommodating progressive rhetoric and candidates--while avoiding any significant changes in the party's pro-corporate machinery and policies.

Jesse Jackson speaks during the 1984 Democratic presidential primary campaign
Jesse Jackson speaks during the 1984 Democratic presidential primary campaign

And that's after two runs for the Democratic presidential nomination in which Jackson, in some ways at least, represented a greater threat to the party status quo than Sanders does today.

TO MANY on the left, Jackson appeared an unlikely standard-bearer in 1984. As founder of the Chicago-based Operation Breadbasket, Jackson had been oriented on Black capitalism back to the days of the civil rights movement--often to the frustration of his mentor, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

When Jackson criticized King's plan for a Poor People's March on Washington, King replied, "If you are so interested in doing your own thing that you can't do what the organization is structured to do, go ahead. If you want to carve out your own niche in society, go ahead, but for God's sake, don't bother me!"

Jackson did strike out on his own with People United to Save Humanity (PUSH), which continued its orientation on building African American businesses. But by 1983--as liberals inside and outside the Democratic Party were pulled to the right by the increasingly conservative climate--Jackson, who traveled constantly, emerged as a leading voice against the right-wing polices of Republican President Ronald Reagan. He said in a speech:

Blacks have their backs against the wall and are increasingly distressed by the erosion of past gains and the rapidly deteriorating conditions within Black and poor communities. As Black leaders have attempted to remedy these problems through the Democratic Party--to which Black voters have been the most loyal and disciplined group--too often they have been ignored or treated with disrespect...

An increase in voter registration and political representation would have a profound impact upon the status quo of the Democratic Party...Never again should Blacks live and operate below their political privilege and rights.

Enthusiastic crowds saw Jackson as a figure who could lead the unfinished struggles of the civil rights and Black Power movements. After months of chants of "Run, Jesse, run!" Jackson threw his hat in the ring.

Jackson had a late start, little organization and less money--and he faced stiff opposition from almost the entire rising Black political establishment. Detroit Mayor Coleman Young said, "The major task of Black America today is to get rid of Ronald Reagan. We cannot afford to support a Black candidate who cannot win." U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York served as vice chair of the national campaign of former Vice President Walter Mondale, who eventually won the nomination. Many Black elected officials lined up with mainstream Democrats to denounce Jackson's ties to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Nevertheless Jackson swept the Black vote across the U.S. in the 1984 campaign. He won 3.5 million votes in the primaries and caucuses--21 percent of the total--and came in first in four states.

On the left, only a handful of revolutionary socialist groups--including the International Socialist Organization--resisted the pressure to join Jackson's campaign.

As Sheila Collins, a key activist in the campaign, wrote, "The Jackson campaign was the first in which a variety of civil rights activists, Marxists, social democrats (in and out of the Democratic Party), Black nationalists and even some disaffected Republicans worked together to create an ideological convergence." Barry Commoner, the 1980 presidential candidate of the Citizens Party, a small social democratic environmentalist group, threw his support to Jackson.

The 1984 campaign gave rise to the Rainbow Coalition, which aimed to shift the Democratic Party to the left.

WHEN JACKSON decided once again to seek the Democratic nomination in 1988, African American elected officials concluded that they had no choice but to get on board this time. It was clear that Jackson would get the votes of the Black establishment's base, so they resigned themselves to trying to use the Jackson campaign to boost their own clout in the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party establishment got ready for another Jackson challenge.

In the aftermath of the 1984 campaign, a faction of conservative elected officials and party functionaries had launched the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) with the goal of distancing the party from African Americans and unions. Even the word "liberal" was banished as the DLC tried to curry favor with Wall Street and corporate CEOs.

Southerners, including an obscure Arkansas politician named Bill Clinton, played an important role in the DLC as the party tried to keep white Democrats in the region from defecting to the Republican Party. To that end, the DLC engineered the "Super Tuesday" primary election--a single day earlier in the primary season, with a large number of contests concentrated in the South, to boost the chances of conservative white presidential candidates.

What the geniuses at the DLC forgot was that the Southern Democratic primary electorate was increasingly African American as whites shifted to the Republicans. Thus, on March 8, 1988, a massive Black turnout lifted Jackson to victory a second-place finish in 16 out of 21 primaries--which made Jackson the frontrunner in the delegate count.

Jackson followed with a victory in the Michigan party caucuses, with 55 percent of the vote. He ended the race with 7 million votes, or around 30 percent of the total.

Jackson's success broke through racial barriers in many parts of the U.S.--like Michigan for example. His campaign championed not only the historic struggle of African Americans, but called for "economic justice" for working-class people whose unions were under attack and whose living standards were declining even as the economy boomed.

Jackson's success shocked party bosses and the media. A Time magazine cover summed up the feelings of a surprised U.S. ruling class with the headline: "JESSE!?"

DESPITE THE panic in the mainstream media, though, Jackson's 1988 campaign was far more moderate than his 1984 run. The Black nationalists and leftists who had played an important role in 1984 were sidelined by machine politicians such as Charles Rangel.

Jackson also tailored his speeches to mainstream politics--for example, he criticized Ronald Reagan's intervention in the 1980s Gulf War between Iraq and Iran for risking "our boys" in an ill-defined mission. He denounced the administration's efforts to unseat Panamanian President Manuel Noriega for being too mild and sounded an anti-drug theme that provided a liberal cover for police crackdowns in poor urban neighborhoods. Jackson also hedged on his longstanding support for Palestinian rights by saying he would not talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization until it renounced "terrorism."

Nevertheless, many on the left argued that Jackson's calls for "economic justice" during the 1988 campaign injected "class consciousness" into presidential politics. Indeed, thousands of Black and white workers turned out for Jackson rallies and voted for him, delivering him a victory in Michigan's crucial primary. Jackson's talk about the "coalition of the rejected" had some real substance in this case.

The fact that significant numbers of white workers were willing to break with racism to vote for Jackson was welcomed by everyone committed to interracial class unity. And Jackson's speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention sounded pro-worker themes that the DLC--committed to the idea that the Democrats must follow the Reaganite Republican Party as it turned to the right--had wanted to avoid:

We find common ground at the plant gate that closes on workers without notice. We find common ground at the farm auction, where a good farmer loses his or her land to bad loans or diminishing markets. Common ground at the schoolyard where teachers cannot get adequate pay, and students cannot get a scholarship, and can't make a loan. Common ground at the hospital admitting room, where somebody tonight is dying because they cannot afford to go upstairs to a bed that's empty waiting for someone with insurance to get sick. We are a better nation than that. We must do better.

But at the same time, Jackson had been steadily downplaying his anti-racist rhetoric, before and during the 1988 campaign. At the previous year's convention of his Rainbow Coalition organization, he even went so far as to say that the question of racism had been "solved."

Jackson's selection of Ron Brown as his chief negotiator at the 1988 Democratic National Convention showed where he had taken the Rainbow. Brown was a California Democrat with no history of involvement in grassroots struggles, but a long record of working inside the party machine. He had once made his living as a lobbyist for Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier during Duvalier's murderous dictatorship in Haiti.

DESPITE JACKSON'S moderation, most left-wing groups, including many Maoist revolutionary organizations, concluded that work within the Democratic Party was essential. Max Elbaum, a veteran leader of the Maoist movement, made the case for this approach:

...[T]he political program of the Jackson/Rainbow movement, while not revolutionary, went well beyond the parameters of mainstream politics. Yet by bringing this program into the Democratic primary contests, the Jackson campaign found a mechanism to present its message to tens of millions and mobilize a nationwide apparatus. This meant a direct confrontation with white supremacy--in the form of a white electoral backlash--as well as conflict with accomodationist Black leaders who were crucial to maintaining the hegemony of bourgeois politics in the African American community.

Especially for activists who continued the New Communist Movement legacy of seeing the fights as indispensable for uniting workers of all colors, the Jackson/Rainbow motion thus offered a tremendous opportunity--even the more so when it seemed that Jackson was willing to build a Rainbow Coalition that would undertake non-electoral as well as electoral activism and remain independent of official Democratic structures, and even distinct from his own campaign structures...

[T]he Rainbow offered the prospect of a durable, mass-based and independent vehicle--one which revolutionaries could loyally help build, while retaining the freedom to advocate their own point of view.

But Jackson did the opposite with the Rainbow Coalition--he prevented it from becoming a permanent mass membership organization. He later orchestrated its merger into Operation PUSH to create Rainbow/PUSH, which serves as Jackson's personal political vehicle rather than a membership group.

Meanwhile, key Jackson operatives moved into the Democratic Party hierarchy. Donna Brazile, who had been a national Rainbow coordinator of the first Jackson campaign, went on to become Al Gore's campaign manager in the 2000 elections--today, she is a cable TV news commentator. Ron Brown went on to become U.S. Secretary of Commerce under the candidate he supported in the next presidential election: the DLC's Bill Clinton.

THE DISSOLUTION of the Rainbow into the Democratic Party can't be seen as simply a reflection of Jackson's personal proclivities or the ambitions of his key allies. Rather, it flows from the nature of the party itself.

After a century of basing much of its power on the segregationist Dixiecrats in the South, the Democratic Party was compelled to open its doors to Southern African American voters and encourage the rapid growth in the number of African American elected officials. The aspirations of Black voters, in turn, pressured Black officials into backing Jackson by 1988.

Meanwhile, for much of the left, having concluded that supporting the Democratic Party in elections was the best way to relate to African American workers, there was no point any longer in maintaining separate revolutionary organization. Most dissolved.

In any event, the impact of the Rainbow Coalition on the Democratic Party was fleeting at best. In his 1992 run for president, Bill Clinton made a point of humiliating Jackson by denouncing the rap artist Sister Souljah at a Rainbow/PUSH event.

Clinton also sought to distance his campaign from any perceived Democratic Party identification with civil rights by leaving the campaign trail during the primaries to preside over the execution of a mentally disabled Black man, Ricky Ray Rector. In Georgia, he visited a penitentiary and staged a photo op with a work gang of hundreds of Black men.

Rather than challenge Clinton from the left, the majority of the Black political establishment adapted to the Democrats' right turn. The Congressional Black Caucus, for example, is a major recipient of corporate campaign contributions.

By the time Barack Obama became the Democratic Party presidential nominee in 2008, the party was able to offer liberal imagery, with references to the civil rights and labor movements, but maintain business-friendly policies in practice.

The Sanders campaign, of course, has called attention to that contradiction between the Democrats' words and actions with the aim of challenging the "billionaire class." And now that Sanders has endorsed her, the Clinton campaign may well throw Sanders a few rhetorical bones.

But behind the scenes, the pressure, bribery and co-optation is going full tilt. That's why today, as in 1988, the work of building an activist and influential left must take place outside the Democratic Party.

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