The triumph of the Right in 1980 was a consequence of several factors: the excesses of the student anti-war and black power movements; the nation’s humiliating defeat in Vietnam; anxiety and confusion provoked by the first signs of the sustained structural crisis of the world-system and the accompanying U.S. productive and commercial decline relative to other core powers; and the national humiliation of the incapacity of the U.S. government to liberate hostages taken from the U.S. Embassy in Iran. Ronald Reagan, a sincere former governor of California and one-time Hollywood actor, offered a simplistic but coherent discourse that named Big Government and insufficient aggressiveness in international affairs as the culprits, and that envisioned a restoration of national honor. In contrast, the Left was unable to offer to the people a coherent, realistic national direction, an alternative to both the program of the political establishment and the proposed project of the Right.
Once elected president, Ronald Reagan did what he said he was going to do. The Reagan administration made drastic reductions in social programs, implemented huge tax cuts, and significantly increased military spending. There occurred a substantial reduction in the income of the poorest Americans, while the rich got richer. The preeminent historian C. Vann Woodward described the administration’s program as involving “gross economic favors for the privileged, the powerful, and the well-to-do, and blatant deprivations for the distressed and the needy.”
In his July 9, 1981 presidential address at the tenth annual PUSH convention, Jesse Jackson recognized that Reagan had offered to the people a coherent vision and hope for a restoration of national pride. However, Jackson maintained, a vision for the future of the nation “must be built on the foundation of truth,” and Reaganism ignores the most fundamental facts of American history. It ignores the fact that America was built on a foundation of cheap labor and cheap raw materials, made possible by the conquest of Native Americans, the enslavement of blacks, and territorial expansion against Mexico. Moreover, Reagan sold his program to the people by distorting contemporary reality. He portrayed social programs as benefitting primarily blacks, when in fact more whites than blacks benefit from food stamps, welfare, social security, funding for public educations, and minimum wage laws. Whites were taken in by the deception, and they voted against their interests.
Reagan administration policies resulted in a further deterioration of the economic conditions of African-Americans. From 1980 to 1983, the unemployment rate for blacks increased from fifteen to thirty percent; and nearly half of black teenagers were unemployed by 1983. During the period, the number of blacks attending college declined significantly. By 1985, one-third of blacks were living in poverty, three times the rate of whites; and the median income of black families was half that of white families.
But the Democratic Party did not rise to challenge Reagan’s policies. The leadership of the Democratic Party accepted the basic elements of Reagan’s program, and it made no concerted effort to alert the people to its negative consequences for those most in need. The Party leadership feared a popular revolt in the Party, as had occurred in the early 1970s, and it thus adopted a strategy of making concessions to the Reagan administration and to preserving what was for the moment a passive party membership. Analyzing the situation from a perspective of electoral politics, the party leadership believed that the Republican Party’s turn to the Right meant that black voters were definitely in the Democrat’s camp, and that its best strategy was to attract moderate white voters through a centrist opposition to Reaganism. Its long-term goal was to forge a left-centrist coalition, confining the Republican Party to the Right.
Black politicians and civil rights leaders felt betrayed by the strategy of the Democratic Party leadership. Black leaders believed that the Democratic Party had the moral duty to fully support black interests, because of the high percentage of blacks that had voted for democratic candidates.
With blacks being taken for granted by the Party, there emerged among black leaders the idea that there should be a black candidate in the Democratic Party presidential primaries. A black presidential candidate would be able to promote black interests, and he or she would be able to put on the table issues that were cast aside by the strategy of accommodation to Reaganism, issues such as full employment, affirmative action, enforcement of the Voting Rights Law, programs for the poor, and sanctions against South Africa. But the intention was more than changing the conversation; it also was winning the presidential elections on the basis of the support of blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, women, and the poor, thereby establishing the political foundation for the forging of a new direction for the nation.
Most black politicians were opposed to the idea, inasmuch as it would place them in the crossfire between the political establishment of their party and the desires of black voters. Most of the major civil rights organizations with ties to the nation’s power structure also were opposed to the idea. On the other hand, some leaders of Civil Rights organizations supported a presidential run by a black candidate, as did black politicians with a more radical, independent political trajectory, such as Representatives John Conyers, Gus Savage, and Ronald Dellums. And the majority of black people supported the idea of a black presidential candidate, 67% according to an Ebony poll.
The idea of a black presidential candidate increasingly focused on Jackson, who was viewed by blacks, according to public opinion polls, as by far the most important black leader in the nation. During the PUSH voter registration campaign in the South in 1983, rally crowds chanted “Run, Jesse, Run.”
On November 3, 1983, Jesse Jackson announced his candidacy for the nomination of the Democratic Party for President. He proclaimed that his candidacy would “give voice to the voiceless, representation to the unrepresented, and hope to the downtrodden.” He expressed succinctly the concept of the empowerment of the people through the formation of a rainbow coalition. “I would like to use this candidacy to help build a new rainbow coalition of the rejected that will include whites, blacks, Hispanics, Indians and Native Americans, Asians, women, young people, poor people, old people, gay people, laborers, small farmers, small businesspersons, peace activists and environmentalists. If we remain separated, we will forever remain poor and powerless. But if we come together around our common economic plight and a humane political agenda, we won’t be poor and powerless anymore. . . . Together we can build a new majority.” Note here the evolution of the conceptualization of the Rainbow Coalition to include several sectors of white society.
In the 1984 presidential primaries, a number of black elected officials with ties to the Democratic Party political establishment endorsed former Vice-President Walter Mondale. But Jackson received between sixty and eight-three percent of the black vote in presidential primaries across the nation, creating a political reality in which black elected officials had to justify their support of Mondale before increasingly hostile black constituents.
In the 1984 Democratic primaries across the nation, Jackson received 18.3% of the total vote, finishing third behind Walter Mondale (38.6%) and Gary Hart (36.2%) in a field with eight contenders originally. He received only 5% of the white vote.
On April 17, 1986, 756 delegates of organizations from forty-three states formed the National Rainbow Coalition, naming Jesse Jackson president. On October 24, 1987, Jackson announced his second bid for the nomination of the Democratic Party for president. The conception was to develop the Rainbow Coalition as an organization allied with the Democratic Party, and as a social movement within the Democratic Party, thus preserving the Party’s center-left coalition, keeping the right-wing Republican Party at bay; but ultimately seeking to weaken the center and the Right through a more effective and appealing formulation from the radical Left.
Jackson entered the 1988 Democratic Primaries with the intention of a capturing a higher percentage of the vote than in 1984. Black politicians, recognizing that the support of black people for Jackson could no longer prudently be ignored, endorsed him in 1988, ensuring an even higher percentage of black votes. And the Jackson campaign adopted a concerted strategy of persuading white voters, emitting position papers that were designed to show that Jackson’s program supported the interests of the various popular sectors. The Jackson campaign reiterated that that the program was formulated from the African-American experience and perspective, but it was a project that sought to defend the interests of all the people, offered for the good of the nation.
In the position papers and in his speeches, Jackson called each of the popular sectors by name, embracing the issues that they themselves had defined and given priority.
Workers: decent wages, collective bargaining rights, secure pensions, increased federal funding for retraining workers who have lost jobs due to factory relocation.
Farmers: policies in support of family farms rather than corporate agribusiness, including price controls and low-interest credit.
Women: ERA, comparable worth, affirmative action, child care tax credit, child care programs, parental leave, support for abortion as a constitutional right (independent of personal or religious views on this difficult question).
Blacks: Affirmative action; minority set asides to promote the development of minority business; greater protection of voting rights; same-day, on-site voting registration; statehood for DC.
Hispanics: Bilingual education, protection of the languages and cultures of all nationalities in the United Sates, higher legal immigration, expansion of amnesty program for undocumented workers, greater penalties on employers who exploit undocumented workers.
Native Americans: To honor obligations resulting from the 371 treaties that the U.S. government has signed with American Indian nations; technical assistance and capital to Indian-owned economic enterprises.
Homosexual men and women: full citizenship rights must be respected, independent of personal or religious views; lesbians and gay men should not be evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs, denied health care coverage or life insurance, or assaulted on the street; no discrimination in the military and the federal government.
Environment: the development of environmentally-friendly forms of production; fuel-efficient and less polluting cars; renewable energy.
Small businesspersons: Policies that favor small businesses rather than large corporations; more credit for small businesses.
Jackson maintained that the various sectors of the people must learn to see their particular interests not as competing interests. The people must be persuaded that their particular interests can be attained by coming together and supporting one another. The Rainbow Coalition is a project for the political empowerment of the people.
The Jackson campaign put forth a number of proposals that would benefit various popular sectors, which Jackson characterized as economic populism. The campaign formulated proposals with respect to: hunger, nutrition, and homelessness; child care, inadequate schools, college student aid, national health insurance, and housing; the rebuilding of the nation’s infrastructure in housing, transportation and schools, thereby providing more jobs; and the restructuring of the tax code in order to stimulate corporate investment in the nation and reduce factory relocation. The Jackson campaign also emitted a budget, which planned for the financing of the proposed social investments through higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and the freezing of military spending.
With respect to foreign policy, Jackson proposed a fundamental reorientation of foreign policy assumptions. U.S. foreign policy since the late 1940s had viewed the United States as the world leader in defense of democracy, standing against the Soviet Union and communism. Conflicts in the Third World were seen as dimensions of this supposed global struggle between democracy and communism. Jackson proposed the replacement of this model of East-West confrontation with a foreign policy doctrine of North-South cooperation, which sees Third World conflicts as rooted in the underdevelopment and poverty that are legacies of colonial domination, and in national liberation movements seek to overcome underdevelopment. The doctrine of North-South cooperation, logical and self-evident from an African-American perspective, recognizes the right of all nations to self-determination. It maintains that promoting Third World economic development is in U.S. interests, because raising the wages and living standard of the peoples of the Third World would increase their capacity to buy U.S. products. In accordance with these foreign policy goals, Jackson proposed an International Marshall Plan for the Third World and the restructuring of Third World debt.
The formulation of these policy proposals enabled inroads into the white vote in the presidential primaries of 1988. Nationwide, Jackson received a modest 12% of the white vote. But he scored higher percentages of the white vote in some states: 25% to 40% in Michigan (enabling a stunning outright victory in that state); 17% of the white vote in Massachusetts, 18% to 22% in Connecticut; 23% in Wisconsin; 24% in Nebraska; and 25% in California. And he received strong percentages of the total vote in states with very few black voters: 20% of the total vote in Minnesota; 28% in Maine; 31% in Kansas: and 38% in Oregon. On Super Tuesday, he won five states and received more votes than any other candidate in the twenty primaries, many in the South, on the basis of 91% of the black vote, 21 percent of the Hispanic vote; and 7% of the white vote.
Although Jackson did not win the 1988 Democratic nomination, finishing second to nominee Michael Dukakis, the gains in attracting white voters indicated possibilities for the future development of the Rainbow Coalition movement. The Jackson presidential campaigns had revitalized the African-American movement, bringing it to a new stage, reversing the accommodationist turn of the 1970s (see “The black middle class defends its interests,” April 20, 2021), and retaking many of the proposals for economic and social transformation that had emerged in the late 1960s (see “The black awakening of 1964 to 1972,” April 16, 2021).
The next stage in the movement, which had been formulated by Jackson, had to be the development of the Rainbow Coalition as a mass organization in each state, including the forming of study groups for the education of the people, participating in activities related to social justice causes, and supporting progressive candidates for local offices. As a mass organization in each state, the Rainbow Coalition would function as both a social movement organization and a political current within a political party, dedicated above all to the raising of the political consciousness of the people.
I was a South Carolina Jackson delegate at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, and we South Carolina delegates met on several occasions following the convention to discuss the formation of the Rainbow Coalition as a recognized organization in our state. But the conversations were endless, lacking in direction and without concrete results. When Rev. Jackson visited Presbyterian College to deliver a lecture, I tried to talk with him about the issue of developing the coalition as a mass organization. He referred me to others, who were unable to help. In reflecting on Rev. Jackson’s manner in responding to my effort to raise the issue, I concluded that he really did not have commitment to developing the concept in practice.
I can only speculate concerning the reasons. (1) Perhaps Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition were trapped in a dependency on income from fees for public lectures, draining Jackson’s energy from the development of a nationwide mass organization. (2) Perhaps Jackson was hopeful of statehood for DC and his own election as a Senator from the new state, which would give him a stronger national platform; and support by the Democratic Party for DC statehood was conditioned on Jackson avoiding the more radical proposals that the Rainbow Coalition as a mass organization would likely propose. (3) Perhaps Jackson was pessimistic about the real possibilities of developing the Rainbow Coalition as a mass organization, inasmuch as turnout for our activities was very weak when Jackson was not personally present.
Many leftists in the United States believe that a charismatic leader is dysfunctional for social movements. However, the experiences of triumphant and sustained revolutionary processes in the world teach us that charismatic leadership is a necessary dimension. In those critical moments in which the correct revolutionary road is difficult to discern, a charismatic leader is needed to see the correct road and to unify the people in taking it. In the long run, in order to overcome dependency on the charismatic leader, the revolutionary project must lend constant attention to the development of a vanguard political party separate from the leader, and to teaching to the people the history, principles, and values of the charismatic leader and the revolution, so that the people become, ultimately, a revolutionary people. History teaches that revolutionary peoples are formed through the political and pedagogical presence of a charismatic leader in the early stages of the revolution.
The necessary components for a revolutionary movement in the United States were present as the 1980s came to a close. I have concluded that, for whatever reasons, Rev. Jackson did not fully see these revolutionary possibilities.