1988: Bernie Sanders and the man whose footsteps he followed
In 1984 Jesse Jackson gave a speech to the Democratic Party convention that called for a Rainbow Coalition:
Twenty years later, we cannot be satisfied by just restoring the old coalition. Old wine skins must make room for new wine. We must heal and expand. The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Arab Americans. They, too, know the pain and hurt of racial and religious rejection. They must not continue to be made pariahs. The Rainbow Coalition is making room for Hispanic Americans who this very night are living under the threat of the Simpson-Mazzoli bill; and farm workers from Ohio who are fighting the Campbell Soup Company with a boycott to achieve legitimate workers’ rights.
The Rainbow is making room for the Native American, the most exploited people of all, a people with the greatest moral claim amongst us. We support them as they seek the restoration of their ancient land and claim amongst us. We support them as they seek the restoration of land and water rights, as they seek to preserve their ancestral homeland and the beauty of a land that was once all theirs. They can never receive a fair share for all they have given us. They must finally have a fair chance to develop their great resources and to preserve their people and their culture.
The Rainbow Coalition includes Asian Americans, now being killed in our streets — scapegoats for the failures of corporate, industrial, and economic policies.
As it happens, the original call for a Rainbow Coalition came from a Black leader who had little use for the Democrats, namely Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton, a martyr to a Chicago Death Squad in blue uniforms. Hampton had reached out to the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist group inspired by the Panthers, and the Young Patriots, a group made up white former SDS’ers also adopting Panther politics even though they wore Confederate flags on their berets. Well, that’s the sixties for you.
After Hampton was killed, this Rainbow dissolved.
If violence snuffed Hampton’s coalition, Jackson’s was done in by his own reformist appetites. He merged it with Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) in 1996, a group committed to getting Black people a larger share of the American pie rather than replacing it with something much healthier—like socialism.
For much of the left, Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was like a flame to a moth—completely irresistible. At the time I was a member of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and still—as before and afterwards—totally hostile to the idea of voting for Democrats. A lot of that had to do with the feeling of being betrayed by LBJ in 1965 when I had voted for him because he had said in a speech at Akron University on October 21st, 1964 that “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
The NY chapter of CISPES and the national leadership were gung-ho. At the CISPES convention around that time, a proposal was adopted to support the Jackson campaign and to make CISPES a part of the Rainbow Coalition. Peter Camejo, upon whose advice I joined CISPES, wrote an article for the North Star Network on October 1, 1984 that reflected this trend: “A great deal of rethinking has been going on in the left in the United States in recent years. One of the most promising developments has been the growth of solidarity with Central America as well as the massive impact of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition electoral campaign.”
In the NY chapter of CISPES, one of the most ardent supporters of the Rainbow Coalition was Ron Ashford, an African-American member of the Communist Workers Party, a Maoist group that dissolved a year after Jackson’s speech. (This was the group whose members were gunned down by the KKK in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979.) Another contingent in CISPES that backed this orientation was called Line of March, also a Maoist group. They too dissolved themselves not long afterwards. For Ashford, the work in the DP produced results even if it did not produce socialism, let alone a reversal of the neoliberalism associated with Carter and subsequent DP Presidents. Today he is a HUD official in Washington, DC, a position he has held since 1995.
Frankly, I never bothered to ask Ashford or the LoM people whether they thought the Rainbow Coalition could become a third party with radical politics. I suspect that for most of them, anything that could stop Reagan, the Donald Trump of his day, was worth supporting. When Jackson lost the primaries in 1984 to Walter Mondale, you could be sure that the Maoists saw the need to back him as a lesser evil in the same way that Noam Chomsky and others are voting for Hillary Clinton today. It is worth mentioning that Camejo also backed Mondale in 1984, probably the last time he made such a mistake. After reflecting on the futility of voting for Democrats, he wrote a resolution for the Committees of Correspondence, a Eurocommunist split from the CP, urging it to break with the Democrats—a proposal even more futile than a Mondale vote. Camejo moved on to build the Green Party, an action much more consistent with his entire political career.
Jackson ran again in 1988 in a way that foreshadowed Sanders bid this year. Jackson referred to his candidacy as an “endless campaign” that would serve to pressure the DP to the left. One politician liked what he saw, according to Mother Jones:
Jackson’s presidential bid was a transformative political development for the Vermont senator, then in his fourth term as mayor of Burlington. Never before had Sanders actively participated in a Democratic Party nominating contest. And until this year, he hadn’t done so since. But Sanders threw himself into the task of getting Jackson elected with the zeal of a convert, and in the process demonstrated a political dexterity that would later pave the way for his own unorthodox presidential campaign.
Even if it meant getting slapped in the face.
Initially, Sanders and his progressive allies in Burlington wrestled with the idea of whether to back Jackson’s candidacy. On the one hand, they considered Jackson’s organization, the Rainbow Coalition, a model for what they were trying to accomplish in Vermont—a lefty group that changed the political system from outside the party structure. Jackson, for his part, was an unabashed liberal who had no problem taking positions his more seasoned opponents wouldn’t touch. His platform even resembled the one Sanders would roll out during his own presidential run more than a quarter-century later—especially on such issues as income inequality, universal health care, education funding, and cracking down on big corporations.
On the other hand, Jackson was a Democrat. Sanders, a lifelong critic of the two-party system, had started off as a member of the third-party Liberty Union before becoming an independent. In 1986, he summed up his disdain for the Democratic Party: “The main difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in this city is that the Democrats are in insurance…and the Republicans are in banking.” He had endorsed Vice President Walter Mondale for president in 1984 in the least enthusiastic way possible, telling reporters that “if you go around saying that Mondale would be a great president, you would be a liar and a hypocrite.”
Ultimately, Sanders decided that Jackson’s candidacy was just too revolutionary to ignore. He invited the reverend to Burlington, where they toured a child care center together, and Sanders endorsed him in front of a raucous crowd in Montpelier. As the campaign progressed and Jackson picked up steam, Sanders became more active. One month before Vermonters were set to cast their primary votes, he held a press conference to announce that he and his fellow Burlington progressives would be doing the previously unthinkable: attending the Democratic Party caucus.
“It is awkward—I freely admit it,” Sanders told the assembled reporters. “It is awkward for me to walk into a Democratic caucus. Believe me, it is awkward.”
So in many respects Our Revolution, the new organization launched by Sanders, is simply a continuation of the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988 and will amount to the same thing. In an epoch of capitalist decline, the notion of piecemeal reform produced by the election of progressive Democrats—the declared intention of the Sanders machine—is far more utopian than any program put forward by the Spartacist League.
In the 1930s, the New Deal and the Swedish Social Democracy were able to produce substantial reforms that benefited workers because capitalism was still rooted in the national soil and because the capitalist class had to deal with a workforce that was necessary to produce cars, steel, and all the rest. Those days are long gone.
Capitalism today has no need to placate the working class. With the disappearance of the USSR, there is no pressure on the bourgeoisie to prove that its system works better than one based on planning, even on an inefficient basis. With Bernie Sanders organizing young people to ring doorbells for liberal candidates in the hope that it can transform the DP into an instrument of change, you can be sure that his operation will have about the same shelf life as the Rainbow Coalition.
In fact, fissures have already appeared, according to Politico. It seems that younger, more grass roots oriented Sanderistas are unhappy with Jeff Weaver’s fundraising strategy:
Weaver said he had a vision that included more traditional — not just grassroots — fundraising, the person familiar with the situation said.
“It’s about both the fundraising and the spending: Jeff would like to take big money from rich people including billionaires and spend it on ads,” said Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organizing director of the campaign and the organizing director of Our Revolution (whose entire department of four left) before quitting. “That’s the opposite of what this campaign and this movement are supposed to be about and after being very firm and raising alarm the staff felt that we had no choice but to quit.”
There’s really no point in me taking sides in this quarrel. I have no dog in this fight. If Sandberg had prevailed, it would still be the sorry, time-wasting, demoralizing slog through the sewer of DP electoral politics. If this is supposed to be a “revolution”, then the word has about as much meaning as it has in TV commercials for some brand-new detergent, car or any other commodity. No thanks, I’m not buying.