“What we need is to revive the vision of what the Rainbow Coalition campaigns of 1984 and 1988 could have become. A multiracial, multiclass political movement with strong participation and leadership from racial minorities, labor, women’s organizations and other left-of-center groups could effectively articulate important interests and concerns of the most marginalized and oppressed sectors of society. It would certainly push the boundaries of political discourse
to the left. . .”* Manning Marable
I never expected the Democratic Party to nominate Dennis Kucinich or anyone very progressive for President. I did think it was possible that grassroots pressure would lead to better rhetoric and perhaps a few better positions on key issues on the part of the Democrats this year. But so far, since John Kerry became the presumptive Presidential nominee in early March, he has been, in the words of David Cobb, the leading candidate for the Green Party Presidential nomination, “woefully inadequate.”
Kerry shows every indication of being, if he wins the Presidency and absent mass pressure, little more than warmed-over Bill Clinton.
Dennis Kucinich, to his credit, has not thrown in the towel and is continuing his campaign in an effort to influence Democratic Party positions. But other than Kucinich, there is little evidence within that party of the anti-war, progressive upsurge that significantly influenced the tone and the issues addressed during the Democratic primary season of 2003-early 2004.
This is problematic in the short run because it will be much more difficult to mobilize enough of the “sleeping giant,”
the many working class people who refuse to vote, if they hear little of substance from Kerry. Most already correctly see both parties as on the corporate take.
A centrist, corporate-friendly, more-troops-to-Iraq Democratic campaign will also inevitably dampen the enthusiasm of the labor, community, feminist, people of color, peace and other activists who desperately want the Bushites out of office. Most will still work hard to defeat that gang of liars and thieves, but their/our work will be more difficult.
This is one reason why I believe that the national Green Party should run a Presidential campaign this year, one that is strategically smart. Ralph Nader makes the same point about his independent campaign (though I don’t support it on other grounds). Such independent and progressive campaigns can be a counter-pressure from the left to affect the rhetoric and positions of the Democrats.
Needed Now: Discussion of a “Third Force” Movement
But it seems to me that we also need to begin raising now, not waiting until after November 2, the issue that Manning Marable put forward as quoted above. Independent progressive activists need to begin to discuss and take concrete steps to hasten the reemergence of the kind of powerful “third force” movement that we saw between 1984 and 1989.
That Rainbow movement was unlike anything this country had seen in many decades, perhaps ever. Although it was built around Jesse Jackson’s two Presidential campaigns within the Democratic Party, because of the involvement within it of large numbers of independent progressive activists, it really was more of a “third force.” Jackson talked openly about it in these terms, particularly between 1984 and 1987. Its overall platform was very progressive. It was led primarily by African Americans with some involvement from other communities of color. It was a broadly-based coalition involving elements of labor, farmers, seniors, third party advocates, students, feminists, people of faith, gays and lesbians, health care activists, etc. It was specifically organized to challenge for political power. It had the potential, some of us believed, to transition, over time, into something much more explicitly party-like.
But it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because it was built around the charisma and personal energy of one man. And when that one man decided that the advancement of his political career within the Democratic Party was more important than the development of the Rainbow movement which he had done so much to bring into being, the Rainbow Coalition was essentially hollowed out from the inside, stripped of almost all its vitality and growing power. Many of us continue to hold very strong feelings about the historic opportunity that was missed because of that set of decisions.
As we consciously set about the necessary task of bringing a similar type of formation and movement into existence, we need to learn from the positives and negatives of that five-year experience in the 80’s:
-Progressive African American leaders with a mass following can give leadership to broader political forces and in doing so catalyze and inspire a powerful progressive movement.
Activists of all cultures and nationalities need to understand this lesson of U.S. history going back to the anti-slavery campaigns of the 1800’s.
-African American leadership must consciously involve other communities, particularly Latinos, Native Peoples and Asian Americans, as well as predominantly white sectors and constituencies, in the leadership and membership of the new “third force.” Progressive white activists need to understand the central role that white supremacy has played in preventing the emergence of a powerful people’s movement and study, take action and function accordingly.
-Electoral campaigns can be about movement-building and organization-building if conducted in such a way that those objectives are prioritized. At the same time, it is necessary that mechanisms be created for holding accountable those running for office and for on-going political activism on issues in between electoral campaigns.
-It may well be necessary for a charismatic and nationally-known progressive leader to take on this historic project if it is to be successful. It may not be necessary.
However, in the words of Dave Jette, “it is critical that a democratic structure and a collective leadership be created so that no one individual has the power to determine the coalition’s path.”**
These are not the only lessons, to be sure, and there are insights from the development of the people’s movement in the USA over the last 15 years that must also be incorporated into the process of unfolding this new political force. Let’s advance the discussion!
*The Great Wells of Democracy, p. 91, Basic Books, published in 2002 **”A Progressive Electoral Coalition,” an article published in the Spring, 2004 Independent Politics News