I have long challenged my fellow Democrats to fight for the rights of the people who elect them, or face the consequences of rejection. In his May 14 op-ed article {"From Jesse Jackson, Strategies That Would Divide"}, Richard Cohen labels this challenge "divisive." Surely it cannot be called divisive to demand accountability from elected officials. That is the very essence of democracy.

Cohen's text distorts the context. Over the last decade, working Americans have suffered; inequality has grown to new heights. To distract attention from this failure, Republicans have perfected a politics of fear, using race-based politics to divide Americans and ensure reelection.

Now some Democrats of lesser conscience seek to imitate this racial politics rather than repudiate it. These Democrats must recognize that in these times of economic recession and political division, they cannot run with the rabbits and hunt with the hounds for the rabbits. The economically vulnerable, workers, women and ethnic minorities are in need of protection.

We must not become so cynical that we begin to tolerate the politics of racial division as "hardball" politics. They are immoral politics. The 1991 Civil Rights Bill is not a racial thing -- it is fundamentally an equal economic opportunity bill to protect women, workers, the physically handicapped and ethnic minorities. "Quota" is a code word designed to stir up racial fear. The National Rainbow Coalition will continue to raise its voice against the race-conscious manipulation and fear-filled politics of Jesse Helms, David Duke, President Bush, John Sununu or Democrats who may be intimidated by them or find affinity with them.

When the Democratic Leadership Council chairman, Gov. Bill Clinton, says that he wants the DLC to be thought of as the Democratic Party, this sends a message that the DLC sees itself as insurgent. The DLC then holds a conference in Cleveland, in part paid for by Republican lobbyists, who then vote on a Democratic Party agenda. Some may find this amusing. I find it vulgar and insulting. These Democrats have further used divisive language to shift the political center away from the moral center of racial justice, gender equality and peace, rationalizing the shift on the basis of winning and losing. But if an issue is morally wrong, it can never be politically right. We must never let ourselves be pulled from the high plane of morality and legality into the valley of expedient politics and race consciousness. To do so is to insult the American people and to abandon their rights and needs.

The Democratic Party must be the party of inclusion, the party of choice. We cannot win by offering a pale imitation of the Republican Party, staging elections in which there are two names for one party, with one set of assumptions and one set of solutions. We cannot remain silent in the face of these basic challenges of economic and racial justice, gender equality and voter participation.

Economic hardship and the politics of fear lead to voter disaffection. President Bush was elected with only 26 percent of the electorate. Less than half of all eligible voters participate in the electoral process. If people do not have options, they do not vote. As the poor and less educated drop out, an organized and affluent minority has become the political majority, and our democracy suffers.

Cohen laments that there is no economic program that answers the nation's needs. This is not true. With the help of citizens across the country, I have detailed a common-ground agenda for economic renewal, for new priorities, fair taxes and environmental reconstruction.

Demanding accountability of elected officials is not "divisive." It is our democratic right. Civil rights, workers rights, gender equality, economic and racial justices are not "left" positions. They are in the constitutional and moral center of our nation. They are not "special interests," but constitute the fabric of the national interest. The challenge we face is to expand democracy and the political debate to serve the needs of all the people.

The writer, president of the National Rainbow Coalition, was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988.