A month before Ronald Reagan's election to his first term, frustrated blacks were trying to figure out how to make their influence felt. Jews, with a total of some 3 million votes nationally, were being courted by both Reagan and incumbent Jimmy Carter. Blacks, who had given close to 7 million votes to Carter just four years earlier, couldn't get their issues on the table.
The only change in the four years since then is that things have gotten worse. Blacks who followed the 1984 primaries watched as Democratic candidates outbid each other in their promises to the Jewish electorate. Even with Jesse Jackson adding interest to a generally lackluster campaign, blacks were unable to get their special concerns into the debate. Nor, after the party nominated Walter Mondale, was there any significant concession to Jackson and his followers, even though there was general acknowledgment that the black vote would be crucial to the defeat of Reagan and that Jackson's enthusiastic support of Mondale would be necessary to maximize that vote.
It got worse during the general election campaign. Reagan, who couldn't expect signficant black support and who didn't need it, saw no need to address black concerns. Mondale, who did need the black vote, was embarrassingly careful to avoid courting it too publicly. He promised nothing, save for a figurative wink in the direction of blacks; put no blacks in inner-circle campaign positions; furnished Jackson with precious little to say to blacks except that he was, after all, not Reagan.
And now Jesse Jackson is threatening what his campaign adviser, Howard University political science professor Ronald Walters, threatened four years ago: blacks will have to "reassess their loyalty" to the Democratic Party.
When Walters said it, he had in mind the creation of a separate black party whose chief function would be to set the black agenda and to bargain with major- party candidates. The effort died a-borning.
What Jackson has in mind is for blacks to elect their own candidates (whether blacks or progressive whites) outside the party structure: "If you can win without the party, it puts you in position to rework your position within the party."
That strategy, too, may be doomed. To begin with, too many black politicians hold positions of at least limited influence in the state and local parties. They are not likely to give up that influence, including the benefits of seniority, in pursuit of the Jackson chimera. As for the national elections, working "outside the party structure" seems a sure path to political irrelevance.
But if it is easy to see the flaws in the Jackson notion, it is a good deal harder to suggest what might accomplish his end. To the extent that the "black agenda" -- whatever that may be -- is fundamentally different from the agenda of the overwhelming majority of other Americans, probably nothing will.
It is tempting for blacks to seek to punish the Democratic Party, to which they have been uncommonly faithful, for its cavalier treatment of them. But the fact is that blacks didn't join the Democratic Party as a favor to the party, but as their best hope for achieving some of their goals. Is it reasonable to suppose that those goals will be easier to achieve by repudiating both major parties?
Jackson's "Rainbow Coalition" amounts to a summons for the nation's political losers to join forces. The problem is that, aside from blacks, no significant group wants to define itself as a loser.
What's left, I suspect, is the nitty-gritty of forming coalitions where possible and trying to figure out where black interests intersect with majority interests. There's no drama in it, but it may be all there is.