The seeds of a movement more than 30 years in the making may finally be bearing fruit in the Democratic Party.
Left and center-left black candidates are claiming victory at the polls, toppling centrist Democrats who have long been the party’s source of power. Gubernatorial candidates such as Stacey Abrams of Georgia, Andrew Gillum of Florida and Ben Jealous of Maryland, as well as congressional candidate Ayanna Pressley of Boston, campaigned with platforms demanding Medicare-for-all, universal prekindergarten, an increase in corporate tax rates and a higher minimum wage. They are candidates with platforms to the left of their opponents, seeking to provide radical change rather than accommodating the party’s moderate leaders.
The frenzy surrounding these candidates might seem to channel Barack Obama’s momentous 2008 campaign. However, in both style and substance, the campaigns of these modern black progressives are more a fulfillment of the president’s predecessor: the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The successes of black Democrats in 2018 suggest that Jackson’s progressive vision may soon unseat the centrism that has reigned over the party for the past three decades. In the 1980s, Democratic leadership sought to remake the party to be competitive in a political arena pushed rightward by the Reagan administration. However, many Democratic voters, like progressive voters today, demanded a real alternative to Republican conservatism. This was the choice that Jackson offered and that his successors on the campaign trail do today as well.
In 1984, Jackson sought to make history, hoping to be the Democratic Party’s first African American presidential nominee. He built a multicultural and cross-class organization he dubbed the Rainbow Coalition. His efforts ultimately collapsed because of the outspoken nature of his campaign, which showed in his affiliation with anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Jackson’s anti-Semitic comment about voters in New York. Nonetheless, Jackson won nearly 20 percent of votes cast in the Democratic primaries and delivered a memorable keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
Four years later, he again sought the Democratic nomination, this time with more experience, a bit more funding and better organization. He understood that his viability as a candidate required bringing new types of voters into the Democratic Party. So he expanded his idea of the Rainbow Coalition to include those also suffering from economic distress. He reached out to farmers hit hard by the economic recession, gay and lesbian organizations that were seeking more support for HIV/AIDS patients and young people who were struggling to pay for increasingly expensive college education.
While moderates such as Michael Dukakis, Al Gore Jr. and Richard A. Gephardt targeted white voters disappointed by the Reagan era, Jackson advanced a platform that was refreshingly inclusive. He promised to fight for equal pay and family leave, to raise the corporate tax rate to fund social services and single-payer health care, to direct more federal money toward HIV/AIDS research and to push for federal laws to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Jackson also vowed to protect and expand the rights of African Americans, immigrant groups and the disabled, as well as to support South Africans fighting to end apartheid.
Jackson sought to build coalitions grounded in solidarity among those with the shared experience of struggle. Members of these marginalized groups, he contended, were victims of “economic violence” and represented “a critical mass of mutual survival.”
He used the metaphor of a patchwork quilt to describe his strategy. “Workers,” he contended, “you fight for fair wages, you are right — but your patch of labor is not big enough. Women, you seek comparable worth and pay equity, you are right — but your patch is not big enough. Gays and lesbians, when you fight against discrimination and a cure for AIDS, you are right — but your patch is not big enough.”
Jackson recognized that disempowered groups on their own did not have the resources to wage their battles against oppression. But they could weave their skills and resources together to build a powerful quilt of solidarity. He concluded, “When we form a great quilt of unity and common ground, we’ll have the power to bring about health care and housing and jobs and education and hope to our Nation.”
Jackson’s campaign was stimulating for the Democratic Party. He mobilized voters in communities where citizens felt disempowered and disengaged from electoral politics. He ultimately registered more than 200,000 new voters for the Democratic Party. His grass-roots work paid off in a series of surprising primary victories in Michigan and across the Deep South.
By the convention, Jackson had 11 victories and garnered nearly 7 million votes, almost a third of all primary votes cast. His supporters reflected his Rainbow Coalition vision — he received the support of more than 90 percent of black voters, 30 percent of Latinos and 12.5 percent of white voters. Dukakis, however, had the support of the moderates in the party, and he secured the nomination over Jackson when centrist Democrats encouraged their delegates to switch their votes.
The struggle between the progressive Jackson and the centrist Dukakis proved to be a battle over the future of the party, one that Dukakis and his supporters in the Democratic Leadership Council ultimately won (even as Dukakis lost the presidential election to George H.W. Bush).
Even though Jackson brought new voters into the party, Democrats chose to cater to moderate and conservative Democrats who had supported Reagan over Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. This strategy proved successful for the Democrats in 1992 with the election of Bill Clinton. It was also the strategy of Barack Obama, who, like Jackson, assembled a diverse coalition but whose 2008 platform was more evocative of Clintonian centrism.
Now, the Democratic Party again stands at a crossroads. Ten years after the election of the first black president, Ayanna Pressley, Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Ben Jealous, rather than Barack Obama, are proving to be the heirs of Jesse Jackson’s progressive legacy. Their proposals may seem to some idealistic and impracticable, as many deemed Jackson’s ideas in the 1980s. But for many of those supporting these progressive black Democrats, the idea of health care for all, a livable minimum wage and pre-K for all children are not only possible but necessary. And for a party in need of rebuilding its base, its leadership should look to its progressive past and to the candidates inspiring voters in the present for guidance.