Jesse Jackson Is Keeping Hope Alive
I did not start with the money, the ads, the polling or the endorsements. I started with a message and a mission.” As the now-grizzled veterans of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign gather in Chicago this weekend to pay tribute to their ailing leader, Jackson’s words summarize well the historic insurgency he led 35 years ago.
The Jackson presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 were a forceful response to Ronald Reagan’s conservative movement presidency. In the face of soaring interest rates, Reagan doubled the military budget in peacetime, cut taxes on the rich and corporations, drove deregulation and privatization that savaged working and poor people, while wielding Old Glory patriotism and Old Dixie race bait politics to attract Reagan Democrats.
The mainstream Democratic response reflected the rightward drift of the party over 15 years, particularly on economic questions. Technocratic “Atari Democrats”—led by the likes of Gary Hart—scorned unions and brandished their embrace of markets. Southern Democrats formed the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)—which Jackson indelibly labeled “Democrats for the Leisure Class”—pushing Democrats to be more bellicose on national security, more conservative on social programs, while distancing themselves from New Deal and Great Society liberalism.
Against this, Jackson launched his campaign to salvage the soul of the Democratic Party and to break open a new era for American politics. In 1984, his campaign focused on consolidating support in the Black community, often against the resistance of traditional leaders. He helped register 2 million new voters, unleashing the energy that helped Democrats take back the Senate by 1986. That majority, catering to the concerns of what Alabama Senator Howell Heflin called the “new votah,” voted to block the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
In 1988, Jackson was aiming higher. Standing with working people at the “point of challenge,” he walked picket lines, stood with family farmers facing foreclosure, reached out to progressive peace, women’s, gay and lesbian and environmental activists. He would stun the mainstream political world when they saw white workers and farmers not only give Jackson a hearing but also begin to vote for him in ever-greater numbers.
The mission, in Jackson’s words, was to build a “progressive rainbow coalition—across ancient boundaries of race, religion, region, and sex,” moving millions of Americans from “racial battlegrounds to economic common ground and on to moral higher ground.”
The campaign naturally started with little money and big debts. But Jackson and campaign chair Willy Brown hired a skilled campaign manager, Jerry Austin, and put together a small but effective team of strategists like Steve Cobble, researchers like Frank Clemente, political operatives like Minyon Moore and Ron Brown. Austin relaunched a mail program that eventually raised $27–28 million, counting the $14 million match.
The campaign’s greatest asset was its candidate. With little money for paid advertising, Jackson relied on generating free media and drawing big crowds. Among the Democratic contenders, he was by far the best orator, the best on the debate stage, and the best at rousing a crowd. Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote that comparing the oratory of Jackson with that of other Democratic presidential candidates is “like comparing a mighty organ with a kazoo band.”
To paraphrase New York Governor Mario Cuomo, Jackson campaigned in poetry while the others droned in prose. The poetry, however, had a purpose. Jackson’s genius was in presenting a complicated message and agenda in language that, as William Greider put it, “had a beat so strong that even white folks can dance to it.”
While mainstream politicians focused on law and order, Jackson’s focus was economic violence—the violence done to working and poor people in an economy that worked for the few and not the many. While his opponents were trying on ideas to see what fit, Jackson’s message drove the debate and made the most sense.
“The cost of welfare and jail care on the back side of life is so much greater than the cost of Head Start and day care on the front side of life,” he argued, laying out a plan to fund Head Start, prenatal care, and daycare while doubling the education budget.
“A bridge falls every other day,” he noted, calling for a major initiative to rebuild America, paid for in part by using public pension funds with full government guarantees.
He pushed for empowering workers—raise the minimum wage and index it to medium incomes, card check to make organizing unions easier, equal pay and comparable worth, family leave—and for holding corporations accountable with a corporate code of conduct, notice and reparations for plant closings, and more.
He railed against an economy that had drugs and guns flowing in and jobs going out. The Chinese did not take our jobs from us, he argued; American corporations took the jobs to them, seeking low wage labor abroad. His focus on drugs was central to his continued call for personal responsibility supported by public policy.
Challenging Reagan’s lies directly, he educated: “Most poor people are not lazy. They’re not Black. They’re not brown. They’re mostly white, female and young… Most poor people are not on welfare…. They work every day. They catch the early bus. They work every day. They raise other people’s children. They work in hospitals.… They wipe the bodies of those who are sick.… They empty their bedpans…and yet when they get sick, they cannot lie in the bed they made up everyday.” So Jackson argued the case for a National Health Care Plan, what now would be called Medicare for All.
Warning of the dangers of having guided missiles and misguided leaders, Jackson put forth the Jackson Doctrine in foreign policy, founded on four principles: support for international law; self-determination; human rights; and the promotion of international economic justice. He called for working with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the arms race with the USSR, while implementing a no-first-use policy. He denounced Reagan’s Central America wars. At a time when the US considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist and South Africa’s apartheid government an ally, he condemned that government as terrorist and embraced Mandela as a freedom fighter, demanding a boycott of South Africa. He earned praise even in The Des Moines Register as the only candidate willing to speak clearly about Middle East violence, arguing that “Israeli security and Palestinian justice are two sides of the same coin.”
Unlike his opponents, Jackson put out a budget to prove that he could pay for his dreams, calling for raising taxes on the rich and corporations, freezing the military budget, creating an infrastructure bank and more. “Jackson,” Newsweek reported, “is saying more than any other candidate for president and saying it better” on everything from domestic to foreign policy.
The Jackson campaign, The Nation editorialized, “offers hope against cynicism, power against prejudice, and solidarity against division. It is the specific antitheses to Reaganism and reaction which, with the shameful acquiescence of the Democratic center, have held America in their thrall for most of this decade.”
In the end, Jackson garnered 7 million popular votes, over 30 percent of the total cast. He won in 100 congressional districts. In the 54 primary contests, he came in first or second in 46, winning 13. He amassed 1,218 delegates. His opponents paid him the tribute of recycling parts of his message, as he dragged the party toward what he termed the “moral center.”
The insurgent campaign generated energy. Candidates like Paul Wellstone and Carol Mosely Braun built on that to win election to the US Senate; David Dinkins won the mayor’s race in New York. A generation of progressive activists were inspired, creating new organizations and candidacies. Savvy politicians like Bill Clinton borrowed from the Jackson gospel—with Clinton making public investment, tax hikes on the rich, and national health care the centerpieces of his 1992 campaign, if not his administration. Barak Obama said Jackson’s campaign awakened him to what was possible, and the rule changes forced by Jackson—requiring that delegates be allocated proportionally to votes—were crucial to Obama’s victory in the primary.
At the 1988 Atlanta Convention, Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis for the presidency. Dukakis chose the conservative Southern bourbon Senator Lloyd Bentsen as his vice president. Dukakis fatefully thought the election was more about competence than direction. Spurned, Jackson chose to stay in the party and build rather than bolt and divide. He suffered no small number of insults and indignities that would not have been inflicted on a white, traditional candidate. But he always saw the Democratic Party as the vehicle—and battleground—for progressive change.
As Jackson and, more recently, Bernie Sanders have shown, insurgent presidential candidates can have dramatic effect. Such a campaign provides a national megaphone to inform and inspire, to mobilize the young and forge new leaders and activists. It can force the party establishment to embrace far bolder reforms.
The limits of these insurgencies are also apparent. When Jackson chose not to run in 1992, no one took his place. That opened the way for Bill Clinton, who ran as a progressive but governed, as he put it, like an Eisenhower Republican, consolidating the conservative era rather than challenging it. Similarly, when Sanders chose not to run in 2020, Joe Biden, a lifetime centrist, won the call. While he surprised by adopting more of the Sanders agenda than was expected, he remains wedded to an interventionist foreign policy that undermines our real security. Neither the Jackson campaigns nor the Sanders campaigns found a way to sustain and build the progressive energy after the election. That remains a task for the next generation.
One thing is clear. In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson challenged the country to move beyond racial division and find common ground. His was the first campaign of what would now be called intersectionality. He called it a quilt, making the point in union halls in Georgia, to family farms in Iowa, to gay and women activists that “your patch isn’t big enough.” He recalled his grandmother taking pieces of old cloth, with different colors and textures and binding them together with a common thread to make a quilt, a thing of beauty, a source of warmth. He challenged all to make as much sense. He showed the way—and will always be remembered for it.
Robert L. Borosage is a leading progressive writer and activist.
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