Why Reverend Jesse Jackson Was Right. The Issue Is Not Race or Class, but Rather Race and Class.
I congratulate David Masciotra [Jesse Jackson: The 2024 Presidential Race https://portside.org/2023-08-01/jesse-jackson-2024-presidential-race ] on his excellent piece on Jesse Jackson's legacy article and his immense contributions to the liberation of African Americans as well as to the well-being and quality of life of the majority of the population of this country (Portside, August 1, 2023). It accurately describes the importance that Jackson's interventions in the 1980's had in shaping the nature of the political debate in the U.S. on issues of tremendous importance. There is one dimension of these interventions that merits special attention because it touches on key components of a strategy needed to achieve liberation for all the excluded in this country, which is the majority of the working population of the U.S.
I was Jesse Jackson's senior health policy advisor in that period, both in the 1984 and 1988 primary elections in the Democratic Party for the Presidency of the U.S., and I could see firsthand. A very dear friend of mine Dr. Quentin Young, the personal physician of Jesse Jackson and a major progressive voice in the rather conservative medical community of the U.S., asked me to help Jesse Jackson. I met the Reverend, and I was extremely impressed and fully agreed with his well-defined strategy. I have advised many governments in my life and met remarkably interesting personalities. Jesse Jackson was one of the most interesting ones. And from the very beginning I thought that his views were essential for the development of a progressive movement in the U.S. This country is characterized by a large variety of social movements and at the same time by a lack of progressive parties, consequences of the class-based design of its democracy It was clear to me after speaking with Jesse Jackson that his strategy was precisely aimed at changing that.
The first stage was to break with the horrible discrimination and exploitation of the black sector of the population. And to break with discrimination meant to fight for their integration in the institutions of power, including the political ones. The slogan for the 1984 primary elections campaign "Our Time Has Come" said it very clearly. And the consequence of that was a significant increase in the number of African Americans in municipal and state institutions, particularly in the South.
But the growth of this dimension had to be accompanied by another one, fully developed with the establishment of the National Rainbow Coalition aimed at developing a strategy to unite the different discriminated and exploited groups to build up a collective response to achieve the liberation of all of them –without diluting or disappearing their own personalities and interests—through a common cause. As Jesse Jackson said many times, "when you add the blacks, the browns, the yellows, and many other colors, you soon realize that you are speaking of the majority of people in the U.S." That was the origin of the Rainbow Coalition, which had a huge impact that shaped the nature of the political debate in the 1990s. There was a need to develop programs aimed at all. That is, universal programs that will unite people rather than divide them.
There is an element that unites such a diverse population. It is called social class. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most of the population in the United States is working class. And class experience and class interest could be an important mobilizing point for the different sectors of that class. Jesse Jackson put it quite clearly in his answer to a journalist on CBS in Baltimore. This city, which was the typical industrial city until recently, is characterized by the clear differentiation of neighborhoods by race and by class. And looking at the differences in the number of years people lived by neighborhoods, one can see that the difference in life expectancy between the black and white working-class neighborhoods is much smaller than the difference in the life expectancy between them and the upper-class neighborhoods. To the predictable question made by the CBS journalist to Jesse Jackson "How are you going to get the support of the white steelworker of Dandock? The largest white steelworker neighborhood" he responded, "by making him aware that he has more in common with the Black steelworker because they both are workers than with the boss because they are white." The evidence of this is overwhelming, but there is little talk about it.
In 1984, Jackson ran as the voice of minorities, and consequently, the number of African-Americans in political institutions increased Immensely. In 1988 Jackson ran as the voice of the working people, of the majority of people, representing a rainbow coalition of social movements, and he almost won the primaries in Atlanta. The delegates appointed by the Democratic Party apparatus diluted the potential for Jackson to receive a majority of elected delegates. And in the programmatic dimension, the preference was for universal programs like the national health program in Canada that would cover everyone and not only the poor and the elderly. Establishing such a program would have ended the shameful situation of the U.S. being the only developed democracy that does not provide universal health coverage.
I was in the negotiating team representing Jesse Jackson that met the people of the winning candidate, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, and we were not able to get that universal program included in the Democratic Party Platform. But the huge mobilization of the Rainbow Coalition and the enormous attractiveness of universal programs frightened the Democratic establishment and elicited responses from Governor Clinton, U.S. Senator Al Gore and U.S. Representative Richard Gephardt to block the rise of a more leftist Democratic Party by establishing the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. As the Democratic Party apparatus has always done, they recycled the progressive proposals of Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, appropriating much of the narrative but emptying them of their content. This is what Clinton did in the 1992 campaign. He used the slogan, narrative, and symbols of Jesse Jackson's campaigns, calling his platform "putting people first" (the slogan used by Jackson in 1988) and including a call for moving to a type of universal healthcare coverage. As a perceptive Financial Times reporter wrote, "Clinton has borrowed extensively from Jesse Jackson 1988. He sounds like a Swedish social democrat." While borrowing the language and the symbols, however, Clinton changed the content dramatically. While we had proposed a single-payer program similar to Canada's, Clinton chose the opposite pole of the political spectrum, managed competition, which meant the full control and dominance of the health care sector of the U.S. by insurance companies.
There is no question that the issue of universal access to health care for every citizen and resident of the U.S. was extremely popular. This explains why Clinton used the health issue prominently in his campaign in 1992. When he won, he appointed his wife, Hillary Clinton, to chair the Health Care Reform Task Force. The Task Force was not planning even to consider establishing a universal program. This is why Jesse Jackson, with the President of the Health Care Worker Union-1199, Dennis Rivera, and myself went to see Hillary Clinton, to insist that the universal single-payer program be considered since it had received broad support in the Democratic Party during Jackson's 1988 primary campaign. Ms. Clinton invited Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition to send an expert to join the Task Force, Jesse asked me to do it. And this is how I was in the White House for a while and could see how power operates. And I detected immediately that the insurance companies had massive power not only in the health-related committees in the House and in the Senate but also on the White House Task Force itself. You soon realize, when you are in the White House, that the president of the U.S. is not the most powerful person in the U.S. The enormous limitations of U.S. democracy appear quite clearly when you are in the center of it. And that is one of the great contributions of Jesse Jackson. He demonstrated that there is an urgent need for all the progressive forces to work together in a coalition that includes all the social and protest movements attempting to force changes and to democratize the very limited democracy that exists in the U.S. And that will not occur unless such a broad coalition is established. The evidence is overwhelming. In all the countries where I have helped governments on health and social policy, I have found that the primary force that has created the pressure and demand for universal access to health care has been a broad political coalition representing the different sectors of the working population. The U.S. needs that broad political coalition as much as the air we breathe, and Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition was a gigantic step in this direction.
Vicente Navarro, MD, PhD
Bloomberg School of Public Health
The Johns Hopkins University