Can the Left take over the Democratic Party?

Since at least the time of the New Deal, when organized labor gained a solid institutional foothold in the Democratic Party, liberals and activists have proposed that popular forces or “the left” can democratically take over the Democratic Party. If the left could accomplish this, the argument goes, it could transform the Democrats into a vehicle for progressive social change. This is very much on the agenda of a present-day embodiment of this idea, the Progressive Democrats of American (PDA).

Formed in 2004, PDA proclaims its strategy of fighting for progressive causes inside the Democratic Party:

Progressive Democrats of America was founded in 2004 to transform the Democratic Party and our country. We seek to build a party and government controlled by citizens, not corporate elites—with policies that serve the broad public interest, not just private interests. As a grassroots PAC operating inside the Democratic Party, and outside in movements for peace and justice, PDA played a key role in the stunning electoral victory of November 2006. Our inside/outside strategy is guided by the belief that a lasting majority will require a revitalized Democratic Party built on firm progressive principles.

For over two decades, the party declined as its leadership listened more to the voices of Wall Street than those of Main Street. PDA strives to rebuild the Democratic Party from the bottom up—from every Congressional District to statewide party structures to the corridors of power in Washington, where we work arm in arm with the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In just a couple of years, PDA and its allies have shaken up the political status quo—on issues from the Iraq war to voter rights to economic justice.1

There is a certain logic to this argument. In most places, the Democratic Party—at least as an activist organization—is a shell. The notion that a dedicated group of activists could reclaim the “party of the people” for the people seems to be attainable.2 And with a social force of millions behind them, as with the labor or civil rights movement, the idea that activists could shift the Democrats to the left—or even take over the party—would appear to be within reach.

In fact decades before the PDA was formed, at a time when the influence of the labor movement and the liberal coalition was at its height, an influential group of Socialist Party members developed a similar perspective.3 These socialists, who held influence in leading labor unions, civil rights organizations, and in cultural and literary circles, concluded, in the words of one of their leading spokespeople Michael Harrington,

American socialism must concentrate its efforts on the battle for political realignment, for the creation of a real second party that will unite labor, liberals, Negroes, and provide them with an instrument for principled debate and effective action. Such a party as the Democratic Party will be when the Southern racists and certain other corruptive elements have been forced out of it. Political realignment is a precondition for the resurgence of a meaningful Socialist politics in America; it is also a precondition for meaningful and progressive social welfare, labor, and civil rights legislation.4

Harrington wrote these words in 1960, when the civil rights movement was activating millions and pushing the political climate to the left. At the same time the Democrats under John F. Kennedy were readying to take control of the White House and the national agenda. Harrington himself later published a best-selling exposé on American poverty, The Other America, which won him a hearing in the “War on Poverty” programs that the Kennedy/Johnson administrations developed and enacted. Indeed one measure of how far the current parameters of politics have shifted in a conservative direction is the difference between Harrington’s end goal (“American socialism”) and that of the present-day PDA (of “working inside the Democratic Party to return it to its roots as the party that represents the workers and the less fortunate”).5 Even Harrington’s present-day heirs in the Democratic Socialists of America don’t officially embrace the “realignment” thesis of the 1950s and 1960s, but they still remain committed to working within the Democratic Party to push it to the left.6 Yet the question to be posed to activists in the DSA and PDA remains: Can the left or popular forces take over and transform the Democratic Party? To answer this question we will consider the PDA’s recent record, and then take a look at a far more substantial attempt to mount an internal challenge to the Democrats, the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaigns of the 1980s.

PDA and the “inside-outside” strategy
The Progressive Democrats of America describes itself as “A large group of progressive grassroots activists from across the country who want to support other progressive grassroots activists locally.” It self-consciously styles itself as a grassroots organization that wants to reclaim the Democrats from the clutches of the right-wing DLCers. While the denizens of the DLC insist the Democrats must move further to the right, appease anti-abortion zealots, and demonstrate their own zeal in fighting “terrorism,” the PDA wants to challenge the Democrats to champion working people, national health care, and an exit from Iraq.

PDA traces its roots to the 2004 presidential campaign of liberal Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich and to a lesser extent to the failed campaigns of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and Reverend Al Sharpton. As PDA founder Kevin Spidel told liberal journalist William Rivers Pitt, PDA was a fusion between Progressive Vote, activists in the Kucinich campaign, and more liberal politicians and congressional aides:

Progressive Vote was an organization that I and my wife, Michele White, created basically on the phone and in the living room of our house. We combined the skill sets of folks from the Kucinich campaign—Web and technical experts, accounting, etc.—to build the organization and infrastructure of Progressive Vote. We created an organization where the grassroots were our advisory council. They drove our initiatives. It was truly reflective and reactive to the grassroots. We took our lead from them, provided for their needs, and facilitated their movement to establish these caucuses, to see that those caucuses were recognized within the Democratic Party.

Early on, when I pitched the idea of Progressive Vote to Tim Carpenter, who was Deputy Campaign Manager for Kucinich, we intended this whole idea to be one organization we would work on together. Because I left [the] campaign sooner than Carpenter, and needed an organizational structure to carry this idea forward, Progressive Vote came into being. Carpenter and his allies on Capitol Hill, the relationships he has fostered for 30 years—Rainbow PUSH, the Congressional Black Caucus, leaders like Rep. Conyers and Barbara Lee, people like Tom Hayden—those are contacts Carpenter came to the table with. We needed to be progressive “Democrats” to provide cover to strong progressive Democratic allies. At [the] same time, we wanted Progressive Vote’s inside-outside strategy to be representative of the entire progressive community.

The structure of Progressive Vote—caucus-oriented and driven by the grassroots—needed to remain intact. We basically brought Progressive Vote into Progressive Democrats of America, and Progressive Democrats of America became a new name. Political allies in Congress, people like Reverend Jackson and Tom Hayden is what PDA brought to the table. PDA is actually Progressive Vote with a new name and more political allies. That merger and the launch of PDA took place in Roxbury, Massachusetts, at the Progressive Democratic convention, which took place during the Democratic National Convention last summer.7

This long, albeit partisan, account of the PDA’s formation should establish two main points that are worth keeping in mind when considering PDA’s project. First, despite all its talk about being “grassroots,” it is still the creation of political operatives connected to the Democratic Party. Even more to the point was the fact that one of the speakers at the PDA founding conference in Boston was John Norris, national field director of the Kerry/Edwards campaign. “Warmly if not enthusiastically received by a crowd toting a bobbing sea of the same anti-war in Iraq and single-payer health care signs [that the Kerry/Edwards campaign] had banned from the floor of the Fleet Center [i.e., the Democratic Convention], Norris encouraged those assembled to commit to working with the Kerry effort to oust Bush—and promising that this time a grassroots infrastructure would be left behind,” reported a pro-PDA account of the meeting.8

Second, the PDA’s strategy is not a new one. It is the latest in a series of vehicles, including Tom Hayden’s Campaign for Democracy in California in the 1980s and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, to attempt an “inside/outside” strategy to shift the Democrats in a more liberal direction. The “outside” aspect comes in two parts: first, a willingness to combine traditional lobbying with more public forms of pressure like press conferences, rallies, and teach-ins; second, and more importantly, a desire to bring into its “big tent” members of the Green Party and other projects aimed at (at least in the past) building an alternative on the left to the Democrats. That’s why Global Exchange leader and Green Party member Medea Benjamin, Nader’s 2000 vice-presidential running mate, Winona LaDuke, and David Cobb, the Green Party’s 2004 candidate for president, have been featured prominently at PDA events.

Throwing a lifeline to the Democrats
By 2005 PDA claimed dozens of chapters and thousands of members in thirty-six states. Since its founding it has taken up one campaign after another. In the immediate period between its founding conference and the November 2004 election, the PDA network worked to get out the vote for Kerry and other Democratic candidates. A crucial part of this effort was aimed at ensuring that the most left-reaching section of the Democratic electorate wouldn’t stray into the independent presidential campaign of Ralph Nader and running mate Peter Camejo. In the immediate aftermath of the election, PDA worked with the Reverend Jesse Jackson and David Cobb to protest election irregularities in Ohio. The November election and the Ohio battle formed the backdrop of PDA’s second national meeting, held on inauguration weekend in January 2005. PDA also worked for liberal and antiwar Democrats in the 2006 congressional elections.

Measured by the standard tallies of electoral politics—monies raised, elections won, voters registered—the PDA’s record is modest. Yet its most important role lay elsewhere. That is its creation of a political space to pull activists who might otherwise be drawn to building a left-wing political alternative to the Democratic Party back into the Democratic “big tent.” What’s more, the existence of PDA (and other organizations that share its politics, like the Independent Progressive Politics Network) helps lend credence to the idea that activists can win their issues like national health care or an end to the war in Iraq by working within the Democratic Party. Admittedly, it does this in a more activist-friendly way than organizations like the liberal Campaign for America’s Future, whose starting point is a rejection of activity outside the Democratic Party. PDA leaders say the organization would in certain circumstances support Greens, socialists, or other third-party candidates. But this is window-dressing at best.9 One of the political analyses underpinning PDA is the assessment that the vote of almost three million people for Ralph Nader in 2000, rather than representing a positive declaration of independence from the two corporate parties, represented a disastrous split among progressives that allowed Bush to steal the White House. The official press release announcing PDA’s founding included this quote from Lu Bauer, a Maine Democratic Party leader:

While there are some efforts to win those voters back, they have not emerged from within the anti-war, progressive camp. This time around, it will take former Nader voters to win over real progressives and help defeat Bush. Kerry can’t do it, because his position on the war remains out of sync with most progressive voters, let alone with early and strong opponents of the invasion of Iraq.10

This helped to explain the prominence of leading Greens at PDA events throughout the 2004 election season. David Cobb, whose campaign was largely invisible through the 2004 election, thrust himself into the center of the controversy in Ohio. Media Benjamin, the Green Party’s candidate for U.S. Senate in California in 2000 and a leading advocate for Cobb in 2004, has even made fundraising appeals for PDA. Clearly there was a symbiotic relationship between the organizers of PDA, who wanted to pull Green-leaning activists and voters into the Democratic Party, and the “fusion” current in the Green Party that believes the party should be little more than a pressure group on the Democrats. Benjamin tried to have it both ways. After Kerry went down in flames, she wrote in the Nation that:

Many of us in the Green Party made a tremendous compromise by campaigning in swing states for such a miserable standard-bearer for the progressive movement as John Kerry. Well, I’ve had it. As George Bush says, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.”

For those of you willing to keep wading in the muddy waters of the Democratic Party, all power to you. I plan to work with the Greens to get more Green candidates elected to local office.11

But by March 2005, Benjamin had put her wading boots back on, issuing a fundraising appeal for PDA urging support for the PDA’s effort to “take over and transform the Democratic Party.” She squared this circle by claiming that PDA is not really the Democratic Party. But as Peter Camejo, a Green who aims to build an alternative to the Democrats, responded:

In the fund appeal for the PDA she says the PDA is not the Democratic Party. It is like saying the Panama Canal is not Panama. I’d have to say it’s still in Panama. The Progressive DEMOCRATS of America are not the Democratic Party but they’re in the Democratic Party. In fact they are the front line fighting to prevent an independent force from developing against the two parties and clearly in competition with the Green Party. Part of their goal is to co-opt the Green Party back into the Democratic Party.12

Camejo is completely correct—not only about Benjamin’s double-talk, but also about PDA’s intentions. As PDA founder Kevin Spidel told William Rivers Pitt:

The most important thing we do is that inside-outside strategy: Pulling together members of the Green Party, the Independent Progressive Politics Network, the hip-hop community, the civil rights community, our allies in congress, the anti-war community. We are bringing together all the social movements within the Democratic Party under one effective tent, and we will do it better if people can contribute to our cause.13

None of PDA’s leading “election reformers” denounced the Democrat-funded campaign to force Nader/Camejo off 2004 ballots. Nor did PDA invite Nader or Camejo to speak at any of its events—despite the fact they received five times as many votes as Cobb did in the 2004 election.

Getting lost under the “big tent”
The PDA “big tent” perspective sounds like a more “realistic” and achievable objective for the left than building a party completely independent of the corporate Democrats. But one only has to look at the experience of the 2004 election, when almost the entire left crowded under the Democrats’ tent, to see how wrong this logic is. Was George Bush and his conservative agenda destined to win the 2004 election in the face of an unpopular war, unprecedented job losses, and pessimism about the direction of the country? To many progressives the answer was “yes,” because they believed that the United States is an irredeemably conservative country. But did the 2004 elections give working people the opportunity to vote against the occupation of Iraq, for national health care, or against attacks on civil rights? The pro-war, pro-business, anti–civil liberties Kerry-Edwards ticket didn’t.

The Nader-Camejo independent presidential campaign did offer left-wing alternatives on all the key issues. But it was marginalized from the outset by an “anybody but Bush” drumbeat promoted by many leading progressive intellectuals and activists, including many of the current leaders and allies of PDA. The result of these political choices in 2004 was a disaster: the complete marginalization of any progressive ideas, the suspension of antiwar organizing for the better part of a year, and a possibly fatal blow to the Green Party as an independent force—all in the service of a strategy that failed on its own terms (i.e., electing Kerry).

When elections roll around, Democratic politicians operate on the assumption that the left “has nowhere else to go.” So they spend much of their time courting the “center” of ostensible “swing voters” unable to decide between voting Democrat or Republican, as the party continues moving to the right. As long as the left doesn’t build an alternative, the Democrats will continue to take it for granted, just as it takes the Democratic “base” (women, Blacks, labor, and so on) for granted. As long as progressives’ threat of leaving the Democratic Party is empty, they will always be forced to back “lesser evil” Democratic candidates. One has to look back no further than 2004 to the failed presidential campaign of Dennis Kucinich to see how this process works.

Kucinich remained in the race long after Kerry had locked up the nomination. He pledged to bring his delegates to the Democratic convention to fight for progressive issues like ending the war in Iraq and for single-payer health care. Instead, the Kerry-controlled Democratic platform and convention committees compelled the Kucinich forces to recant their positions. The Kerry forces could have simply outvoted the Kucinich forces. Instead, they demanded unconditional surrender, and Kucinich gave it to them. “Unless we have a firm and unshakeable resolve for John Kerry, we will have no opportunity to take America in a new direction,” Kucinich said in urging his supporters to back Kerry.14

Yet Kucinich made it quite clear that he had no intention of leaving the Democratic Party over any of the principles that had defined his own presidential campaign. At one point during the campaign he said, “The Democratic Party created third parties by running to the middle. What I’m trying to do is to go back to the big tent so that everyone who felt alienated could come back through my candidacy.”15 And so Kucinich endorsed and campaigned for—and urged his supporters to support and campaign for—Kerry, a candidate who ran “to the middle.” Kucinich campaigned against the USA PATRIOT Act, yet he urged his supporters to work to elect a man who voted for it. He acted likewise on a host of other issues, from the No Child Left Behind Act to the war in Iraq. Kucinich told his supporters that the only responsible thing they could do in November 2004 was to elect a man who stood closer to Bush on these issues than he did to progressives. The Kucinich candidacy vividly illustrates the ultimate tragedy of reducing elections to party loyalty to the lesser evil.

The Democrats therefore feel no pressure to support progressive policies. But the situation worsens when the left performs somersaults to justify its subservience to the Democrats, as it has in recent years. For instance, during John Kerry’s challenge to George W. Bush in 2004, Bush dared Kerry: “My opponent hasn’t answered the question of whether, knowing what we know now, he would have supported going into Iraq.” Despite the fact that millions of Americans had already concluded that Bush had sold the war based on a false threat from Iraq’s nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction,” Kerry responded: “Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have.”16 With those few words, Kerry outraged millions of people who opposed the war—and threw away his best argument for dumping Bush. If there ever were a better argument for the necessity of a party independent of the twin parties of capitalism and war, Kerry’s statement made it. But PDA board member Joe Libertelli, acknowledging that Kerry’s “curious” statement had “infuriate[d]” progressives and opponents of the war, nevertheless called for progressives to stick with Kerry:

But the truth is, merely demanding that John Kerry change his position will get us almost nowhere. Progressives have been making similar demands for years. And threatening to support Ralph Nader or the Greens will only alienate those who, at our founding conference, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) called “future progressives.” That’s worse than going nowhere, that’s going backward—at least if we harbor any hope of ever reaching a truly progressive voting majority in this country.17

Libertelli’s statement went on to argue that Kerry’s statement reflected not merely Kerry’s opinion but the Democratic Party’s wholesale commitment to militarism and “imperialism.” This is certainly true, but it hardly helped make a convincing case for shifting the party leftward. Nevertheless, Libertelli continued, that was why progressives must change the Democratic Party from within: “Think of the PDA as a stem cell injection!”18

The question remains: Can progressives take over the Democratic Party, perhaps using a different strategy? To answer that, one has to consider that the Democratic Party really represents one of two parties of corporate rule in the United States. Despite its name it is not a democratic organization whose members control it. So any activist or trade union or popular attempt to take it over always faces a counterattack by the people who really control it—big business interests, who will use every underhanded trick in the book to maintain their hold. They may tolerate the party’s left tail, but only insofar as it helps sweep in more voters.

Consider how the DLC-dominated Democratic establishment torpedoed the 2004 candidacy of Howard Dean, who was hardly the progressive that the media made him out to be. When it appeared on the eve of the 2004 Iowa caucus that the “insurgent” Dean was running away with the Democratic race, DLC-connected financiers, organized by the sleazy ex-Senator Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), mounted a vicious ad campaign against him. Among other things, the ads—taking a page out of the Bush playbook—used an image of Osama bin Laden to argue that Dean didn’t have the experience to take on terrorists.19 These ads played a major role in Dean’s collapse in Iowa and New Hampshire.

If a few hundred thousand dollars could end an internal party challenge from someone who wasn’t even a progressive, what would big business do if it faced a challenge from a popular movement supporting genuine reforms? In 1934 the radical novelist Upton Sinclair actually won the Democratic primary for the governorship in California on a progressive platform to “End Poverty in California” during the Depression decade. Sinclair proposed for the state to take over idle factories and farmland and to turn them over to cooperatives. He also proposed to levy a state income tax on corporations. Did the Democratic establishment, including President Franklin Roosevelt, show loyalty to the Democrats’ democratically elected candidate? No. Democratic big business money shifted to the Republican candidate, formed a one-time third party to siphon votes away from Sinclair, and financed a red-baiting scare campaign. As a result the Democratic Party helped to guarantee the reelection of Republican Frank Merriam with only 48 percent of the vote, compared to the 37 percent that Sinclair received. And this took place at the height of the social upheaval that included the 1934 San Francisco general strike.20

The kinds of shenanigans that defeated Sinclair are the stock in trade of Democratic Party politicians when they are determined to prevent the expression of democracy inside the Democratic Party. At times this even extends to organizations outside the Democratic Party. In the late 1950s in Chicago, the South Side chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) elected as its president UAW official Willoughby Abner. Abner immediately became a thorn in the side of the Democratic machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Black “submachine” run by Representative William Dawson.21 Abner denounced Dawson for failing to speak out in the 1955 lynching death of Chicago teen Emmett Till.22 A resurgent NAACP looked set to challenge Daley across the board on the city’s record of school and housing segregation. While Dawson regularly dismissed Abner and the NAACP,

Privately, he was plotting political retribution. The Chicago [NAACP] chapter was scheduled to hold its election of officers on December 17, 1957. Precisely thirty days before the election, the submachine took out memberships for between four hundred and six hundred of its precinct captains and patronage workers. It was the last day that an applicant could join and be eligible to vote, which meant that when Abner and his supporters learned that the chapter’s membership rolls had been flooded, it was too late to respond in kind. On the appointed night, the submachine’s troops turned out in force. A parade of Dawson and Daley loyalists rose to denounce Abner…. In the end, the chapter’s members voted to replace Abner with Theodore Jones, an executive with the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company who could be counted on to take a more moderate course. Dawson never denied that he played a role in ousting Abner and his fellow civil rights activists. “I’m not interested in controlling the NAACP or its policy making body,” Dawson later told historian Dempsey Travis. “However, I do want to see the ‘right man’ as president.”23

These cases are examples of strong-arm tactics that establishment Democrats use when they perceive a threat. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson’s 1980s attempt to mount a challenge to the party from within provides another example. Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaigns for president in 1984 and 1988 excited millions of voters who were looking for some way to express opposition to Reaganism. Even strong left-wing critics of the Democratic Party agree that Jackson’s campaigns represented “the last coherent left populist campaign in America mounted within the framework of the Democratic Party.”24 The fate of the Rainbow Coalition illustrates the way that the Democrats can also muffle opposition by co-opting it—as long as that “opposition” is willing to be co-opted.

Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition
Many sincere activists and antiracists looking for a way to respond to Reaganite retrenchment were drawn to the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns as well as to other “insurgent” local campaigns, such as the one that elected Harold Washington as Chicago’s first African-American mayor in 1983. Some on the left argued that the National Rainbow Coalition (NRC) posed a solution to the failure of the 1960s civil rights and Black Power movements to consolidate their gains because of “the separation of the social movements from electoral politics.”25 Others argued that the Rainbow Coalition assembled a “coalition of the rejected” that, if mobilized in the electoral arena, would push American politics to the left. Still others claimed that the Rainbow Coalition offered a way to reinvigorate the movements of the 1960s.

To many Rainbow supporters, the NRC’s electoralism was secondary to its potential as a “political movement,” a description in the NRC’s founding document that appeared to reach beyond electoral politics. The Rainbow Coalition held the potential to mobilize thousands of the poor and oppressed for progressive ends, Rainbow supporters argued. Rainbow politicians’ electoral ambitions were seen as secondary to the “mass movement,” which would provide the push for real reform struggles. What’s more, they argued, activists could use Jackson’s rhetoric and his access to the media to build “grassroots” struggles, like the movement against apartheid in South Africa.

The 1984 Jackson campaign took about 21 percent of the votes in Democratic primaries as well as several key Southern states. Nevertheless, Democratic Party rules limited the number of Jackson’s convention delegates so that Jackson could count on the support of only 11 percent of delegates. Thus, former Vice President Walter Mondale exacted Jackson’s endorsement. In the process Mondale dismissed all of the Rainbow Coalition’s platform proposals, which included only two of seven proposals that comprised a minimum Black political agenda, according to two Jackson advisers.26

Nevertheless, some on the left, including organizations like the National Committee for Independent Political Action (NCIPA), viewed the Rainbow Coalition as offering a “mass base” of the oppressed that could form a possible third party. But a Rainbow Coalition break from the Democrats was a highly unlikely proposition, no matter how disdainfully the party treated Jackson and the NRC. As Jackson explained at the 1986 conference that transformed Jackson’s campaign into an on-going organization, “We have too much invested in the Democratic Party. When you have money in the bank you don’t walk away from it.”27 In essence, the NRC’s strategy was that of a liberal caucus in a Democratic Party moving rapidly rightward.

Jackson’s defense of an electoral strategy within the confines of the Democratic Party was fully in character with his career. Jackson was never a radical. He stood, for example, on the right wing of the mainstream civil rights movement. As one of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Jackson distinguished himself as an able fundraiser. Politically, however, he represented the SCLC’s right wing that opposed King’s emphasis in the 1968 Poor Peoples’ Campaign on demanding social-democratic measures to address widespread poverty. Jackson supported a version of Black capitalism. Years later, Jackson summed up his differences with King in words that sound as if they could have come from a free-market Republican: ‘’[King’s] experience of the private sector was not substantial. He believed that the government was more likely to do what it had done before. But I believed we had to build a private-sector body of allies.’’28

At the same time Jackson acted to undercut the efforts of Black militants to build a political alternative independent of the capitalist parties. In 1972, when more than eight thousand Blacks from every part of the political spectrum gathered for the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, Jackson worked to sabotage militant leaders’ attempts to create an all-Black radical party. The convention passed a Black Political Agenda that condemned both the American system and the Democratic and Republican parties for ignoring Black demands. Jackson repudiated the agenda, insisting to the conservative, heavily Democratic Michigan delegation that it was only a draft. Jackson accused delegates who opposed the convention leadership’s electoralism of undermining Black “unity.” Jackson later abandoned any pretense of supporting an independent Black initiative by joining up with Senator George McGovern’s 1972 Democratic presidential campaign. Jackson backed Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 1980, after Carter had alienated Blacks with his conservative policies, Jackson said that Blacks “had the responsibility” to listen to appeals from both major parties, implying that Ronald Reagan could offer something positive to Black America.29

After giving the Democratic establishment a little discomfort in 1984, the Jackson campaign took a different tack in 1988. Jackson opened the race with much greater support. Rather than running an “insurgent” campaign, Jackson ran a deliberately mainstream race that rested on the support of the Black Democratic establishment. One writer’s description of the 1988 February New Hampshire primary illustrated the difference: “In contrast to 1984, when elected officials and community leaders virtually ignored Jackson, the campaign boasts an impressive list of mainstream endorsements, including Chamber of Commerce officials, four state legislators... and the state president of the Association for the Elderly, among others.”30 Noting Jackson’s appeal among their constituents, many Black Democratic politicians who opposed Jackson in 1984—like Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and U.S. Representative Mickey Leland (D-TX)—either backed Jackson or at least did not back any of his opponents.

In November 1987 Jackson appointed Black California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, one of the most powerful politicians in California, to be chairman of his campaign. At the same time he named Gerald Austin, manager for winning campaigns of Governor Richard Celeste (D-OH), as his campaign manager. Brown said the Jackson campaign would not “appeal excessively to so-called Black concerns.” Austin pledged to run a “centrist” campaign.31 With experienced Democratic hands in charge of the campaign, it was more difficult than ever to distinguish Jackson’s “movement” from any other mainstream Democratic campaign.

From the start Jackson opted to run a “respectable” campaign. His October 10, 1987, announcement speech resonated with patriotic, anti-drug themes. He fudged on key issues: instead of calling for an end to the 1987–88 U.S. Navy’s reflagging and escort of oil tankers through the Persian Gulf, he called for a greater sense of purpose in the operation and for moral support to U.S. troops no matter their location.32 Jackson made clear efforts to distance himself from other “extreme” positions. Only after the primaries ended in June 1988 did he mention the inequity of the Democratic presidential selection process, which had been the centerpiece of his campaign in 1984. In March 1988, in a bid for Zionist support, he said he would not meet with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yassir Arafat until the PLO recognized Israel and renounced “terrorism.” This position represented an acceptance of the standard American foreign policy formulas for the Middle East.33

At the same time, Jackson kept an arm’s distance from real fights against racism—attempting to avoid the appearance of running a “Black” campaign. Thus, when campaigning in the New York primary, he avoided comment on a spate of police killings of Blacks and Latinos in New York City. For this reason, New York’s leading Black newspaper at the time, the City Sun, refused to endorse him in the April primary.

After his victory in the 1988 Michigan primary, Jackson dropped references in his campaign speeches to his “poor campaign with a rich message.” This was because his campaign began to attract support from rich donors and business. Figures released in April 1988 showed that the Jackson camp pulled in some $2 million in March, only $400,000 short of Democratic presidential nominee Governor Michael Dukakis’s campaign contributions. Jackson received the backing of former Carter Budget Director Bert Lance and a virtual “Who’s Who of prominent Black businessmen.”34 Another important Jackson adviser was Felix Rohatyn, the Lazard Frères investment banker who supervised massive budget cuts and union-busting in the mid-1970s New York City financial “bailout.”

What happened to the Rainbow?
Despite appearances to the contrary, the 1988 Jackson campaign was not a grassroots effort. If it had been, the NRC would have built independently of the Jackson presidential campaign. This was not the case, and the NRC withered as all its resources were plowed into the Jackson campaign. Activists who joined the Rainbow Coalition with the aim of building an “independent” Rainbow distinct from Jackson’s campaign found their hopes dashed.

When all was said and done, the Democratic Party’s candidate for 1988 was Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, a dull technocrat. Big victories in the June 1988 California and New Jersey primaries gave Dukakis more than the 2,081 delegates he needed for the Democratic nomination at the July convention in Atlanta. With more than six hundred “superdelegates”—party officials and politicians chosen by party officials and politicians to assure selection of an “electable” candidate, committed to Dukakis—the Massachusetts governor wrapped up the Democratic nomination on the first ballot.

The choice of Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen as Dukakis’s running mate confirmed the Democrats’ acceptance of Reaganite policies. Bentsen had the distinction of being the most “pro-Reagan” Democrat in the 1981 Congress that passed Reagan’s reactionary program, according to Congressional Quarterly. Bentsen, backed with millions in contributions from Texas big business, supported aid to the contras, the death penalty, the B-1 bomber and the MX missile, mandatory school prayer, denial of public funds for abortion, and mandatory AIDS testing. It’s little wonder that Bentsen’s rating by the liberal lobbying group Americans for Democratic Action equaled the ratings of three Republican senators combined.35

Jackson’s forces arrived at the Atlanta convention with much fanfare. But within days of the convention’s opening, Jackson pledged his delegates’ backing for the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket in exchange for representation of several of his advisors (including his son) on the Democratic National Committee and in the Dukakis campaign. Any hope that he would bring a progressive influence to the party platform was quashed for the sake of party “unity.” Jackson agreed to withdraw or water down his delegation’s progressive platform planks. For example, Jackson’s initial call to double education spending was watered down to a call to “significantly increase” education spending. Dukakis accepted the symbolic labeling of South Africa as a terrorist state, a decision that two years after the Republican-dominated Senate had voted for sanctions against South Africa hardly represented a breakthrough for the left. Dukakis forces soundly defeated three other Jackson minority planks calling for increased taxes on the rich, for “no first use” of nuclear weapons, and for a vague form of Palestinian self-determination. Jackson’s forces actually agreed to withdraw the proposal on Palestinian self-determination rather than forcing the convention to take a “divisive” vote.36

There should never have been any doubt that Jackson would deliver his supporters to Dukakis in the end. That was the whole aim of the operation: Jackson traded his delegates for his own acceptance into the party’s inner circle. A comment from one of Jackson’s advisers summed it up: “We could come in to sack and ruin, particularly with the number of delegates we have. But we’re not doing that. We’ve agreed to disagree [with Dukakis], but that in itself is a form of agreement.”37 In the spirit of party unity, Jackson’s address to the convention endorsed the demands of party conservatives: “Conservatives and progressives, when you fight for what you believe, you are right—but your patch isn’t big enough.”38

But Rainbow supporters were faced with the prospect of voting for Dukakis, an uninspiring policy wonk who, facing attacks for his “liberalism” from the GOP attack machine, tried to claim “I am, in some respects, more conservative...than that crowd in the White House.” He compared his record of slashing programs to balance the budget in Massachusetts with Reagan’s multibillion-dollar deficit, asking “Who’s the conservative and who’s the liberal?39

Activists who gave so much energy to nominate Jesse Jackson then faced the choice of voting for the conservative ticket Jackson endorsed. Such was a stark illustration of the ultimate problem with the Rainbow Coalition strategy. From the start, the NRC only succeeded in binding activists to the big business interests that really control the Democratic Party. As such the Rainbow Coalition was one more detour away from building a true alternative, independent of the capitalist parties.

Where Real Change Comes From
“We are the only ‘advanced’ country without a solid liberal-left bloc. It makes us bleed. Without a left, liberalism loses its spine,” wrote 1960s activist-turned-Democratic-politician Tom Hayden in a fall 2004 letter on behalf of PDA.40 There is some truth to what Hayden wrote, but he had the wrong aim. He backed PDA because he wanted to build the left-liberal bloc inside the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, that perspective sees social change upside down. Hayden seemed to have forgotten the lessons of the 1960s: that social movements in the streets, from the civil rights and Black Power movements to the antiwar, women’s liberation, and gay liberation movements, forced the pace of change. The Democratic Party (and the Republican Party, for that matter) was then forced to confront these movements and their demands—and adapt leftward. But the crucial point is this: social movements set out to organize people on the ground to confront racism, the war, and sexual oppression. They did not set out with the intention of creating a caucus in the Democratic Party. The move of the left into electoralism attended the decline of the social movements in the 1970s and 1980s.

The inside-outside strategy, and the willingness of well-known activists to sign onto it, consciously attempts to blur the distinctions between movement-building and an orientation on the Democratic Party. The idea that there is no contradiction between the two seems obvious to most people. But one has to remember the concession captured well in Libertelli’s letter exhorting the antiwar movement to get behind the pro-war Kerry. The antiwar movement virtually disappeared during 2004 as most of its leaders buried themselves in Kerry’s election. In short, when it counted, those claiming to be running a strategy to push the party leftward were in fact providing a left cover for a candidate who reflected the party’s shift rightward. Could anyone say after the wreckage of the 2004 presidential election that the left or the antiwar movement was better off for it?

Partisans of the inside-outside strategy might reply that voting only takes a few minutes, and activists can spend the rest of their time building movements for social change. But if you’re serious about believing that elections offer the hope of social change, then a “few minutes on Election Day” isn’t enough. Each election year the leading unions spend millions to get out the vote for the Democratic candidate. Those millions could be spent, for example, organizing Wal-Mart workers into unions—which would have far greater impact on advancing organized labor’s agenda. So this strategy of working for the Democrats diverts resources away from the real fights that need to be waged outside the party. And what if movement goals contradict the Democrats’ electoral strategies? Often, Democrats ask that public shows of support from more progressive groups be put on hold, so as not to antagonize conservative voters. The Democratic establishment regularly asked this of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But when movements or the left accept this framework, it weakens them. They get used to lowering their sights and putting their issues on the back burner.

Mark Kamleiter, former co-chair of the Florida Green Party and supporter of building an independent Green challenge to the Democrats, asked:

What if the “fundis” [i.e., those who advocate a Green Party independent of the Democrats] are actually very politically savvy? What if they have great clarity about the American bipolar corporate political system? What if they already have years of futile experience trying to work with and accommodate liberal Democrats? What if they are not “fundis,” in the pejorative sense, but are, in fact, intelligent, rational, political individuals, who make political decisions based upon experience, maturity, and a clear sense of what must happen to effectively change American politics? What if they are absolutely and logically convinced that the Democratic Party, and its perpetually recycling liberal/progressive wing, must be challenged by a steadfast, firmly independent, value-based third party?

What if the “realos” [those who advocate the PDA strategy inside the Green Party] are in reality not so politically clever? What if in the depths of their beings, they simply do not really believe that the Green Party can actually break open the bipolar corporate party system? What if they are, therefore, very content to ride on the present popular progressive movement, without fundamentally challenging the existing political power structures? What if they are so eager to be next to the “power” that they will compromise Green Party independence and the dream of Greens across the country?41

It’s said that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time. If that’s true, the partisans of such “realistic” strategies of fusing with the Democrats or of “taking over” the Democratic Party—both of which have failed generations of progressives—are really the ones who are out of touch with reality.

The many efforts at the inside-outside strategy, from the Rainbow Coalition to the PDA, have not pushed the Democratic Party in a liberal direction. All liberal intra-party challenges, from Jackson’s to Kucinich’s, ended with their leaders delivering their supporters over to the more conservative Democrats against whom they had mounted their challenges in the first place. Indeed, for politicians committed to Democrats like Jackson and Kucinich, this was the effective aim of their campaigns. Although they may at times flirt with the rhetoric of breaking with the Democrats, their clear commitment is to bring into, or back into, the Democratic orbit people who are disenchanted with the Democratic Party and have moved to the left. The real impact of these inside-outside challenges is, to paraphrase Jackson, to “keep hope alive” in the Democratic Party. These campaigns help to extinguish third-party movements. For those who want to build a genuine and credible left in the United States, there is no substitute for the slow and painstaking work of building movements on the ground, and of building a political alternative to the Democrats.

  1. See “What Is PDA?” at, accessed June 14, 2008.
  2. Laura Flanders’s Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians (New York: Penguin Group, 2007) recounts several stories of activists and unions taking over moribund local and state Democratic Party organizations.
  3. See Eric Chester, Socialists and the Ballot Box (New York: Praeger, 1985), 131–47 for an account of the realignment perspective.
  4. Quoted in Maurice Isserman, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (New York: Public Affairs, 2000), 187.
  5. Progressive Democrats of America, “PDA Inside/Outside Strategy,” at
  6. The DSA’s “Where We Stand” document explained this shift: “Democratic socialists reject an either-or approach to electoral coalition building, focused solely on a new party or on realignment within the Democratic Party. The growth of PAC-driven, candidate-based, entrepreneurial politics in the last 25 years leaves little hope for an immediate, principled electoral response to the rightward, pro-corporate drift in American politics. The fundamental task of democratic socialists is to build anti-corporate social movements capable of winning reforms that empower people. Since such social movements seek to influence state policy, they will intervene in electoral politics, whether through Democratic primaries, non-partisan local elections, or third party efforts. Our electoral work aims at building majoritarian coalitions capable of not only electing public officials on the anti-corporate program of these movements, but also of holding officials accountable after they are elected.” See it at, accessed July 18, 2008.
  7. Spidel interviewed in William Rivers Pitt, “Ordinary Heroes and the Rising Power of the Roots,” Truthout, January 27, 2005,
  8. See Joe Libertelli, “New Organization, ‘Progressive Democrats of America’ Emerges After Democratic Convention,” at 080104_new_org.htm. Spidel describes his job at PDA in very un-grassroots sounding ways: “I serve as Deputy Director, and to an extent as political director. My niche is the strategy component. I take the relationships Tim Carpenter builds on the Hill, along with the desires of our grassroots organizers and the caucuses that tell us what their priorities are, I take those and balance them out into an executable strategy. I dictate the direction of the activism—targeting congressional districts, ballot initiatives, aiming the fire of the grassroots at the targeted spot. I take the initiatives of the policy board and organize them into effective action.”
  9. See PDA board member David Swanson’s response to my criticism of PDA in Socialist Worker, April 8, 2005, available online at
  10. “New Political Organization to Be Launched in Boston: Progressive Democrats of America,” July 20, 2004, available online at
  11. Medea Benjamin, contribution to “Looking Back, Looking Forward: A Forum,” Nation, December 20, 2004.
  12. Peter Camejo, “The Crisis in the Green Party: The Magic Number 39 & My Meetings with Cobb, Kucinich and the GPUS SC,”
  13. Spidel, Truthout, January 27, 2005.
  14. Quoted in Charley Underwood, “A Kucinich Delegate in Boston and the Totalitarian Democratic Party,” August 1, 2004, available online at
  15. Quoted in Mark Naymik, “Many Kucinich Backers Are Out There, Way Out,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 9, 2003.
  16. On the Bush-Kerry exchange, see William Saletan, “Would Kerry Vote Today for the Iraq War?” Slate, August 12, 2004, at
  17. Libertelli, “John Kerry’s Statement on the Iraq War; Political Ecology 101,” at
  18. Ibid.
  19. Read Joshua Frank’s account of the DLC’s “assassination” of Dean in Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2005), 103–11.
  20. On the beginnings of the campaign of Democratic sabotage of Sinclair’s campaign, see Greg Mitchell, The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race  for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics (New York: Random House, 1992), 214.
  21. Dawson operated a patronage machine on Chicago’s Black South Side that worked to “get out the vote” for Democrats in the city. In some ways, the Dawson machine was a replica in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods of the citywide Democratic machine. While the city machine under Daley gave Dawson wide latitude in running the Black South Side Democratic machine, the Dawson machine was always subservient to the city machine and to Daley. For that reason, his political operation was referred to as a “submachine.”
  22. The Emmett Till case revolved around the lynching of fourteen-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till who was accused of “whistling at a white woman” during a stay with relatives in Money, Mississippi. Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted that Emmett’s maimed body be returned to Chicago and displayed in an open casket during his funeral. As many as fifty thousand people turned out at Till’s funeral, which became a major touchstone in the growing movement for civil rights.
  23. Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, American Pharaoh: Richard J. Daley—His Battle for Chicago and the Nation (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2000), 206–7.
  24. Alexander Cockburn, “The Democrats and Their Conventions,” CounterPunch, July 26, 2004, at
  25. Sheila Collins, The Rainbow Challenge: The Jackson Campaign and the Future of  U.S. Politics (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), 105.
  26. Adolph L. Reed, Jr., The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 14–15.
  27. Guardian, April 30, 1986, 15.
  28. For information on Jackson’s relationship with King, see David Garrow, Bearing the Cross (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1987), 584–86, 562. For the quote by Jackson, see George Packer, “Trickle-Down Civil Rights,” New York Times, December 12, 1999.
  29. See Lee Sustar, “The Black Political Convention of 1972,” Socialist Worker, April 1988. Also see Manning Marable, Black American Politics: From the Washington Marches to Jesse Jackson (New York: Verso), 266.
  30. Paul Hockenos, Guardian, February 17, 1988, 1.
  31. “Jackson Names 2 to Head Campaign,” New York Times, November 14, 1987, 1, 35.
  32. Sustar, “A Rainbow Solution?” Socialist Worker, November 1987.
  33. See “Jesse Jackson on Arafat & the PLO,” Against the Current 15 (July/August 1988): 18.
  34. “Briefing,” New York Times, March 22, 1988.
  35. Information on Bentsen from James Ledbetter and Ariel Kaminer, “‘Special Interests’ Get Their Veep,” Guardian, August 3, 1988.
  36. David E. Rosenbaum, “The Democrats in Atlanta; With Palestinian Issue Put Aside, Platform Is Adopted,” New York Times, July 20, 1988.
  37. Jackson adviser Robert Borosage quoted in editorial, “Deal, Jesse, Deal,” Socialist Worker, July 1988.
  38. Jo Seidita, “The Hollow Men,” Progressive, September 1988, 6.
  39. Quoted in Maureen Dowd, “Dukakis and Bush Spar on Conservatism,” New York Times, June 8, 1988.
  40. “Open Letter from Tom Hayden,” October 4, 2004, at
  41. Mark S. Kamleiter, “Conflict in the Green Party: A Response,” July 30, 2005,

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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