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"Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign was more radical than Sanders’ 2016
campaign, despite Jackson himself being a more conservative figure who had
long represented a Black entrepreneurial elite. Amidst a deep social crisis
that afflicted US society and African Americans in particular, Jackson was
catapulted to prominence by a powerful revolt against Reagan’s pro-war,
austerity policies. Jackson’s radical rhetoric was augmented by a loyal
band of followers. A large section of the left, principally Maoists and
ex-Maoists with origins in the New Left, provided not only foot soldiers
but skilled organisers with roots in Asian and Chicano communities, and in
anti-racist, anti-war, and women’s, lesbian and gay liberation movements.
The Rainbow Coalition was a pole of attraction to a fragmented left that
hoped to build a beachhead inside the Democrats and a base from which to
organise outside the Democrats.

By 1989, this project was in disarray. The mass anti-war and
anti-intervention rallies of the early 1980s were no more. Working class
resistance to the Reagan offensive and employers’ assault on living
standards had dissipated. Groups such as the League of Revolutionary
Socialists made peace with the Democrat machine and wound up any public
profile. Others withdrew from the Rainbow, but, demoralised, lacked any
capacity to rebuild a left on the outside.

The Jackson/Rainbow campaigns provide valuable lessons for those looking to
Bernie Sanders today. Firstly, the claim that it was possible to build
“independent politics” through the structures of the Rainbow proved to be a
myth. The Democratic Party will tolerate such efforts so long as they can
enlist new voters in Democrat caucuses and expand the party’s voter base.
However, the rationale for the Rainbow was to secure Jackson’s electoral
victory in the primaries. So long as the Rainbow Left worked towards that
end they were tolerated – even welcomed – within the Rainbow. Once the
Rainbow Left had served its purpose, it was cast aside. Having been locked
into the Democrats for five years, the Rainbow Left found itself locked out.

Secondly, the idea that the Rainbow could serve as a means to bring about a
realignment in US politics, either inside or outside the Democrats, was
mistaken. US politics was moving sharply to the right. Reagan was the front
man for neoliberalism, but Democrats such as Walter Mondale and Gary Hart
were willing accomplices. The Democrats’ rightward lurch, which began
before Reagan’s ascendency and continued in the 1990s under Clinton, was
driven by the declining profitability of US capitalism. Whereas Roosevelt’s
New Deal and Kennedy’s Great Society programs implemented a reform package
in response to the demands of the union and civil rights movements, the
Democrats could no longer accede to such demands while simultaneously
meeting the demands of big business. Moreover, the US ruling class had
forged a consensus that to maintain its imperial hegemony, it needed to
embark on a massive armaments program that could ensure its victory in the
Cold War.

Thirdly, the strategy pursued by the Rainbow Left, despite protestations to
the contrary, was fundamentally electoralist. While NCM groups shared an
analysis that the Democratic Party was a capitalist party that couldn’t be
reformed, a consensus also emerged that their decade-long engagement with
struggles of workers and the oppressed needed to be complemented by
electoral work that could win a larger audience for socialist ideas. For
some, electoral work came to be redefined as a form of “mass” work.
However, for the vast majority of Democrats, whether politicians or
volunteers, they are in it to win. They are not in it for mass organising
or left propaganda. Nor are they in it to disseminate arguments for
building a new party outside the Democrats.

A successful strategy for winning elections differs fundamentally from one
that can win strikes or build militant mass actions. Whereas strikes and
protest actions are directed at an opposing party and are manifestations of
class struggle and conflict, elections are a means to winning a vote from
the largest possible audience. The former involves taking risks, making
sacrifices and challenging the economic and political establishment; the
latter involves getting as many supporters as possible out to vote. Within
the time frame of an election and the rules of the game, an election
campaign by itself cannot transform mass consciousness. It can only relate
to existing consciousness. Inevitably, this requires adapting your
electoral platform to the prevailing mood of the electorate.

Roosevelt’s New Deal and Kennedy’s Great Society programs were not won by
canvassing for votes. They were the product of an upsurge in mass struggle.


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