The following is the conference paper I’d planned to give at the 2014 Society of US Intellectual Historians Conference in Indianapolis. Once again, I apologize for not being able to make it, as my travel plans fell through at the last moment.
Consider this paper as a brief sketch of some key themes to consider in regards to the Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s. And, of course, keep in mind that you’ll be seeing much more about this topic down the road. –RG2
The two electoral victories of President Barack Obama have occasioned talk about a “post-racial” era. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that some of the essays, speeches, and roundtable discussions since 2008 have centered on refuting the idea of a “post-racial” era. Nonetheless, a great deal of discussion about Obama’s victory, and the future of both Democratic Party politics and African American political strength, have looked back to the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. For instance, articles written during and after the 2008 Democratic primary race between Obama and Hillary Clinton reminded readers of Jackson’s campaigns in 1984 and 1988—especially after Bill Clinton’s seemingly disparaging remarks about Obama’s victory in South Carolina.
However, Jesse Jackson’s historical relationship to the current president—and, indeed, the Democratic Party itself—requires that we take a closer look at the 1980s. While this narrative could very easily begin in 1968 with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the search for a new black politics in the early 1970s, the Reagan-era debate over the future of the Democratic Party forms the crux of this essay. This essay argues that Jackson’s runs for president, and the broader intellectual arguments he put across during the 1980s, offered a new idea of Left-wing politics that bridged a divide between liberals who looked to the 1930s New Deal and those activists and politicians who came of age in the 1960s. For the latter, their greater concern was over cementing the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, while also fighting for women’s rights, gay rights, and a new American foreign policy geared to a post-Vietnam world. Jackson offered something for all groups: coming as he did out of the Civil Rights tradition, he also offered a beacon of hope to those concerned about President Reagan’s policies towards the poor and women, as well as his Cold War saber-rattling.
At the same time, it must also be remembered that Jackson lost in both his campaigns for president. The Democratic Party, reasonably worried about continued electoral failure on a national level, was torn apart in the 1980s over questions of the future of the party. In much the same way that Republicans after 1932 were split between liberal, moderate, and conservative factions in the face of a rejuvenated New Deal Democratic Party, the Democrats of the 1980s were unsure of how to turn back the conservative electoral tide that, from 1980 through 1988, would deliver three consecutive Republican landslide victories. This story, too, starts much earlier than the 1980s. Since at least 1966, liberal and left intellectuals and politicians were concerned about the growing conservative presence in national politics. To be sure it never disappeared from the national political scene. But starting in the midterm election of 1966 and the presidential election of 1968, and especially in election years such as 1972 and 1984, it made itself known through crushing electoral victories.
Studying the losers in presidential elections has, in recent years, revealed as much about modern American politics as has studying the victors. The Liberals’ Moment by Bruce Miroff, as an example, studied the 1972 campaign of George McGovern and revealed the cleavages within the Democratic Party that exist to this day. Rick Perlstein’s Before The Storm on the rise of Barry Goldwater and his 1964 presidential run, revealed a great deal about the rise of modern conservative politics even though their candidate was decisively beaten. Both books offered not only a political history of those two runs, but also an intellectual history of the left-liberal and conservative, respectively, movements behind the candidates.
What “Toward an Intellectual History of the Rainbow Coalition” will do is consider the phenomenon of Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition in the context of both Democratic Party politics and the debates over black political and social issues in the 1980s. For some left-liberals and progressives, he was the best hope for a new kind of politics that could unseat Ronald Reagan or, at the least, prepare the Democratic Party for a new, multicultural future. For other liberals and many moderate and conservative Democrats, Jackson was a symbol of everything wrong with the Democratic Party. Yes, he never appeared to have a chance at winning the presidency in 1984 and 1988. But considering his role as a “fringe” candidate, Jackson’s runs for president caused much ink to be spilled in magazines such as The Nation, The New Republic, and The Progressive.
It’s also worth considering the situation facing African Americans, both leaders and the vast majority of blacks, in the early 1980s. This was the era of the Bakke decision, which rolled back affirmative action. As Daniel T. Rodgers has noted, despite this decision “outside the courts history’s legacies still counted.” It was also an era when, in 1979, the Ku Klux Klan was able to murder five protesters (some of whom were members of the Communist Workers Party) in broad daylight, and caught on camera in Greensboro, North Carolina—and be acquitted by a jury of their peers. The Institute of the Black World, which had provided much intellectual stimulation on issues of race, was shutting down by the early 1980s. The venerable Freedomways, a journal that was founded by among others W.E.B. Du Bois in 1961 and represented the best of the black radical tradition in the 1960s and 1970s, was on its last legs and would cease publication in 1985. Meanwhile, African Americans were becoming mayors of cities such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, among others. To say that the era into which Jesse Jackson was inserting himself as a presidential candidate was one of both peril and promise for African Americans would be a bit trite. But it would also carry a kernel of truth. And, as noted by David Chappell in his book on this era, “If Jackson was a demagogue, he had the advantage of having a larger following than any of his critics—and was arguably more practical as well as more courageous, in that he dared to rally discontented masses of not just black voters but, increasingly, Hispanic, poor white, and other have-not constituencies against the popular rightward trend.”
Jesse Jackson’s decision to run for president in 1984 came after considerable speculation in the press. By the time of the 1983 March on Washington, an event heralded as a twentieth anniversary celebration of the 1963 event, it was believed by many media pundits that a Jackson run for president was inevitable. Most coverage of the event focused on Jackson’s actions and words, despite a diverse roster of speakers. Even without Jackson’s potential run for president as a story, the event itself would have received considerable media attention. The New York Times saw it as a moment when the left re-energized itself against Ronald Reagan. On that day, noted the Times, the march was “an affirmation of a coalition of groups—labor, blacks, Hispanic Americans, women, antinuclear activists and environmentalists, among others—that have frequently been at odds in recent years.” Still, with Jackson considering a run for the White House, the 1983 March’s anti-Reagan rhetoric showcased a reservoir of energy on the left that, if tapped by the right candidate, would allow the Democrats a chance to make 1984 a competitive race. For some on the left, Jackson was just that man.
Pundits, journalists, and intellectuals who all considered themselves people of the left—liberal, progressive, radical—spent the 1984 campaign season debating the direction of the Democratic Party. They could not see the landslide coming, although they could certainly anticipate having a difficult challenge ahead in unseating a sitting president. Jackson’s run for president in 1984 exemplified some of the challenges for the American left that it faced in the 1980s—most notably, reconciling a rupture between African Americans and Jews within the Democratic coalition that threatened to become more acrimonious over time. Of course, the “Hymietown” incident in March of 1984, when Jackson was caught by a Washington Post reporter using a derogatory slur towards Jewish Americans, did not help matters.
Debates raged across left-leaning publications in the spring and summer of 1984, not just about whether or not they should support Jackson, but whether he was anti-Semitic, if his Rainbow Coalition was just a smokescreen for identity politics on steroids, and if he was even a person of the left. These questions have haunted Jackson since the middle of the 1980s. It’s imperative, however, that we understand the debate over these questions, as they also show cracks within an already fractured American left.
Some took Jackson’s apology for his anti-Semitic remarks as the end of the discussion. For them, the more important issue was Jackson’s ability to inspire a new movement. Philip Green, writer for The Nation magazine, argued “for the first time in a half-century there is a movement on the electoral landscape that promises to reshape our politics by bringing into play the needs, wishes and interests of millions of voters and potential voters who heretofore have felt that their deepest political desires would always be frustrated or ignored.” For Green and some on the left, Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was a chance to recapture the spirit of the New Deal, but imbued with a fresh perspective on issues of race, class, and gender. Green argued, “the prospect before us is one that all progressives must think about carefully as we contemplate our responses to the potential derailment of Jackson’s campaign because of the furor touched off by a Washington Post report that he used an epithet for Jews.” In other words, despite the nastiness of Jackson’s remarks, and regardless of his friendship with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Green believed that any response to Jackson’s comments had to be balanced with concern for the future of the American left, and the nation at large.
Many within the left were unwilling to let Jackson off the hook, and not just for this anti-Semitic rhetoric. Paul Berman succinctly summed up the bulk of concern about Jackson by stating simply, “What sort of a movement is Jackson leading?” Berman, like other commenters, could not avoid comparing Jackson to Martin Luther King when he wrote, “Jackson sometimes likens his candidacy to the Christian witness-bearing of Martin Luther King Jr. A good many secular radicals tend to think of the campaign as a traditional left-wing movement, the sort of movement King seemed to be developing before he was killed.” But Berman did not believe that Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was left in the traditional sense. In fact he believed it to be closer to the Populist Party of the 1890s, which he referred to as the “rainbow coalition of the oppressed” between poor white and black southern farmers.
The historical counterparts that Berman cited in comparison to Jackson, suffice to say, probably raised a few eyebrows among progressives in the 1980s. “Like the traditional populists—from Tom Watson and William Jennings Bryan, through Huey Long and George Wallace in his demagogic days—Jackson authentically expresses the need and desires of the oppressed (in his case, a class far more downtrodden than the people Wallace championed),” wrote Berman. “Like the others, Jackson makes his protest on the basis of an inspiring but vague Christian-influenced philosophy that has many left-wing aspects but distinctly right-wing elements too.” Jackson’s use of, and friendship with, Louis Farrakhan, fretted Berman, was the chief example of Jackson’s ties to the right-wing in Black America. His “flip-flop” on political issues, such as abortion or tensions between Israelis and Arabs, made Jackson “closer to populism than to the King tradition”, according to Berman.
The critique by Berman of Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition is important to note if we’re to understand larger left fissures in the 1980s. The invoking of the populists showcases a particular concern about the direction of Jackson and his followers—especially if we consider the criticism historians of populism have heaped upon the movement for its own anti-Semitism, a point noted by Berman himself. And there’s also the fact that the populists of the 1890s failed. Even with dogged determination to change the political system in the South, and the alliance with William Jennings Bryan and the Democrats nationally in 1896, they still failed to obtain victory for their core constituency, farmers. Likewise, Berman and other commentators noted, the Rainbow Coalition risked not only losing, but letting down and politically isolating its chief constituency: African Americans.
Discussion of the Rainbow Coalition became a referendum on the state of black politics in the 1980s. In a post-Civil Rights, post-Black Power America, African American politics was itself at a crossroads. Firmly entrenched as the most loyal group in the Democratic Party, African American political and intellectual leaders expressed deep concern about the direction of the country under Ronald Reagan. Editors at The Nation argued, as did many other liberals and leftists in the 1980s, that Reagan’s appeal to so many white Americans could only have come as a result of racism. They argued that Reagan “made racism palatable and politically potent again” and that voters were simply afraid to admit their racism to pollsters. Despair over race relations in the 1980s under Reagan fired up racial liberals, who were already frustrated with a perceived lack of progress on issues facing the black community since the mid-1960s.
At the same time, frustration was also growing with the Democratic Party itself. Many black activists, while supporting Democratic candidates, were also concerned that the party was turning away from African Americans in search of more votes on a national level. There was a gnawing feeling in 1984, for example, that Walter Mondale’s campaign allowed “black interests” to be “cut from Mondale’s laundry list of campaign promises”. African Americans, some pundits believed, were not being rewarded for their steadfast loyalty to the Democratic Party. For others, however, the Democrats needed to do less to pander to black voters, and more to cater to white moderate and conservative voters. Getting back this critical part of the New Deal coalition was a necessity if the party was to remain viable in the 1980s. Criticism of the Rainbow Coalition by some on the left, and many in the center and right of the Democratic Party, was a way to make a larger critique of African American politics and rhetoric in the 1980s.
There was a belief that the Rainbow Coalition was insignificant because it lost, and lost big, in Democratic Party primaries in 1984. If Jackson’s campaign argued that it brought new voters to the Democratic Party, The New Republic thundered, then it was certainly worth noting that the “overwhelming majority of the 3.2 million votes Mr. Jackson actually got were not, as it happens, from first time voters.” Furthermore, African American voters themselves needed more than a symbolic candidate. Indeed, such a candidate was dangerous for their interests. It is worth quoting at length this take from The New Republic on Jackson, Black America, and 1980s politics:
It is America’s greatest ongoing tragedy that so many people of color feel so poignantly that they are individually nobody because of the social and economic conditions of their race. There is large truth to this feeling. But it is far from clear, given the internal demographic and psychosocial problems of the black community—children with one parent growing up unemployable—how a sheerly political movement could remedy that sense of inadequate self-worth. And whatever else Mr. Jackson may have attained for himself by way of attention, he has not won the respect he has demanded. Respect, in any case, is not awarded on demand.
Here’s a combination of what could be defined as the greatest hits of 1980s American politics: concern over African Americans and their plight, with a mix of disdain and alarm for the “demographic and psychosocial problems of the black community,” mixed with disgust at the politics of Jesse Jackson. This isn’t to say such concern were not real, or that African American communities across the nation didn’t face serious problems. But it does show how firmly entrenched issues of cultural pathology were within critiques of Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition. Furthermore, the Rainbow Coalition was not taken seriously as a political movement but was seen merely as a vehicle for “Jackson power”—a way for Jackson himself to ensure superiority within the Democratic Party over other African American politicians. And like other analysts, The New Republic could not help but compare Jackson unfavorably to Martin Luther King, Jr. When it came to foreign policy, Jackson seemed naïve and lacked King’s concern for “the democratic values” of the United States. Instead, Jackson was far more concerned with pushing forward ideas that were “anti-democratic on the philosophical plane and anti-American on the strategic plane”, through his relationships with such world leaders as Fidel Castro.
This brings us to another key point: Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition was seen as completely out of step with foreign policy concerns in Reagan’s America. This concern over foreign policy was part of a larger critique put forward by many in the Democratic Party’s establishment, most notably moderate and conservative Democrats from the Deep South. Figures such as Sam Nunn from Georgia, Al Gore from Tennessee, and Bill Clinton from Arkansas all believed that reorienting the Democrats towards the center—which, with Reaganism ascendant in America, meant moving right—was the winning formula for the party. The formation of the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985, following on the heels of Reagan’s 49-state victory over Mondale, was heavily dependent on Southern politicians. Looking back on the DLC experiment, Al From wrote, “True, our membership at the outset was mostly white southerners, but white elected Democrats in the South were in danger of extinction.” He went on, “It was clear that playing identity politics was not a path back to power but a path to political oblivion in an electorate that, in 1985, was still about 90 percent white.” From was, of course, present at the creation of the DLC, so his remarks are particularly important to any discussion of the Rainbow Coalition. After all, the DLC, as much (if not more than) the Republican Party became the chief adversary of Jackson in the late 1980s.
Any intellectual history of the Rainbow Coalition has to keep in mind all of these competing ideologies: liberalism, neoliberalism, and the remains of 1960s and 1970s radicalism. While a focus on the conservatives of the 1980s makes plenty of sense, it’s also time for historians to begin to pay more attention to the collapse, and rebuilding, of the Democratic Party during the 1980s. Parallel to that is understanding African American intellectual history during the 1970s and 1980s. Jackson himself was at the center of many of the debates among African American leaders about how to respond to the problems of racism and economic inequality that arose after the Civil Rights era. So far, in this paper, I’ve offered a short, strident description of the ways in which the Rainbow Coalition was perceived by both allies and adversaries. Much remains to be done on the ideas and legacies of the Rainbow Coalition. To understand the Democratic Party of the 1980s requires wrestling with the thoughts and actions associated with Jackson and his organization.
“In South Carolina, Clinton forces try to tap Obama magic,” http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/23/politics/hamby-hillary-clinton-south-carolina-2016/, accessed on September 20, 2014.
 Sean Wilentz’s The Age of Reagan (HarperCollins: New York, 2008) devotes considerable page space to the conservatism of the 1980s, but also addresses the problems within the Democratic coalition during that era. On the Democrats and the 1988 election, Wilentz lamented, “Dazed by two successive Republican presidential triumphs; plagued by divisions of race, ideology, and political temperament that dated back to the late 1960s; unable to unite around a coherent set of attitudes, let alone ideas about foreign policy and the military or domestic issues; beholden to a disparate collection of special constituencies and interest groups, each with its own agenda, the quarrelsome Democrats made the fractured Republican Party look like a juggernaut.” The Age of Reagan, p. 268.
 Daniel T. Rodgers. The Age of Fracture. (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2011), p. 136.
 Timonthy J. Minchin and John A. Salmond. After the Dream: Black and White Southerners Since 1965. (University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY, 2011) pg. 200-201.
 Derrick E. White. The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s. (University Press of Florida: Gainesville, FL, 2011)
 David Chappell, Waking from the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Random House: New York, 2013) p. 131.
 “1983 March: Left Revives,” New York Times, by John Herbers, Aug. 29, 1983, pg. A1.
 “The Reality Beneath the Rainbow,” Philip Green, The Nation, March 17, 1984, p. 305 and 310, quote on pg. 305.
 Green, p. 305.
 “The Other Side of the Rainbow,” Paul Berman, The Nation, p. 407-410 April 7, 1984, quote on pg. 408.
 Berman, 408.
 Berman, 408.
 Berman, 408.
 Berman, 409.
 “Smiling Racism,” The Nation, November 3, 1984, p. 437.
 “The Third World’s Candidate,” The New Republic, July 30, 1984, p. 11-14, quote on p. 11.
 “The Third World’s Candidate,” p. 11
 “The Third World’s Candidate,” p. 11.
 “The Third World’s Candidate,” p. 12.
 Al From, The New Democrats and the Return To Power. (Palgrave McMillan: New York, 2013), p. 59.