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The Democrats’ Jackson Dilemma

(Fall 1988)

From Proletarian Revolution, No. 32 (Fall 1988).
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The primaries are finally over. The seemingly endless electioneering and windbag speeches have given way to the festivals of more political rhetoric and backstabbing known as the party conventions. Meant to be showcases for the Democrats and Republicans, the conventions serve to reveal the crisis of leadership facing the U.S. capitalist rulers.

In order not to further alienate the masses of working people hostile to the system that offers them so meager a choice, both parties strive to say as little as possible. The Democrats have written a platform of only 3500 words, around one-tenth the size of their 1984 document. The best candidates appear to be those who stand for nothing and pledge to do nothing. In the words of Theodore Sorenson, the chief architect of this year’s Democratic platform, “brevity is the soul of victory.”

Besides the ever-present fear that a candidate might open his mouth and blow the election, there are good reasons for such political evasiveness. The truth is that the capitalist system faces a serious economic and political crisis – as evidenced by the Iran-contragate affair, the October 1987 stock market crash and Reagan’s attempt to win a place in history by negotiating with the “evil empire.” On the world scene U.S. imperialism is still king of the hill, but its grip has loosened considerably. None of the candidates for bourgeois leadership have any answers to the crisis, and the ruling class fears that open discussion of the real situation would arouse the frustrated U.S. working class.

For the Republicans, the only question is how much can George Bush grovel before the Reaganite conservatives at the convention. For Michael Dukakis and the Democrats, it’s time to get down to the “Let’s Make a Deal.” The big problem is how to deal with Jesse Jackson. Does Dukakis come to an accommodation with Jackson and antagonize those whites who have been voting more against Jackson than for Dukakis? Or does he give Jackson nothing and antagonize Blacks and left activists into sitting out the election?

It’s Jackson’s Dilemna Too

Jackson’s success in the primaries presents a problem to him and his backers as well. He has a large bloc of delegates, and the expectations of his primary base among Black voters are much higher than in 1984; a sellout like last time will be much more difficult to carry off. Jackson is afraid to use his clout to lead a fight that would split open the convention. He has worked too hard at being a good Democrat, even to the point of turning the other cheek when attacked by the racist Mayor Koch, to throw his newfound respectability away.

However, if Jackson plays the role of the loyal party man and doesn’t make a fuss at the convention, he may well come away empty-handed again. And at this point there is little to indicate that Dukakis will yield much. Unlike Mondale, who had the support of the Black political establishment and who contested Jackson for the Black vote in 1984, Dukakis is winning with virtually no Black support and little effort to appeal to Black voters. The Democratic strategists take the Black vote for granted; their concern is to win over or neutralize the more conservative and racist white voters, particularly in the South.

Faced with this situation, Jackson has played with efforts to put his name forward for vice-president. He knows his chances are slim to none, and most observers doubt he even wants the position. Nevertheless, he is using it as a bargaining chip to try to force Dukakis into making a deal that will allow him to save face with his supporters.

Dukakis is more than just a liar when he says he makes no deals. Such statements represent an appeal to racist whites who don’t want to see deals involving Blacks and other minorities who they claim “are getting everything handed to them.” Concessions to Jackson, who ran a strong campaign as a loyal Democrat, are called deals, while the deals proposed to the conservatives to nominate a Southern politician like Albert Gore or Sam Nunn as vice-president are labeled good politics. Does anyone not believe that if Jackson were white he would be offered a deal with no questions asked? The more boosters point to Jackson’s success as proof that the country and the Democratic Party are not racist, the more the exact opposite is revealed.

At best Jackson will get only the crummiest of crumbs. He has already indicated that there will be no fight over the platform that commits the party to nothing. Except for some changes in party rules and a proposal to place South Africa on the “terrorist” list (which normally includes only Nicaragua, Libya and other countries that challenge U.S. imperial domination), Jackson has little to show for his efforts. His allies downplayed their defeat on issues like Palestinian self-determination, which “were not considered matters of principle by most Jackson delegates.” (New York Times, June 27.) The reason is that dereliction on genuine matters of principle will never chase away the leftist Jackson activists, who are committed to the Democrats no matter what.

Dukakis wants to move in an even more conservative direction and aims to show the ruling class that he is not giving in to the demands of Blacks and the oppressed. Like all the Democratic candidates – and this includes Jackson – Dukakis’s real program is austerity. Echoing what used to be considered traditional Republicanism, the Democrats expound fiscal conservatism. Jackson even boasts that he and not Dukakis has a plan to balance the federal budget. (Not surprisingly, the cutback in military spending ballyhooed by Jackson’s left tails became a mere “freeze” when they got down to business.)

Where Jackson and Dukakis differ is that Jackson attempts to give austerity a more populist appeal. He emphasizes that the stockbroker and the worker are both on the same footing, so “we” all must sacrifice. Jackson throws dust in the eyes of the working people in order to blind them to the reality that capitalism itself is based on exploitation.

Jackson’s Real Role

Jackson will of course tell Blacks and other oppressed groups to vote for Dukakis because the main task is to defeat the Republicans. He will show the Democratic establishment that he places the interests of the party above the interests of his supporters – that he will stab his own followers in the back to preserve party unity.

Jackson’s leftist supporters will inevitably follow their messiah into the Dukakis camp. Much of the left has loyally backed him as he sinks deeper into the role of a regular Democratic politician. As their hope that Jackson will lead a break with the Democrats becomes more and more absurd, the leftists will have little alternative but to follow the leader.

Indeed, support to the Jackson campaign by labor and left spokesmen only helps them deliver workers and oppressed people to the Dukakis fold. A Times article pointed to the role of one Black union official, Al Murchison, first vice president of Local 731 of the United Automobile Workers in New Jersey. “Mr. Murchison said his support for Mr. Jackson in the primary would make it easier for him to bring Jackson supporters to Mr. Dukakis’s side.” (June 5.)

Already elements like the Guardian newspaper have adapted their politics to justify capitulation:

Because Jackson is running as a Democrat, some on the left have argued against supporting his campaign, saying it reinforces the 2-party system that has impeded the development of working-class politics in the U.S. But the Jackson campaign has already shown its potential for rocking the foundations of the Democratic Party that takes working-class and minority support for granted while representing bourgeois interests. Some have also stressed the possibility that Jackson will ‘sell out’ at the convention and support a conservative Democrat. But for most of the left this concern is clearly overshadowed by the campaign’s profound progressive potential.
With its working-class perspective and constituency, the Jesse Jackson campaign is certain to sharpen the class contradiction within the Democratic Party as the candidate continues to rack up primary votes and delegates. This process will help lay the basis for the left’s longer-term goal: the development of an independent, anticapitalist political movement. In the meantime, Blacks and other oppressed groups, workers and their allies are gaining important experience struggling for empowerment in the electoral arena.

What a combination of cynicism and muddleheadness! These “leftists” are not the least bothered that Jackson supports the bourgeois Democrats or that he will sell out at the convention. However, to make reality a bit more palatable, they argue that there is a class contradiction within the Democratic Party. This really signifies that the party is multi-class and not bourgeois in essence, and that it can do better than betray its mass following. Of course, the leftists’ long-term goal is an independent “anticapitalist” party. But in the meantime, the workers and oppressed can gain “experience” inside a pro-capitalist party. Presumably this holds true for the Guardian types as well.

On the one hand the left tells the masses to work inside the Democratic Party until an independent party is built. On the other, it justifies its own subservience to the Democrats by arguing that that’s where the masses are to be found. Yet as the mockery of the Rainbow Coalition demonstrates, what these leftists mean by an independent party is only a more left, populist version of the Democrats.

Ultimately, the left is confronted by the logic that if it is going to confine the struggle to reformism, why build a third bourgeois party if the Democratic Party is open to reform? Only by fighting for a revolutionary communist alternative can the stranglehold of the Democrats over the workers and oppressed be broken.

Unfortunately, the masses have had more than their share of “experience” with the Democrats. There is no class contradiction in the party’s role. But there is a class division within the Black movement between the oppressed workers and the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leadership, including Jackson. A necessary task in the struggle to build a revolutionary party will be to free the most critical section of the working class – the Black workers – from their pro-bourgeois leaders.

When that occurs the working class will gain a new experience: political power pointing to the end of exploitation and oppression. It will be a gigantic step toward what society really needs: not a new capitalist paint job but a total socialist reconstruction.

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