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The Rainbow Coalition, Bernie, and DSA: A Response to Bill Fletcher Jr.

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Millennials who enthusiastically engaged in Bernie Sanders’ 2016 run to be the Democratic nominee for President had a one-of-a-kind experience. But for those radicalized in the 1970s and 1980s, Bernie was round two. In 1984 and then 1988, leftists and progressives of all stripes joined the Reverend Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition as he, like Sanders a generation later, sought the Democratic nomination for president. Bill Fletcher Jr.’s recent piece on the lessons today’s left should learn from this earlier effort is excellent. In what follows, I attempt to build on his analysis generally but with a focus on DSA, underlining some lessons and extracting a few that are latent, and offering a minor critique.

1. The Democratic Presidential primary is the place to be. Though Fletcher notes that the Rainbow Coalition largely imploded, he also suggests that this was not inevitable. To the extent that he is right, the Democratic presidential primary was the vehicle that created the opportunity to build something more. Our own membership in the Democratic Socialists of America began to explode as Sanders entered the national scene through this same vehicle. In The Primary Route, Tom Gallagher makes the compelling case that the Democratic primary for president presents an unparalleled opportunity for the left, though it has only sporadically taken advantage. There is simply no comparison between the coalitions – however volatile and imperfect – that both Jackson and Sanders built in their respective efforts and those of, for example Ralph Nader in 2000 or Jill Stein in 2016. And Sanders has played a pivotal role in catapulting the idea of socialism onto the national stage – I will never forget the first presidential debate, when the moderator asked “Is there anybody else on the stage who is not a capitalist?”

For some lower level seats, independent challenges may be desirable and viable –Sanders has been elected to all of his offices as an independent – but at the presidential level under current legal and institutional conditions, the left should seek to put forward as dynamic and viable a candidate as possible in each Democratic Presidential primary.

2. But the foundation for serious presidential runs – and, importantly, movement building – is local. Fletcher alludes to the fact that Jackson steered his nascent coalition toward vying for congressional seats, structuring the organization along those lines, rather than along “city or county” lines. This point is vital. The socialist mini-wave in Pennsylvania this season that brought Summer Lee to the state legislature is a shining example of how the left can build a pipeline of viable candidates through lower-level races. On its own, at this stage of its development, the DSA cannot shift even a single state legislative chamber, but it can play a meaningful role in putting people like Summer Lee, Lee Carter and, hopefully, Julia Salazar in office. Don’t be surprised if, in a decade, one of these individuals is our candidate in the presidential primary. And, in the meanwhile, they can follow the example of Kshama Sawant, and do their best to use elected office as a movement-building rather than movement-deadening tool.

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3. Check out Vermont. Fletcher makes passing reference to the unique potency of the Vermont Rainbow Coalition, which did not conceive of itself as simply an arm of the Jackson campaign. As I have noted elsewhere, that group pivoted to help institutionalize the Vermont Progressive Party at the state-level. The VPP emerged initially out of the Burlington coalition that helped elected Bernie Sanders to mayor in 1981, and ultimately has become one of the two major parties in the city. At the state-level, the party operates with a “fusion” model, a version of the inside/outside approach that Fletcher suggests. 30 years later, some part of the Rainbow Coalition lives on in Vermont as a smart, viable, influential “third” party.

4. Experiment – for now – with how to relate to campaigns. I’ve watched in awe as committed NYC DSA members have engaged electoral politics in the last two cycles, in myriad ways, all with an eye toward organization building. Fletcher is right to highlight the dilemma that left organizations often face – embed deeply in the campaign to gain some influence, with the risk of becoming “absorbed,” or stay independent but tend toward a “practical sectarianism.” The NYC DSA’s first notable foray into electoral politics after its membership explosion was the 2017 Khader El-Yateem race for New York City Council in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. DSA worked out of the campaign office but maintained its own data and ran its own canvases. In this way, the organization did not “provide” volunteers to the campaign, but rather built an army of DSA canvassers, who have gone on to work on other campaigns. And of course, the data DSA gathered is now its own. On the other hand, even those who favored this strategy noted that there was a practical separation between El-Yateem’s Arab constituency and the largely white activists that DSA brought to the table. Perhaps these two groups would have grown closer using a different model.

Later that election cycle DSA petitioned for an independent socialist line in central Brooklyn for city council candidate Jabari Brisport, who also ran on the Green Party line. The campaign produced more votes for a third-party candidate than anyone since Letitia James won her city council seat in 2003 on the Working Families Party line. Still, New York City Council general elections bring many thousands to the polls, and the outcome was not close. Again, DSA brought its own canvassers and maintained its own lists.

This cycle, in 2018, for the first time since the membership explosion, NYC DSA is running a candidate of its own choosing, state senate candidate Julia Salazar (El-Yateem, Brisport and Ocasio-Cortez are all members, but they were not recruited to run by the organization. The DSA model for the Ocasio-Cortez campaign was essentially the same as for El-Yateem.) Here, the issue of “practical sectarianism” largely evaporates, because DSA itself is constructing the coalition around the candidate. Obviously, this can’t be done in all cases, but where a left organization has a viable candidate and enough activists to build a real operation, this is an intuitively superior model. And, in a final twist, having endorsed Cynthia Nixon and Jumaane Williams in their respective gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial challenges to Andrew Cuomo and his side-kick Kathy Hochul, DSA is essentially running their field operations but only in Julia’s district, sharing data with the campaigns. In just two electoral cycles – one city primary, one city general election, and one state primary – DSA NYC has experimented with four different models of engaging electoral politics. For now, this is the kind of learning and experimentation the left needs, bearing in mind the dilemmas Fletcher highlights.

5. Elections and/or Movements. It is beyond the scope of this article to address fully the tension – sometimes imagined and sometimes real – between elections and movement-building. But the Cynthia Nixon model noted above deserves further attention. The decision for NYC DSA to endorse was fraught, but Cynthia supporters ultimately won the day. Whatever we may think of the outcome, the resulting model is worth understanding. NYC DSA is supporting Cynthia in three ways: 1. By modifying Julia Salazar’s scripts to run Cynthia’s field operation within her district. 2. By integrating Cynthia asks into ongoing issue canvases (housing and universal health care). 3. By giving canvasing tools to individual members who ask for them. The Cynthia endorsement is the first in NYC DSA’s short electoral history that is significantly “bigger” than the organization. This model is an attempt to integrate a higher-level campaign into on-going movement and lower-level electoral work. And in part because DSA can offer real capacity on the ground, both Cynthia and Jumaane have developed positions based on DSA priorities – Cynthia adopted the NYC DSA Labor Branch position on legalizing the right to strike for public sector workers, and Jumaane committed not to accept corporate donations in his run. After September 13th, no doubt the organization will step back and evaluate. We should see what there is to be gleaned.

6. Keep running campaigns. Fletcher notes the cyclical nature of electoral campaigns, but his imagery brings to mind a left that picks a campaign, joins as a minor but vigorous partner, likely loses and then disperses. But as the brief description of NYC DSA’s electoral operation above suggests, with enough committed members, it is possible to maintain momentum by running more campaigns. Elections will always be one activity on the left generally and especially within a large, ideologically and tactically diverse organization like DSA, but there is no reason that we can’t build our organizations over the course of many electoral cycles.

7. All else being equal in our presidential primary efforts, run a Black candidate. In the run up to the 2012 presidential general election, Mitt Romney’s support among Blacks was a statistically stunning number: zero. In part this is because the Republican Party was racist long before Trump, but it no doubt had something to do with the Democratic incumbent as well. Fletcher offers a useful discussion of the difference between progressive Black politics and Black-led progressive populism, arguing that Jackson became an example of the latter. I’ll be supporting the very white, very Vermont Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primary, but I hope to be supporting Summer Lee in the 2032 primary. Notwithstanding consistent Black voter support for universal social policies, the reality is that white progressives like Bernie have had a hard time winning Black votes on the ground. And in fact, Ocasio-Cortez performed worse among Black voters than any other demographic in her district. The history of slavery, legal racial discrimination, and violence against Blacks and people of color is a defining feature of U.S. society. Ultimately only policy can even begin to address these historic injustices, but the identities of our candidates and the communities from which they emerge matter.

8. Run charismatic candidates. Also, run candidates who are not charismatic. But either way, follow Odysseus. Fletcher rightly highlights the dilemma the left faces with respect to charismatic candidates. Such individuals often want to do their own thing, and resent being disciplined by an organization. But they can connect powerfully with people, energizing voters and campaign activists alike, a power that cannot be understated or ignored. But you don’t have to be charismatic to run for office, and candidate recruitment certainly should not happen on this basis alone. The lesson here is not “charismatic or not,” but build the organization: the left needs charismatic candidates to be constrained by a powerful organization that s/he needs for election and re-election; the left also needs less charismatic candidates to be bolstered by a committed activist force that can hit the doors and talk to voters – after all, when election day comes, many more people will have met a canvasser than the candidate. After a win and after a loss, for charismatic candidates and for those who are not, what matters for the left is having a powerful, energized and energizing organization that will go on to pick more and bigger fights.

Reverend Jessie Jackson built the Rainbow Coalition. Bernie Sanders created Our Revolution. If we play our cards right, we’ll have a presidential primary candidate in the next 10 or 20 years who doesn’t need to build an organization, because they come out of one.