I recently had an exchange with a Bernie Sanders supporter who had read my book on Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns. It forced me to think of the similarities and differences between Jackson’s efforts and those of Sanders. The similarities are fairly obvious.
Both ran campaigns to force the Democratic Party to shift to the left on domestic policy. Both also encouraged the Party to expand its base rather than compete for disillusioned or “blue collar” Republicans. Both were exciting campaigners who relied on small campaign contributions and inspired idealism in young people.
The differences are not as obvious. Sanders built his campaign around “health care for all” while Jackson’s most important policy contribution was to raise the issue of South African apartheid to the national level. Jackson lacked the support of the Party establishment just as Sanders remained an outsider.
However, Jackson won over the Party’s most consistent base of voters—African Americans, while it was Bernie’s greatest failure. Jackson gained more White supporters, especially in 1988, than Sanders was able to obtain among Blacks. Sanders seemed to suffer from a historic problem of the left in the United States. It tends to subordinate race issues to class issues assuming that the “revolution” will lift all boats. Historically that has not been the case and Black voters know it.
Moreover, Jesse could depend on the Black church for support while Sanders and the left in general have an ambiguous relationship with religion. In fact, since eighties the religious right has gained the most support among working class Whites.
Jackson received few concessions from either Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. Because he wanted a vice presidential nomination and entertained thoughts of running in the future, he pre-empted the idea of an independent or third party bid outside the Party. Therefore, he had little bargaining power at the conventions. His most successful effort was the reform of the delegate process. That reform, plus his expansion of the voter pool helped pave the way for the nomination and election of Barack Obama.
Sanders’ 2016 campaign did little to shift the policy views of Hillary Clinton or the Democratic Party elites—possibly because of the bitterness left by the lateness of his concession.
It remains to be seen whether Sanders and his supporters can force more concessions from the Biden camp in 2020. One of the lessons from the Jackson campaigns as well as Obama’s is that growing the Party is a viable strategy. That is, if new voters are not disenfranchised by Republican electoral officials or the courts.