Some in the news media have likened Bernie Sanders’ outsider presidential campaign to the insurgent, progressive campaigns run by Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, which apparently enabled the civil-rights leader to play Democrat kingmaker.
Jackson himself has refused to say whether he will back Sanders or Hillary Clinton. Sanders endorsed Jackson’s 1980s presidential bids, while Jackson has long maintained a close friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Largely missing from the conversation is how Jackson’s progressive Rainbow Coalition was a key to Sanders state-wide victories in Vermont.
The story is not so much an exercise in trivia about the relationship between Sanders and Jackson as much as it is a window into two personalities’ shared agenda of pushing the Democratic Party further leftward.
Also at issue is how early progressive socialists identified Vermont as a Petri dish for testing Democratic politics and methods of pushing the party toward socialist-style policies.
The National Rainbow Coalition was a progressive, socialist-style organization that grew out of Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign, seeking to target voting blocs that Jackson contended were neglected by Ronald Reagan’s economic programs.
In 1985, the Vermont chapter of the Rainbow Coalition warned against then-Mayor Bernie Sanders running for governor, insisting that such a long-shot contest would draw important resources away from legislative races in which progressive candidates fared better.
One year later, Sanders addressed the Rainbow Coalition and soon became a leading light for the organizing politics of Jackson’s group.
The Rainbow Coalition was considered the key to Sanders’ state-wide successes, including his tenure in Congress, according to researcher David Reynolds, writing his 1999 book, “Democracy Unbound: Progressive Challenges to the Two Party System.”
Reynolds documents Jackson won Vermont, by far the whitest nation in America, in his 1988 presidential bid in large part due to the organizing work of the Rainbow Coalition in the state.
The community organizing work of the Rainbow Coalition was repeatedly put to use for Sanders’ campaigns there, including his unsuccessful independent bid for governor in 1986 when the coalition risked drawing the ire of the Democratic Party by supporting an independent candidate.
In 1988, Vermont’s Rainbow Coalition backed Sanders over the Democratic Party’s incumbent candidate for Congress, with the bid paying off when Sanders won the race and became the longest-serving independent in congressional history.
Reached by the Daily Beast earlier this month, Jackson praised Sanders and refused to say whether he will endorse the socialist or Clinton for 2016.
“I communicate with Hillary and Bernie,” Jackson said. “Many of their positions overlap, you know. They’re both very progressive Democrats.”
Jackson challenged the notion that Sanders would lose.
“Who said Bernie couldn’t win? Who’s the ‘they’?” Jackson asked, adding, “Whoever gets the most votes wins.”
Jackson said he appreciates the way Sanders “takes positions that expand the conversation,” referencing Sanders’ stance as early as the 1980s calling for recognition of Cuba and of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Shared long-term agenda
What did Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition see in Sanders that prompted the group to challenge mainstream Democrats by backing Sanders’ early races?
Rainbow, especially in Vermont, stressed progressive, socialist-style politics, with many in the coalition wanting even to create a third party or to infiltrate the Democratic Party to push it further leftward.
Vermont’s Rainbow Coalition was founded not by Jackson but by non-minority progressive leaders in the state who were enamored by Jackson’s ability to transform the political debate and move the Democratic Party further to the left.
“Jackson’s own unconventional charismatic style, his strong appeal to blacks, and the legitimacy conferred by his role as a candidate for a major party’s nomination all combined to make him an unusually effective spokesperson for a progressive agenda,” wrote Jud Askenaz in the May 1, 1986, edition of Monthly Review.
Askenaz also identified Sanders as the “sine qua non of the Rainbow success story.”
“Sanders’ presence as a politically independent socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, keeps the Democratic Party from complacently assuming, as it does on the national level, that progressives have no place else to go.”
Askenaz referred to the likelihood that Sanders would make the so-called Fair Tax Initiative and “other progressive priorities central to his campaign” for governor that year.
Vermont was clearly seen as early testing grounds for fusing far-left progressive politics into the Democratic Party.
Stewart Meacham, Vermont Rainbow Coalition co-chairman from 1984 to 1986, said the Vermont Rainbow’s strategy was “to view the Democratic Party as a community-organizing target.”
In fact, the Vermont Rainbow Coalition achieved an immediate success when its co-chairman, Ellen David-Friedman, was elected Democratic National Committeewoman.
The Nation Magazine documented the founding convention of the National Rainbow Coalition, held April 17 to 19, 1984.
In attendance were “white farmers and black farmers from the South; rank-and-file unionists and their ‘natural’ enemies, immigrant Haitians and Filipinos; black church ladies and lesbian activists; debt-ridden farmers from the Middle West who had foolishly voted for Ronald Reagan; urban leftists, tenants, preachers and college students,” reported The Nation in a May 3, 1986, article.
Central to the debate was whether the Rainbow Coalition was “part of the Democratic Party, or is it a third party?” related The Nation.
“Jackson, with apparent conviction, and the activist delegates, with assurance born of experience, objected to the way the questions were framed,” documented the magazine. “What matters, they said, is drawing up a progressive platform.”
That progressive platform, and the tactic of infiltrating socialist-style policies into the Democratic Party, was clearly carried out by Sanders himself during his tenure in Congress.
In 1990, the Vermont Rainbow Coalition merged with other progressive groups to form the Vermont Progressive Coalition. At the same time, parts of the coalition merged with Jackson’s National Rainbow movement, which in 1996 merged with another of Jackson’s groups, Operation Push, to become the Rainbow/PUSH organization.
As WND reported, Sanders maintained a close working relationship with the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, even helping to raise funds and recruit new members to the socialist group.
Sanders was a central player in helping elect DSA-supported candidates to Congress and later helped rebrand and incorporate that legislative axis within the Congressional Progressive Caucus, or CPC.
The DSA is the largest socialist organization in the United States and is the principal U.S. affiliate of Socialist International, the worldwide organization of social democratic, socialist and labor parties.
Rewind to 1998. That year, in the January/February issue of Chicago DSA’s New Ground publication, veteran DSA activist Ron Baiman identified Sanders and Democrat Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts as leaders of the Progressive Caucus in Congress, which, Baiman related, the DSA “helped to organize.”
Until November 2002, the website of the CPC was openly hosted by the DSA, demonstrating the close ties between the two like-minded groups.
Following negative publicity about the CPC website being hosted by the socialist organization, the list of CPC names was moved to Sanders’ own website and was later relocated to its own site.
WND reported as early as 1998 on the DSA and the progressive congressional faction. WND reported at the time the DSA website featured “The Internationale,” the worldwide anthem of communism and socialism.
Another song on the site was “Red Revolution,” sung to the tune of “Red Robin.” The lyrics include:
“When the Red Revolution brings its solution along, along, there’ll be no more lootin’’ when we start shootin’ that Wall Street throng. …”
“Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping? Bourgeoisie, Bourgeoisie. And when the revolution comes, We’ll kill you all with knives and guns, Bourgeoisie, Bourgeoisie.”
Sanders and the DSA
The ties between Sanders and the DSA go back to at least 1988, WND found.
On Oct. 24, 1988, The Nation magazine, identifying Sanders as “the socialist Mayor of Burlington, Vermont,” reported he had been endorsed for Congress by both the Democratic Socialists of America and the progressive founders of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.
The DSA endorsed Sanders for every one of his subsequent elections and has openly helped to raise funds for him over the years.
In 2006, for example, the DSA boasted in its literature about the socialist group’s “involvement in Bernie Sanders’ pivotal independent 2006 Senate campaign in Vermont.”
Indeed, the DSA held “Elect Sanders” house parties in Atlanta; Boston; Detroit; Portland, Maine; Boulder, Colorado; Indianapolis; Columbus, Ohio; Ithaca, New York; Springfield, Massachusetts; Washington, D.C.; and New York City.
“DSAers wanting to hold Sanders house parties should contact me at [email protected],” wrote one senior DSA activist in the socialist group’s July 2006 newsletter.
That same year, Sanders spoke at a Detroit fundraiser for DSA’s Political Action Committee. The fundraiser was connected by telephone link to a simultaneous DSA fundraising event in Atlanta.
DSA literature notes that in January 2006, DSA Detroit Chair David Green “took Bernie Sanders to tour Stan Ovshinsky’s United Solar Ovonics plant in Auburn Hills northwest of Detroit.”
“The plant makes successful, cost-efficient solar panels and is pioneering the hydrogen fuel cell,” added the DSA.
In the fall of 2006, Sanders was the featured speaker at several DSA “urban parties” also meant to garner support for his senatorial run while raising awareness about the DSA and recruiting new members to the group.
One New York City event was held Sept. 19, 2006, at the home of DSA activists Gene and Laurel Eisner on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“The questions and comments actually had to be cut off to let Bernie get to the plane,” reported the DSA.
DSA reported the Sanders events helped to recruit new members to the socialist organization.
“Sanders support work provides a natural vehicle in any locality for DSA to reach out to – and potentially recruit – unaffiliated socialists and independent radicals.”
DSA website and Sanders
The issue of the CPC being hosted on the DSA website arose again in June 2000 in connection with a heated dispute on the House floor among Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif.; Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.; and David R. Obey, D-Wis., over the “merits of the F-22 fighter plane.”
When Cunningham stood to defend himself, he included in his argument the fact the DSA website had a link to the CPC, which DeFazio then led.
In 2000, the relationship between the CPC and DSA was an open secret.
In an Aug. 10, 2000, letter to the editor published in The Kentucky Post, it was reported that then-Democratic Rep. Ken Lucas had received campaign funds from Democratic Reps. Marcy Kaptur, John Lewis, George Miller, Nancy Pelosi and Charles Rangel, “among others on the far left.”
The writer remarked that “those five names stand out because they are all members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – a group closely aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America.”
The CPC still had not moved to its own website on April 23, 2002. Balint Vazsonyi responded in the Washington Times to the hypothetical question: “‘What?’ I hear you say. ‘Socialists in the Congress of the United States?'”
Dozens, dear reader, dozens. And they make no secret of it. Although of late it has been refurbished and the address altered, they have their own Web site. They call themselves members of the Progressive Caucus, until recently an arm of the Democratic Socialists of America, itself an arm of the Socialist International. The Progressive Caucus may be a separate entity now, but the details of its program, as advertised on the website, are indistinguishable from that of the Socialist International.
To their credit, they make no secret of it. Only the rest of us prefer not to believe it.
In a follow-up article in November 2002, Vazsonyi dug deeper into the continued presence of the CPC on the DSA website. He discussed the issue of constitutionality and the ramifications of the relationship:
The Socialist International carries the torch for Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Josef Stalin. Pay no attention to the desperate attempts by socialists to distance themselves from Stalin. For our purposes, it suffices to observe that every single tenet of the Socialist International is the exact opposite of the principles upon which America was founded, and which define the U.S. Constitution.
For our purposes, it suffices also to observe that members of the U.S. Congress are required to furnish an oath whereby they will preserve, protect, and defend said Constitution.
The CPC moved its website in late 2002.
With additional research by Brenda J. Elliott.