It was the 1988 election and the insurgent candidacy of Jesse Jackson that provides insights into the current fight and why Sanders’s campaign has captured such passionate support, particularly among young people who want to transform the political and economic system.
Unlike the more liberal contender in other primary fights — figures such as Ted Kennedy in 1980, Mondale in 1984 or Bill Bradley in 2000 — who mostly wanted to extend the liberal reforms of the Great Society, Jackson, the minister and civil rights leader, dreamed of something much bigger. He proposed a sweeping egalitarian overhaul of American society. He set forth, in stirring cadences, a program that included single-payer health care, free community college, equal pay for women, LGBTQ rights, some form of reparations for black people — and a vast plan to build affordable housing and mass transportation that resembles Sanders’s program now.
Like the Vermont insurgent, Jackson proposed reversing tax cuts for the richest Americans that the incumbent Republican president had signed into law and advocated sizable cuts in the defense budget, moving away from a foreign policy dependent on force to one that advanced disarmament.
Both candidates share another similarity: They transformed themselves from protest candidates into serious contenders for the nomination by building a multiracial coalition of the working class and the young. Jackson’s “rainbow coalition” posed the most direct and far-reaching alternative to the party “establishment” before Sanders battled Hillary Clinton nearly three decades later. And unlike their moderate rivals, each man inspired a mass of ardent followers who dedicated themselves to the cause.
Jackson exceeded expectations in 1988 and won over 1,200 delegates. At the convention, he delivered a bravura oration that easily overshadowed the technocratic Michael Dukakis’s rather tedious acceptance speech. When it seemed he might actually win enough delegates to take the nomination, most white Democrats — officeholders and ordinary voters alike — got cold feet. One of Jackson’s closest advisers reflected, “As long as people could vote for him as sending a message to Democrats [that] we support this kind of economic populism and moral voice, they were anxious to vote for him. But as soon as he got close to actually winning the nomination … people just said: ‘Whoa, We’re never going to do this.”
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