Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Response to Bill Fletcher's Critique of the Edwards Campaign

As anyone who is familiar with me or this blog knows, I am an avid supporter of Sen. John Edwards and a co-founder of Sacramento for Edwards. I have also been an admirer of Bill Fletcher, Jr. for many years, and our Sacramento Progressive Alliance is modeled on the "rainbow coalition" vision that Fletcher has advocated for years and has articulated as well as anyone in the U.S. Although I wish it weren't so, truthfulness compels me to admit that Fletcher's critique of the Edwards campaign (published in this morning's Black Commentator and below) for failing to fully integrate a rainbow strategy is both provocative and, for the most part, accurate. I don't know the former North Carolina senator personally, but in the interests of full disclosure, I expressed concerns similar to Fletcher's to my contact at Edwards' Chapel Hill headquarters several months ago.

Don't get me wrong, I still believe that Sen. Edwards is far and away the best candidate in the race, and the only major candidate who isn't bought and paid for by the corporate elite. As I've written repeatedly, for my money John Edwards is without a doubt the best progressive Presidential candidate since Rev. Jesse Jackson and arguably the best since Bobby Kennedy. To his credit, on substantive policy issues the Edwards campaign platform is the best of the major candidates, not only on his central theme of class and economic justice, but with regards to race and gender equality as well (for details, see John Edwards' Plan to Build One America). As the campaign has moved to Edwards' racially diverse home state of South Carolina over the past few days, our candidate has spoken out passionately on the need to address the appalling 10:1 racial wealth gap (which, by the way, is 31:1 in terms of financial wealth) and more broadly on the moral necessity to combat the injustices produced by America's history of slavery, followed by Jim Crow racism, followed by decades of continued racial discrimination in the post-civil rights era.

Still, Fletcher's critique is both fair and instructive with regards to: 1) the failure of the Edwards team to incorporate high profile people of color into the campaign's inner inner circle or as campaign spokespersons, with the notable exception of actor/activist Danny Glover; and 2) the failure of the Edwards campaign to consistently include an analysis of racial and gender inequities as central themes of his campaign, along with his bold, courageous critique of corporate power -- which, it's worth noting, is probably the most powerful challenge to the corporate rulers of our democratic plutocracy since the legendary labor leader Eugene Debs was forced to run his Presidential campaign from a federal prison cell in 1920. These strategic mistakes have certainly played a role in the failure of Edwards' populist campaign, thus far, to catch fire in the African American and Latino communities that comprise a large and increasing sector of the U.S. working class and form the voting base of the Democratic party.

I experienced this weakness within our campaign up close and personal while speaking on behalf of Edwards' candidacy at Sacramento's Black Political Convention just a few days ago. While on a personal level I was welcomed warmly and courteously by this group of civicly engaged African Americans, my political message was less well received. As a disciple of Dr. King and a veteran of Rev. Jesse Jackson's Presidential campaigns, I tried to make the case that John Edwards represents the 21st century heir to Dr. King and Rev. Jackson as the torch bearer for the rainbow movement for economic and social justice. With a few exceptions, however, the crowd, many adorned in Obama gear, wasn't having it. Several folks -- respectfully but passionately -- let me know as much during a very engaging discussion. The exceptions, by the way, were not just good for my morale, they represent an important reminder that communities of color are not monolithic. After my presentation, for example, an energetic young woman emerged out of the sea of ocean blue Obama placards and buttons to kindly tell me that my presentation had won her over to the Edwards camp and to ask where she could get campaign materials. Since I had stupidly forgotten to bring my box of Edwards swag to the event, it was quite fortunate that I had at least remembered to fasten my favorite, rainbow colored Edwards button to my lapel that morning so our prize recruit didn't have to leave empty handed. Several other folks confided in me that, although they were supporting Obama, they also liked Edwards and saw him as an acceptable second choice. The day was certainly not a total political loss for those of us in the Edwards camp. Although Obama easily won the Sacramento Black Convention's Presidential straw poll, we did manage to secure second place by beating Rep. Kucinich and Sen. Clinton, respectively, by more than two-to-one margins.

Still, for the Edwards campaign to be successful we need to become more than an acceptable second or third choice for minority voters. While Sen. Obama certainly represents a very appealing and skilled African American candidate, and Sen. Clinton is married to the so-called "first black President," they are both corporate friendly politicians who inhabit the moderate center of the Democratic party. Neither is calling for the kind of transformational change our country so desperately needs, nor are they prepared to lead the kind of struggle necessary to bring about that change. It is Edwards, more so than any national figure in a generation, who has responded to Dr. King's clarion call to speak on behalf of the voiceless, to represent the powerless, to offer hope to the hopeless. Yet, as Flecther argues and the polling data corroborate, Edwards' campaign has thus far failed to inspire the disenfranchised and to attract a critical mass among those huddled masses who yearn to breathe free.

On the bright side, as Fletcher also points out, it may not be too late. The immature personal bickering between the Clintons and Sen. Obama has turned off many Democratic voters and created a political opening for Edwards' underdog campaign. By all accounts Sen. Edwards won the South Carolina debate earlier this week and the polls show that he is rapidly closing the gap on his $100 million opponents in the cash strapped Palmetto state, with the nationally front-running Clinton camp privately bracing themsevles for the PR disaster of another third place finish this Saturday. The question is, will Sen. Edwards demosntrate the progressive instincts and political courage to seize the moment by fully embracing a rainbow vision? Is he prepared to fill the leadership vacuum that has plagued the rainbow movement since the political decline of Rev. Jackson in the 1990's and the tragic death of Sen. Paul Wellstone in 2002? To paraphrase Jackson, will John Edwards be the one who keeps our hope alive?

As the Presidential campaign shifts from overwhelmingly white regions of the country to more racially diverse states such as South Carolina, California, New York, Illinois and Texas, there may still be time for the Edwards campaign to reach its progressive and electoral potential by fully embracing the rainbow agenda that Bill Fletcher, Jr. and our Sacramento Progressive Alliance advocate, and that Edwards' competitors cannot embrace, regardless of their intentions, because of their structural dependence on corporate money, corporate support, and the corporate media. Alone among the contenders, John Edwards, the son of a mill worker and the economic populist par excellence, has the potential to tap into the progressive rainbow tradition of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, of Alice Paul, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ida B. Wells, of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, of Jesse Jackson and Paul Wellstone. Whether or not Edwards is prepared to take this political leap will significantly effect the future -- not just the future of his Presidential campaign, but, more importantly, the future of progressive politics in the 21st century.

Tomorrow Begins Today,
Paul B

Edwards' Strategic Mistake

Black Commentator
Bill Fletcher, Jr., Executive Editor
January 24, 2008

In the aftermath of the Nevada caucuses, it is not entirely clear where the Edwards campaign is going, but I do not think that he can yet be counted out. Nevertheless, it is important that we reflect on the Edwards campaign and the weaknesses it has displayed.

The irony of the situation is that Edwards has been crossing the country, discussing the plight of the working class and the non-working class poor. He initiated his campaign in New Orleans, giving symbolic attention to a city that was not only devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but devastated by its aftermath. He has openly acknowledged his mistake in voting to allow Bush to invade Iraq, and has been offering the elements of a new foreign policy.

And yet, he is being eclipsed. The symbolism of a Black candidacy and a Women’s candidacy has many people on the edge of their seats, unwilling - and perhaps unable - to listen to what Edwards has to say.

Edwards, however, is not blameless in this situation. It is not just what has been done to him, but what he failed to do VERY early on in his campaign. Edwards, much like Kucinich (in both the 2004 and 2008 Kucinich campaigns), fell prey to the historic "white populist error." What is this error, you ask? Simply put, it is the idea that unity will magically appear by building a campaign that attacks poverty and corporate abuse, supports unions and focuses on the challenges facing the working class, BUT IGNORES RACE AND GENDER.

The labor union movement makes this mistake all the time. It is the idea of inoculation, for lack of a better term. The notion suggests that one can be "inoculated" against racism and sexism by emphasizing the common economic injustices we all face. Once we recognize these, the theory goes, we can put aside our differences based on race and gender and march forward in unity.
It does not work that way. The history of social justice struggles in the USA is littered with the casualties from this approach. IF unity is built that way, it is temporary, but more often than not, it does not come into existence at all.

Former Senator John Edwards could and should have constructed a campaign based upon the notion of social/economic justice and inclusion, rather than restricting himself to economic justice and "change." In order to pull that off, however, he would have needed to have convened his own "rainbow coalition" as his campaign central committee. In other words, he would have needed to have had both a broad tent and real inclusion, not just diversity.

Let me make the point more graphic. If one thinks about the Edwards campaign what people of color do you - the reader - associate with it? Quickly now, don’t hesitate. Your answer will probably be mine: Danny Glover (who has been actively campaigning for Edwards). There is nothing wrong with Danny Glover. I worked with him at TransAfrica Forum and both like him and respect him. I think that it is wonderful he is on the campaign trail, but he is only one person. Why are there not other leaders of color joining Danny on this sojourn? Edwards needed to secure their involvement very early on.

Second, Edwards needed a program that matched that "rainbow coalition." He needed to be less afraid of using the “R” word - race - and the “G” word - gender - in describing what is happening in the USA and the nature of the injustices that blight this land. That would mean that his program for action, in addition to speaking to matters of class, needed to remind his audience that the USA still suffers from a significant racial divide and gender inequality. That would have been entirely consistent with the rest of his message. In that sense, we needed Edwards to be an advocate for racial justice and gender justice. He should not have assumed that he could use issues of class to subsume other forms of injustice.

Third, Edwards needed better positioning. He was correct to have launched his campaign in New Orleans, but he needed to go a few steps further. We needed him seen in East Los Angeles, the Pine Ridge reservation, and New York’s Chinatown. We certainly needed to see him in Buffalo, New York with workers of all stripes watching their town disappear and he needed to be in Appalachia in touch with a segment of the white poor who continue to be forgotten. In other words, there are actual locations where he needed to situate himself so that entire sections of the population would get a chance to interact with him, listen to him, and have him listen to them.
Fourth, we needed and continue to need from Edwards a bit of movement-building. A critical image for me in the 1980s was the fact that the Rev. Jesse Jackson was not only running for the Presidency, but that he was calling forth activists to build a movement. Even though Rev. Jackson did not follow through as we might have hoped, the message was very clear: build a movement and build organization.

Former Senator Edwards has contrasted himself with Senator Obama - his colleague in the "change" world - because Edwards emphasizes that we will need to FIGHT to bring about change. That is absolutely correct. But to fight, one must have organization. It cannot be that the candidate is the only one or the main one doing the fighting.

John Edwards made avoidable mistakes and, I believe, it is costing him. At a minimum, knowing that there was the possibility of an Obama run, Edwards should have thought differently about the entire basis of his campaign. The problem he currently faces is that, as a result of this failure, while there are many people across the country who like what he has to say, they do not necessarily see themselves in his campaign.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Executive Editor of The Black Commentator. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.


Anonymous said...

Bill Fletcher writes:

" . . . [Edwards] would have needed to have convened his own "rainbow coalition" as his campaign central committee. In other words, he would have needed to have had both a broad tent and real inclusion, not just diversity.

Let me make the point more graphic. If one thinks about the Edwards campaign what people of color do you - the reader - associate with it?"
The first person I thought of was NOT Danny Glover, but Harry Belafonte.

It's quite conceivable that much of this is as much Jesse Jackson's fault as Edwards'.

Jesse endorsed Obama early on, which just made me -- a mostly "white" person (and southern-raised radical, Jackson presidential campaign activist, etc.) who up until that point would have followed JJ's lead on just about anything -- shudder.

It was Jesse -- because of Chicago and race, one supposes -- who made the wrong call, in this case, on POLITICS.

What was John Edwards supposed to do at THAT point -- contradict JJ as to what people of color should be doing, electorally? I think it's to Edwards' credit that he did NOT struggle on this.

One thing about JJ's Obama endorsement is that nobody's heard pea-turkey about it since -- certainly not from Obama, and not from Jackson, that I've seen.

A few words of reconsideration from Jesse Jackson could make this all better.//

@T /

Anonymous said...

While I appreciate aspects of Fletcher's argument regarding the shortfall of the Edwards campaign, I also believe a reality check is in order. Firstly, regarding convening a "rainbow coalition". Jesse Jackson had a difficult time garnering significant support for his movement when he ran for president and he has a long history of community involvement and advocacy for minorities and the poor.Edwards does not have that kind of recognition in the grass roots communities and subsequently would be perceived as disingenuous if he were to attempt a movement of this sort. Just look at the split of Black political leadership supporting Obama and Clinton as an example of the difficulty creating a movement. Secondly, the historical dynamics of the poor and disenfranchised (P&D)participation in election politics dictates to some extent the strategy of Democratic party candidates.How many people of this category are voters and participate in primary politics. Even Obama and Clinton while directing some political rhetoric on the plight of the poor,are not focused on building a community based political movement. Obama is appealing to minorities and young folks and if you happen to be P&D, great. Clinton is appealing to gender and the older generation and if you happen to be P&D, great. Especially in the primaries, with the short span of time, voting constituents is all that counts and you just can't count on mobilizing the P&D to the polls that quickly. So the bottom line to my response to Fletcher is that yes Edwards should have done more to demonstrate inclusiveness in his campaign, however to think that he could build a movement or had any other choice other than going after the middle class voting public is wishful thinking.