Grassroots Organizing and the Democratic Party - the Vermont Rainbow Experience

By Askenaz, Judy | Monthly Review, May 1986 | Go to article overview

Grassroots Organizing and the Democratic Party - the Vermont Rainbow Experience


Askenaz, Judy, Monthly Review


GRASSROOTS ORGANIZING AND THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY - THE VERMONT RAINBOW EXPERIENCE

It wasn't big news in 1984 when Jesse Jackson got only 8 percent of the vote in Vermont's nonbinding presidential primary. By then, the media had just about written the obituary on the whole "Rainbow Coalition" idea. Though Jackson's strong appeal to blacks was widely acknowledged, the common wisdom was that whites--even those who shared many of the candidate's views--wouldn't support him. In Vermont, which has the nation's smallest percentage of nonwhites (just 1 percent of its half million residents), Jackson was never expected to do very well.

Vermont, however, is a state where political anomalies have become almost commonplace in the 1980s. Early in 1984 a number of progressive activists who were involved in the various issue networks around the state (peace, Central America, environmental, farmers, and low-income advocacy) came together to work for Jackson in the Vermont Rainbow Coalition. For most, the appeal was not so much Jackson the candidate, or the game of presidential politics, as it was, specifically, Jackson's remarkable ability to move the political debate of that primary season to the left by questioning his opponents' most fundamental assumptions about the arms race, the third world, and the type of society the United States could and ought to be.

In the two years since then, the Rainbow Coalition has grown to become a vital force in Vermont politics. Five state legislators, perhaps a dozen Democratic state committee members, and Vermont's Democratic National Committeewoman have come out of the Rainbow. But the organization still has its deepest roots in issue activism, and its members have managed not to get bogged down in electoral nuts and bolts. In the face of a variety of loyalty tests and considerable pressure from the Democratic Party's old guard, the Rainbow has maintained its independence--while playing an active role in shaping the political debate in Vermont on issues ranging from divestment from South Africa to statewide tax reform.

Sparsely populated and still largely rural, Vermont is hardly a typical state, but it p rovides a good "laboratory" for organizers precisely because of its small size. Organizing projects that might be daunting anywhere else are likely to seem worth taking on in Vermont. Since Reagan's election in 1980, there have been several attempts to create a statewide issue--oriented coalition on the left. Each of the resulting organizations has been broader and longer lived than the previous one, as organizers have learned from their mistakes and have responded to changes in the overall political scene. The Vermont Rainbow Coalition has been the most durable, and the most effective, of these statewide coalition. One key difference between the Vermont Rainbow and earlier statewide organization efforts has been in the Coalition's relationship to mainstream electoral politics--specifically, to the Vermont Democratic Party. By being "in but not of" the Democratic Party, as Rainbow leaders like to describe it, progessives in the coalition have often been able to define the terms in which issues are discussed, rather than simply reacting to the pronouncements of mainstream politicians.

Thus the Vermont Rainbow's experience offers a useful perspective on a question that plagues the left in every election year: Is there any good reason for leftists to get involved with the Democratic Party? Is there any way of doing so that is both principled and effective? Can the left relate to the Democrats without being simply coopted, on the one hand, or isolated and marginalized on the other? In Vermont and elsewhere, the 1984 primary season provided a unique opportunity to find out. It is unlikely, in fact, that most of the activists now working in the Vermont Rainbow would have taken much interest in the Democrats' candidate-selected process were it not for one factor: Jesse Jackson's decision to run president--as a Democrat. …

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