This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of my 1984 campaign for the presidency. Last Saturday at the kickoff of the annual Rainbow Push Convention, Rep. Maxine Waters led a panel exploring the effects of that campaign — registering over a million new voters, helping Democrats take back the Senate in 1986, lifting up new leaders from New York City’s David Dinkins to Minnesota’s future Senator Paul Wellstone.
But looking in a rear view mirror can tell you where you’ve been, but not where you are going. What strikes me about the 1984 campaign are not the accomplishments of the past, but the implications for the future.
In 1984, we argued that the Democratic Party had to reach out to African Americans, Latinos, anti-war progressives, small farmers, the emerging gay and lesbian community — the locked out and left out, a Rainbow Coalition that could help change the country.
Now as Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 showed, that Rainbow Coalition is the new majority. People of color, single women, millennials — the so-called “Rising American Electorate” — fueled Obama’s victories. They turned out in large numbers in 2008 and 2012 and Democrats won. They stayed home in 2010 and Republicans took the majority in the House and gained governors and in state legislatures. The fundamental question in 2014 and 2016 is whether this coalition is inspired to register and vote, or whether it is discouraged and disaffected and doesn’t show up.
The 1984 campaign was also a challenge to the constricted agenda of both parties. Ronald Reagan had launched the conservative era in 1980. He cut taxes on the rich, doubled the military budget in peacetime, unleashed a fierce attack on unions, slashed spending on housing and the poor, and launched a New Cold War, featuring covert wars from Nicaragua to Angola and a new nuclear arms race. Too many Democrats cowered before his charge. They embraced tax cuts and deregulation, went AWOL in the attack on labor, competed to show that they too were muscular abroad.
Reagan and Thatcher argued that there were no alternatives. We challenged that myth at home and abroad. At that time, the U.S. saw apartheid South Africa as a strategic ally and labeled Nelson Mandela a terrorist. We said South Africa was a terrorist state and demanded that Nelson Mandela be released from prison. We won. At that time, the U.S. refused to talk with the Palestinians. We argued that the only solution in the Middle East was mutual recognition and mutual security. That now is considered common sense. We opposed first the use of nuclear weapons and wasting billions on weapons that we did not need and could not use. And we were right.
We argued that America’s economy grew best from the bottom up, when the rewards of growth were widely shared. We pushed to empower workers, not crush unions, to protect worker rights in trade deals, not just investor rights. We called for providing public pension funds with guarantees to invest in an Infrastructure Bank that would rebuild America and put people to work. We pushed for investment in education and for single payer health care that would provide greater opportunity and basic security for working families.
Today, once more our national agenda is too limited. The economy works only for the few, while most Americans struggle to stay afloat. Vital public investments in everything from schools to affordable college, bridges and mass transit are starved for funds. The rules have been rigged so that billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries and multinationals lower rates than small businesses. Obama is accused of withdrawing from the world, even as the U.S. maintains over 700 bases across the world, and targets drone attacks in nearly a dozen nations.
This limited debate must be challenged. If it is challenged, as our campaign in 1984 showed, new energy will be unleashed, the new majority can be mobilized. If there is no challenge, then too many will lose hope — and will stay home.
Thirty years later, there are new, sophisticated techniques and far greater floods of money in politics. But the lessons of 1984 still hold. The country needs change. A majority can be forged for that change, but only if they are given a reason to get engaged.