Jackson’s Populist Message Is a Hit, but Party Misses It

<i> Harry C. Boyte is director of the Humphrey Institute's Commonwealth Project to increase citizen participation and co-author of "Citizen Action and the New American Populism" (Temple, 1986)</i>

Jesse Jackson’s overwhelming victory in the recent Michigan Democratic primary may well have “blown the minds of party leaders,” as Dan Rather put it on the evening news. But it clearly didn’t do much for their understanding. Party professionals and political pundits continued to use words like “weird” and “wacky” to describe Jackson’s growing support. In fact, Jesse Jackson represents a vintage American phenomenon consistently overlooked and misunderstood by the experts: He is an authentic populist. His appeal is far broader--and different--than can be summed up in labels like “liberal” or “left wing.”

Put simply, as his message has matured this year, Jackson combines protests against what is happening with a positive and hopeful vision of what America can become. “Populism” is a term that has been much bandied about this election season, used to cover everything from Richard Gephardt’s call to “get tough” with trade competitors to Albert Gore’s declaration that he “stands with working men and women.” Populism as a fashionable label means “us against them,” the little guy against the big shots.

But Jesse Jackson’s populism is far from simple-minded complaint. The first Populists were black and white farmers who made an alliance in the 1880s to save rural communities and their ways of life from the stranglehold of banks, railroads and merchants. Like theirs, Jackson’s protest goes to the heart of what America stands as a society. Drawing on the rich black church tradition that has always had the pathetic prophetic capacity to point to the clash between American ideals and realities, Jackson speaks to people’s anxiety that America has begun to abandon crucial, defining values.


Here, his challenge to the violence of drugs and unemployment is reinforced by his campaign itself, a low-budget “people’s alternative” to politics as the marketing of slickly packaged personalities. When Jackson says his victories represent “flesh and blood” winning out over “money and computers,” he connects not only with people who have been economically left behind in the Reagan years. His message also resonates with millions who worry that local communities and ordinary citizens are endangered by a high-tech culture that idolizes the rich and famous.

Further, Jackson, like the first Populists, does not simply protest. He also issues an empowering call for responsibility. In the face of a good deal of initial resistance from some black groups, Jackson this election season has preached that the preeminent issue today is not racism, but economic justice that calls for corporations to be accountable for actions that affect workers and the community welfare. He calls upon black and white youths to take positive action against drugs and teen-age pregnancy. He challenges his audiences to act to overcome racial hostility. Moreover, Jackson emphasizes not only increased personal responsibility but also the need for a renewed sense of collective economic responsibility as well.

The Populists of the 1880s and 1890s envisioned a “cooperative commonwealth” in which private property would be seen as a civic obligation and where citizens would commonly assume responsibility for the foundations of economic life like basic utilities, transportation and communication systems. This tradition continued in the 20th Century, in the arguments of Presidents like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, that property is a “public trust” beholden to the commonwealth.

Jackson stands clearly in this tradition. His cause for “economic power-sharing” and “reinvestment in America” are given specific meaning in his proposals to repair America’s basic economic infrastructure. Indeed he has been the only candidate to date to talk about what the National Council on Public Works Improvement recently documented in its report to Congress and the President: Our roads and waste facilities and waterways and other essential foundations have been gravely jeopardized in recent years by a spirit of neglect and careless “privatization”.

Thus Jackson’s populism points out a widespread uneasiness about what’s wrong today and offers some concrete and constructive things to do about it. Whatever the outcome of the nominating process, he has broken fresh ground and revitalized an old vibrant tradition. American politics will never be the same.