What’s Next for the Left?

Politics Beyond Rhetoric

The Democrats, who always want black Americans to think that they are our best friends at election time, don't live up to their promises with much more consistency than their Republican counterparts.
—E.R. Shipp, Daily News, February 4

The Democratic Party has taken black voters for granted. The black vote is up for grabs.
Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, The New York Times, February 2




While Jesse Jackson, Barbra streisand, Alan Dershowitz, and hordes of traumatized law professors and lay liberals keep trying to figure out ways to avenge the "stolen" presidential election, others on the left are going to work—beyond rhetoric.

Reverend Eugene Rivers—who came off the streets of Philadelphia to become a very active force in Boston to actually civilize the police in black neighborhoods—believes black voters were disenfranchised in the Florida presidential voting, but he's not obsessed by what happened. Looking ahead, he told Dan Kennedy in the February 1 Boston Phoenix:

"I have never had any aspirations . . . to have my primary constituency be microphones. I've never had an interest in going from issue to issue and not following through over the long term. My commitment is to cultivating new, young black leadership that understands that politics is not about rhetoric or merely protest.

"Sometimes," Rivers continued, "it is protest and direct action, but those activities are simply part of a multifaceted strategy, with the end game being programs, policies, and results. There is a different set of ideas that are not embodied in one individual, but are in action, across the country, in cities that can be identified, and leadership that can be identified."

Rivers's ego is sometimes out of control, but he often makes a lot of sense.

In any case, we are past the time when a Democratic politician—in this case, Andrew Cuomo, who is running for governor in New York—can take the black vote for granted just because he is married, for instance, to a Kennedy.

Joel Siegel reported in the January 28 Daily News that, when asked by a party leader about possible problems with black voters in his battle with Carl McCall in the Democratic primary, Cuomo answered: "Kerry Kennedy." An upstate county chairman told Siegel that Cuomo "believes his wife, a daughter of the late senator Robert Kennedy, could soothe any hurt among blacks."

Andrew Cuomo patronizingly told another county chairman, Siegel added, that "black families have three pictures on their walls: Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, and one of the Kennedy brothers." Kerry Kennedy denies Andrew said it, but Joel Siegel stands unequivocally by his story.

I expect, however, that Andrew Cuomo will be asked by blacks, whites, and other voters who do not see George W. Bush as having a clue as to their priorities about a charge by Cornel West, professor of Afro-American studies at Harvard.

Speaking in The New York Times of December 26 about Bill Clinton, in whose administration Andrew Cuomo served, West said:

"I think history is going to be harsh on Bill Clinton. There was excessive opportunism and lack of principle. This is far beyond Lewinsky—we're talking about policy. The economic boom will be viewed as a surface phenomenon that was concealing economic inequality."

Cornel West is hardly the only person on the left with that perception. There are even some liberals, still grieving over Florida, who know how the New Democrats have taken the fire out of the Democratic Party. This certainly applies to the Democratic congressional leadership, though there are such mavericks as Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold (despite his vote to confirm John Ashcroft).

Ralph Nader ran for president to shake up the Democratic Party, and that's the job ahead, with or without Nader.

The late Bayard Rustin, a key strategist for Martin Luther King and the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, was a longtime friend of mine. We had some disagreements, but he anticipated the work that has to be done now in " 'Black Power' and Coalition Politics," an article published in the September 1966 Commentary.

In it, he expressed his hope for "a liberal-labor-and-civil-rights coalition which would work to make the Democratic Party truly responsive to the aspirations of the poor; and which would develop support for programs (specifically outlined in A. Philip Randolph's $100 billion Freedom Budget) aimed at the reconstruction of American society in the interests of greater social justice. . . .

"It was through alliances with other groups . . . that the Irish and the Jews and the Italians acquired the power to win their rightful place in American society. They did not 'pull themselves up by their own bootstraps'—no group in American society has ever done so; and they most certainly did not make isolation their primary tactic."

Bayard wanted his agenda to move then, but the momentum stalled. Speaking of pervasive inequalities, Rustin could be citing the present: "Housing . . . is deteriorating. . . . [For example,] several states contain the worst ghettos, even with [antidiscrimination] laws on their books. So too with schools. . . . If, in 1954, when the Supreme Court handed down the desegregation decision, you had been the Negro parent of a first-grade child, the chances are that this past June, you would have attended the child's graduation from a segregated high school."

Rustin wrote that in 1966. In 2001, there are even more segregated public schools than when Brownv. Board of Education came down in 1954. And children of low-income parents—black, white, and Latino—are too often jammed into separately segregated inferior schools.

As for what must be done now, the Republican Party is hardly going to do anything about the increased inequality in the nation. And only a regenerated Democratic Party—not the soulless New Democrats—will make democracy work for millions of Americans.

For the facts on the ground and how they have to change, see Michael Katz's The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State(Metropolitan Books) and Peter Edelman's Searching for America's Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope (Houghton Mifflin). More in future columns.

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