Jesse Jackson woke up on November ninth to find himself the leader of the largest and most powerful political party in the Western capitalist world, and the front-runner for its Presidential nomination in 1992. It is an unwonted and unexpected role. The black Baptist preacher and Chicago community activist has never held public office. In his two contests for the nomination he was supported by just one white statewide elected official in the country (Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower, a populist maverick) and endorsed by only a couple of general-readership newspapers out of thousands. He was cut off without a penny by most of the Party’s customary contributors, he was rebuked or ignored by much of its white establishment and even at the grass roots he consistently gathered higher ‘negatives’ than any other candidate in the numerous public opinion polls. And yet Jackson not only survived the Democratic debacle of 1988 but seems the stronger for it.

For five years Jackson had argued, by word and example, that a candidate of the Centre in the Democratic Party could no longer expect to win national elections, and certainly not hope to organize a successful national administration if he did manage to squeak into office on a fluke, as Jimmy Carter had done after Watergate and Vietnam. Radical transformations in American society over the past quarter-century—the era of Republican national electoral triumph—have eliminated the ‘natural’ majority the Democrats enjoyed during the New Deal and its aftermath. Specifically, the experience of racial insurgency, imperial defeat and deindustrialization (or post-industrialization) detached the constituencies of white Southerners and northern blue-collar workers from the coalition that existed at the foundation of the historic Democratic majority. Racial conflict and economic change led to the rapid and drastic suburbanizaton of the population. Democratic political machines in the cities and labour union organizations in the shops rusted along with the infrastructure. Blacks, Hispanics and recently-arrived ethnics, as well as working-class women, lesbians and gays, and a growing but unselfconscious white underclass were isolated, marginalized and excluded from political attention by the Democrats for fear of alarming the new white suburbanites with talk of expensive welfare programmes, mandatory integration in housing and education, and cultural liberalization.

In fact, the trend was discernible as early as 1948, when the white ‘Dixiecrats’, led by South Carolina’s Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond, bolted from the party over a mildly liberal civil rights platform pushed by Harry Truman. Although Truman won the Presidency that year, the white Southerners never really reaffirmed their loyalty to the Party, although some later voted for Southerner Jimmy Carter for reasons of regional pride. In the 1950s, both parties facilitated the process of suburbanization by such diverse means as the Defense Highway Act and the Defense Education Act—both of them using a Cold War, anti-communist rationale for channeling federal funds to white suburban development. In a sense, tax dollars paid for the transformation of urban Democrats into suburban Republicans, for the migrants to the new suburbia soon started voting for the gop. The aggressive civil rights movement of the early 1960s, eagerly exploited by northern white liberal Democratic politicians as a way to drive the entrenched Southern Democrats out of positions of power in Congress and the party hierarchy, served in quite a contradictory way to remove the white Southern sector of the electorate—and much of the Northern white ethnic sector—from the Democratic coalition. For a time, those essentially racist elements united in a fractional third party under former Alabama Governor George Wallace, but ultimately they came to rest in the Republican nest under such names as the ‘Silent Majority’ of the Nixon years and the ‘Reagan Democrats’ of recent memory.

The extensive demographic migration got a big boost in 1972, when all those whose identity (not to mention their economic security) was heavily invested in imperial success refused George McGovern’s invitation to celebrate America’s defeat in Vietnam. Jimmy Carter’s apparent failure to vanquish the hated Ayatollah Khomeini confirmed the worst fears of the imperial nostalgics, who can now be counted securely in Republican ranks. Furthermore, although the ‘children of the sixties’ were somewhat cautiously embraced by the Democrats in McGovern’s day, during the 1980s the Party actually tried to break up internal caucuses of such post-sixties groups as feminists and gays, so that the old guard could rule without factional hindrance. Shut out of the party structures, the descendants of the sixties movements largely forgot about electoral politics—until the Jackson moment arrived.

The realignment of available, organized constituencies within the two major parties had again given the Republicans the White House, but that party remains a minority force in the country at large and in its electoral institutions. In raw numbers, there are more registered Democrats and many more unregistered Democrats than there are Republicans, and governing bodies from both houses of Congress down through state assemblies and city councils are heavily Democratic. But there are several factors which seem to prohibit Democrats from utilizing the majority they could command. In particular, national Democrats have refused to campaign on class and race issues, and at the same time they have rejected proposals which would widen the electoral pool and bring millions from the racial minorities, the white poor and other disenfranchised constituencies into the political process—and the voting booths.

The act of voting is increasingly unpopular in America, despite the hoopla, but it was not ever thus. Voter turnout in nineteenth-century America was more than respectable; a hundred years ago, for instance, 86 per cent of the eligible electorate outside the South (and 81 per cent overall) voted for president. About that time, however, the political parties concluded that the citizenry could be better controlled and manipulated by restricting the voting rolls rather than expanding them. Virtually every state legislature erected imposing barriers to voting including registration laws which effectively kept black, ethnic European and working-class participation to a minimum. It is not easy to vote in most American locales. People have to register long before election day, and often have to re-register if they move or if they fail to vote in one or more elections. Where the authorities would rather that the multitudes do not vote, registration days are few and far between, registration hours are short or restricted to the workday, and registration locations are difficult to find or poorly advertised. Those who have not grown up in the middle-class political culture (that is to say, millions of recent immigrants, rural blacks, urban Hispanics, and others in the growing underclass) find the whole process confusing—and usually not worth the trouble. Moreover, the lack of ‘ideological’ parties which clearly express class and racial interests leads many people to the quite understandable conclusion that voting is of absolutely no importance to their lives. Those who make the voting rules are happy with that state of affairs. As Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward write in their recent study of voting patterns, ‘the demobilization of lower-strata voters occurred at precisely that time in our history when the possibilities of electoral politics had begun to enlarge. Indeed . . . it occurred because the possibilities of popular influence through electoral politics were expanding.’ footnote1 In other words, as opportunities opened for blacks and workers (and later, women) to make demands on the political structure, and as government began to intervene seriously in economic and social affairs, those most in need of the vote were denied access to it.

Despite occasional resurgences of voter participation in times of heated social movement (such as Jackson’s registration drive in the South in 1984 or the efforts of the Christian Right in 1980 and 1984), no permanent remobilization of the ‘lower strata’ has occurred. The higher strata, however, are pleased to go to the polls in measures comparable with other countries in America’s political and economic league. Almost 80 per cent of college graduates regularly vote—twice as many as those with only a grade-school education. More than three-quarters of the people with incomes above $50,000 a year vote—again, twice as many as those who earn less than $50,000. Class consciousness is not a subject studied in much depth in American universities, but a few comparative surveys of voting behaviour indicate that the half of the electorate that does not vote here is roughly comparable in attitude to the supporters of the Labour Party in England and other Euroleft parties on the Continent. If that’s the case, any significant expansion of the participating electorate would move the entire political system to the left and realign the parties. Since only about half of the eligible population now votes in quadrennial presidential elections (and the figure is much, much lower for less important contests), it is no longer meaningful to describe the American political mood or political opinion in terms of the election returns. When the media spout clichés such as ‘America gave George Bush a mandate for the continuation of conservative policies’, it can only mean that a plurality of rather well-to-do, middle-aged or elderly educated white voters—representing about a quarter of the potential electorate—voted for George Bush. (In fact, deeper analyses of American political consciousness, in particular Tom Ferguson and Joel Rogers’ landmark study, Right Turn, showed that there was no consensus in the country for Ronald Reagan’s right-wing policies, as opposed to his presidential personality.) Referring to the plurality in an American presidential election as ‘America’ is a little like calling the white voters for P.W. Botha’s Nationalist Party, ‘South Africa’.