In the aftermath
of the Nevada caucuses, it is not entirely clear where
the Edwards campaign is going, but I do not think that he can yet be
counted out. Nevertheless, it is important that we reflect on the Edwards
campaign and the weaknesses it has displayed.
The irony of the situation is that
Edwards has been crossing the country, discussing the plight of the
working class and the non-working class poor. He initiated his campaign
in New Orleans, giving symbolic attention to a city
that was not only devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but devastated by
its aftermath. He has openly acknowledged his mistake in voting to
allow Bush to invade Iraq,
and has been offering the elements of a new foreign policy.
And yet, he is being eclipsed. The
symbolism of a Black candidacy and a Women’s candidacy has many people
on the edge of their seats, unwilling - and perhaps unable - to listen
to what Edwards has to say.
Edwards, however, is not blameless
in this situation. It is not just what has been done to him, but what
he failed to do VERY early on in his campaign. Edwards, much like Kucinich
(in both the 2004 and 2008 Kucinich campaigns), fell prey to the historic "white
populist error." What is this error, you ask? Simply put, it is
the idea that unity will magically appear by building a campaign that
attacks poverty and corporate abuse, supports unions and focuses on
the challenges facing the working class, BUT IGNORES RACE AND GENDER.
The labor union movement makes this
mistake all the time. It is the idea of inoculation, for lack of a
better term. The notion suggests that one can be "inoculated" against
racism and sexism by emphasizing the common economic injustices we
all face. Once we recognize these, the theory goes, we can put aside
our differences based on race and gender and march forward in unity.
It does not work that way. The history
of social justice struggles in the USA is littered with the casualties from this
approach. IF unity is built that way, it is temporary, but more often
than not, it does not come into existence at all.
Former Senator John Edwards could
and should have constructed a campaign based upon the notion of social/economic
justice and inclusion, rather than restricting himself to economic
justice and "change." In order to pull that off, however,
he would have needed to have convened his own "rainbow coalition" as
his campaign central committee. In other words, he would have needed
to have had both a broad tent and real inclusion, not just diversity.
Let me make the point more graphic.
If one thinks about the Edwards campaign what people of color do you
- the reader - associate with it? Quickly now, don’t hesitate. Your
answer will probably be mine: Danny Glover (who has been actively campaigning
for Edwards). There is nothing wrong with Danny Glover. I worked with
him at TransAfrica Forum and both like him and respect him. I think
that it is wonderful he is on the campaign trail, but he is only one
person. Why are there not other leaders of color joining Danny on this
sojourn? Edwards needed to secure their involvement very early on.
Second, Edwards needed a program that
matched that "rainbow coalition." He needed to be less afraid
of using the “R” word - race - and the “G” word - gender - in describing
what is happening in the USA and
the nature of the injustices that blight this land. That would mean
that his program for action, in addition to speaking to matters of
class, needed to remind his audience that the USA still
suffers from a significant racial divide and gender inequality. That
would have been entirely consistent with the rest of his message. In
that sense, we needed Edwards to be an advocate for racial justice
and gender justice. He should not have assumed that he could use issues
of class to subsume other forms of injustice.
Third, Edwards needed better positioning.
He was correct to have launched his campaign in New Orleans, but he needed to go a few steps further.
We needed him seen in East Los Angeles, the Pine Ridge reservation,
and New York’s Chinatown. We certainly needed to see him in Buffalo, New York with workers of all stripes
watching their town disappear and he needed to be in Appalachia in touch with a segment of the white poor who continue to
be forgotten. In other words, there are actual locations where he needed
to situate himself so that entire sections of the population would
get a chance to interact with him, listen to him, and have him listen
Fourth, we needed and continue to
need from Edwards a bit of movement-building. A critical image for
me in the 1980s was the fact that the Rev. Jesse Jackson was not only
running for the Presidency, but that he was calling forth activists
to build a movement. Even though Rev. Jackson did not follow through
as we might have hoped, the message was very clear: build a movement
and build organization.
Former Senator Edwards has contrasted
himself with Senator Obama - his colleague in the "change" world
- because Edwards emphasizes that we will need to FIGHT to bring about
change. That is absolutely correct. But to fight, one must have organization.
It cannot be that the candidate is the only one or the main one doing
John Edwards made avoidable mistakes
and, I believe, it is costing him. At a minimum, knowing that there
was the possibility of an Obama run, Edwards should have thought differently
about the entire basis of his campaign. The problem he currently faces
is that, as a result of this failure, while there are many people across
the country who like what he has to say, they do not necessarily see
themselves in his campaign.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Executive
Editor of The Black Commentator. He is also a Senior Scholar
with the Institute
for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica
here to contact Mr. Fletcher.