The 1988 presidential campaign that foreshadowed Bernie Sanders' 2016 run


In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson attempted to win the Democratic nomination for president. He lost both times, to Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, but succeeded in cementing a lasting set of narratives that placed racial and economic justice at the center of the Democratic agenda.

In many ways, Bernie Sanders’ current bid for the White House is closely modeled after Jackson’s 1988 campaign.

Sanders, who was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1988, was very involved in campaigning for Jackson in the spring of that year, even publicly endorsing him in the Vermont caucus.

Jackson’s 1988 campaign platform was strikingly similar to Sanders’. Jackson created a “Rainbow Coalition” that sought to include marginalized groups like minorities, the working poor (in both urban and rural areas), and gay people. He wanted to rebuild American infrastructure, tax the country’s richest 10% more to pay for social welfare programs, and slash the defense budget. He fought for nuclear disarmament, reparations for descendants of slaves, single-payer universal healthcare, more money for public education in poor areas, and free community college for all.

Sound familiar?

Like Sanders, Jackson raised a lot of his money through small donations, making his campaign “anomalous” as his results did not vary based on how much he raised. The book Campaign for President: The Managers Look at ’88 even goes so far as to say that “Jackson ran better when his campaign was poverty-stricken than when it enjoyed financial health.” (Sanders has raised close to $100 million during his campaign, with a bulk of it coming from online donations that average around $27.)

Days prior to stumping for Jackson in Vermont, Sanders outlined his reasoning for supporting Jackson in an editorial that appeared in several state newspapers.

Sanders wrote:

What Jesse Jackson understands is that no real political change is going to take place in our country unless the ordinary people…begin to stand up and fight for their rights.
Jackson alone…says clearly that we must make fundamental changes to our political and economic system in which the richest one percent of the popular owns over 50 percent of the wealth…that the chicest people are becoming richer, that the poorest people are becoming poorer, and that the middle class is in danger of extinction.

Those words could easily be taken from Sanders’ 2016 stump speech.

Jackson said in 1988 that it was brave of Sanders to “cross the color line” and support his candidacy. However, despite his relationship with Sanders, Jackson has so far said he is not going to endorse any candidate in 2016. In a January interview with The Hill, Jackson said he’d need to remain neutral since he’s worked so much with Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the past.

Jackson said he worked alongside Clinton decades ago to fight poverty in the Mississippi Delta and again when she teamed up with Marian Wright Edelman to tackle children’s healthcare issues.
He also highlighted his coordination with Sanders on efforts to regulate Wall Street and noted that Sanders, as mayor of Burlington, Vt., had endorsed Jackson “in the whitest state in the nation” during his failed bids for the White House in the 1980s.
“Bernie endorsed me in ’88, and I won Vermont, at a time that it wasn’t a popular thing to do,” Jackson said. “I know why he’s so appealing.”

Jesse Jackson ran one of the first truly progressive campaigns for the top office in American political history. He brought marginalized people into the political conversation through voter registration drives. He tapped into a distrust of moneyed elites, just like Sanders has so far done in this campaign. And if Sanders does manage to win the Democratic nomination, it will be a vindication not just of his platform, but of the ideas Jackson was advancing 30 years ago.

David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: [email protected]

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