Bloomberg or Bernie: 2020 Democrats should look to the past for lessons on progressive coalitions

A progressive campaign could find itself dragged down by conflicting currents within the progressive camp. So how to align the different demands for equality?
Image: Democratic Presidential Primary Debate
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders spar during the fifth Democratic presidential primary debate on Nov. 20, 2019.Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post via Getty Images file
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Charles Postel, historian and professor at San Francisco State University

Can a progressive candidate defeat the current occupant of the White House? Big money in the Democratic Party is now betting against it. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire centrist, is pouring cash into a presidential bid based on that premise. Is Bloomberg on to something or is this just self-serving speculation?

What is clear is that, in a country increasingly torn apart by the fierce politics of division and inequality, many Americans are looking for a candidate who will fight for a more just society. But the politics is fraught. Because the fight for equality can mean different priorities for different constituencies.

The politics is fraught. Because the fight for equality can mean different priorities for different constituencies.

In this time of #MeToo, and real risks to reproductive rights, for example, many voters see the fight for sexual equality with special urgency. Does this mean supporting a female candidate?

Meanwhile, as cell phone cameras document lethal police violence against black bodies, many voters focus on striking a blow for racial justice. But along with criminal justice reform and protecting voting rights, does racial equality mean a candidate who supports reparations or other specific remedies?

Stagnant incomes amid soaring profits have also opened up a chasm of economic inequality unseen for nearly a century. Many voters have as their top priorities a living wage, health care and education. But can the economic inequities of this new Gilded Age be addressed without fighting for the structural changes necessary to realize "Medicare for All," free public university education and a Green New Deal?

In short, a progressive campaign could find itself dragged down by the undertow of conflicting currents within the progressive camp. So how to align the different demands for equality? And what type of candidate can bring together the multiple constituencies necessary to defeat President Donald Trump, a person who appears to embody the inequalities of our time?

This is not the first time Americans have confronted such choices. The Civil War, fought over racial slavery, unleashed a torrent of claims to equality, and these struggles were fractious and messy. The Gilded Age’s often competing great social movements speak to our current crisis in telling ways. The question was — and remains: Equality for whom?

For many African Americans, breaking the chains of bondage meant that now was the hour to gain racial justice and equality. Women’s rights activists, however, saw it as the moment for female suffrage and equality of the sexes. The votes of white women, they believed, took priority over the votes of black men. Meanwhile farmers, workers and other anti-monopolists asserted it was time to challenge the power of corporate capitalism.

Get the think newsletter.

The resulting conflicts over the meanings of equality too often proved destructive. This was particularly true when it came to matters of race. Mighty campaigns against corporate power and to overthrow the patriarchal tyranny of the late Victorian era went hand in hand with Jim Crow, disfranchisement and the destruction of rights for African Americans and other racial minorities.

Yet there were breakthrough moments when the politics of diverse constituencies aligned in favor of justice and equality — as when, for example, African-American demands for civil rights and the anti-monopolist demands for economic rights reinforced each other at the ballot box. These moments hold lessons for today.

For many women suffragists, the amendments to address racial equality — the Fourteenth in 1868 and the Fifteenth in 1870 — were a betrayal. They provided equal protection of the laws and voting rights for black men, but not for women. In response, many white women leaders, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, joined white supremacist efforts to deny equality to black men.

But the bigger story was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which linked the fight against alcohol with sexual equality. In 1890, the WCTU had 10 times the membership of the largest suffrage group. Its dynamic leader, Frances Willard, was the most powerful woman of her generation. Under her “Do Everything” policy, the Temperance Union did much more than warn of the dangers of booze — it worked for a broad agenda of public health and labor reform, as well as women’s rights and equality.

The Temperance Union also enrolled African-American women, who saw the organization as a vehicle for both women’s rights and black rights. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the celebrated black abolitionist, spread the word that racial and sexual equality shared a common foundation in human dignity.

Ultimately, however, the WCTU leadership made a strategic political alliance with the elite women of the former Confederacy. In the name of female equality and solidarity, Willard, daughter of Lincoln Republicans, found a friend in Varina Davis, wife of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Not only did this alliance eventually drive Harper and other African Americans out of the WCTU, it led to a fateful clash with the civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, who rightly accused Willard of apologizing for lynch mobs.

At the same time, Willard and the WCTU made common cause with the anti-monopolist organizations of farmers and workers that gave rise to the Populist revolt of the 1890s. But the anti-monopolists also had a mixed record when it came to conflicting demands for equality.

In the early 1870s, the farmers’ Grange was the beating heart of the anti-monopoly movement. It was an organizational colossus, enrolling as dues-paying members a majority of farmers (at least white farmers) in agricultural districts from Mississippi to Nebraska. Women also joined, attracted by the Grange’s pledge to sexual equality. And to gain equality for farmers, the organization pushed through the so-called Granger Laws to regulate railroads, grain-elevator companies and other “cursed monopolies.”

This anti-monopoly struggle, however, came at a heavy cost for former slaves. Grangers in the North and West saw Southern white planters as their natural allies. In the name of equality, for example, Grangers in 1874 demanded that Congress make payments to white plantation owners as reparations for the post-Civil War cotton tax. More fundamentally, the Grange demanded an end to federal support for the Reconstruction efforts to achieve racial equality.

This anti-monopoly struggle, however, came at a heavy cost for former slaves. Grangers in the North and West saw Southern white planters as their natural allies.

By the mid-1880s, it was labor’s turn to field a massive organization to stake its claim for equality. With nearly a million members, the Knights of Labor was the largest labor organization in U.S. history (and probably world history) to that point. The Knights also embraced a more universal notion of equality, making it one of the most inclusive institutions of its era, with the striking exception of Chinese immigrants. It organized men and women, immigrants and native born and black and white workers — arguing for the equality of all workers no matter their skill, gender, marital status or race or nationality (again, with the exception of the Chinese).

The Knights held its national convention in Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy, in 1886, and the delegates shocked the nation with their disregard of the host city’s color line. Not only did Frank Ferrell, an African American, play a prominent part at the convention, he joined his fellow Knights in the “choicest” orchestra seats at a performance of “Hamlet.”

Many white people responded with predictable horror. But black people responded by signing up. In the rural South, cooks, cotton pickers, ditch diggers, washerwomen and housekeepers turned the Knights into an organization of the black poor.

Populism, the product of a coalition of social movements, marked the cresting of the post-Civil War egalitarian wave. In 1891, farmer, labor, women’s rights and other reform movements united to create the People’s Party, known as the Populist Party. It brought together the Farmers’ Alliance (which had surpassed the Grange as the nation’s farm organization), the Knights of Labor, the WCTU and other interest groups.

But populism also could not escape conflicting claims to equality. The WCTU’s Willard left the Populists when the Populist Party's national convention failed to support women’s political equality because it was “secondary to the great issues” of economic equality and fighting corporate power. Meanwhile, to cement the Populist coalition, the Knights of Labor deferred to the white Farmers’ Alliance to “manage the negro.” African Americans mainly kept their distance.

Yet, in key places, the Populists managed to successfully align divergent movements for equality. In Colorado in 1893, for example, the success of an anti-monopoly coalition of miners and farmers helped make that state the first to adopt women’s suffrage.

As this history suggests, the politics of equality are complicated. Voters will weigh their competing priorities. Is this the moment to strike a blow for racial equality? For sexual equality? For economic equality?

In North Carolina the next year, “fusion” between white anti-monopolists and black voters toppled the reactionary corporate regime of white supremacy, cleaned up a corrupt electoral system and financed public schools for black and white children. White and black fusion voters had different priorities — but they agreed to align their votes in the interest of both. Unable to beat the “fusionists” at the polls, the reactionaries resorted to a violent “white supremacy campaign” culminating in the Wilmington massacre of 1898.

As this history suggests, the politics of equality are complicated. Voters will weigh their competing priorities. Is this the moment to strike a blow for racial equality? For sexual equality? For economic equality?

The long-term — or perhaps the only — answer will likely be intersectional politics, rooted in a recognition of the common grounds for the diverse claims to equality. This idea already resonates among a section of woke activists, and shows signs of growing deeper politics roots.

Short of that, however, in our two-party, winner-take-all political system, the answer might lie in the fusion notion of aligning votes with the aim of defeating the current administration and its savage inequities.