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
has many people on the edge of their seats, unwilling - and
perhaps unable - to listen to what Edwards has to say.
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
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.
John Edwards could and should have constructed a campaign based
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
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
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
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 to them.
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.
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 the fighting.
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 Forum. Click
here to contact Mr. Fletcher.