Jesse Jackson
Jesse Jackson; drawing by David Levine

To those who complain that our electoral campaigns are too long, a cynic might respond, “It doesn’t matter how long they are—no one is listening.” A deeper cynic could add that it would not matter even if people were listening. One is tempted toward the latter position after reading Philip Stern’s grim book, The Best Congress Money Can Buy. He proves that, no matter how long and draining is the quest for votes, the wooing of money is even more prolonged and intense for politicians. An office holder has some (though less and less) surcease from electioneering; but fund-raising is a constant. The only way for a member of Congress not to be running a debt from the last campaign is to be building a fund for the next one.

Stern points out that “the average United States senator must raise nearly $10,000 a week every week during his or her entire six-year Senate term.” And things are worse than that average makes them sound. The money does not flow in according to its recipients’ needs or with any hydraulic principle of equitable distribution. What the donors, especially the PAC managers, are buying is not elections but influence. Much of their money goes, therefore, to sure winners with influential posts. Safe incumbents are happy to take such cash—it is, after all, one of the things that define their seats as safe and deter challengers. Besides, a reserve cash supply allows one to help others, throw one’s weight around, and even leave office with a residue for personal use. This bankrolling of influence does not make it any easier for purer, because poorer, candidates to take on the people so hedged with cash. It just makes them more desperate for the kind of money necessary to challenge the redundantly financed. Since challenger money is even harder to come by, getting it takes more time, though it comes in smaller amounts.

Raising money is necessary to the electoral system, though often at odds with its rationale, inhibiting the voters’ range of choice by the prior operation of money, much of it from outside the candidate’s own district—“anonymous” money that was donated not to any specific candidate, but for use by its managers in any way that will increase their hold on crucial elements within the Congress. The pervasiveness of this system, and its practical operation in changed votes, is told in detail by Stern, who also includes a table on the sources of income for every member in Congress.

Though Stern’s admirable spirits do not flag under the depressing tale he tells, and though he suggests reform (principally public financing for congressional as well as presidential races), he does not fool himself that the power of money can be more than partly checked. It was a reform effort, after all, that created the PAC monster by limiting individual contributions. Money works constantly to reduce the importance of the citizen who has nothing to offer a candidate but his or her vote.

But imagine that we could magically wipe out all PACs, lobbies, and influence buyers. Imagine that, in fact, the only thing people could give a candidate was his or her vote. Even then, according to the new book by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, money would be a principal determinant of the outcome, for the simple reason that Americans vote in rough measure according to the amount of money they have.

Why is this? The authors begin by addressing the problem of America’s abysmally low voting rate in general. They explore various reasons for this, dispelling certain myths about voter turnout in the nineteenth century. They do not seem to put as much emphasis as they should on our essentially accommodative two-party system. The governments with higher turnouts of voters are mainly of the parliamentary type, where the direct vote is for the legislature, in which small parties with articulated ideologies can play important roles in forming coalitions that choose the executive.

But the fact remains that this is not a government by the people (the actual citizenry) if it is chosen by only part of the people (little more than half in recent elections). Nineteenth-century voting figures were higher than ours—above 80 percent—but that was the vote of an elite, determined by restriction of the suffrage to male, largely white, non-transient, often tax-paying, literate members of established societies or machines. Today, among an equivalent elite, those making over $50,000 a year, the voting rate is still 76 percent. Among college graduates it is 79 percent. The more privileged in our society still vote in significant majorities. But of those making less than $5,000, only 38 percent vote. And of those with only a grade school education, only 43 percent. Comparative studies show that, in other governments, non-voting is not a necessary concomitant of lower income. Why is it in America?


Piven and Cloward argue that Americans have a history of discouraging parts of the populace from voting. Voting is treated as a privilege in our society, to be wielded by the privileged. Drives to turn out the vote are privately sponsored (and shaped by their sponsors’ assumptions). Government has traditionally made it hard to register and to vote. This continues to be true though we have removed some of the most obvious barriers (though only recently—in 1970, fourteen states outside the South still had literacy tests for voters).

Registration is not only an inconvenience but a cultural risk for many of the poor. Place and times of registration are not made to correspond with their community habits. Registration centers are often changed, poorly advertised, raggedly staffed. If a person makes one venture onto hostile terrain—e.g., to a police station across town—and finds the trip futile, how often will he or she try again? A voter’s change of residence requires a change of registration. The forms in many places are unnecessarily complex—e.g., requiring absolute consistency in the version of one’s name on the front and back (omitting a middle initial on one side can invalidate a form if the initial was used on the other side). Even where reforms have been adopted to reduce the obstacles to registration, a pattern of snags and resistance is discernible—e.g., shortages of forms, maldistribution of forms, sluggish processing of forms.

The authors of this book launched an experiment that gave them a sensitive listening post for the complaints of those who are harassed subtly or indirectly, even by people who do not know they are harassing them, when they try to register. In 1983, Piven and Cloward founded Human SERVE (Service Employees’ Registration and Voter Education) to help set up registration centers where the poor are—in human service posts like day care, welfare, food stamp, and unemployment centers. This program unmasked class attitudes that often go unspoken. State legislatures went into action against the program, and so did the Reagan administration. In 1984, Donald Devine of the federal Office of Personnel Management wrote to governors attacking the use of state employees to register voters at points where they were servicing citizens. Though a House committee investigated Devine’s ploy (which led to his resignation from office), state legislatures kept up an ingenious form of resistance. Political tactics were dictated by the assumption that only those who contribute financially to the state are proper voters. In this view the political right to vote does not rest on political need for the consent of the governed but on economic status within the governed.

The resistance Human SERVE ran into in the Eighties was prefigured in the lobbying around the Great Society legislation of the 1960s. As the debate went forward on the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, “Democratic and Republican mayors alike lobbied Congress for explicit prohibitions on voter registration activities by antipoverty agencies.” The distinction between the socially serviced and the self-governing was to be underlined, not minimized. Furthermore, some mayors and representatives in secure black districts supported that prohibition, not wanting incalculable new forces set loose in their structured political realms. Thus, even apart from ideological assumptions, there is a political inertia at work against introducing disturbing elements into the electoral process—and that means that the previously excluded (generally the poorer parts of society) will stay excluded as long as “politics as usual” is played at any of its multiple and interacting levels. The poor are not supposed to vote, and that message is conveyed to them in culturally subtle and not-so-subtle ways. George Will, for instance, has argued that increasing the number of voters will just increase the amount of ignorance brought to the maintenance of “good government” (i.e., government by the good or proper parts of society—an admission that ours is not a government by “the people” as a whole).

Piven and Cloward argue that voter activity must be “result-tested,” i.e., measured by the actual numbers of poor people who vote, since the states have, for two centuries now, been endlessly clever at setting standards that will appear fair according to the assumptions of the period but in fact have worked to exclude “undesirables” from the vote. Even the most apparently nondiscriminatory state reforms—e.g., postcard registration—can be and have been subverted by efforts against “fraud” that in fact return to the old procedures. West Virginia passed a law that would allow registration by mail—and then undid the results of that by requiring every registrant to appear before a notary public.

Abigail Thernstrom’s book is a learned and well-reasoned attack on result-tested voting procedures as these have been enforced by Congress, the Justice Department, and the Supreme Court. She accepts the 1965 Civil Rights Act as an emergency response to specific violations of black rights in southern states, though she reminds us that the act technically violated the Constitution by taking away the states’ prerogative of setting their own voting standards. She puts this in the same category of constitutional guarantees suspended in wartime. But this emergency power, which should have been used once, not as a precedent for further action but as specific to one geographically contained crisis, was then extended, at the very time when the occasion for it had disappeared. “By 1969 black registration in the South was dramatically on the rise; to a remarkable degree, the problem the statute had been designed to solve had been successfully attacked.” (Piven and Cloward argue that white middle-class registration also rose in the South during this period, leaving the disproportion in turnout between economic groups.)


In 1970, what Thernstrom says was falsely called an “extension” of the Civil Rights Act introduced brand new elements—legislating nationwide, not just for the South, a removal of the states’ “traditional freedom to set literacy qualifications for voting.” (Thernstrom, it will be seen, adopts the language of “freedom” for states as agents, like the language of states as having human “rights.”)

Things went from bad to worse in 1975, in Thernstrom’s eyes, when Congress “speciously” extended the ban on literacy tests (whose original offense was their “fraudulence” in having an unstated purpose, not that stated purpose itself) to English-only ballots in Hispanic Texas. Thernstrom is skeptical about discrimination in Texas, though Piven and Cloward marvel at that state’s virtuoso ways with registration forms. But even if those testifying to discrimination before Congress had made their case to suit Thernstrom’s standards, the legislation would have been bad in her eyes, as every extension of the first law (itself vulnerable) was bound to be. Where Congress erred, the Supreme Court followed. It not only supported interference with the states’ voter qualification laws but prevented legislators from forming new districts that would have discriminatory results. It upheld the provisions that let the Justice Department “clear” such redistricting measures, and tried to engineer acceptable levels of minority votes in the proposed districts. Insofar as these actions favor minority groups, Thernstrom argues, they are themselves discriminatory, and insofar as these protective measures protect groups, they do not address individual rights. Political effectiveness of the group is no business of the law. “The promised equality was not one that individuals, as individuals, could attain.”

The electoral process Thernstrom describes bears little similarity to that Piven and Cloward have described in action. For her, “overt racism” has “become largely a phenomenon of the past,” and attempts to redress an imbalance in voting rates between the classes may rely on a “theory of entitlement to minority officeholding,” one that is not only discriminatory and politically disabling. The attempt to build protected electoral enclaves for blacks will unfit them for competition in the wider world, resegregating them politically in “black political isolation.” Moreover, “the existence of ‘safe’ black districts reduced the importance of high black turnout.” Even the attempt to use government funds to register the unregistered is, by her standards, an expression of government preference for one group over others: “Rarely did reporters discuss the respective responsibilities of the federal government and the local black community—precisely how much the Department of Justice should and could do to get out the vote.”

Well as she argues within her frame of original intent (of the Constitution and of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965), Thernstrom is clearly dealing with a different reality from the one addressed by Stern, who sees the electorate in general shoved out of its representative function by the power of money, or by Piven and Cloward, who see the economically disadvantaged deprived of their franchise by systematic but often unlegislated patterns of behavior. It is the job of private associations to deal with such non-political discrimination in Thernstrom’s view. If she finds even blacks, like Congressman John Conyers, admitting that there is no overt discrimination in the law, then the case is settled for her. For the government or the courts to redress problems not specifically caused by law or politics is a violation of the individual’s rights as well as of states’ rights, in the name of a new and legally inadmissable thing she denounces as group rights.

This is an old and respectable argument. It was, for instance, the argument that prevailed so long in holding the income tax unconstitutional for its different treatment of economic groups. It is the argument of those who think the Fourteenth Amendment should not be used to guarantee individual rights other than those of its originally intended beneficiaries. But Thernstrom’s arguments resemble, in their sterile regularity, the views Judge Bork expressed during his confirmation hearing, which had the correct irrelevance of a paddle wheel working wonderfully in the air instead of water. The moral climate had changed since he first made those arguments, yet he was unwilling or unable to recognize the changes, brought about as they were by the very forces he was trying earlier to contain. Thernstrom at least recognizes part of what is happening when she says that the civil rights lobby had the power to intimidate legislators when renewals (which became extensions) of the civil rights act came up (though this sits rather ill with her contention that favoring such legislation would weaken blacks, a claim that she borrows from that eminent civil libertarian Henry Hyde).

The history of reforms in general provides many cases of unintended results and unforeseen skewing. Thernstrom has some genuine examples of such distorted results to show us from civil rights legislation. But the only way to avoid such outcomes is to abandon reform entirely. That is a safe procedure when it simply means, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But it is very hard to read either Stern or Piven-Cloward without recognizing that our system, if not entirely “broke,” has been historically skewed in favor of more privileged voters and vote influencers. It is their denial of that fact that sets Thernstrom and Bork off from the traveling point of moral equilibrium in our time.

For Thernstrom, something was indeed broke in 1965, but the nation generously and rapidly fixed it, even bending its own rules to do so. “The emergency powers bestowed by the original Voting Rights Act had necessarily been temporary; the act would not have passed constitutional muster had the special provisions been permanent.” Yet a temporary correction was all that was needed, since the problem was soon set right: “At that time no one imagined that the statute would so quickly and effectively right that wrong.” Nonetheless, “as the emergency subsided, emergency powers paradoxically expanded.” Why? Because opportunists and the intimidated were willing to let local correctives become “a national commitment to protecting black candidates from white competition.” In other words, the exploited had become in places the exploiters (while also becoming weaker).

Thernstrom presents Jesse Jackson as arguing for what she calls distortions of the original Civil Rights Act. Jackson has, in fact, become a symbol for those who think the original civil rights movement redressed a wrong (unfortunately at the price of martyrdom), but was succeeded by black leaders who were “in it for themselves” rather than for vindication of their people’s rights. Jackson was the only nationally active and visible black leader in the late 1970s and 1980s, the one a whole new generation of young blacks watched as they grew into adulthood. He has been prominent in the registration drives that turned out more young voters among blacks than among whites in 1986. If there is something wrong with black assertiveness in our times, he must bear much of the blame for it. The efforts he spearheaded helped return a Democratic majority to the Senate in 1986, which in turn made it possible for that body to reject the nomination of Judge Bork. He led what Senator Howell Heflin called the “new votuhs” of this period.

The normal way to describe the dangers posed by these new voters is to contrast a good civil rights movement concentrating on limited objectives (the emergency Thernstrom confines to the South) with a self-aggrandizing later group of power seekers. Dr. King is the symbol of the first movement, Rev. Jackson of the second. Gail Sheehy, in her book of articles about the presidential candidates, gives us a near caricature of this approach, useful for displaying the attitudes behind it.1 Her Dr. King, to the amusement of those who remember the hatred he inspired in his time, has become the man everyone would want to be coming to dinner: “His natural intellectual ability was nurtured in an upper-middle-class Atlanta aristocracy, and he went to college at fifteen.” Jackson, by contrast, is some burrower beneath the floorboards who “has surfaced under the banquet table of the Democratic party and has demanded a seat” (my italics—“You hear this fellow in the cellarage?”).

Sheehy, like many others, relies on the first book written about Jackson, Jesse Jackson: America’s David, by a disaffected follower, Barbara Reynolds. Before I wrote an article on Jesse Jackson in 1984, I called Reynolds to ask if she had reconsidered any of her views. No, she told me, Jackson no longer represented the authentic desire of black people. Who, then, did? She gave me a name I had never heard before, though we would all become familiar with it by the time Jackson declared his candidacy that year—Louis Farrakhan. It was the first of many things that made me read Reynolds with a caution Sheehy does not share.

Reynolds is the customary source for the contrast with Dr. King, centered on what may be called the bloody shirt story. There is now a popular version of the assassination of Dr. King that emphasizes Jackson’s unworthiness to be considered a successor to the great man. The indictment has four counts:

  1. Dr. King attacked Jackson at the last SCLC staff meeting. But Reynolds, unlike Sheehy, admits that King uncharacteristically “jumped on everybody” at that meeting, reflecting the tensions created by disagreements with the staff as well as outside attacks from both blacks and whites.
  2. Immediately after the assassination, Jackson rushed to a plane and flew to Chicago in order to appear on national television. When I heard that Dr. King had been shot, I went straight for the airport, since I was writing a series of articles on the civil rights struggle then. I got one of the few remaining seats available and saw others left behind who were eager to reach Memphis. There were civil rights leaders and journalists already on the plane, which had come through Baltimore from New York. The center of attention, if that is what one sought at the time, was Memphis. SCLC members who have denounced Jackson for his publicity seeking—Hosea Williams, especially, and Jim Bevel—were very aggressive in their courting of the cameras in the next few days. Shortly after I met him in Memphis, Bevel was asking me to write a book about a one-man march he planned to make to the United Nations, a book for which we would split the proceeds.

Sheehy, without any reference to Bevel’s own checkered career, quotes with a straight face his judgment that Jackson’s aim is “to prostitute a race for one’s own self-aggrandizement.” Jackson says he went to Chicago to be with his family and community as they received the shock of Dr. King’s death, and even Barbara Reynolds admits that, in the days of rioting that followed (with Mayor Daley provocatively ordering that police “shoot to kill” any looters), “Jackson pleaded for calm.” Though he spoke from Chicago on NBC’s Today Show, there is no way he could have known that going back home would produce that result. The story was in Memphis. I was still in that city when the story moved away, and Bevel and Williams were among the first to get out then.

  1. Jackson claimed he was the last person to speak with Dr. King. That is true in the sense that Jackson was part of the group engaged in a bantering conversation with King as he stood on the balcony eight feet above his associates—a conversation in which King invited Jackson to dinner (patching up the quarrel at the meeting), and Jackson introduced the evening’s musician, before the shot stilled King’s voice forever.
  2. Jackson had false blood on his turtleneck shirt when he appeared in Chicago. The Reverend Samuel (Billy) Kyles, the only man standing next to King when he was shot, says that there was “blood everywhere” afterward, including some that he got on his handkerchief and that he keeps as a memorial. He adds that people later scraped blood off the balcony to treasure it, and he is sure Jackson touched the blood and wiped it on his shirt—a natural reaction at the death of martyrs. Shakespeare—no doubt remembering how Catholics stood close to the scaffold when Jesuit priests like Edmund Campion were executed,2 to take away relics in the form of blood-soaked clothes—has Decius interpret Calpurnia’s dream, that Caesar’s statue ran blood and men bathed their hands in it, as a good omen:

It was a vision fair and fortunate.
Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,
In which so many smiling Romans bath’d,
Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck
Reviving blood, and that great men shall press
For tinctures, stains, relics, and cognizance.
(Julius Caesar, II.ii.84–90, emphasis added)

Jacqueline Kennedy refused to change her blood-stained suit from the same common instinct for preserving the visible evidence of a horrible deed. Even if one took the most unfavorable view of Jackson as a calculating fellow who wanted to have something that looked like Dr. King’s blood on his shirt, the most readily available thing that would look like the blood was the blood. The charge that he would instead go off and contrive some substitute shows how far people are willing to go in belittling Jackson.

Many of the charges made against Jackson—that he is going outside his role as a civil rights leader, that he encourages a cult of personality, that he is risking prior gains by taking on new issues, that he does not know when to stop—were made against Dr. King in his day. Sheehy quotes Dr. King’s rebuke to Jackson at the final staff meeting, but does not give the occasion of the quarrel, a charge by Jackson (and by Bevel for that matter) that the Poor People’s March was turning out to be more show than substance. The same people who have discredited Jackson’s name have prettified the civil rights movement, remembering it as more polite and unified than it was. Egos were large, quarrels bitter, and suspicions mutual in that group, as David Garrow has amply documented. Andrew Young went so far as to punch Hosea Williams when Williams called him an FBI “plant” once too often.

Jackson, as a young newcomer to King’s organization in 1968, was resented by older and more established leaders, a resentment that grew as he became the only black figure continually traveling the nation to high schools, to businesses, to labor meetings, during the next two decades. The elders did not support Jackson in 1984; but when they went to the Democratic convention, they found a whole new generation of delegates who booed Andrew Young in the convention hall and Mrs. King in the black caucus meeting. It was Jackson who brought peace to the acrimonious caucus, showing more magnanimity toward the elders than he had received from them.

But his 1988 performance has been more astonishing still. His positions were the ones that brought a response in debate after debate, so that they were taken up by the other Democratic candidates. He won white votes in northern states. He took voting registrars to large crowds, or large crowds to the registrars. He built on the coalition that had been formed around the opposition to Bork. He began to make it seem possible for Democrats to cooperate with blacks without losing all the whites who have defected in the South since the Sixties. Piven and Cloward trace the way white religious groups countered black registration drives in the South by bringing in more middle-class white voters; but Jackson’s campaign has pushed forward the program of registration where the poor live, and has made deeper inroads into the historic attitude that poor people should not vote. As Piven and Cloward have found out, with their Human SERVE effort, the instilled social attitudes of the past are not changed overnight or by a single person. But the very forces Thernstrom deplores offer us some hope that government by the people might still, at some point, become a self-descriptive phrase we can use without embarrassment.

This Issue

August 18, 1988