Edwards' Strategic Mistake
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 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.
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 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.
January 24, 2008, Black Commentator