To Win in 2020 and Beyond, the Democrats Need a Bolder Moral Vision

The urgent case for setting our sights higher.

In These Times
By Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis
August 19, 2020

It is pow­er­ful sym­bol­ism and his­tor­i­cal sub­stance to have a Black woman, a woman of col­or, on the pres­i­den­tial tick­et of a major U.S. polit­i­cal par­ty, a mul­ti-racial tick­et that could lead this nation still strug­gling to deal with the ves­tiges of what Rev. James Law­son described at Con­gress­man John Lewis’ funer­al, as the dis­ease of ​“plan­ta­tion capitalism.”

Our move­ments have fought long and hard for the changes in the polit­i­cal land­scape that make such mile­stones possible.

A lot will be said about John Lewis dur­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, but let’s remem­ber that while he sup­port­ed Pres­i­dent John Kennedy, he simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pushed the pres­i­dent hard.

Though John Lewis sup­port­ed Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son, he and oth­er civ­il rights lead­ers — includ­ing Amelia Boyn­ton Robin­son, Vio­la Liuz­zo and Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. — pushed that pres­i­dent as well. As Rev. Law­son remind­ed us at Lewis’ funer­al, many of those civ­il rights icons ​“had no choice, pri­mar­i­ly because, at an ear­ly age, we rec­og­nized the wrong under which we were forced to live and we swore to God that, by God’s grace, we would do what­ev­er God called us to do in order to put on the table of the nation’s agen­da — this must end.” It was not about com­pro­mise, mod­er­a­tion or expe­di­en­cy, but about justice.

Polit­i­cal­ly, our move­ments must cel­e­brate advance­ment and con­tin­ue to push for poli­cies as urgent and pow­er­ful as the mul­ti­ple crises we face today, no mat­ter what and who we must chal­lenge. Elec­tion year or non-elec­tion year, Black or white, the move­men­t’s job is to make politi­cians stronger than they ever would be with­out the move­ment — to help them embrace the moral cen­ter until jus­tice is established.

Before the pan­dem­ic began, there were 140 mil­lion poor and low-wealth peo­ple strug­gling to sur­vive, let alone thrive, across our country.

In July, 10.6 mil­lion more Amer­i­cans were unem­ployed than in Feb­ru­ary 2020, with rates sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er among Lat­inx and Black work­ers. Data from just 32 states show that the num­ber of peo­ple receiv­ing SNAP food assis­tance rose by near­ly 7 mil­lion between Feb­ru­ary and May.

In our work in the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign, we have been build­ing a fusion move­ment of poor peo­ple of all races, immi­grants, women, LGBTQ folks, cli­mate activists and many more who are com­mit­ted to a moral rev­o­lu­tion of val­ues in this nation. Long before the pan­dem­ic, we saw the need for trans­for­ma­tive action on many fronts.

Last month we released a 29-point Jubilee Plat­form to fight the inter­con­nect­ed injus­tices of sys­temic racism, pover­ty, mil­i­tarism and envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion that keep poor peo­ple poor; that keep Black, Lat­inx, indige­nous and oth­er peo­ple of col­or mar­gin­al­ized; that kill peo­ple abroad and at home and dis­tort our nation’s econ­o­my; and that threat­en the very sur­vival of our plan­et. Our hope was that this bot­tom-up agen­da would inform the plat­forms of both par­ties in advance of their nation­al conventions.

We did not antic­i­pate that the Repub­li­can Par­ty would decide to not even both­er updat­ing their 2016 plat­form. This is a star­tling admis­sion that the par­ty has failed to even iden­ti­fy an agen­da for address­ing a pub­lic health and eco­nom­ic cri­sis of his­toric proportions.

The Democ­rats released a draft par­ty plat­form sev­er­al weeks before their con­ven­tion, which is under­way now. This doc­u­ment affirms a num­ber of impor­tant prin­ci­ples that, if imple­ment­ed, could indeed trans­form the lives of many of the most mar­gin­al­ized and dis­pos­sessed com­mu­ni­ties in our country.

The draft acknowl­edges that health care and hous­ing are human rights and calls for a new eco­nom­ic and social con­tract that ​“cre­ates mil­lions of new jobs and pro­motes shared pros­per­i­ty, clos­es racial gaps in income and wealth, guar­an­tees the right to join or form a union, rais­es wages and ensures equal pay for women and paid fam­i­ly leave for all, and safe­guards a secure and dig­ni­fied retirement.”

The draft also pri­or­i­tizes diplo­ma­cy and calls for end­ing the ​“for­ev­er wars.” It admits that the Unit­ed States spends ​“13 times more on the mil­i­tary than we do on diplo­ma­cy. We spend five times more in Afghanistan each year than we do on glob­al pub­lic health and pre­vent­ing the next pan­dem­ic. We can main­tain a strong defense and pro­tect our safe­ty and secu­ri­ty for less.”

The Democ­rats’ agen­da also includes a num­ber of spe­cif­ic pol­i­cy rec­om­men­da­tions that echo those in our Jubilee Plat­form. But if we are to ensure that the expand­ing num­bers of poor and low-wealth peo­ple in this coun­try have what they need to not only sur­vive but to thrive, we need to go much fur­ther. After see­ing Con­gress autho­rize tril­lions of dol­lars in assis­tance to cor­po­ra­tions for ​“Covid relief,” we know that the claim of scarci­ty is a lie. We need mas­sive pub­lic invest­ment in peo­ple and the plan­et rather than large cor­po­ra­tions and their CEOs.

For exam­ple, we agree on the need for a $15 min­i­mum wage, paid leave and oth­er work­er pro­tec­tions in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty Plat­form. But we also believe we need a uni­ver­sal basic income and a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee so that every­one can live in dignity.

We need more than a health care pub­lic option for some Amer­i­cans. We need uni­ver­sal health care for all.

It is a ​“moral abom­i­na­tion,” as the Democ­rats have called it, that in the wealth­i­est coun­try in the world near­ly one of every five chil­dren goes to sleep hun­gry, and increas­ing food assis­tance fund­ing is impor­tant. But equal­ly impor­tant is to elim­i­nate work require­ments for wel­fare enti­tle­ments, cre­ate a guar­an­teed ade­quate income and a mora­to­ri­um on evictions.

Rejoin­ing the Paris Agree­ment is impor­tant, but that agree­ment nev­er went far enough any­way — we need to declare cli­mate change a nation­al emer­gency and estab­lish a Green jobs pro­gram, to have even a fight­ing chance of sav­ing our plan­et. It’s impor­tant that the Democ­rats acknowl­edge that white fam­i­lies typ­i­cal­ly have at least six times more wealth than Lat­inx fam­i­lies and 10 times more wealth than Black fam­i­lies. But we need to go beyond acknowl­edge­ment to reverse the sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion against Blacks, Lat­inx and indige­nous peo­ple that caus­es all of them to suf­fer some of the high­est rates of coro­n­avirus, of pover­ty, unem­ploy­ment and marginalization.

Pri­or­i­tiz­ing diplo­ma­cy over war is cru­cial, but we also need to end the eco­nom­ic sanc­tions that are killing chil­dren in coun­tries, from Venezuela to Iran. And, cru­cial­ly, we must rec­og­nize that the out­rage of mil­i­tary spend­ing (though the Democ­rats don’t men­tion that 53 cents of every dis­cre­tionary fed­er­al dol­lar gets divert­ed direct­ly to the mil­i­tary) is not enough, unless Democ­rats go fur­ther to promise mas­sive cuts in that mil­i­tary bud­get. Our Jubilee Agen­da calls for cut­ting $350 bil­lion, almost half of the mil­i­tary bud­get, and redi­rect­ing it to lift poor and low-wealth peo­ple. And we explain how to do this in ways that will make us more safe.

While Democ­rats promise to ​“ensure that enforce­ment mech­a­nisms are humane,” that ​“deten­tion should be a last resort,” and that ​“deten­tion of chil­dren should be restrict­ed to the short­est pos­si­ble time,” this is insuf­fi­cient. ICE should be dis­man­tled alto­geth­er, and the cru­el deten­tion cen­ters that pock­mark our coun­try should be shut down so that no chil­dren, no fam­i­lies, no migrants flee­ing in fear or in hope are jailed sim­ply for enter­ing our country.

We are encour­aged by the Democ­rats’ vow to ​“make sure the wealthy pay their fair share in tax­es.” But we are dis­ap­point­ed that they did not com­mit to bold pro­pos­als, such as tax­es on mil­lion­aire and bil­lion­aire wealth and Wall Street trades, that could gen­er­ate mas­sive rev­enue for reduc­ing pover­ty while mak­ing our coun­try less unequal. These agen­da items are not about far left and far right, but about decid­ing as a nation not to leave an esti­mat­ed 50% of its cit­i­zens liv­ing in pover­ty far and far­ther behind, an anath­e­ma to a gen­uine democracy.

We con­tin­ue to push for move­ment activism and vot­ing — because vot­ing mat­ters. Our lat­est report makes clear what we’ve thought for a long time: that if poor peo­ple vote, com­mit­ted can­di­dates with pro­gres­sive ideas can win. In 2016, 34 mil­lion poor and low-income eli­gi­ble vot­ers did­n’t vote. If they vot­ed at rates sim­i­lar to high­er-income vot­ers, they could flip the results in 15 states, includ­ing key bat­tle­ground states.

Along with fight­ing against vot­er sup­pres­sion, the most impor­tant way to boost elec­tion par­tic­i­pa­tion among the poor is give them hope that their bal­lot will make a dif­fer­ence. And to do that, polit­i­cal lead­ers must offer a bold agen­da for change and lis­ten to the demands of the poor.

Our nation is suf­fer­ing as nev­er before in our life­times. We are com­mit­ted to work­ing with lead­ers across the polit­i­cal spec­trum who will join us in a moral and eco­nom­ic revival to save the heart and soul of this nation.

Rev. Dr. William Bar­ber II is Pres­i­dent and Senior Lec­tur­er of Repair­ers of the Breach and Co-Chair of the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign: A Nation­al Call for Moral Revival.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theo­haris is Direc­tor of the Kairos Cen­ter for Reli­gions, Rights and Social Jus­tice and Co-Chair of the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign: A Nation­al Call for Moral Revival.