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

The urgent case for setting our sights higher.

Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis

In this screenshot from the DNCC’s livestream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, actress and activist Eva Longoria addresses the virtual convention on August 17, 2020. DNCC via Getty Images

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.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue