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.

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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.

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