The New Populism: Ready For The Fight Ahead

Terrance Heath

At the New Populism Conference, Rev. William Barber reminded progressive populists that we must know why we fight, and what we’re fighting for. We must not shrink from battle, when we have all we need to fight and win.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D, Massachusetts), in her keynote address, gave conference attendees a litany the populist ideals progressives are called upon to fight for. Rev. William Barber closed the conference by invoking the moral values that fueled progressive movements of the past, and called upon us to carry on their work.

Rev. Barber, who leads the Moral Mondays movement that has now spread from North Carolina to Georgia, began by distilling a progressive populist morality that demands action. It is the foundation of the Moral Monday’s movement, defined in the first lines of Isaiah 10: 1-2.

 Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?

It is a morality that counters the conservative world view, in which wealth signifies righteousness, and the poor have no rights or claims upon justice. Even as conservatives have monopolized the language of values and morality, conservative policies have created what Rev. Barber says is a “moral crisis.”

“Every time we deny living wages, leaving whole communities impoverished,” Barber writes in a Sojourners post, “it costs us on the back side. Every time we fail to provide health care on the front side of life, it costs us on the back side. Every time we attempt to suppress the right the vote, it tears at the heart of our democracy and the necessary foundations to establish justice.”

“The greatest myth of our time is the notion that extreme policies harm only a small subset of people, such as people of color,” Barber writes. “These extreme policies harm us all.”

This progressive populist morality does not wait upon divine intervention to deliver “the day of reckoning” to “those who issue oppressive decrees.”  “A populist moral vision is one of dissent,” Rev. Barber said, “that insists that there is a better way.” It refuses to accept what Rev. Barber called “the popular reading of reality,” also known as “conventional wisdom.”

A moral progressive populist movement takes to the streets to catalyze change, and does not shy away from a fight, especially when we have everything we need to fight and win. To illustrate the necessity of engaging in the fight for progressive populist values, Barber turned to Psalm 78, and the story of the tribe of Ephraim. “The men of Ephraim,” the Psalm reads, “though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle.”

The tribe of Ephraim, Barber said, had everything they needed to fight, “but turned back on the day of battle.” We are, Barber reminded us, in a similar position. We have all we need to fight. We need only the courage not to turn back from the fight.

Pollster Celinda Lake’s presentation illustrated how well equipped we are to fight and win. On issues like inequality, job creation, education, and campaign finance, majorities of Americans support progressive populist positions, and would vote for candidates that ran on those positions.

The Populist Majority: Americans Want An End To Business As Usual by Campaign for America’s Future

Lake warns that there are conservatives “who get this new populism,” and could win by adjusting their message — but not their policies — just enough to fit the mood of the times. But conservatives can’t walk their talk, because they don’t have an agenda that enjoys majority supports across race and party lines.

That’s why Republicans are reluctant to reveal their governing agenda, and prefer to recycle old ideas, hoping no one will notice. But Republicans can’t even rely on their predominantly white base to support the same old agenda. A Public Religion Research Institute poll just before the 2012 election showed that 70 percent of working-class whites believe that the current economic system favors the wealthy, 78 percent blamed corporations moving jobs overseas for America’s economic distress, and 60 percent favored raising taxes on millionaires.

The concerns of white working class Americans aren’t that different from those of the rising American electorate, making this a moment ripe with potential the kind of “fusion politics” Rev. Barber called for near the end of his speech.

The moment is right for a progressive political movement that can unite diverse groups of Americans. Moral Mondays has shown that when conservatives seek to punish the poor by cutting vital programs, impoverish working Americans by keeping wages low, restrict the right to vote, push women’s reproductive freedom back to the Victorian era, and make second class citizens of  LGBT Americans, people are ready to support a movement that stands up and says, “Not without a fight!”

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