The level of US political rancor has reached an intensity not seen since the sixties with its battles over civil rights and the Vietnam War. On the one hand we have Republicans advocating a new Iraq war and more tax breaks for the rich. On the other hand we have Democrats saying no to war and standing up for working families. For populists it’s the return of the sixties theme, “peace and justice.”
On May 22nd, Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a stirring speech at the “New Populism Conference” with an emphatic statement of progressive populist values:
This is a fight over values. Conservatives and their powerful friends will continue to be guided by their age-old principle: "I've got mine, the rest of you are on your own." But we’re guided by principle too… We all do better when we work together and invest in our future. …We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement… We believe no one should work full-time and live in poverty, and that means raising the minimum wage… We believe people should retire with dignity, and that means strengthening Social Security… We believe that a kid should have a chance to go to college without getting crushed by debt … We believe workers have a right to come together, to bargain together and to rebuild America's middle class… We believe in equal pay for equal work …. We believe equal means equal, and that's true in the workplace and in marriage, true for all our families… These are our shared values. And we are willing to fight for them.
Senator Warren reflects the sentiments of hard-working Americans – the 99 percent. A recent poll found that most of us have populist values; we want government to work for all the people not just the rich and powerful.
Many of the values expressed by Senator Warren were elaborated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the March 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Journalist Ned Resnikoff observed that Dr. King’s program had four elements.
1. Congress should ratify an economic bill of rights. “The right of every employable citizen to a decent job.” “The right of every citizen to a minimum income.” “The right of a decent house and a free choice of neighborhood.” “The right to an adequate education.” “The right to participate in the [political] decision-making process.” “The right to the full benefits of modern science in healthcare.”
2. The right to a job. Dr. King believed the government should guarantee a job to anyone who could work. “I hope that a specific number of jobs is set forth, that a program will emerge to abolish unemployment, and that there will be another program to supplement the income of those whose earnings are below the poverty level.”
3. The right to a minimum income. Dr. King went beyond the demand for a minimum wage. In his 1968 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, he advocated for a guaranteed income for every American citizen.
4. The right of workers to organize. Dr. King believed America needs a strong labor movement. In his famous I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech he lauded the power of labor and collective action, in general, observing, “Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal.”
This year, University of California Economics Professor Robert Reich identified six principles of the new populism:
1. Cut the biggest Wall Street banks down to a size where they’re no longer too big to fail. 2. Resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act, the law separating investment from commercial banking thereby preventing companies from gambling with their depositors’ money. 3. End corporate welfare including subsidies to big oil, agribusiness, pharmaceuticals, and Wall Street. 4. Stop the National Security Agency from spying on Americans. 5. Scale back American interventions overseas. 6. Oppose trade agreements crafted by big corporations.
No doubt, Martin Luther King Jr. would have supported these principles. And he would have opposed a massive US military intervention in Iraq.
There are a lot of trends in the 2014 midterm election but for populists the most encouraging is the return of the sixties theme, “peace and justice.”
In terms of foreign policy this means reducing the Defense budget and limiting our engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In terms of domestic policy, the new populism means changing policies that benefit the rich and powerful: reforming the tax code, ending corporate welfare, breaking up the big banks, and resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act. And the new populism means instituting new policies that benefit working families: making the minimum wage a living wage, guaranteeing a minimum standard of living (in effect, enforcing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and protecting the right of workers to organize.
Peace and Justice. As relevant now as it was in the sixties.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org