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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

America’s Liberal vs. Conservative Discourse 'Is Too Puny for What We’re Facing'

Rev. William Barber II Comes to Texas to Press for Voting Rights

“William Barber at Moral Mondays rally” by twbuckner is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This essay originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

If you think American democracy is holding on by its fingernails, you won’t get an argument from the Rev. William Barber II. Yet he’s quick to let you know that shining a spotlight on the overlooked and struggling among us offers our best hope for less divisive politics and a more perfect union.

Barber, a prominent pastor, and civil rights activist, is a driving force behind the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement fashioned after Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 anti-poverty push. It’s also the way Barber and his allies aim to bring poor and low-income individuals into a union whose votes, he says, “would fundamentally change the economic architecture … of the nation.”

At the moment Barber is eyeing Texas as a place to make that point more visible when the Poor People’s Campaign stages a 27-mile “Selma-to-Montgomery-style” march from Georgetown, Texas, to Austin starting on July 27.

I spent an hour with Barber on the phone recently when he came to Austin to speak at a rally in support of statehouse Democrats who had decamped to Washington, D.C., to prevent the Republican majority from passing into law a retooling of the state’s election rules. “The legislators have gone to D.C.,” he told me, “but Texas is … the eye of the storm.”

As Barber sees it, support of unfettered voting rights is intrinsically linked to five overarching issues that prevent the nation from moving forward: systemic racism; poverty; ecological devastation; the denial of health care and the war economy; and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism.

“We must address these … injustices simultaneously, but we can only do it with a fusion coalition that has people of every race, creed, and color that can change the narrative and deal power.” He calls his vision the Third Reconstruction, a nonviolent crusade that contrasts sharply with the forces that attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Barber, thoughtful and engaging, a recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, is ubiquitous. His YouTube entries include a rafters-rattling speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention calling for Americans to wield a “moral defibrillator” to jump-start the ailing heart of our democracy. His January 2021 National Cathedral sermon implores President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to join in closing the nation’s gaps in wealth and opportunity, to become “repairers of the breach,” which is also what Barber calls his activist outreach organization.

Admirers have likened Barber’s coalition-building skills and ambitious goals to those of King. “I don’t know if I’ll … get to see the fullness” of the movement, he said. “But what I do know is this is a seed that is germinating.”

Barber maintains that some 140 million people, 43% of the U.S. population, live in some form of economic hardship. Reasonable critics push back against conflating those living below the official poverty line with low-income earners whose incomes are considerably higher, even though experts can agree a crisis of diminishing expectations isn’t good for the country.

Barber makes a habit of adopting public policy views that don’t preach to the choir. As Sean Illing put it on Vox: “Barber is a progressive, yet he’s still hard to pin down politically. He rejects the language of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and instead leans on the religious values of the Gospel to push a strong anti-poverty agenda…. He speaks in morally clarifying terms about the plight of low-income people while refusing to engage in diversionary culture war fights.”

Barber urges people to look beyond media hot takes and their own socioeconomic bubbles to think more deeply about root causes. He is sharply critical of Donald Trump and Trump-ensorcelled political leaders who, especially in a time of COVID, are more interested in cementing political power, he said, “than they are keeping people out of caskets.”

Meanwhile, Democrats have focused so relentlessly on middle-class voters in recent years, he contends, they’ve “stopped talking at all to poor and low-wealth folks, of all races and colors and, in doing so, a lot of … people just said, “Well, we’re not going to participate anymore.’”

It’s there that Barber sees an opening. Were poor and low-income individuals to “organize around an agenda,” he said, they would have the votes to “fundamentally determine who sits in the White House, the Senate, the governor’s mansion.”

So how do you build such a coalition, critics ask, when poor and low-income whites aren’t famous for siding with poor and low-income Black people? Looking at the world in dualistic terms is shortsighted, Barber said.

America’s “liberal versus conservative … political discourse … is too puny for what we’re facing,” he told me. “Some things are not about left and right. It’s about right and wrong. It’s about constitutional, unconstitutional.”

Our politics are volatile, he said, because some “people would rather just burn the house down … in the attempt to somehow hold onto their greed” and power. “But I still don’t believe they represent the majority of … this country, and that’s why we are mobilizing.”

Extremism is marbled throughout our history, Barber said; Trump has “charismatized” it, “he didn’t create it.”

What we’re seeing today, he said, are “pieces of what has never been fully eradicated from our body politic and our society, and all that means is, it’s our time now, that [in] every generation there must be truth-tellers, moral dissenters and people who will stand up and say, ‘It’s time to take a few more steps toward being a more perfect union.’”

The Black Lives Matter protests that rocked the nation following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 signified a turning point in Barber’s view that is still, in some ways, in search of an agenda. “Regressive public policy … may not kill” in the immediate, highly emotional way of “a cop shooting somebody,” but what often gets overlooked is how many Americans die needlessly each year from poverty and poor health care.

The problem in fixing our problems, he said, isn’t a lack of resources or ideas, it’s a lack of consciousness, the absence of “a movement that is putting a face on these problems because that’s the only way you can turn the heart of the nation.”

“You’ve got to show the nation [to] herself before you can tell her about herself, which is why the Poor People’s Campaign’s goal is to put a face on it.”

Last Sunday, from the pulpit of a neighborhood church in Georgetown, Barber said every generation has its Goliath-like problems that won’t go away without action. He urged the congregants, as he often does wherever he goes, not to remain metaphorically seated, but to speak up and stand forward in the breach.

This day he was talking about the genesis of the upcoming march to the statehouse in Austin. “We’re not going to allow the burial of the things that are right,” he vowed.

In our earlier phone conversation, Barber said, “There’s never been a time in this country where you have had a fundamental change of systems … whether it was slavery, denial of women’s right to vote, denial of union rights” without a movement to sustain the fight. “It’s always taken movements to put the mirror up … to tell the truth.

“And whether you’re rejected because of your race or class, your differing abilities, your sexuality, your poverty,” it’s up to the ignored and rejected “to lead a moral revival.”

“They have to become the consciousness of the nation in order for the nation’s consciousness to be changed.” It’s Barber’s article of faith that the time has come. “There’s a hunger,” he said. “People are ready.”

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