"There's a monster living under my bed
Whispering in my ear
There's an angel, with a hand on my head
She say I've got nothing to fear"
One of the most eloquent and brilliant progressive leaders in the country is Reverend William Barber, the preacher from North Carolina who has been the leader of the remarkable Moral Mondays movement in that state. Every Monday, an average of more than 2,500 protestors come to the state Capitol to protest the monstrous legislation and budgets the North Carolina governor and legislature are passing into law -- radical cuts in education and other programs that help poor and middle-income North Carolinians, huge new tax breaks for the wealthy, Jim Crow-style voter suppression laws, and more. Barber's eloquence and organizing savvy has made him into a major figure in the state, with progressives of all stripes rallying behind him, and Republicans attacking him viciously.
Barber came to Washington, D.C., to speak at the Campaign for America's Future New Populism Conference. His speech was a long one, but he is so good that it was still mesmerizing. In it, he talked history dating back to reconstruction in the 1860s and '70s, when blacks and whites were working and voting together in electing a series of truly progressive black and white politicians, and how a combination of violence, racism, and money had derailed it. The lessons of history are obviously deeply relevant today, as we far-right Republicans pushing to reconstitute Jim Crow and destroy public benefits for the poor and middle class.
One of the most important and powerful passages of Barber's speech was where he talked about the modern Republican Party's embrace of fear and race to win elections. He quotes Kevin Phillips, the original operative who created Nixon's infamous Southern strategy, as saying that "All you've got to do in American politics is to figure out who hates who, and then you know how to win." He talks about Lee Atwater, the leading political staffer for Reagan and Bush in the 1980s, telling people that "in 1954, all you had to do to win was to say nigger nigger nigger," but now you had to use "code words" to hide your racism. Barber does a great job of talking about how conservatives use those code wars to sow fear, and how that fear has for decades helped them win elections.
There is nothing more true in our nation's political life. The sad thing in this era of American politics is that the modern conservative movement has gone so deeply off the rails, has taken positions so strongly opposed to most Americans' views on most issues, that fear is the main tactic they have left -- fear of blacks, fear of same-sex relationships, fear of terrorists, fear of communists, fear of immigrants. They sow fear because they have nothing else to plant, certainly nothing that might produce anything healthy or beautiful.
It is up to progressives to stand up and speak out for something better. We want to build an American family that is beautiful in its diversity, that loves each other through all our differences, a family that makes sure all of its children get a good education and opportunity when they grow up, a family that takes care of our babies and takes care of those who are ill, a family that gives support and a hand up when any of us falls on hard times, a family where when we grow old and weak, we don't suffer and die alone. We want to build an America whose central mission is to make sure that we can all find a decent job, a job which pays enough that we can live a good life and give our families the opportunity to do even better. We want an America where our fate, and our children's future, are not held hostage by big banks and oil and coal companies.
Conservatives are not monsters, but the modern conservative movement's ideas have become monstrous -- they have painted a picture of fear and ugliness. What progressives need to do is to be the angels in Carlos Santana's song, the ones who say we have nothing to fear, the ones who tell us, in his words, that we can "all shine like stars."
My organization, American Family Voices, likes to pay tribute to strong, gutsy progressive leaders with a video series that we call The Aggressive Progressive. Today we feature the amazing Rev. William Barber...