Hoping they can drive a revamped public conversation and fuel a populist counter-movement from the left against an otherwise rightward lurch in the country, a coalition of progressive organizations this week is championing a new agenda designed to galvanize those demanding an economic, political, and ecological transformation in the United States.
Representing more than 2 million active members from their respective organizations in more than 32 states, the four members of the coalition - the Campaign for America's Future, National People's Action, US Action, and the Alliance for a Just Society - say that the nation's numerous and interwoven crises have drawn them together during a historic moment that demands a populist response.
"We're in a populist moment here in America," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, on a Thursday press call. "Even conservative Republicans are telling us that and average Americans nod in agreement when Sen. Elizabeth Warren tells us that our economy and our government have been rigged in favor of the wealthy and the big corporations."
According to Hickey, the 12-point agenda the group has unveiled - which will be featured prominently at the Populism2015 Conference running through this weekend in Washington, DC - goes well beyond what any politician is now offering. "It is an integrated platform to create jobs and sustainable prosperity," he said.
Isaiah Poole, CAF's communications director, says the agenda - officially titled Populism 2015 Platform: Building A Movement for People and the Planet - was designed to put "on notice politicians who offer workers patches and palliatives to soften the blows of actions that have served to shrink the middle class and concentrate wealth at the top. This is not about remediation. The demand is for restructuring."
With the official announcement earlier this week of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, the groups recognize that the political horizon and media landscape is quickly fixating on 2016 and they argue the moment is crucial to make sure their clear set of progressive priorities is not pushed out of the conversation.
"There is a bottom-up progressive populist sentiment building in this country," said George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action, "It's no secret that we are looking for political leadership, but we are also not waiting for that leadership. Populism2015 and the agenda we are organizing is one sign of that. The ideas in our agenda create a clear line in the sand for all candidates. At the end of the day the question is simple: do you stand with everyday people or do you stand with big-monied corporate interests?"
Fred Azcarate, executive director of US Action, says the coalition's agenda is a set of "bold ideas" which would create an economy and democracy that works for all, not just the wealthy and powerful.
The coalition, he explained, will seek to use its combined resources - including more than 600 full-time organizers nationwide - to fight for paid sick days, expanded health care coverage, federal and local budgets that put people first, quality child care and education, an increase of Social Security and other earned benefits, and a broadly shared vision of both racial and economic justice.
Speaking on behalf of her organization's members and the many, many more low-income and working-class people whose lives their advocacy work seeks to improve, LeeAnn Hall, executive director of the Alliance for a Just Society, said too many Americans increasingly feel "like the system is rigged" against them. "And they’re right," she says, "it is."
Though it's common to hear that economy is "recovering," Hall makes it clear this is simply not the reality for millions and millions of hard-working individuals and struggling families.
"We hear that jobs are coming back to our economy," Hall says. "The truth is, the majority of those jobs are in retail or restaurants and other low-paying work. They are jobs that don’t allow a worker to make ends meet - much less a single mom trying to support a child."
At the same time, she added, the cost of higher education has made it prohibitive for most even to consider. "Those who do go to college," she said, "too many find themselves buried in debt and then struggle to find a job that pays enough to cover both their debt and their living expenses." For people of color, women, or a single parents, she said, the cards against are stacked even higher.
It is because of dynamics like this, says Hickey, that the populist moment is here whether politicians want to acknowledge it or not.
He said this new coalition, joined by others, will use their shared agenda as a way to force politicians to answer the following kinds of questions during campaign stops across the country throughout the election season:
- Do you support greater public investment to create good jobs and spur sustainable growth?
- Will you vote to increase Social Security benefits, as 42 Senators have done, or will you vote for cuts?
- Will you break up banks that are “too big to fail,” or will you keep deregulating the banks?
- Do you support the demands for a $15 wage, the right to a union, immediate Federal action to require these of federal contractors - as put forward in the streets on Wednesday by low wage workers?
- Will you fight climate change by investing in green energy and by raising energy taxes?
- Do you oppose “Fast Track” and the Trans Pacific Partnership soon to be before the Congress - or will you ignore the impact on U.S. jobs and democracy and support these measures?
- Will you work to get big money out of politics - or do you like its impact on democracy?
As articulated by the coalition, the agenda itself includes twelve areas of broad concern followed by specific policy items which they hope - taken together - can inspire a bottom-up grassroots movement:
- Rebuild America for the 21st Century and Create Jobs for All. America’s public infrastructure - from roads to rail to water and energy systems - is increasingly dangerous to our health and a drag on our economy. National investment in rebuilding America will create millions of high-quality jobs, bid wages up, help close the racial jobs gap, and make America a better place to live and work.
- Raise Wages, Empower Workers and Reverse Inequality. Inequality has reached new extremes, as more and more jobs become contingent and part-time, with low pay and few benefits. We should lift the floor under every worker by guaranteeing a living wage, paid sick and vacation days, and affordable health care. We should empower workers to form unions and bargain collectively. We must curb perverse CEO compensation policies that give executives personal incentives to plunder their own companies.
- Invest in a Green Economy. Catastrophic climate change is a clear and present danger. The United States should lead the global green revolution that builds strong and resilient communities. Public investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency can create jobs and opportunity, particularly in communities of color that have borne the worst consequences of toxic corporate practices.
- Eliminate Institutionalized Racism to Open Opportunity to All. In a society of increasing diversity, ending systemic racial disparities is vital to building economic prosperity. This begins with comprehensive immigration reform, expanded voting rights and an end to mass incarceration and the systematic criminalization of people of color.
- Guarantee Women’s Economic Equality. We will ensure that women are guaranteed the same pay, protections and opportunities as men in the workplace and in society. Families must have access to high-quality child care and paid leave from the workplace for childbirth, illness and vacation. Women must also be guaranteed affordable health care and a secure retirement - with Social Security credit for work in the household.
- Provide a High-Quality Education to Every Child. Every child must have the right to high-quality, free public education from preschool to college. This requires providing the basics - preschool, smaller classes, summer and after-school programs, and skilled teachers. Free four-year, post-high school education should be available for all who seek it. We must also provide relief to the generation now burdened with a student debt that they may never pay off.
- Expand Shared Security for the 21st Century. No child should go hungry in America. Health care should be a right, not a privilege. Every worker deserves a secure retirement. A job should be available to everyone willing and able to work. We will strengthen and expand America’s shared security programs - Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, food support and housing assistance. Greater shared security makes the economy more robust by enabling entrepreneurs and workers to take risks, knowing that they can survive failure.
- Enforce Fair Taxes on Corporations and the Wealthy. Our tax code rigs the rules to favor the few. Multinationals pay lower tax rates than small domestic businesses. Billionaire investors pay lower rates than their secretaries. Top income tax rates have been lowered even as working people face ever-higher sales taxes and fees. It is time for the rich and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes so that we can invest in an economy that will work for all.
- Forge a Global Strategy that Works for Working People. Our global trade and tax policies are rigged by multinational companies to drive down pay and worker protections while harming the environment. We need more but balanced trade, global standards that protect the rights of workers, consumers and the environment. That requires a crackdown on tax havens, currency manipulation, and deals that allow corporation to trample basic labor rights here and abroad.
- Make Wall Street Serve the Real Economy. Financial deregulation has devastated our economy and protected banks that are too big to fail, too big to manage and too big to jail. The financial casino fosters ever more dangerous speculation, while investment in the real economy lags. The resulting booms and busts devastate families and small businesses. We need to break up the big banks, levy a speculation tax, and provide low-income families with safe and affordable banking services. We should crack down on payday lenders and other schemes that exploit vulnerable working families.
- Change Priorities to Address Real Security Needs. Our current national security policies commit us to policing the world. The result costs lives and drains public resources. We need a real security policy that makes military intervention a last resort, and focuses on global threats like climate change, poverty and inequality. We should reduce military budgets and properly support humanitarian programs.
- Fight for Democracy and Curb the Power of Big Money. From big-money politics to the assault on the right to vote and a corrupted lobby culture in Washington, our democracy is under assault. It is no accident that the assault has escalated as a new majority of people of color, young people and working women has begun to emerge. We need to close the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, and expose the entrenched interests that buy our legislators. We need public financing of elections that bans corporate and big money. We must guarantee the right to vote, with easy access to registration and the polls.