Political discourse seems more divided than ever. With both sides refusing to engage in meaningful dialogue, there seems to be a common misconception that populism and movements for intersectional justice are incompatible. Then, on March 13, something incredible happened: a man that most of America calls a “socialist” went to rural West Virginia and got a room full of conservative Donald Trump supporters to applaud universal healthcare. This begs the question: Is economic populism compatible with intersectional social justice?
It would be an injustice to have a discussion about populism and equality without first acknowledging the most obvious connection between the two: compassion. Shouldn’t we all organize to abolish the private prison industry, profiting off of locking people in cages? Shouldn’t we all be outraged that the rich can get an education and healthcare while the poor struggle? Shouldn’t we all call out the top 0.1%, who owns more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans? Shouldn’t we all feel pain when trans* women of color are murdered in the streets? Shouldn’t we all demand that the media cover 75,000 missing Black women and girls? The reality is that compassion is not very common in our society, so justice for all is, quite often, relegated to the future capacity of economic growth. This, while morally bankrupt, does connect populism with intersectional social justice.
Consider two individuals in America:
The first is a Black woman living in Detroit, Michigan. When asked what concerns her, she will likely discuss access to quality healthcare, lack of investment in education and public schools, police brutality and state-sanctioned violence, earning enough money for her family, gender and race disparities in economic advancement and opportunity, and maybe the destruction of the planet.
The second is a white man living in rural West Virginia. When asked what concerns him, he will likely discuss lack of (good paying) jobs, being denied health coverage previously promised, violence in urban cities, and lack of good schools.
Is it possible to construct policies that acknowledge and lift up both of these individuals?
If we begin to compare the list of grievances, we immediately identify overlap: healthcare and education. It should come as no surprise that all over America, people agree: healthcare is a right, not a privilege. They also agree that the classist commoditization of education relegates adequate schooling to an elite sector of the population, while the hard-working middle class and poor communities are left with under-funded schools and inadequate opportunities for class mobility. Guaranteeing healthcare as a right, in line with every other industrialized country on earth, along with the right to a quality education, raises up all communities.
How about the more difficult subjects like mass incarceration? How can we get a rural West Virginian to care about mass incarceration?
All over this country, cities are investing in jails and incarceration, when they should be investing in jobs and education. Tackling mass incarceration and ending the failed War on Drugs means progress in racial justice—but it also means investing in communities that will educate our children and create jobs. This ties into another concern that the West Virginian has—violence.
Donald Trump mirrored Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of “law and order” that appealed to so many Americans. While there is an incredible amount of white supremacist undertones behind these words and policies, they are also entirely counterproductive to what they claim to care about. Focusing on violence is important—but if you want to address crime, focus on the causes of crime: demand that every child have access to quality schools. Demand that every man and woman have a chance at a decent standard of living. Raise the minimum wage. Eliminate student debt. Make college affordable. Guarantee healthcare. These populist economic policies address issues of racial disparities and also lift up marginalized communities and middle class communities alike.
There are other messages that social justice movements fight for. One of them is to dismantle the military industrial complex. Here again, economic instability and anxiety suffices. The United States spends over $600 Billion on the military to engage in drone strikes and military interventions. The message that needs to be sent to middle America is that our bloated military budget, which makes us less safe, not more safe, prevents us from investing in rebuilding our infrastructure, universal healthcare, and the right to quality education.
Another deep concern is the destruction of the planet—the doomsday clock is marching towards midnight faster than any other period of modern history. How can the fight to protect the planet appeal to middle America? This region of the country—predominately white working class Americans—is concerned about lack of jobs. If, for a moment, we ignore the looming threat of both the human species and the planet approaching elanguescence, we can say that abandoning fossil fuels and transforming our energy system to clean energy produces jobs at 12 times the rate of the rest of the US economy. There is economic (as well as biological) incentive to save the planet.
There is an obvious trap in this argument—are we going to allow Trump’s neo-fascist populism to ignore the human rights concerns that are inevitably attached to these issues? Intersectional feminists and social justice movements alike seek to create a world where homophobia, transphobia, institutionalized violence, racism and xenophobia are relics of history. While we can use economic arguments to appeal to white voters, there is still a serious need to address bigotry and hatred in America. The arguments presented here are by no means complete, and serve only to push forward a progressive populist agenda while simultaneously addressing serious humanitarian issues in this country. Let’s get to work.