Essay Liz Theoharis

The New Politics of the Poor in Biden’s (and McConnell’s) USA

A return to the pre-Trump days would be nothing less than a disaster. We must harness the fusion politics that was so crucial to the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and organize for meaningful change.
President-elect Joe Biden, left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sharing some laughs. [McConnell Center / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By Liz Theoharis / TomDispatch

In the two weeks since Election 2020, the country has oscillated between joy and anger, hope and dread in an era of polarization sharpened by the forces of racism, nativism, and hate. Still, truth be told, though the divisive tone of this moment may only be sharpening, division in the United States of America is not a new phenomenon.

Over the past days, I’ve found myself returning to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in 1967, just a year before his own assassination, gave a speech prophetically entitled “The Other America” in which he vividly described a reality that feels all too of this moment rather than that one:

“There are literally two Americas. One America is beautiful… and overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits…

“But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

In Dr. King’s day, that other America was, for a time, laid bare to the nation through mass social unrest and political change, through the bold actions of the freedom fighters who won the Voting Rights Act and then just kept on fighting, as well as governmental programs like the “War on Poverty.” And yet, despite the significant gains then, for many decades since, inequality in this country has been on the rise to previously unimaginable levels, while poverty remained locked in and largely ignored.

Today, in the early winter of an uncurbed pandemic and the economic crisis that accompanies it, there are 140 million poor or low-income Americans, disproportionately people of color, but reaching into every community in this country: 24 million Blacks, 38 million Latinos, eight million Asians, two million Native peoples, and 66 million whites. More than a third of the potential electorate, in other words, has been relegated to poverty and precariousness and yet how little of the political discourse in recent elections was directed at those who were poor or one storm, fire, job loss, eviction, or healthcare crisis away from poverty and economic chaos. In the distorted mirror of public policy, those 140 million people have remained essentially invisible. As in the 1960s and other times in our history, however, the poor are no longer waiting for recognition from Washington. Instead, every indication is that they’re beginning to organize themselves, taking decisive action to alter the scales of political power.

For years, I’ve traveled this country, working to build a movement to end poverty. In a nation that has so often boasted about being the wealthiest and freest in history, I’ve regularly witnessed painful divisions caused by hunger, homelessness, sickness, degradation, and so much more. In Lowndes County, Alabama, for instance, I organized with people who lived day in, day out with raw sewage in their yards and dangerous mold in their homes. On Apache land in Oak Flats, Arizona, I stood with native leaders struggling to cope with generations of loss and plunder, most recently at the hands of a multinational copper mining company. In Gray’s Harbor, Washington, I visited millennials living in homeless encampments under constant siege by militia groups and the police. And the list, sadly, only goes on.

As the future administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris heads for the White House (no matter the recalcitrant loser still ensconced there), the rest of us must equip ourselves with both courage and caution, living as we do in a divided nation, in — to be exact — two very different Americas. Keep in mind that these are not the insulated, readymade Americas of MSNBC and Fox News, of Republicans and Democrats, of conservatives and liberals. All of us live in a land where there are two Americas, one of unimaginable wealth, the other of miserable poverty; an America of the promised good life and one of almost guaranteed premature death.

Unleashing the Power of Poor and Low-Income Voters

One enduring narrative from the 2016 election is that poor and low-income voters won Donald Trump the White House, even if the numbers don’t bear it out. Hillary Clinton won by 12 points among voters who made less than $30,000 a year and by 9 points among voters who made less than $49,999; the median household income of Trump voters then was $72,000.

Four years later, initial estimates suggest that this trend has only intensified: Joe Biden attracted more poor and low-income voters than President Trump both in the aggregate and in key states like Michigan. Trump, on the other hand, gained among voters with annual family incomes of more than $100,000. Last week, the director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab noted that this “appears to be the biggest demographic shift I’m seeing. And you can tie that to [Trump’s] tax cuts [for the wealthy] and lower regulations.”

In 2016, there were 64 million eligible poor and low-income voters, 32 million of whom did not vote. In 2020, it’s becoming clear that poor and low-income voters helped decide the election’s outcome by opting for a candidate who signaled support for key antipoverty issues like raising the minimum wage, expanding health care, and protecting the environment. In down-ballot races, every congressional member who endorsed Medicare for All won reelection, even in swing states. Imagine then how many dispossessed and disenfranchised voters might have turned out if more candidates had actually been speaking to the most pressing issues of their lives?

Seventy-two percent of Americans said that they would prefer a government-run healthcare plan and more than 70% supported raising the minimum wage, including 62% of Republicans. Even in districts that went for Trump, voters passed ballot measures that, only a few years ago, would have been unheard of. In Mississippi, people voted to decriminalize medical marijuana, while in Florida a referendum for a $15 minimum wage got more votes than either of the two presidential candidates.

If nothing else, Election 2020 revealed a deeply divided nation — two Americas, not one — though that dividing line marked anything but an even or obvious split. A startling number of Americans are trapped in wretched conditions and hungry for a clean break with the status quo. On the other hand, the rampant voter suppression and racialized gerrymandering of the last decade of American politics suggests that extremists from the wealthier America will go to remarkable lengths to undercut the power of those at the bottom of this society. They have proven ready to use every tool and scare tactic of racist division and subterfuge imaginable to stop poor Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, and white potential voters from building new and transformative alliances, including a new electorate.

It’s time to move beyond the defeatist myth of the Solid South or even the dulling comfort of a Midwestern “blue wall.” Across the South and the Midwest, there are voter-suppression states still to win, not for a party, but for a fusion movement of the many. The same could be true for the coasts and the Southwest, where there remains a sleeping giant of poor and low-income people yet to be pulled into political action. If this country is ever going to be built back better, to borrow Joe Biden’s campaign pledge, it’s time to turn to its abandoned corners; to, that is, the other America of Martin Luther King that still haunts us, whether we know it or not.

Fusion Politics in the Other America

When Dr. King gave his “Other America” speech, he was preparing for what would become the last political project of his life: the Poor People’s Campaign. At a time when the nation appeared to be fraying at the seams, he grasped that a giant social leap forward was still possible. In fact, he envisioned a protracted struggle that might catapult this country into a new era of human rights and revolution not through sanguine calls for unity, but via a rousing fusion of poor and dispossessed people from all walks of life. And that, as he imagined it, would also involve a recognition that systemic racism and other forms of hate and prejudice were crucial to the maintenence of the two Americas and had to be challenged head-on.

The idea of such fusion politics echoed earlier chapters of political reckoning and transformation in this country. From the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction into the 1890s, newly emancipated Blacks built unprecedented, if fragile, alliances with poor whites to seize governing power. Across a new South, fusion parties expanded voting rights, access to public education, labor protections, fair taxation, and more. In North Carolina in 1868, for instance, legislators went so far as to rewrite the state constitution to codify for the first time the right of all citizens to “life, liberty, and the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.”

For nearly 30 years, I’ve been part of a modern version of fusion organizing, even as I studied earlier examples of it — and this country’s history is rich with them. Indeed, the modern Poor People’s Campaign that I co-chair is itself inspired by such past fusion movements, including the version of politics I was first introduced to by multiracial welfare rights and homeless organizing in the 1980s and 1990s.

Organizations like the National Welfare Rights Union and the National Union of the Homeless first grew in response to the neoliberal politics of President Ronald Reagan and his attacks on the poor, especially the Black poor, or, as he put it, “welfare queens.” In response to such myths and deep, divisive cuts, out of shelters and from the streets, poor people began to organize projects of mutual aid and solidarity, including “unions” of the homeless.

By the 1980s, the National Union of the Homeless had been created and had upwards of 30,000 members in 25 cities. Meanwhile, organizers across the country soon escalated their efforts with waves of coordinated and nonviolent takeovers of vacant federally owned buildings at a time when the government had abdicated its responsibility to protect and provide for its poorest citizens. Those poor and homeless leaders also helped the Homeless Union secure guarantees from the federal government both for more subsidized housing and for protections of the right of the homeless to vote.

Today, in the middle of an economic crisis that could, in the end, rival the Great Depression, I’m reminded not just of those moments that first involved me but of the fusion movements of the early 1930s. After all, in those years, shanty towns called “Hoovervilles” — given that Herbert Hoover was still president — cropped up in cities across the country.

Not unlike the tent cities of the Homeless Union and the Welfare Rights Movement in the 1980s and the ones appearing today, those Hoovervilles were where masses of the unemployed and homeless gathered to survive the worst of that depression and strategize on how to resist its misery. Multiracial Unemployed Councils organized and fought for relief for workers without jobs then, preventing thousands of evictions and utility shutoffs.

Meanwhile, in the abandoned fields of the Southern Delta from Arkansas to Mississippi, groups like the Southern Tenant Farmers Union pioneered the dangerous work of organizing Black and white tenant farmers and sharecroppers. When the New Deal coalition bet its future on compromise with white Southern extremists, members of that union were among the last guardians of the rights of poor agrarian workers. Their lonely clarity on the significance of fusion politics in the South stood in stark contrast to the rise of an unmitigated politics of white reaction there.

Today, as top Democrats like Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer claim the legacy of Great Depression-era President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, remember the fusion organizing that helped bring him to power and pushed him to enact change. I’m thinking in particular of the more than 40,000 unemployed veterans of World War I who arrived in Washington D.C. in 1932 to demand the early payment of promised bonuses, previously only considered redeemable after 1945. That Bonus Army, as the veterans called it, collected many of the fraying threads of the American tapestry, making camp, sometimes with wives and children, on seized public land just across the Potomac River from the capital’s federal office buildings, while holding regular nonviolent marches and rallies.

Eventually, President Herbert Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to tear down the camp in a violent fashion. The mistreatment of those poor and war-weary veterans in the process proved to be a lightning rod for the public and so Hoover lost to FDR in the presidential election later that year, setting the stage for a decade defined by militant organizing and major shifts in national policy.

The Mandate of the Poor Today

There are already those in the media and politics who are counseling restraint and a return to the pre-Trump days, as if he were the cause, not the consequence, of a nation desperately divided. This would be nothing less than a disaster, given that the fissures in our democracy so desperately need mending not with nice words but with a new governing contract with the American people.

The battleground states that won Joe Biden the presidency have also been battlegrounds in the most recent war against the poor. In Michigan, hit first and worst by deindustrialization, millions have struggled with a failing water system and a jobs crisis. In Wisconsin, where unions have been under attack for years and austerity has become the norm, both budgets and social welfare policies have been slashed by legislatures. In Pennsylvania, rural hospitals have been closing at an alarming rate and, even before the pandemic hit, the poorest large city in the country, Philadelphia, had already become a checkerboard of disinvestment and gentrification. In Georgia, 1.3 million renters — 45% of the households in that state — were at risk of eviction this year. And in Arizona, the climate crisis and Covid-19 have ravaged entire communities, including the members of Indigenous nations who recently turned out to vote in record numbers.

The people of these states and 15 more helped elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and count on one thing: with their votes, they were calling for more than just an end to Trumpism. They were demanding that a new era of change begin for the poor and marginalized. The first priority in such an era should, of course, be to pass a comprehensive relief bill to control the pandemic and buoy the millions of Americans now facing a cold, dark winter of deprivation. The House and the Senate have a moral responsibility to get this done as soon as the new administration takes office, if not before (though tell that to Mitch McConnell). The first 100 days of the Biden administration should then be focused, at least in part, on launching a historic investment in securing permanent protections for the poor, including expanded voting rights, universal healthcare, affordable housing, a living wage, and a guaranteed adequate annual income, not to speak of divestment from the war economy and a swift transition to a green economy.

That should be the mandate of our next government. And that’s why we, the overflowing millions, must harness the fusion politics that was so crucial to the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and organize in the best tradition of our predecessors. Real social progress rarely comes slowly and steadily, but in leaps and bounds. The predictable stalemate of the next administration and its Republican opposition can’t be broken by grand speeches in the House or Senate. It can only be broken by a vast social movement capable of awakening the moral imagination of the nation.

It’s time to get to work.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.

13 comments

  1. Well, you make a great point and then crap all over it. Ever since the 2000 debacle people have been telling us that our elections are rigged. Black Box Voting and other orgs have SHOWN repeatedly that our elections are not free or fair. There is ample statistical evidence that you can look up for yourself that this election may have been improperly called. BUT rather than calling for accountability, rather than calling for a full and complete investigation of the PRIVATE COMPANIES THAT OWN AND THEREFORE ACTUALLY COUNT our votes, YOU pretend that there is nothing to see here! We may never get another chance to fix our elections. IN THIS CASE THE ENEMY OF OUR ENEMY MAY STILL BE OUR ENEMY BUT WE CAN USE THIS OPPORTUNITY! And you folks aren’t even trying. Biden AND Trump ARE EQUAL THREATS! IF we can get valid elections going forward I’d be more than willing to put up with four more years of Trump golfing and trying to end our endless wars!

  2. It’s no surprise the read at the end that the good citizen Ms. Theoharis (Greek?) is an ordained minister. It doesn’t say what religion, but it doesn’t matter, Ms. Theoharis preaches a message that is universal across most religions.

    This is the very root of ALL human morality. Treat other folks like you want them to treat you. Minister Theoharis could wear the cloth of Islam, or Christ, or Hindu or Buddhist. It’s good to hear another preach the same message as poor ole Caliban.

    People who should be allies must first stop being enemies.

    But the good Minister Theoharis does not confront the one difficult issue that is the Basic Fault-line along which this nation was cleaven in two. Immigration. This is the chasm that divides us. That is the issue that Trump rode to office.

    The Left has demonized white people, as racist Nazi scum white supremacists, because the poorer white folks, and the working people, objected when our borders were suddenly thrown open after NAFTA, and tens of millions of poor desperate people migrated here from foreign lands to compete with American workers. They objected to the DELIBERATE importation of tens of millions of destitute people, which immediately began to have a devastating impact on American workers and their families;

    First millions upon millions of jobs were deliberately exported, and then millions upon millions of desperate and destitute foreign workers were imported to compete to do the jobs that by their nature (service jobs) could not be exported.

    Liberals support immigration just because they don’t understand the issue, and their hearts bleed for the plight of these poor desperate people who are forced into mass migration to survive.

    When the children of the working class begin to die from hopelessness , often in filthy alleys or abandoned houses with needles in the arms, liberals’ hearts bleed for them to, even as the liberals castigate these children’s parents as racist demons for resenting foreigners from taking their jobs, and devastating their lives.

    The Far Left, the Bolshevik Marionettes, support immigration because they are following a diabolically cruel plan. They support immigrants because these desperate people are easy to recruit, to ‘organize’. They want as many immigrants to come here as possible, because racism is their primary ‘platform’ and they regard Hispanic immigrants as a fertile new constituency.

    The white people whose lives have been devastated by immigration, their life expectancy itself falling, their children oppressed by hopelessness, have long ago figured out the Bolshevik’s plan, which they call the Great Replacement.

    The good Minister Theoharis might have many reasons for avoiding this difficult issue. and I will resist drawing any conclusions. There are some, however, who avoid the difficult subjects to try to maintain a sense of their own concept of themselves as ‘beneficent’ to every side. When there is dirty work to do, they prefer to leave that to dumb apes like Caliban. They think they can solve these problems without ruffling any side’s feathers.

    Well … Best a luck to the good Minister. I applaud her beneficent message. It’s the same message dirty ole ape-man Caliban preaches, only I’m willing to do the heavy lifting and let her claim the high ground.

    Indeed … Those who should be allies must FIRST stop being enemies. But unlike Minister Theoharis (apparently), Caliban knows that for tyhis to happen we must face the difficult realities that divide us, and begin to understand one another’s points of view.

      1. LOL … Poor nHarmarati … People like you been throwing their poopy at me for a LONG time, sir … That’s just what we ‘naked apes’ are prone to do.

        This man, this nHamarati, is VERY intelligent. I’m even growing to respect him, and even kind of like him. He’s so intense in his burning hatred. He reminds me of old Cato, (or young Cato either one).

        The latter hated Caesar so much that when he lay mortally wounded on his deathbed at Utica, Caesar asked to see him, so he could forgive the spiteful old man. (Caesar was known for his generosity in forgiving his enemies, and when he captured Pompey’s trunk full of correspondence after the battle, he ordered it burned before anyone could read it.

        Caesar wanted very badly to forgive ole Cato the Younger before he died, but Cato called for his sword. When his retainers refused to bring it, Cato tore open his wound and pulled out his own entrails. THAT’s how much he burned with hatred of Caesar.

        At first I thought nHaramati might be an ‘operative’. He is certainly cunning and VERY intelligent. But now I’ve come to feel affectionate pity for him. It must be a terrible life to live to be so consumed with burning hatred. I think it’s genuine. I don’t think he’s faking it, (as an operative would be).

        I like this guy … You can’t help but admire the Cato family.

  3. Awaken! Awaken! Those of the middle class who still feel a mite of “security” in your assumed financial/employment/housing safety. This essay below paints in stark relief the shape and cold blooded nature of education undergone by the children of the 1% and wealthy.As such, their assured path into the club of hedge fund managers, CEO’s, Wall Street law firms, governmental leadership (the “elite”) promises a tomorrow for the poor and middle class alike as one governed by a mindset based on hierarchy, power, domination and control and where concepts like “equal opportunity” are completely hollowed out of any basis in reality. A hardening segregation based on the abyss of income/wealth inequality.

    The New Elite: Dark Nights Rising
    by Editor
    By Thomas Klikauer & Nadine Campbell in Scheerpost.com & CounterPunch

    1. Lennon covered this ground well so well:

      “There’s room at the top they’re telling you still
      But first you must learn how to smile as you kill
      If you want to be like the folks on the hill
      A working class hero is something to be
      A working class hero is something to be”

      Ole Marianne Faithful’s cover is my favorite:

  4. Thank you. I wasn’t aware that the party loyalists figured out a way to blame the poor for Clinton’s defeat, but that’s no more looney than blaming Russia, I suppose. But yes, we’re 25 years into the Democrats’ war on the poor, fully supported by Republicans,. The overall life expectancy of the US poor fell below that of every developed nation, and today’s liberals haven’t considered this an “issue of concern.” The Obama yrs confirmed that this is permanent. Why would the poor reward Democrats for the hell they have caused?

  5. people are poor b/c they are not obsessed w/ wealth plus “wealth” is an arbitrary construct.
    why governments turn upside down every time we get rid of the OBSCENELY rich is also a normal procedure.
    Governments make laws to curb the rich’s mentally unstable behavior, yet over time, those laws are eroded & here we are again.
    The lust for money is destructive and always has been, always will be.
    let’s put a cap on it. – lets try this; the most you can have is a million times more than the poverty level
    20M ought to be more than enuf for anyone

  6. After all these years of beating my head against the wall about all the atrocities this crime syndicate controlled government is responsible for, nothing has changed for the better. It feels hopeless and it makes me miserable. I’ve just been screaming about one set of atrocities to the next. Never any resolutions. Just anger and misery.
    `
    After reading the Greenpeace USA’s “Just Recovery Agenda” yesterday, I think I found something that gives me some hope. Maybe try a different approach; less reactionary, more focused. I don’t agree with everything in it, but it’s time for me to stop thinking I’m right about everything. The JRA is the closest thing to a sane, comprehensive plan of action I’ve seen.

    From Greenpeace USA’s “Just Recovery Agenda”

    https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/reports/just-recovery-agenda/
    . . .
    “Going back to normal is not an option. The past was not only unjust and inequitable, it was unstable. What we knew as “normal” was a crisis. We must reimagine the systems our country is built on from the ground up. We envision a world where everyone has a good life, where our fundamental needs are met, and where people everywhere have what they need to thrive.”
    . . .
    “Equity. Our country can and should be a place where everyone’s fundamental needs are met.”
    . . .
    “Community. The strength of our society stems from the unity of purpose of its diverse people.”
    . . .
    “Justice. The most marginalized communities under the current system of racial capitalism—Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer, trans, working-class, women, disabled people, and more—must be centered and empowered in the transition to a new economy”
    . . .
    “Freedom. Everyone deserves to live free from oppression, want, and fear. ”
    . . .
    “Compassion. We seek to restore power to the most marginalized and achieve accountability for past and present oppressions, not enact vengeance. ”
    . . .
    Creativity. Our story is expansive and visionary. Our collective vision is able to hold transformational demands and inspire a movement of millions of voices telling the story of a more just and equitable future.
    . . .
    “Creativity. Our story is expansive and visionary. Our collective vision is able to hold transformational demands and inspire a movement of millions of voices telling the story of a more just and equitable future.”
    . . .
    “Courage. We are rooted in what is necessary and just, not what current power structures deem possible. We boldly reject the notion that humans are innately greedy or broken, and that we are not capable of transformational change. We recognize courage as the commitment to bearing witness, confronting injustice, and practicing honesty, transparency, and truth no matter the obstacle.”
    Reply

    1. This is Good Spirit. Many thanks to our good citizen Shocker for sending this.

      What we must realize however, is that ‘the problem’ is not a lack of hopeful agendas. We can solve all our problems with relative ease once we find a way to solve Human Greed, Lust, Jealousy, Envy, Sloth, Pride, Sloth, and Gluttony. (That’s 8, rather that the ‘seven deadly’ … I think they lump envy in with jealousy, though I myself think the two are much different things).

      “Organizing for meaningful change” sounds real good, but it won’t matter diddly squat, folks, unless people who should be allies can first stop being enemies.

      Only fools demonize their nation’s yeomen folk, and yet think their political fortunes will rise.

      1. Thanks for the kind words RZ.

        I agree, nothing will happen if people don’t come together and put their negative human traits and egos aside and work hard for positive change. When I saw this it just looked like the closest thing to a positive, comprehensive plan I’ve seen.

        Besides, I’m really tired of focusing on how bad things are. Time for me to work focus on this:

        “As we build a just, green, and peaceful future, we are guided by a set of deeply held, fundamental values. These values and the practices they nurture are the roots of good policy. They speak to the basic human rights and sense of community we must honor to build a world where everyone thrives.”

  7. ruling class propaganda
    trump out performed biden more than he did Clinton in all localities except 4 corrupt dim cities—philadelphia, milwaukie, Detroit, Atlanta
    the election was rigged; it is no accident that billionaires funded biden twice more than trump
    fake data for a bad thinker unable to qualitatively comprehend culture or history

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