The Antidote to Cynical Politics

The Rev. William J. Barber II, at a Moral Monday demonstration in Raleigh, N.C., on July 8, 2013. (Photo: Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

The Antidote to Cynical Politics

The Republican presidential race has devolved into a disgraceful display of bigotry and bullying. Media organizations are eager to stoke debate over the Syrian refugee crisis, filling airtime and column inches with baseless xenophobia, but they dedicate little coverage to the plight of hardworking Americans who are struggling to support their families. And billionaire political donors are attempting to buy our elections while the extremist lawmakers who benefit from their lavish contributions wage a shameful war on voting rights.

It's easy to understand why so many people are frustrated with politics. And that frustration has consequences. As Alec MacGillis recently wrote in the New York Times, many Americans whose interests are being neglected have become "profoundly disconnected from the political process." But while cynicism is warranted, there is a better alternative to abdication -- one that is inclusive and inspiring and impossible for the political establishment to ignore. It can be found in North Carolina, in the Moral Monday movement led by the Rev. William J. Barber II.

In many ways, North Carolina is perhaps the best example of the worst trends in our politics. Led by right-wing moneyman Art Pope, an ally of the Koch brothers, Republicans spent millions of dollars to seize control of the state legislature in 2010. Two years later, Gov. Pat McCrory was elected and the party quickly began advancing an extreme conservative agenda that included cutting public education funding, abolishing unemployment benefits, rejecting Medicaid expansion and passing one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. But instead of lying down and giving up, North Carolinians have banded together and fought back. Over the past two years, Barber, the president of the state's NAACP chapter, has mobilized a broad multiracial coalition of activists and citizens who are making their voices heard.

The Moral Monday movement began on April 29, 2013, when Barber organized a peaceful protest at the statehouse in Raleigh, where he and 16 others were arrested for refusing to leave. Since then, the movement has grown exponentially, with thousands of supporters participating in Moral Monday protests at the Capitol and around the state. Last year's Moral March attracted an estimated crowd of 80,000 to 100,000, making it the largest racial justice rally in the South since the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. And the movement has expanded into several other states, including, most recently, Illinois.

Barber didn't know he was launching a national movement when he staged the first protest in Raleigh. Yet Barber's stand against "regressivism on steroids," as he has called McCrory's agenda, resonated with people and inspired them to join him. "It didn't even have a name, the first Moral Monday. We just merely decided to stand up to all the extremism," Barber told Politico in July. "Nobody can say they thought this would go on for two years. The spirit of it took over. And what we found was people were waiting for an opportunity to raise their moral voices and engage in civil disobedience."

Moreover, while Barber is known as a religious leader and civil rights activist, the movement he spearheads is impressively diverse. Its supporters -- black and white, preachers and teachers, urban and rural -- are committed to an array of social justice causes, including LGBT, labor and voting rights, which Barber describes as moral issues, rather than those of left and right. "If you have a moral narrative, say economics are moral, budgets are moral, education is moral, health care, and then you talk about the impact on real people, and then you disaggregate the impact on communities, people see their common identity," Barber says. "That's what Dr. [Martin Luther] King talked about; we're inextricably bound together. If you use the other language, the moment you say 'liberal,' you've pushed away all of the conservatives. If you say 'Democrat,' you've pushed away all of the Republicans. But if you say, 'Let's talk about a moral agenda,' you can at least have a conversation."

At a time when conservative extremism is dominating the headlines, the Moral Monday movement is a powerful reminder that progressives can't give up on places such as North Carolina and many other states where people are vulnerable and their basic rights are under attack. Instead, it's up to progressive political leaders and institutions to help build and grow movements such as Moral Mondays, and to remain committed to the long-term fight for social justice. As Barber wrote last year in the Nation, "If we are going to have a real populist movement in this country, we have to reinstate an imagination that is not driven by pundits but by a larger vision. Most of the time, your greatest vision comes in your darkest night, because it is then, Martin Luther King Jr. said, that you see the stars. Populist movements don't form when everything is fine. A populist moral vision is a form of dissent that says there's a better way."

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