All too often, progressives, liberals, lefties, do-gooders, whatever you’d like to call us, spend a lot of time arguing with each other about which issues matter the most. For example, Cynthia Tucker argues that “climate change is our most pressing issue.” One could find examples of this on many issues, ranging from gay rights to immigration to racism. One potential reason for this fragmentation is the role of non-profits and foundations in segmenting what are otherwise very connected communities and issues. I’ll save discussion of the roots of the issue for another post, but in this post I’d like to discuss the framework we need to use to bring all these issues together, mobilize the people, and make progress: economic justice.
Economic justice is the most important framework for making progress.
Almost all issues and communities are affected by economic justice. For example, 24% of 18-44 year old lesbian and bisexual women are living in poverty in contrast to only 19% of heterosexual women. A UCLA study found that “gay men earn 10 to 32% less than similarly qualified heterosexual men.” One study of low-income immigrants found that 26% were paid less than the minimum wage and 76% were not paid for overtime. As of August, the unemployment rate for blacks (11.4%) was more than twice that for whites (5.3%). The U.N. has also found that the poor will face the brunt of the effects of climate change. Indeed, the roadblock in the way of passing climate change legislation is economic too: big fossil fuel companies.
Economic justice is effective in mobilizing the people. For example, while many think of the Arab Spring as only a reaction to lack of political freedom, it actually started as an economic movement. Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated when the authorities robbed him of his livelihood by taking his vegetable cart, sparking massive protests. In 2011, Israelis united to take to the streets in record numbers (about half a million people) to protest economic conditions. In the words of student leader Jonathan Levy: “All the non-rich people in Israel, no matter if they’re secular or religious, old or young, reali[z]e that we’ve abandoned some really important battlefields in this country, that is [the] economy, and we only dealt obsessively with security problems.” In the U.S., the Occupy Wall Street movement reignited the issue of economic justice for Americans, with over 7000 people facing arrest to bring this issue to light. The fruits of this movement have been seen in protests inspired by it around the world. For instance, in Hong Kong, the most recent Occupy Central protests came about because people felt that “only very wealthy people can have a voice in politics” and because of the “stark inequality” in the city.
Economic justice is a popular issue. In 2014, Democrats did abysmally at the polls losing the Senate and even more House seats, but economic justice issues did very well. For example, referendums to wage the minimum wage were successful in conservative states: Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. In Alaska, where Democrats lost their Senate seat, the ballot initiative passed with almost 70% of the vote. While only 14% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Wall Street, 77% of Americans would agree to tax hikes to preserve social security.
Some people would like to divide the issues we face into ever smaller and more separate categories. Listen closely, progressive advocates: we need to recognize that the fight for economic justice is the best way to unite us and achieve our goals together.
(Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, which called not just for civil rights, but also funding for job training, a public works program, and a $2 nationwide minimum wage, a legacy we should remember today)