The MLK Solution to Trumpian Populism

A Multiracial Movement for Economic Justice

Today is a good day to remember that Martin Luther King, Jr. spent the last period of his life trying to organize the Poor People’s Campaign, explicitly conceived as a multiracial movement for economic justice. He was quoted as follows in a newspaper article that appeared shortly before his death (h/t Matt Yglesias):

In a sense, you could say we are engaged in the class struggle, yes…It will be a long and difficult struggle, for our program calls for a redistribution of economic power. Yet this isn’t a purely materialistic or class concern. I feel that this movement in behalf of the poor is the most moral thing — it is saying that every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth.

I think it is fair to surmise that King harbored no illusions that the white working class poor he sought to include in this movement were free of racial prejudice. Certainly they were far more likely to harbor racial animus than the middle class white liberals that were a bulwark of support for the civil rights movement. But nevertheless, he persisted. He thought this was the right thing to do, both because of his moral commitments and because, from the standpoint of political effectiveness, he did not see how the economic travails of the black community could be successfully addressed outside of large scale economic change in the society as a whole—change that required mass multiracial support.

We’re still working on this very difficult task for many reasons, most recently the rise of Trumpian populism which is more or less antithetical to the movement envisioned by King. Should we nevertheless persist in trying to make King’s vision a reality? Many on the left of the political spectrum appear ready to give up on the grounds that the vast numbers of their fellow Americans who have supported or still do support Trump demonstrates the impossibility of King’s approach.

I disagree and I think King would have as well. Both King’s moral case and political effectiveness case for a multiracial movement for economic justice remain valid. The economic changes that would truly lift the fortunes of distressed black communities are still fundamental society-wide changes and still require mass multiracial support. That multiracial support entails undercutting the appeal of Trumpian populism which, in turn, means posing an alternative to Trumpian populism that can attract at least some of its supporters.

It makes basic political sense that you are more likely to attract those supporters by emphasizing economic changes they desire than by denouncing them for ever having supported Trump. In fact, not only is it more likely to work, it’s probably the only way to reach these voters in appreciable numbers. Ian Buruma makes this point in an excellent article on Project Syndicate:

Dismissing Trump’s supporters as deluded, deplorable, ignorant racists will solve nothing. Their sometimes-justified fears and resentments must be addressed. People have been shabbily treated by corporate interests that care only about enriching their stockholders. Globalization has left many behind. Urban attitudes about gender and sexuality can be alarming to people with different notions about who they wish to be. Educated elites should not presume that they always know best what is good for other people.

The answer, for Democrats, is not to pander to the prejudices of the least educated citizens. But it will be essential for a progressive party to link itself once more to the underprivileged, and not only on the grounds of racial justice, necessary though that may be.

One way to achieve this is to focus less on matters of sexual or racial identity, and more on the economics of class. Many Trump supporters mentioned the economy as the main reason they backed the president. Democrats should offer better economic opportunities, a new New Deal. Trump promised something like that in 2016, but didn’t deliver, except to the very rich. The Democrats should concentrate their efforts on delivering to the many who are not rich. Only then is there a chance to channel popular rage in ways that strengthen liberal democracy instead of destroying it.

I’m not saying any of this would be easy. But if it is the only way to achieve King’s vision—and I don’t see any realistic alternative—we should persist. That is a great way to honor his legacy.