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Will the Great Divide Spark a New Populist Movement?

In Search of an Independent Moral Voice in American Politics

by JESSE JACKSON

Congress will end the month of May without renewing jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed that were cut off at the end of last year. House Speaker John Boehner rails against the Obama administration for failing to create jobs, but apparently blames unemployed workers for not having one.

There is a stark divide between the actions in Washington and the opinions of most Americans. Americans overwhelmingly support broad sensible reforms that will help working families, including renewing unemployment benefits.

A new study released by the Campaign for America’s Future, “The American Majority is a Populist Majority,” reports on recent polling data.

Nearly three fourths of Americans (73 percent) favor increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Republican House Speaker John Boehner won’t let that come to a vote in the House, and Senate Republicans have blocked it in the Senate.

Three fourths of Americans (75 percent) favor a government job creation program to hire 1 million people. The Congressional Progressive Caucus budget that proposed a large jobs program got less than 100 votes in the House.

Nearly three fourths of Americans (71 percent) favor increasing government investment to build and repair roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs. But Congress has failed even to replenish the Highway Trust Fund that is about to be exhausted.

Thus far, this divide between public opinion and congressional action has had confusing political fallout. Congress is near record lows in public approval. But Republicans who have obstructed virtually every reform seem to be profiting. Pundits now favor them to keep control of the House and possibly take the majority in the Senate.

A big reason for this, we’re told, is the fall off of Democratic voters from the core of the Obama majority — people of color, young people and single women.

They were hit the hardest in the economy and have struggled in the so-called recovery. Like most Americans, they don’t have time or energy to sort out Washington’s bickering and figure out who is to blame. So generally, the party of the president gets more of the blame.

What is missing is an independent moral voice, a movement that isn’t about left or right, Democrats or Republicans, but is challenging legislators from the moral center. Without that, Democratic operatives tend to extol technique, the techniques they’ve mastered to target, contact and get out their voters. Republican operatives tend to emphasize money, the money they are able to raise from the billionaire and corporate lobbies that play an increasing role in our elections.

Citizen movements with a moral voice transform politics. In many ways, this was the lesson of Obama’s victory in 2008. He sensibly caught the wave of mass public dismay at the Iraq debacle. The candidacy of his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, was in many ways capsized by that wave. His Republican opponent, John McCain, couldn’t overcome the desire of Americans for change.

Could a citizen’s movement upend expectations this fall? A populist movement is stirring in the country. We see it in the cities and states raising the minimum wage, not waiting for Washington. We see it in the protests of low wage workers in the fast food industry, in the Moral Monday’s mobilizations in North Carolina now spreading to other states. We see it even in the rock star status accorded to the French economist Thomas Piketty and his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” on inequality.

If this continues to build, the pundits may be surprised. Voters may turn out in greater numbers than expected either to punish incumbents or to support challengers who carry a populist message. Washington political pros tend to focus on the results of polls, but polls are but a snapshot of passing attitudes. Movements don’t respond to polls; movements mold opinion. The next months may be more interesting than many now expect.

Jesse Jackson founded Rainbow/PUSH.