Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders warned that “there will never be any real change in this country unless there is a political revolution.”
Author and activist Marianne Williamson called for “a moral, a political, an economic revolution.” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to “build a better America.”
At a June 17 forum on poverty and racism hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., nine Democratic candidates for the presidency fielded questions about how their campaigns have committed to prioritizing the needs of the poorest Americans.
“There will never be any real change in this country unless there is a political revolution.”
Their answers, which ranged from installing a universal basic income (Yang) to slashing the military budget by more than half (Williamson), highlighted the degree to which the Democratic Party has moved left over the last 45 years.
Nearly every candidate called for the radical transformation –– or total eradication –– of the political and financial institutions that have shaped the modern American economy. “Let us go forward with a new vision that transforms this country,” Sanders cried to applause.
Everyone, that is, except Joe Biden.
The former vice president and 76-year-old senator from Delaware hedged when answering questions about what cuts he’d propose making to the U.S. defense budget, how he’d build a political coalition in the American South, and how his administration would address rural flooding that has devastated dozens of towns across the country.
At an event where at least half of candidates criticized Senate Majority Leader and Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell for his partisanship, Biden stopped short of identifying any people or institutions that he believes have shaped an economy where an estimated 40 million people live in poverty.
As has been his norm, Biden did not refer to the president by name, making thinly veiled comments instead about the “charlatans” who sow divisions between people of different ethnic and religious groups. Biden also appeared to take a swipe at the political language of his primary challengers who have called for a “revolution.”
“I know you’re one of the ones who thinks it’s naive to say we have to work together.”
“Folks, look, if you start off with the notion there’s nothing you can do” to work with Republicans, he said, “well, why don’t you all go home then, man?” Throwing a subtle jab at the left wing of the Democratic Party, Biden suggested starting “a real, physical revolution if you’re talking about it. Because we have to be able to change what we’re doing with our system.”
Biden also clashed with moderator Joy Reid, who asked him how he would confront a highly partisan, Republican-controlled Senate. Sidling over to Reid, Biden cracked, “I know you’re one of the ones who thinks it’s naive to say we have to work together.”
In response to a question about how his campaign would address the issues of poverty “that undermine the myth that these issues affect a small minority of people,” Biden pivoted to political strategy instead of talking economic change: He told the crowd that he planned on winning delegates in Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, and Texas.
Biden strategically embraced a handful of modest policies –– a $15 minimum wage, an $8,000 child care tax credit, universal access to pre-school, and a bigger investment in school social workers –– that appeal to conservative voters in the Southern states he’s trying to win.
But where Biden stopped short, others went long. Nearly every other candidate running to his left offered a resounding critique of American capitalism.
Sanders, the event’s penultimate speaker, called for a “political revolution” where “millions of people have got to stand up and fight and take on the corporate interests, the billionaire class, the 1%, and tell them that in this country, our government and economy belong to all of us.”
Unlike Warren, Sanders’ closest contemporary on the left, the Vermont senator emphasized the importance of political organizing –– “this campaign is about transforming this country,” he said –– over dissecting public policy. Sanders urged the audience to “take on [Trump’s] divisiveness and racism and xenophobia,” and mobilize “around an agenda that works for all people.”
Warren, too, was unsparing in her assessment of the American financial system. “When the government is working only for a slice of people at the top, that is corruption pure and simple, and we need to call it out for what it is,” she said. “Is it going to keep working for the rich and powerful, or a thinner and thinner slice at the top? I want a government that works for everyone else, and that’s what this fight is all about.”
Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur and author, has staked his entire candidacy on the promise of enacting a universal basic income at a rate of $1,000 per citizen per month. Marianne Williamson, the author who ran an unsuccessful 2014 Congressional race, called the capitalism practiced in the U.S. “unfettered, with no sense of morality.”
“The economic system in America today is a system of economic tyranny,” she said. “The government is little more than a system of legalized bribery and corporate nationalism.” She likened her campaign to those of Sanders and Warren, and is calling for “fundamental status disruption.”
Even California Sen. Kamala Harris –– no socialist by any standard –– said of the economy, “These supposed leaders walk around peacocking about how the economy is great … Nobody should have to work more than one job to have a roof over their heads and food on the table.”
Cover: Democratic candidate Joe Biden speaks during the Poor People's Moral Action Congress forum for presidential candidates at Trinity Washington University on Monday, June 17, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)