North Carolina Republicans hold the governor's mansion and a super-majority in the state legislature. They've used their power to ram through bill after bill to aid the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
But the remarkable Forward Together coalition, which has been staging weekly "Moral Monday" protests of as many as 80,000 people, has managed to worry Governor Pat McCrory and his fellow Republicans.
McCrory and his allies are increasingly isolated lately. Even many grassroots Republicans have denounced their policies, like turning down Medicaid health coverage for 500,000 people in one of the nation's most impoverished states. McCrory, a former Duke Power executive who has been reluctant to rein in Duke's pollution of state rivers with coal ash, has an approval rating of 39 percent, with 45 percent of voters saying they disapprove of their governor, according to a recent Public Policy Polling report.
The Reverend William Barber, the leading voice of the Forward Together coalition in North Carolina, found a very attentive audience when he spoke to more than 100 activists in Milwaukee last weekend. Rev. Barber, a key NAACP leader, forcefully underscored the clear common ground Wisconsin shares with North Carolina.
"North Carolina and Wisconsin have the most extremist governments in the nation," Barber declared. "In North Carolina, we have Governor Pat McCrory and Speaker Thom Tillis [now running for the US Senate], all funded by Art Pope," a wealthy local rightwing donor who works closely with the billionaire Koch brothers. The Kochs were also Walker's largest funders in his 2010 election.
Rev. Barber outlined how the North Carolina Republicans have aggressively used their super-majority to pass legislation: to make it harder for low-income people to vote; to raise taxes on 80 percent of state families while reducing taxes on corporations and the wealthy; to close down fifteen of the state's sixteen abortion clinics; to slash more funding from an already-starved educational system; and to permit virtually unrestricted "fracking" and offshore drilling.
But even in this unfavorable setting, the Forward Together coalition found a unique formula for progress, Barber said.
He shared this formula with an eager activist audience in Wisconsin. Here is a summary:
Drawing out the moral dimension: A movement can be most inspiring when it converts abstract policy directions into moral choices, Barber said. "The budget is a moral document. It shows where your money is going, and that's where your heart is."
Transformative fusion: The coalition has welded together a broad array of groups committed to a far-reaching set of principles rather than a safe, tepid lowest-common-denominator program. "We are committed to voter rights, worker rights, public education, women's rights (meaning abortion rights in particular), and health care."
Essentially, the Forward Together partners adopted the core elements of each other's programs and fully committed their organizations to them, realizing that no group could make progress without all advancing together. Barber called this approach "transformative fusion." He noted the experience of one of the state's few powerful unions (North Carolina's union membership is lowest in the nation, at just 3 percent) declining to join the coalition because they had hopes of cutting a deal with key Republican legislators.
But within a week, the union came knocking on the coalition's door, asking to be part of it after being shut out by the Republicans.
Projecting a human face: "We must put a human face on the issues, not talk in abstractions. Let those affected by the decisions speak for themselves," Barber said.
"That's been the genius of the fast-food workers' movement—giving a human face to the issue of low pay," he noted.
Forward Together combines the voices of victims with the expertise of activists familiar with the political process and academics steeped in the issues. "We want to be loud, but we don't want to be loud and wrong," he added.
Changing the terms of debate: "Our movement must be deeply moral, and translate issues into moral terms. We need to have a moral language that is not ‘left' or ‘right'—and how did the other side wind up with ‘right,' anyway? " he joked.
But Barber was deadly serious about the need to re-frame public debate by "changing the language" and phrasing the movement's goals in moral rather than strictly economic terms. "We can't be ‘left' or ‘right' if we are to reach large number of people. We must go deeper, to what Abraham Lincoln called our ‘better angels.'
Reclaim the Constitution: State constitutions almost invariably reflect strong democratic protections and moral impulses that are not part of the policies adopted by politicians in the pockets of corporate CEOs.
"We cannot allow extremists to hold up the constitution as if it belongs to them," Barber said. "Check out your state constitution and see how it measures up against what the extremists are doing, and hold them accountable."
Avoid partisanship: The temptation to align closely with progressive Democrats is strong, but acquiring a partisan label ultimately limits a coalition's effectiveness, Barber said.
"We try to frame our arguments in a way that gives moderate Republicans a place to move, and conservative Democrats have to do the right thing to avoid being seen as supporting the extremists.
"So we don't call the Republicans by their party name; we call them extremists. They hate that."
Be prepared for civil disobedience as essential to the movement: Nonviolent civil disobedience brings out the moral centrality of issues and shows participants' willingness to sacrifice. "We need a recognition that civil disobedience is vital," Barber said.
Forward Together uses defiance of the law to drive home its message on specific issues, and to show the breadth of North Carolinians' opposition to "the extremists'" legislation. So, for example, members engaging in civil disobedience on a particular day might be clergy of different faiths.
To systematically prevent a sense of isolation, Forward Together ensures that those choosing to be arrested are met at the jail when they arrive by supporters, who bring them food. The supporters again show up when the protesters are released on bail.
Offer a set of positive alternatives: "We cannot allow ourselves to be branded only as negative, so we have developed a positive program."
By combining these elements, Forward Together's "Moral Monday" protests have unified a surprisingly broad group of people seeking a new direction, and have challenged deeply entrenched elites.
"If we figure out how strong we are, they cannot win," thundered Barber. "They can only win if they depress and divide us."