Sen. Bernie Sanders pushed a familiar agenda during his visit Thursday to Duke University: free college, universal health care and a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
The independent senator from Vermont outlined the same plans throughout his failed 2016 presidential campaign for the Democratic nomination, saying they were a way to deal with systemic inequality.
“A moral economy is one that says, ‘In the wealthiest country in the history of the world, all our people should be able to live with dignity and security,’” Sanders said.
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Sanders discussed his vision with the Rev. William Barber II, former head of the North Carolina NAACP and architect of the Moral Monday protest movement in Raleigh. Barber continues to highlight issues of racism, economic inequality and morality through his work as national co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and president of Repairers of the Breach.
On Thursday, Barber described his image of a functioning moral economy. “If we love America, this democracy, the moral framework of the Constitution and the bible, then we have to change our domestic policy agenda or stop lying," he said. "You can’t have it both ways.”
Sanders acknowledged the challenges the country faces in changing domestic policy, citing the influence of money in politics.
Critics of Sanders say his goals are unrealistic, and the road map to passing comprehensive reform among growing partisanship in Washington is tough. They also say his ideas would be expensive to implement.
But Sanders’ supporters, including those at Duke, say it is important for him to remain ambitious.
“You need to go to the table with more than you are willing to settle for,” said Duke University freshman Allyson Lee. “Even if we can’t get free tuition and a $15 living wage, we need to come to the table having those things and willing to negotiate for what we want.”
Some who attended the event Thursday said they hoped Sanders would adopt more-realistic ideas.
“What he has to say is really important, but for me, as a black person, it’s just too idealistic right now,” said Erica Onuoha, a senior at Duke. “It didn’t feel realistic for him to wish for all these things, while all these other minor things are piling up.”
But Sanders said his ideas were not radical, adding that “most Americans are on the same side.” He said lawmakers must present a clear progressive agenda.
“In a democracy, we have the rights to create a new country with a new vision,” Sanders said. “One of the impediments that we have is we’ve been told over and over again, ‘You can’t do it.’ … Our job is to rethink the limitations that are placed on our minds about what we can accomplish.”
Sanders and Barber said Americans shouldn’t rely on politicians to solve their problems but it is important to push elected officials to drive a conversation about economic inequality and racism.
“We know the politicians cannot reconstruct our economy on their own,” Barber said before the event. “We need a moral movement to change the conversation. But our elected leadership can respond to the movement. They can choose to say, ‘Yes, we will talk about the poor. We will restore the Voting Rights Act. We will work toward universal health care and a living wage for everyone.’”
The discussion at Duke Chapel was initially scheduled for Jan. 19 — shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. Day — but was postponed to Thursday night because of a looming budget vote that had prevented Sanders from traveling. As Sanders and Barber highlighted their visions for bridging socioeconomic and racial divides, they reflected on the progress that has been made since King died 50 years ago.
A recent audit from the Poor People’s Campaign, “The Souls of Poor Folk,” examined current conditions and trends of the past 50 years in the United States. Findings suggest that while progress was made in the immediate aftermath of King’s death during the War on Poverty, there is plenty of room for improvement today.
In the audit, the Poor People’s Campaign argues the nation’s “social fabric is stretched thin by widening income inequality, while politicians criminalize the poor, fan the flames of racism and xenophobia to divide the poor, and steal from the poor to give tax breaks to our richest neighbors and budget increases to a bloated military.”
Sanders cited the recent Republican-passed tax cuts as a contributor to growing inequality, claiming the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Barber spoke critically of gerrymandering in North Carolina, accusing the General Assembly of drawing districts that disenfranchise black voters.
“Those are racist tactics,” Barber said.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. Republican Party, dismissed those criticisms. “Barber’s in favor of Democrats drawing districts. We’re not. Enough said. Sanders is just wrong on the tax cuts. People from all brackets have benefited and are benefiting from having less money taken out of their check by the federal government. The economy is responding.”
Woodhouse accused Sanders of trying to punish success and said Republican policies are bridging economic divides.
Toward the end of the conversation at Duke, Sanders and Barber offered a call to action for those seeking change.
“We can have all the wonderful ideas out there," Sanders said. "They don’t mean anything unless you and millions of Americans are prepared to mobilize and fight back.”