The Rhetoric of the Poor People’s Campaign

At the time I’m writing this, the dust is still settling on the well-attended Poor People’s Campaign rally in Washington, D.C. on June 18. Thousands attended the spirited event. The recent gathering was also the largest digital and social media gathering the campaign or comparable campaigns of the poor have had, according to the Religious Action Campaign of Reform Judaism’s web site. 

The Poor People’s Campaign, an antipoverty movement led by Reverend William Barber II and theologian Liz Theoharis, is suited for both classical and contemporary communication analysis. Its discourse, argumentation, and messaging (its ideographs) echo and build upon hundreds of years of impassioned rhetoric. Its media and social media strategies offer lessons for the digital age. Its rooting in the language and praxis of the American Civil Rights movement is both a strength and a potential limit, but it’s all complicated, because the nation has wandered into a very volatile and acerbic period–a  “pathological period”–and this makes civil rights activism dangerous for the activists, and thus more powerful.  

Legal scholar Vincent A. Blasi analyzed the “pathological periods” in a 1985 essay centered around the first amendment. “The central empirical proposition of my thesis is that certain segments of time are of special significance for the preservation of the basic liberties of expression and inquiry because the most serious threats to those liberties tend to be concentrated in abnormal periods.” Those are periods where the constitutional order itself is in danger, and when institutions would do well to reaffirm certain core commitments, particularly around the Bill of Rights and the “general welfare.” 

Here in 2022, we face rollbacks of many civil and human rights gains, widespread economic insecurity, dangers to the “order” itself as illustrated on January 6, 2021, and an increase in white supremacist violence, including several assault rifle massacres by self-professed racists.  That’s the context from which the morally-grounded Poor People’s Campaign emerges. We also see union victories and a growing collection of unapologetically pro-worker electeds around the country. It’s in this context, when more moderate political thinking might suggest we put poverty on the backburner while trying to stop fascism, that the PPC declared on June 18: “We – the thousands gathered here in active declaration of a rapidly growing front of organized moral fusion power – and in deep solidarity with those rising up across this country, who are demanding a reconstruction of this democracy and a reconstitution of the policy and legal priorities of this nation – say: we are in a time of emergency.” Here are the demands of the movement.

Let’s dwell on the concept of “moral fusion power,” the PPC’s imagining of reconstruction, and “emergency.” A moral focus is a better unifier than “revolutionary theory” or other radical rethinking of the political. A wide array of church groups organized the event, and social action-oriented religious activity on the left doesn’t scare off as many non-religious people as its right-wing counterpart does. Data-driven mass politics is impatient with little Trotskies having all-night arguments trying to take control of a universal revolutionary telos. Those groups exist but they aren’t the target audience of the Poor People’s Campaign. In fact, besides grounding itself in morality, the PPC invokes themes of reconstruction and reconstitution, of repairing the country while charting a new course. Its proximity to left Christianity allows people to take political action and organize as a leap of faith rather than requiring them to adhere to a method. 

Moreover, we’re in “emergency.” Whether the establishment or rebellion uses it, emergency rhetoric builds immediate solidarity. The work of influential linguistics professor Jonathan Charteris-Black has influenced other scholars writing about everything from foreign leaders’ declaration of state of emergency to anti-immigration rhetoric, where, Chateris-Black suggests, natural disaster metaphors are “mapped onto” descriptions of immigration policy and its challenges. 

Of course, in this case, the emergency rhetoric is justified: According to the latest Census, 11.4 percent of Americans are in poverty–up a full percentage point over the last three years. Poverty is incredibly bad by itself, and incredibly worse for different communities in the United States, with Blacks having the highest rate (19.5 percent) and Hispanics only less severe at 17%. Non-Hispanic Whites have an 8.2% rate, both a discrepancy worth exploring and addressing and still an alarming percentage; it’s almost as if defenders of the status quo are prepared for somewhere around ten to twenty percent of Americans in poverty (but let’s not forget that even those not below the poverty line live in economic insecurity, lacking savings, being a few bad days away). 

With its emphasis on a kind of “traditional” American morality, its grounding in the Civil Rights movement, its “restoration” language, its urgency, and its emergence in a “pathological period,” the movement for poor people stands out–and is creating at least incremental change. In 2020, according to a new report, the PPC reached out to more than two million low-income voters, targeting key states like Georgia, undoubtedly contributing to a string of victories from the presidential on down. Shailly Gupta Barnes of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice was one of the authors of that study, and recently said that “the path to electoral victory in this country goes through the 140 million poor and low-income people—ignoring them is impossible.”

[My consulting firm, The Adriel Hampton Group, works with nonprofit organizations to identify and organize constituencies, and with phone append data provider Accurate Append to reach specific audiences.]