Fighting for a U.S. federal budget that prioritizes peace, economic security and shared prosperity
Phyllis Bennis and Stephen Miles
Donald Trump bombed a Syrian government air base just a couple of weeks after releasing his budget plan for next year. The budget—with its call for a massive escalation in Pentagon spending, to be paid for with funds stolen from programs that fulfill urgent human needs—was met with outrage. But Trump’s illegal cruise-missile strike, ostensibly in response to a chemical-weapons attack on a Syrian town in Idlib Province, largely knocked the budget outrage off the agenda.
That’s a huge problem. As the saying goes, budgets are moral documents, and Trump showed us precisely where his morals lay when he unveiled his blueprint for federal spending. We must ask ourselves, what do our morals tell us, and how can we put those values into action?
With that mission in mind, a number of us gathered last month to discuss how we might jointly respond to Trump’s budget.
While the majority of us in the room were veterans of the US antiwar movement, our meeting was designed to break out of the silos that have isolated progressive activists and weakened our movements for far too long. As Daniel May recently noted in The Nation, a modern movement to challenge US militarism must recognize and operate from the understanding that we are all in this together, that opposing war is one component of the multifaceted movement for social justice. Thus we were joined in our discussions by key leaders of many of the social movements now rising—the Movement for Black Lives and mobilizations fighting for women’s and LGBTQ rights, environmental justice, anti-Islamophobia, economic equality, immigrant and refugee rights, and more.
We met only a couple of weeks before we would mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s essential 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” where he laid out his vision for an interconnected movement against the connected “giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism. And so, with his words ringing in our ears, we embarked on a mission to do something different—not simply to denounce one part of the president’s budget, but to challenge together the deep immorality of that entire document.
We met that day, and continued our consultations for a statement of principles over ensuing days, in the midst of and very much part of the rising US and global resistance to the anti-people, anti-environment economic priorities of the new presidency. Rather than simply asking others to agree with what we wrote, we engaged in deep consultation, listening to movement leaders as we worked together to define our shared values. And on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s Riverside speech, we launched our statement, which you can read here.
Our goal was not merely to come up with yet another statement signed by luminaries of the movement, full of noble rhetoric but ultimately living no longer than a moment in time. All of the leaders and activists from all of the wide-ranging movements involved were eager to challenge Trump’s militarism, as a fundamental component of the resistance. Part of the language of the statement reflects some of the city-council resolutions that have been passed demanding a reversal of military spending, reflecting the understanding of how the bloated war budgets undermine our communities at home. Part of it took advantage of the National Priorities Project’s work in identifying trade-offs, and what could be done with $54 billion to provide jobs, education, health care, and international aid—instead of more war. And parts were suggested by noted intellectuals and leaders involved in key antiracism, women’s, environmental, and other movements.
The next challenge, for all of us, will be more difficult. What is the best strategy to move from a statement of principles to a serious campaign against the military budget? We know that much of our work will take shape at the local and state rather than federal level—that’s where potential victories may be won. But even that won’t be easy; the US Conference of Mayors just sent a letter to Trump congratulating him on the missile strike against Syria. We have a lot of work to do. The current iteration of Trump’s budget may not last past mid-May or so. At that point, how will we mobilize against what will look like a more “moderate” escalation of military spending, a slightly smaller slashing of environmental protection, a more careful undermining of diplomacy, foreign aid, health, and other critical components of the next budget?
We are proud of the breadth and depth of movements and leadership embodied in the signatories of this statement of principles, but this must be just the beginning. Our goal, and the work now before us, is to recommit to building the movement that will bring these words to life.
Dr. King taught us that to fight against any of the three triplets—the evils of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism—requires fighting against them all. His legacy continues to demand that we link our challenge to all three; we can’t leave any out. How we build a movement to carry out that linkage will determine whether the current rising Resistance answers Dr. King’s demand.