EDITOR’S NOTE: Bishop William J. Barber, II wrote this open pastoral letter to the Democrats following the midterm elections. Next week, TheNation.com will publish his letter to Republican leadership.
Dear DNC leadership,
I am writing because of my deep love for this country and my sincere belief that we cannot move forward toward a more perfect union in this moment without your decisive leadership.
I write in obedience to the Bible’s command that our first priority in public life is love and care for the least of these (Matthew 25). This tradition further exhorts all people of faith to say to the rulers and political leadership, “This is God’s Message: Attend to matters of justice. Set things right between people. Rescue victims from their exploiters. Don’t take advantage of the homeless, the orphans, the widows. Stop the murdering!” (Jeremiah 22)
Since the initial midterm results were reported last week, I have heard leading Democrats gleefully celebrating that they held off a “red wave” in this election cycle. While I agree that there is some relief and joy in seeing Americans reject the most egregious forms of extremism, I am troubled by the satisfaction many seem to have with a political reality that will lead to continued policy violence. I am writing to sincerely ask the party to also critically reflect on its approach to building a governing coalition that can pass policies to lift from the bottom so everyone can rise.
Though Black women voted at 98 percent for Biden/Harris and Black people consistently vote 88–98 percent for Democrats, the US will not have any Black women occupying the nation’s governor’s mansions or the Senate after the midterms. The most loyal Democratic bloc is Black people, and the most loyal among Black people are Black women. Shouldn’t the Democratic Party leadership and political operatives acknowledge some remorse that every Black woman who ran for Senate and Governor lost?
Shouldn’t we unpack this? Did Democrats split their tickets when it came to voting for these candidates? Did the national party fully support Val Demings, Cheri Beasley, Mandela Barnes, and Charles Booker? Was there full endorsement and real support from the highest level of Democratic influencers? Why didn’t Democrats frame this as an historic, transformative opportunity, as they did when a Black man ran for president and won in North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia? Why are we hearing that consultants advised Black candidates running for Senate to only focus on abortion rights and democracy—the very thing John Fettermen, who flipped a Republican seat, refused to do?
And—rather than telling a victory story that erases the plight of our democracy and the impending threats in the cases before our Supreme Court—we should tell the truth of how much worst these losses of representative democracy and policy violence will become, if we do not make it a moral and political imperative to ensure passage of the John Lewis For the People Act and a restored Voting Rights Act right now before any more days pass to ensure that there is a realizable fundamental right to vote in this country for all.
Without doubt, defending democracy and a constitutional right to privacy and choice for women were strong top-tier motivating factors for Democratic voters. Many Democrats who held onto House seats could not have won without an increase in turnout among voters under 30, who favored Democrats by 28 points, and reported abortion rights as a strong motivating factor. But a majority of voters in Republican-majority Nebraska and Democratic-majority Washington, D.C., also approved ballot measures to raise wages. And a deeper analysis of the young voters reveals their hope for a filibuster-proof Senate in order to pass many things stalled by Senate rules and the resistance of so-called “moderate” Democrats.
I believe this explains why another low-propensity voter demographic—people who earn less than $30,000 a year—also favored Democrats by 12 points, according to exit polls. Are Democrats chasing the elusive suburban swing vote but not going after the real swing vote that could fundamentally shift the political and economic architecture of the nation? And if so, why? 60 percent of people of color are poor and low wealth, accounting for 26 million Americans. Only 30 percent of white Americans are poor or low-wealth, but that’s another 66 million people. Fifty-five million people of all races make less than $15 an hour.
Poor and low-wage voters make up over 30 percent of the electorate, and in states where the margin of victory has been within 3 percent, poor and low-wage voters make up over 40 percent of electorate. And yet turnout among this demographic has consistently been 20 percentage points lower than turnout among their wealthier neighbors. Don’t Democrats, who have too often take these votes for granted, have an urgent responsibility to find out why this is the case? Since 60 percent of Black people are poor and low-wealth, alongside 43 percent of all Americans and 66 million white Americans, why were the campaigns of Black Democratic candidates not vigorously addressing these issues? What did the nation lose in public policy when these Black candidates lost?
All of them out-qualify their opponents. When they didn’t win, we lost the possibility of a filibuster-proof Senate. We lost the ability to pass living wages of $15 an hour, which would lift 55 million Americans out of poverty and too-low wages. We lost the ability to ensure passage of John Lewis’s For the People Act and a restored Voting Rights Act. We lost the ability to make the Expanded Child Tax Credit permanent and lift 50 percent of our children out of poverty. We lost the ability to ensure access to health care for all Americans. We lost the ability for the Senate to reflect America’s diversity and for there to be a Black governor in the South for the first time since Doug Wilder. And while we lost the possibility of so many uplifting new policies, we also know that measures to undermine what we have already fought for and won will continue to be pushed through extremist-dominated state legislatures and upheld by extremist judges.
On the House side, Democrats lost the majority. But did you really have to? If you had drilled down and campaigned on the economic issues that the House passed only to see them die to the filibuster, could Democrats have held more House seats? Shouldn’t there be some sober assessment on what the country lost when the house majority shifted? All of the people of color and women chairs in the House are gone. Shouldn’t Democrats reconsider their earlier failure to cut the bloated military budget even 10 percent, at the very height of the Covid crisis? Was there a weakness in limiting the focus to abortion and January 6? Some voices were saying connect the dots, show in messaging that the same political leaders that opposed abortion rights also incited January 6 and oppose living wages, health care, and voting rights.
We lost a lot, and it would be a mistake not to investigate whether the party could have done more to produce the kind of shifts we saw in Pennsylvania and Ohio—increases in Democrats’ share of the vote that would have more than overcome the margin of defeat in several House races. Or in North Carolina, where Democrats have picked up 4 House seats over the past two cycles, going from a 10 Republican/three Democratic delegation to seven Republican/seven Democrats.
Even as there is legitimate thankfulness about holding off a red wave and a simple majority in the Senate, it would be a very serious political mistake not to unpack this, acknowledge the loss, and do everything possible to correct it. The party must look at funding priorities and consulting decisions, recognizing that the threat of a red wave from without was real, but that the forces of racism within are also real and must be confronted. It is not enough for any party to have Black faces in high places. The hope of a multiethnic democracy depends on building a fusion of Black, white, brown, Asian and Native voters that unites the concerns of poor and low-income people with all Americans who believe in an economy where everyone can thrive
Could Beasley and Barnes have won in North Carolina and Wisconsin if the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and the national and state machines had invested more in their races? Did Black Senate candidates in the South and Midwest get the same support that others received? Why did Democratic presidents visit Georgia but not North Carolina or Florida—states the party carried in 2008 and 2012? Why are we hearing that Black Senate candidates ran out of money in the weeks before Election Day? Why weren’t the stars and influencers called out to highlight the possibility of an historic class of Black senators? Why couldn’t President Biden, with all of his policy successes, come south and make his case in Florida, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia? If Trump came, why in the world did Democrats shun Biden and keep him in the North?
Could Democrats not have said, “These are the victories we won with a dead-even Senate,” and then said, “If you give us a majority, we will deliver much more—including fully restored and expanded voting rights, $15 dollar minimum wage, a military budget reduced to fund investments in people and the planet, Expanded Child Tax Credit, and protections for Social Security”?
I applaud the just and moral policies Democrats were able to enact into law over the past two years: lowering prescription drug prices, extending health care subsidies during the Covid-19 pandemic to help some Americans who buy health insurance on their own, investing to address the climate crisis, enacting a 15 percent minimum tax on corporations that earn more than $1 billion in annual profits as well as a 1 percent excise tax on stock buybacks, and empowering the IRS to go after tax cheats. With control of the White House and Congress, you worked with some Republicans to pass a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill for highways, broadband, and other investments.
But so many poor and low-income Americans continue to suffer without the policies Democrats couldn’t stand together to pass. Even after experiencing it for a short time, millions of families lost the $300 monthly child tax credit that widely reduced child poverty. We lost the hope of plans for free pre-kindergarten and community college, a paid family-leave program, a price cap on insulin for everyone, and the George Floyd reform bill. These bills passed the House only to die in the Senate because two Democrats would not join their colleagues to override the Republicans’ united filibuster. In the aftermath of midterms where total turnout for Democrats did not exceed 2018 turnout, we need to seriously consider the role this deep disappointment with the political process played in limiting our possibilities for years to come.
I am not a party pooper. I was invited to preach the inaugural sermon for President Biden and Vice President Harris. The advisers for that event chose the scripture Isaiah 58 about the call for leaders to be repairers of the breach. This clarion call requires leaders of the nation and pastor/prophets to center the poor in every decision we make. Only then can the nation be repaired in a way that pleases God. At the end of that sermon, I asked that we all listen to the words of a known hymn from yesteryear, written in another time of challenge:
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour
Bend our pride to Thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.
In the fight to set men free.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
That we fail not man nor Thee,
That we fail not man nor Thee.
Save us from weak resignation,
To the evils we deplore.
Let the search for Thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Serving Thee whom we adore.
If running against a mean-spirited, racist and antidemocratic former president endorsing candidates who participated in the January 6 insurrection and support outright attacks on voting, the best the party can do is lose the House, lose so many races with Black candidates running, and eke out a slim majority in the Senate, we have to take pause. We cannot simply end this election season and claim victory while closing our eyes to the issues I have raised here.
Even in victory, the great sports coaches say, “We won, but there are areas we must improve.” As you well know, saving the soul of this democracy is no game.
I am asking the party to give consideration to some of the people who have given the most to build up the party. Think about how they feel—not for the sake of the party, but for the sake of just policies that could lift all people in this nation.
Bishop William J. Barber II
CC: Senate Majority Leader
Speaker of the House
Congressional Black Caucus
House Hispanic Caucus
Asian-Pacific Islander Caucus
Democratic National Committee Chair
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee