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A political activist on how to keep the Democratic Party energized


Now we're going to get a different perspective on the way forward for Democrats. And for that, we decided not to call a consultant or a pollster, but rather somebody who lives alongside with and engages with the political scene - the Reverend William Barber II. As a Protestant minister who is also a political activist, Reverend Barber has a unique insight into American politics. So when we talked, I asked him what stood out to him about the recent midterms.

WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, I think it is important for people to see that we don't necessarily have to repeat history. You know, it doesn't necessarily have to be that a party in power loses tremendously during a midterm - that, in fact, you can put forth an agenda that can rally the people. We don't have to have low voter turnout. We can, in fact, have a larger turnout. But what I think this election is showing us, is that we don't need to look for silver bullets - just one or two things that we lift up that, really, the American public is, I think, trying to hear the totality of a party's agenda. And we have to have the courage to speak to all of the people and not just some of the people.

MARTIN: I mean, I know you said there doesn't need to be a silver bullet per se, but do you think that there were some outstanding issues that drove voters to the polls? I mean, I think that sort of conventional wisdom would be that it was concern over abortion rights. It was also, for some of the conservative, you know, media outlets are saying it was the student loan gambit, which was on a - it's on a sort of shaky legal foundation right now, but that's their argument - that the Democrats basically scared people with abortion rights and enticed people with student loan forgiveness. What's your take on that?

BARBER: I do think that there are some things that drove people to the polls and there are some things that we could have done more with the driving the polls. We can't miss, you know, the Trump factor and the violence factor. You know, Americans are watching people who would rather choose political violence than to choose working on the issues that affect people's lives. My concern is people trying to analyze to say, well, we didn't lose as bad as we could have lost. What I want folks to do in our campaign is to expand our vision of democracy. You know, democracy should be, you know, we stand against political violence. It should also be voting rights. It should also be people have a right to choose a living wage job. People have a right to have health care.

Imagine, if you will, for a moment, if Democrats had not had two of their own run renegade and that they had been able to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights bill and restore the Voting Rights Act and to pass living wages of $15 an hour. You know, what the turnout would be - because people would be connecting their votes to their daily lives and to the transformation of their experience on an everyday basis. We continue to argue that if you have the 87 million - or 80-plus million people in this country who are poor and low wealth, who are voters, and in the last election, about 27, 26 million of them did not vote, the real swing vote in this country is not some elusive suburban vote. It's poor and low-wealth and low-wage people.

What I hope we don't do is just stop and say, well, we didn't lose that bad. This is a little different. But look at, really, where did we not reach and how could we expand the electorate? Because we don't believe that things have to be even this close. If, in fact, we were to intentionally touch poor and low-wealth voters who are, many times, not voting - and the No. 1 reason, according to our research, that they don't vote is they say, nobody talks to us.

MARTIN: That was the Reverend William Barber II. Reverend Barber is a Protestant minister and a political activist, and he's also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a so-called genius grant, for his work in this area. He's the president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. Reverend Barber, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

BARBER: Thank you so much. Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.