Senator Reverend Warnock gave the keynote address for the Center for American Progress IDEAS Conference
Senator Reverend Warnock: “As I stand here, we are in a moral moment. A moment in which the values we hold as Americans are being profoundly tested”
Senator Reverend Warnock: “I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea, that every human being has dignity, and therefore we ought to have a voice in the direction of our country and our destiny within it. In fact, I believe that a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire for ourselves and for our children and our prayers are stronger when we pray together”
Washington, D.C. – Last Wednesday, U.S. Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA)discussed the urgent need to address partisan and racial gerrymandering and secure our democracy as he gave the keynote address for the Center for American Progress IDEAS Conference, which also celebrated the organization’s 20th anniversary.
“As a man of faith, I believe that this is central to the work that we must do: I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea, that every human being has dignity, and therefore we ought to have a voice in the direction of our country and our destiny within it. In fact, I believe that a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire for ourselves and for our children and our prayers are stronger when we pray together,” said Senator Warnock. “And so, if one person’s right to vote is being threatened, that impacts us all because voting is how we as a family solve and govern and live together in one house.”
Senator Warnock continued:“But even if everybody shows up, their voices are still being diminished in this very moment. And the electoral outcomes are being distorted because of partisan and racial gerrymandering driven by cynical politicians who are committed to winning elections at any cost even if the cost is democracy itself. We’re seeing this play out all over the country. We’re seeing it play out in Tennessee…and I submit that this is a crude expression of an anti-democratic impulse that is poisoning our entire body politic.”
Senator Warnock has been a leading advocate in the Senate for securing our democracy and enacting meaningful federal voting rights legislation, including urging his colleagues to pass federal voting rights protections in his maiden floor speech after being elected; working until the last minute in the 117th Congress to get any meaningful legislation passed; crafting updated federal voting rights legislation to address various voter suppression efforts happening in Georgia and nationwide; and pressing the moral case in the Senate and beyond for why Congress must urgently pass legislation to protect the sacred right to vote. Earlier this year, Public Citizen awarded Senator Warnock with the Golden Boot Award for his advocacy at the federal level to champion federal voting rights legislation and defend our democracy. In July, the Senator joined his colleagues in introducing the Freedom to Vote Act and led the introduction of the Preventing Election Subversion Act.
“We’ve got to get the people their voices back because change does not happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up. And when the people can get their voices back, I believe that anything is possible. If the people can get their voices back, a Black boy who grew up in public housing, the first college graduate in his family of 12, can find themselves in the United States Senate coming from the old Jim Crow South. Anything is possible if the people can get their voices back,” concluded Senator Warnock.
See below for a transcript of Senator Warnock’s full keynote remarks for the Center for American Progress’ IDEAS Conference & 20th Anniversary Celebration:
“Hello, everybody. Wow. Well, hello, everybody. I’m a Baptist preacher, talk back to me. Hello, Center for American Progress. It’s great to be here. Thank you so very much. And I am thrilled to be here with you today as you close out your IDEAS conference and celebrate 20 years of making what our friend and my parishioner John Lewis called “Good trouble.” Give yourselves a round of applause just for being here for the work you do. My thanks to your fearless leader, the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, Patrick Gaspard. Give him a great big round of applause. Patrick, thank you so very much for your more than 30 years that you’ve been on the front lines of some of our toughest battles for working people. You and CAP are doing fantastic work to move our nation forward and we appreciate your dedication to the fight. I’m especially proud to be here in this room full of friends, as we not only celebrate the progress of the past, but plot — I like that word— plot, toward a future that’s worthy of our children and reflects the values of equality and freedom and prosperity, that lie at the heart of our nation.
“Before I get into the heart of what I want to say this afternoon, I want to start my remarks by acknowledging that right now our attention and our hearts are rightfully with the defenseless Israeli and Palestinian citizens who are caught up in the current conflict. The heinous acts of violence visited upon the people of Israel by Hamas, mothers, children and seniors, including American citizens were horrific, and are rightly condemned by all who believe in human dignity and who seek a lasting peace. As a pastor who believes that every human being is sacred, I am praying for the Israeli families that lost cherished loved ones. I’m praying that all hostages are rescued, and that more innocent Palestinians are not caught up in the crossfire.
“As our key ally in the Middle East, I will continue to support efforts in the Senate to bolster the partnership between Israel and the U.S. And at the same time, I applaud President Biden’s announcement that we’re sending $100 million to aid the Palestinian humanitarian effort amid a situation that is deteriorating in Gaza. You cannot see those pictures and not be moved. And so, I will continue to urge our government to play a productive role in minimizing civilian harm, ensure that those currently in Gaza receive the humanitarian services that they deserve, push to secure quarters for safe passage away from the fighting and to set the table for a two state solution where Palestinian and Israeli children can sleep in peace and arise in a future that embraces all of our children. What these events make clear is that there are those who fear peace and they seek to sabotage it at any cost, and we must not let them win.
“Now that they got a clock out here in front of me, they must not have ever been to a Baptist church. All of these events, both abroad and here at home, underscore the importance and I would argue the indispensability of American leadership. As I stand here, we are in a moral moment. A moment in which the values we hold as Americans are being profoundly tested. We’ve all been watching the drama unfold in the House, right, in recent weeks. It was 22 days ago that the House of Representatives ousted its elected leader without having a plan in place for how to keep the institution going. And I guess that’s appropriate for a party that doesn’t seem to believe in government after all. And so, we have these extremist voices engaged in political arson grinding much of the business of the Congress to a halt. And then just a couple of hours ago, they literally just elected, after three weeks, a new speaker and insurrectionist. And that was only after nominating and rejecting three other candidates and after working on it for three weeks.
“But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The chaos of the last three weeks was precipitated by partisan political brinksmanship that nearly pushed us into a government shutdown, which we’ve only temporarily avoided. And at the last minute moved to keep our government funded and open was preceded by weeks of political posturing by Washington Republicans who broke the government funding deal that they made just a few months before by moving to cut critical government funding for programs supporting health care, our veterans and so much more. And I must add, this has all happened in the shadow of the embarrassing episode that took place this past January, when it took the House Majority 15 tries to even elect the speaker in the first place because of an emboldened faction of the chamber’s fervent obstructionists.
“And so, this brinksmanship is being driven by a coterie of extremist voices. Voices that echo the same destructive forces that are eroding our democracy. And while we rightly focus on that, and I don’t intend to let the House Majority off the hook for all the chaos that’s been unleashed in Washington, but I submit that it’s too easy to just focus on the drama in the House and say, ‘why don’t those folks get their act together?’ It’s too easy to single out and lay blame for our current state of disarray only on the bellicose narcissism of a handful of partisan actors. It’s easy to kind of watch the news cycle and look at this political personality who’s up and this one who’s down and to see the drama as it unfolds. But the question we ought to be asking ourselves is, ‘how did we get here? How have we got ourselves in this malaise in the first place?’ And part of that answer to this civics quandary is a topic that’s not terribly sexy. It’s not all that interesting to talk about. But it is deeply consequential: partisan, and racial gerrymandering. I think just pointing to the drama in the House, for laughing at McCarthy and moving on, misses the point. And I know that the Center for American Progress understands this.
“I know that one of today’s conference topics, in fact, was protecting democracy from minority rule. And all of us ought to be concerned about the ways in which there are those who are trying to turn our democracy on its head so that rather than the people picking their representatives, the representatives get to pick their people. We’re seeing that play out in the judiciary. We’re seeing that play out in the dark money behind the current Supreme Court. As a man of faith, I believe that this is central to the work that we must do: I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea, that every human being has dignity, and therefore we ought to have a voice in the direction of our country and our destiny within it. In fact, I believe that a vote is a kind of prayer for the world we desire for ourselves and for our children and our prayers are stronger when we pray together. And so, if one person’s right to vote is being threatened, that impacts us all because voting is how we as a family solve and govern and live together in one house.
“But even if everybody shows up, their voices are still being diminished in this very moment. And the electoral outcomes are being distorted because of partisan and racial gerrymandering driven by cynical politicians who are committed to winning elections at any cost even if the cost is democracy itself. We’re seeing this play out all over the country. We’re seeing it play out in Tennessee. A highly gerrymandered state that created a super majority in their state legislature. It allowed them to overreach time and time and time again. There’s a reason why they made the moves that they made a few months ago. You remember, there were these three brave legislators who were standing up trying to do the people’s business to keep our children safe and rather than using their legislative power to protect the children, they decided to throw the legislators out. You have to ask yourself, ‘why did they feel emboldened to do this?’ This is because they’ve been playing this game for so very long. I think they’ve been operating with the machinations of power so long that they convinced themselves that the people’s House belonged to them. And so, they effectively said ‘we don’t care who you sent here to represent you. This is our House, not the people’s House.’
“And I submit that this is a crude expression of an anti-democratic impulse that is poisoning our entire body politic. We’re seeing it in Alabama, right? Where state leaders drew electoral maps so skewed that even this Supreme Court said, ‘that’s too much.’ I mean, have you thought about that? Have you thought about how bad Alabama’s maps had to be for this Supreme Court to say, ‘now you go a little bit too far.’ This is a Supreme Court that after all, 10 years ago, set fire to Shelby vs. Holder. And then when they said to Alabama, “’no, you got to redraw those maps’ they were so dug in and so committed to keeping their lines and squeezing the people out of their democracy, that they tried to do what the Chief Justice on the Supreme Court, a few years ago, said that Southern legislators no longer do, defy the Supreme Court and they did exactly that. And that is because we have craven partisan actors in our country who are much more committed to power than they are to democracy. And in addition to other conniving methods of robbing the people of their voices, they’re trying to block weekend voting, block Sunday voting, get rid of drop boxes, create unnecessary and onerous voter ID laws saying that, ‘you know, folks might try to vote twice.’ Are you kidding? It’s hard enough to get people to vote once, let alone twice. And in my state and in other states, mass voter challenges. Did you know that in Georgia right now, a single citizen, a random citizen, can challenge the legitimacy of other citizens votes? And literally just a handful of people, literally a handful of people were responsible for challenging the votes of thousands of Georgia citizens. Partisan and racial gerrymandering is one of our most serious problems along with all of these tactics of voter suppression.
“And as we’re seeing play out in the House with Kevin McCarthy needing 15 votes and then being summarily thrown out. They are finding themselves sewn up in a bag of their own making. But I submit that this is a danger to our democracy. And when you think about the work that we need to do right now, in order to exercise American leadership on the global stage, this is a threat to our national security. And so, you are the Center for American Progress. And you know better than most that there is no progress without the voices of the people. And so, I know you all have been talking about a lot of things over the last couple of days. But the most important thing we’ve got to do is give the people their voices back.
“We’ve got to get the people their voices back because change does not happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up. And when the people can get their voices back, I believe that anything is possible. If the people can get their voices back, a Black boy who grew up in public housing, the first college graduate in his family of 12, can find themselves in the United States Senate coming from the old Jim Crow South. Anything is possible if the people can get their voices back.
“So that is the moral work that we have to do for the sake of our nation in a moment like this. But this diminishing and this dismissal of the people’s voices and the political gridlock it creates aren’t just manifested in partisan and racial gerrymandering. In fact, I’d argue that our nation, our house, is in a constant struggle with itself. It is the American story and the American dilemma. In every moment in our history, we’ve had to ask ourselves, are we going to expand the promises of democracy to embrace everybody, to embrace every American? Or are we going to restrict those promises? Our democracy has always gone through expansions and contractions.
“And it makes me think about mass incarceration and the carceral state that we have in our country. The United States of America is the mass incarceration capital of the world. The Land of the Free. Mass incarceration capital of the world. No other nation even comes close, we’re 4% of the world’s population. We warehouse about 25% of the world’s prisoners. No, no other nation comes close in the number of people we have in prison or the percentage of its population in prison. It is a scandal and a scar on the soul of America. And the irony that I think about often as the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. served, is that our system, our criminal justice system, has managed to reinscribe in a new moment all of the various forms of discrimination against which Dr. King, in another generation, fought.
“Channeling our children through the school to prison pipeline and then when they get this mark on their record, job discrimination becomes legal because you have to check the box. Housing discrimination becomes legal. It is a means through which millions of Americans are disenfranchised. This is the terrain, if you’re talking about civil rights. This is the terrain upon which we must fight in a moment like this, and I believe that our children are going to rise up and ask, those of us who are here in this moment, our grandchildren are going to ask us, ‘where were you when this human rights catastrophe was unfolding in your very midst and in this moment?’
“And so, a few years ago, my church got involved in dealing with this issue of mass incarceration. I’ve seen it up close as a pastor. I’ve seen it in my own family. And one of my proudest moments as a pastor was when Ebenezer Baptist Church, about 10 years ago, convened the District Attorney’s Office, the public defender, the courts, the judges, all in one place, in the Fellowship Hall of our church in order to do on one day, what would take people days and weeks to get done. And that is to expunge their record. That there were folks who had not even been convicted of it, but they had a record somewhere that prevented them from getting an apartment, from getting a house, from getting a job. And one of the proudest moments that I’ve had as a pastor was the day I walked in my sanctuary and the sanctuary had hundreds of people and almost everybody in that sanctuary had a record. But the truth is, that’s true every Sunday because all of us, each of us has a record. Each of us has something that we’re not proud of, maybe not a criminal record, but everybody’s got a record and none of us wants to be judged permanently by our worst mistakes.
“And so, we began a process for which we began to expand people’s records in order to change their lives, give them a second chance. And after we did that first expungement clinic, a few weeks or a few months after that, I was sitting in the chair, in the barbershop —I know you think I’m making that up, but I really was in the barber shop. And I was on my way, trying to get out of the barber’s chair, and as I was getting out of the barber’s chair, this man said, ‘hey Rev, that was a great event you had at your church a little while ago’ and I said, ‘Thank you,’ He said, ‘I’m talking about the expungement event.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I remember that. Thank you for that.’ He said, ‘Rev, wait, wait, wait just a minute. You don’t understand. You expunged my record.’ And he said that this had changed his whole life.
“And so, part of what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to give people their voices back. We’ve got to deal with the problems in our democracy. We’ve got to make sure that we can hear the voices of all of our people. And so, we’re at this moral moment, my friends. And the great thing is that we are the latest generation of Americans who get to decide which way our country is going to go. And so, I was proud that the people of Georgia elected me to serve in the United States Senate. I won a hard-fought runoff election. The next day, I was feeling really good. All of the morning shows wanted to talk to me. Good Morning America, Morning, Joe. I knew I had arrived because I was on The View talking to Whoopi Goldberg. I was feeling good that morning. It was the morning of January 6th. And you know what happened [later that day]. Vicious attack on our democracy, on the Capitol, which then metastasized in voter suppression bills all across our country. And you see me standing here today having won again. But don’t forget that in order to win, I had to stand up for the voices of the people in Georgia. The Secretary of State and others saw that we had won, and you know what they did? They said that you will not be able to vote the first Saturday of the runoff. They said that they were just reading the letter of the law. That they were sorry, but their hands were tied and since they said their hands were tied, I decided to untie their hands. I sued them. I sued them and we won. And then those who said their hands were tied, showed their hands because they then appealed the decision. And we won again. And then they appealed again a few days before the runoff, asked for emergency relief and I thought to myself, ‘relief from what? The voices of the people?’ And we won again and that’s why the people of Georgia were able to vote that first Saturday of the runoff. About 100,000 people voted and that was the margin, roughly, of my victory.
“Voter suppression matters. Standing up matters. Standing up for the voices of ordinary people matters. And so, thank you Center for American Progress for your work. Thank you for standing up on behalf of the best of our values, time and time again. And no matter how difficult it seems, don’t let anybody discourage you. Don’t let anybody turn you around. There are moments when I feel discouraged. But I remember my parishioner, John Lewis, whose funeral I officiated. And I asked myself that night before I officiated his funeral, ‘what was John Lewis thinking when he crossed that Edmund Pettus Bridge? Was he thinking that one day at the end of his life, at his funeral, there would be three American Presidents on both sides of the aisle there to pay him tribute?’ He couldn’t have imagined that that’s not why he did it. Did he do it thinking he’d be the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom? Certainly, that’s not why he did it. What was John Lewis thinking when he and Hosea Williams were crossing that Edmund Pettus Bridge? I think he was just trying to stay alive that day, so he could live the fight the next day. And somehow by some stroke of grace, mingled with human resilience, he moved the mark, he moved the moral arc that bends towards justice a little bit closer. He crossed the bridge and built a bridge to the future. Center for American Progress, thank you for 20 years of building that bridge. Don’t stop building the bridge, keep doing the work. Stand up! Because when we stand together, we win. God bless you.”