Why Is This Happening? “A Moral Moment in America” with Sen. Raphael Warnock

“We are naive if we think that we don’t have to fight for [democracy] every single day,” says Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), in this week’s WITHpod. Given how imperiled our democracy is, we thought it would be good to talk about the nation’s democratic health with someone who has navigated some of the most difficult terrain in American politics. Sen. Warnock, who defeated Republican challenger Herschel Walker, is the author of numerous books, including his latest titled, “A Way Out of No Way: A Memoir of Truth, Transformation, and the New American Story.” He’s also the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He joins WITHpod to discuss his concerns about the state of our democracy, his efforts to renew the fight for voting rights, the most surprising part of being a U.S. senator, what he thinks the worst part of his job is and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Democracy is a check against tyranny. It’s a check against the unrestrained power of people who have more money than most, more power than most. And it is rare in the history of humankind. And we are naive if we think that we don’t have to fight for it every single day.

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. If you’re hearing the sound of my voice, then you probably have heard the news that Donald Trump was indicted by the special counsel, Jack Smith, and the U.S. government for his attempts to subvert and overturn the 2020 election.

Now, one of the most interesting parts of the indictment is count four, which is conspiracy to deprive rights. And it comes from a part of the U.S. Criminal Code that is the product of legislation passed in 1870, if I’m not mistaken, during Reconstruction, an attempt by the federal government to crack down on and criminalize the persistent efforts by white southerners to deprive the rights of the newly freed Black citizens of the South.

And there’s something kind of haunting and apt about this charge showing up in the year 2023 for efforts taken in 2020 by Donald Trump, who, you know, quite famously whipped up a frenzied mob directed at two Black women who are election workers, Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss in Fulton County, Atlanta, who talked about the suspicious votes in places like Philadelphia where nothing good happens and Milwaukee and Detroit, who almost explicitly, I mean, just on the border of explicitly, the plot was to find a way to throw out the votes of urban centers and Black voters in those urban centers in swing states so as to produce statewide outcomes in which you want. That was the plan, and failing that to just simply overturn the election by fiat through a scheme of fake electors and Mike Pence and ultimately the House of Representatives or state legislators.

All of which to say, the assault on democracy in the year 2020 and beyond is not disconnected from the assault on democracy in 1870, and in fact, it is not detached from the essential story of America’s fight within itself to make its own democratic vision true.

I mean, the country was, you know, as people noted at the time, both in the colonies and certainly in the U.K., founded on, you know, all of these lofty promises of democracy and self-determination and equality while keeping millions of human beings under slavery. And this fight between the radical promise as enunciated in American rhetoric for democratic equality and the actual political reality of incredible democratic deficiencies, cruelty, second-class status, discrimination, lawlessness, you know, throughout much of the Jim Crow South for years after the sort of reactionary forces retook the South in the wake of the federal troops being removed in 1877. This is, you know, in one telling and the telling that I’m most sympathetic to, particularly if you listen to the podcast, the essential story of America.

And, you know, everyone from Lincoln to Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King to Barack Obama and others have basically viewed the country through this prism, right, this battle between the, in Lincoln’s words, better angels of our nature, the sort of vision of actual multiracial democratic equality and a vision of domination; one group of citizens who get to decide and keep another group of citizens under their boot heel.

All of which to say, none of these stories are resolved as illustrated as potently as possible in the language of the 45-page indictment. And certainly, none of the questions of how to secure American democracy and the radical vision of democratic equality are resolved either in conceptually or in reality, where we live in a landscape in which the signature piece of voting rights legislation that actually made true for the first time, the promises of the founders in Reconstruction, their vision of democratic equality as embodied in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment. The Voting Rights Act, which happened a hundred years later, has been gutted by a Supreme Court and has paved the way for all kinds of democratic retrenchment, not just the kinds that Donald Trump, you know, was seeking in the overturn of his election, but more insidious forms in many different jurisdictions.

And so, I wanted to talk today about the nation’s democratic health and I wanted to do it with someone who is quite preoccupied with this and is also one of the most fascinating figures in American politics. Georgia Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock. He has won four or five elections in the span of two years in some of the most difficult terrain in all of American politics.

He has secured for himself a full term after winning in 2020, and then winning the runoff, and then winning in 2022, and then winning the runoff again. And he is someone who’s very focused, due to his background, which you’ll hear a bit more about, on making this promise of democratic equality true.

He’s also the author of numerous books, including his latest, titled “A Way Out of No Way: A Memoir of Truth, Transformation, and the New American Story.” He’s also the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the City of Atlanta. And Reverend Senator Warnock, it’s great to have you on the program.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Great to be here with you.

Chris Hayes: You know, there’s a lot of different ways of looking at the landscape of American democratic health at this moment. There’s a tendency, I think, to talk about, you know, Trump in unprecedented terms, and January 6th in unprecedented terms, which is true. But there’s also continuity throughout the entire story of America, of a dynamic back and forth between democratic forces and anti-democratic forces.

And I’m curious, as someone who’s deeply invested in the project of sort of strengthening American democracy, how you would rate the nation’s democratic health at this moment?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Well, great to be here with you again. There’s no question that we are in trouble. The house of our democracy is deeply imperiled.

As you rightly point out, the American story has always been complicated. There’s always been this wrestling between the ideals of freedom and equality, this idea of one-person, one-vote, and anti-democratic forces at work. But I think this is clearly a flashpoint, right? This is a moment of deep crisis, and it calls on all of us to act, certainly in the Congress and in the nation itself.

Chris Hayes: Did results in 2022 change the way you felt about any of this because a few things happened in 2022. First of all, you had to run again for the second time in two years.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Yeah, I won five elections, Chris, but who’s counting in two years?

Chris Hayes: Yes, you’ve got the most reps of any politician on the national stage. I think it’s fair to say. But, you know, democracy and democratic health were issues that you and others talked a lot about. There was some pooh-poohing, I think, from critics that people cared about kitchen table issues.

And it did seem to matter. We saw, I think, all of the big lies, sort of election deniers lose. Did the results in 2022 change your mind about anything or alter your perspective about the politics of all this?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Oh, no. The fact that we overcame barriers, very real barriers placed in front of us here in Georgia doesn’t mean those barriers didn’t exist. It just means that the people of Georgia refused to have their voices muted or undermined. But that was at great peril and a lot of work.

In fact, as I entered into the runoff this last time, I had to sue the Secretary of State of Georgia and other state officials so that Georgia voters could vote on the first Saturday of the runoff. Going into the runoff itself, they made the declaration that they would not allow or could not allow, they argued, people to vote on the first Saturday of the runoff because it was following a holiday, that holiday being Thanksgiving and, wait for it, a day that used to observe the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

They said, we would like for you to be able to vote, but our hands are tied as they misinterpreted an old Georgia law. And so, since they said their hands were tied, I decided to untie their hands and I sued them, took them to court, won, and then the folks who said that their hands were tied showed their hands because they then appealed the decision by the court that said, you can allow people to vote on the first Saturday runoff.

They appealed the decision. So, I had to win again. They then appealed the decision again, asking for emergency relief. And the question is, what do they want relief from, the voices of the people?

And so, I literally had to go through a suit and two appeals in a matter of days just so Georgia voters could vote the first Saturday of the runoff. We had about 100,000 people vote that Saturday, which is around the same margin of my victory. This is how voter suppression works. This is how voting restrictions work. It’s in close elections.

You don’t have to have a tsunami. All you need is to undermine voting, a little bit of shaving here, a little bit of shaving there, making lives a little bit longer, saying that people can’t vote during the runoff. These activities, the collective impact undermines the democracy.

And so, although I won, I’m not breathing a sigh of relief when it comes to our democracy. Congress needs to pass voting rights legislation and we need to do it now.

Chris Hayes: You know, the history of voting rights legislation is interesting in this country because you have to keep doing it. So, I don’t think people recognize like —

Sen. Raphael Warnock: It’s like brushing and flossing. You have —

Chris Hayes: I never thought of it that way. Yeah.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: You have to maintain the democracy.

Chris Hayes: You don’t just do it once.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Yeah, we —

Chris Hayes: (Inaudible).

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Yeah. It’s more akin to brushing and flossing than treating a disease. And you say, well, I’ve gotten that cured. We have to maintain the democracy because human nature is such that there are always powers at work. There are always interests at work.

And the question is, are we more committed to our power staying in office or a particular interest that one group or another may have at that time or the covenant that we have with one another, this democratic small D pact that we have with one another? And I think those things are always in tension.

Reinhold Niebuhr put it this way. He said that mankind, he said, I would say humankind’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible and our capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary. Democracy is a check against tyranny. It’s a check against the unrestrained power of people who have more money than most, more power than most. And it is rare in the history of humankind and we are naive if we think that we don’t have to fight for it every single day.

Chris Hayes: You know, we have the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which grants the franchise to Black Americans, the freedmen, as they were referred to back then. Of course, it was only men. And then you have to go basically another 100 years to get to the Voting Rights Act, which literally just secures what the framers, the Reconstruction Amendment, were doing in the 15th Amendment.

It had been just, you know, destroyed, hollowed out, subverted via Jim Crow. When you talk about having to sue Georgia, right? We see tons of lawsuits in every state over this stuff, this sort of hand to hand combat. Prior to the Supreme Court Shelby County ruling that basically gutted the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which had the Department of Justice basically assessing these kinds of changes, prior to Shelby County, this would have all been handled through the Voting Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

Now it gets handled through these civil lawsuits. How consequential was Shelby County in terms of this democratic backsliding?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Chris, it’s difficult to overstate how deeply consequential that wrongheaded decision in Shelby was and its impact on the health of our democracy. A lot of damage has been done to our democratic process, to voting rights over the last 10 years. A lot of the moves that we’re fighting right now in real time, we would have had better tools in place to prevent those laws from being put on the books in the first place.

I won in 2021, January of 2021. Georgia did an amazing thing. It sent its first African American senator and his first Jewish senator to the Senate in one fell swoop. And in the midst of that, we saw the attack on the Capitol. That attack then metastasized, if you will, throughout the body politic.

And in 2021, we saw over 400 bills introduced, over 400, to restrict voting in states all across our country. And they passed in a couple of dozen states. This year, we’ve seen over 300 bills introduced to restrict voting.

And if Shelby were in place, many of those moves would have been cut off at the pass because in states that have a history of discrimination, a history of playing games with the voting rights, particularly of African Americans and other minorities, they would have had to have those changes pre-cleared.

But now they can simply put them on the books. And it’s difficult, really, to overstate the damage that’s already being done, which is why later this year, I look forward to reintroducing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the key provisions of the voting rights law.

A couple of weeks ago, we introduced the Freedom to Vote Act, which would provide a floor, which would say these are basic national standards that you must have for federal elections. The states will continue to run, to administer their elections as they always have. But we’re saying that in America, people ought to have access to absentee voting. They ought to have access to early voting. This law would guarantee two weeks of early voting for federal elections at these two weekends.

These are just minimal standards that there would be access to drop boxes and that election day would be a holiday so that workers, people who work by the hour, are not unduly, are not unfairly treated in order to exercise their franchise. Federal Election Day ought to be a holiday, which is another word for holy day.

And so, it gives us a chance both to exercise the privilege, and I think to pause appropriately, and celebrate the fact that we live in a country where, at least, on paper and in our continuing fight, every voice can be heard. That ought to be a holiday. That’s a holy day. The vote is sacred and we have to do everything we can to protect it and preserve it.

Chris Hayes: So, this Freedom to Vote Act would, just so people are clear, right now there is no minimum standard. I mean —

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Right.

Chris Hayes: — in the wake of Shelby County, right, what we have is this, you know, combat via lawsuit over all of these questions of access, right, and these sort of back and forth and Republican —

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Right.

Chris Hayes: — administrations come in. And one of the first things they do is they often try to make it harder, whether it’s closing the early days that you can vote or to change the schedule, or to make it harder to drop things off. And I got to say, I mean, New York state, I happen to live in a state whose voting laws are pretty bad and have been for a while. They’ve gotten better actually lately, but —

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: — it’s not limited to, you know, there’s New York —

Sen. Raphael Warnock: That’s right.

Chris Hayes: New York State government wasn’t that interested in having tons of turnout, frankly, for its elections for a long time. And it structured them in such a way so as to not. But what the Freedom to Vote Act, what you’re proposing would be for federal elections, Congress and Senate, there would be minimum standards that would apply uniformly across the country. Is that the idea?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: That is correct. And again, the states would continue to administer their elections, but Congress would exercise both its right and responsibility under Article 1 to ensure the franchise, to make sure that they’re just these basic, minimal standards, which the object of which is to make sure that everybody has access to vote.

What you said, something that was spot on a little while ago when you pointed out the fact that, look, these things were established on paper a long time ago with the passing of the 15th Amendment. African Americans were granted the franchise, but it took 100 years for that to become real.

I stress that because people hear you. And depending on what neighborhood you live in and what your experience has been with voting, there are honest people listening to us right now who have an honest question. What do you mean you have to fight? Everybody has the right to vote. And that’s because they don’t have to wait two hours to vote in their neighborhood.

And I’m saying to people who are listening to me right now that you have fellow Americans for whom access to the franchise, something that may be very easy for you, is not necessarily that easy for them.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, I mean, part of what is so exhausting about this from a sort of discourse perspective is when you look at Republican governments who come in and say, okay, like in Georgia, for instance, like we’re passing a new voting bill, right? And it does all this stuff. And you think, well, why? Why are you doing this?

And the answer always is fraud.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Right.

Chris Hayes: And this is at the core of the indictment against the former president. I’m talking to you the day after that was unsealed. You know this myth, this lie of voter fraud and illegitimate voters and ballot boxes being stuffed and the urban environments of Atlanta and Detroit and Philadelphia where there’s dumps of voters. I mean, how persistent is that? How much do you encounter that? How much of an obstacle is that?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: So, in the state of Georgia, after I won, Georgia passed a law, SB 202, which supposedly goes after fraud and creates integrity in the system. Well, one of the provisions in that law literally allows random citizens to mount an unlimited number of challenges to the voting rights of other citizens, people they don’t know.

And there was a ProPublica report that said that there were some 100,000 challenges, 100,000, and 89,000 of them were presented by six right-wing activists. Six people, 89,000 challenges.

Chris Hayes: Oh my God. I’m like, bro, get a hobby.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Right. And it is laughable, but it’s also tragic because literally —

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Literally in Gwinnett County, they had to divert anywhere from five to 10 of their workers who are already overstressed, overburdened six days a week, to respond to these challenges from ordinary random citizens, not election officials who are clearly tying up the system. Some might see these as activists. I see them as arsonists who are literally trying to set little fires in the house of democracy.

And this is a moral moment in our country. We have to stand up and fight against it. There’s another provision in that same terrible law, SB 202, that allows partisan actors at the state level, basically allows the state legislature, which is highly gerrymandered in Georgia. And so, in that sense, it doesn’t really represent the will of the people, the representation of the legislature to begin with.

And then a highly gerrymandered legislature now, because of SB 202, can basically swoop in and take over the election administration at the local county level. And we’ve seen that. We’ve seen that played out. We literally saw a Black woman replaced by a white man who was the vice president of the Republican Party in Ware County.

We’ve seen replacements where they literally took out one person, put another person and then all of a sudden voted to ban Sunday voting. I wonder why? Could it be because African Americans have a tradition of getting on a bus after church on Sunday because voting is sacred as I’ve done in many cases in my own church with John Lewis to go to vote on a Sunday?

Chris Hayes: Yeah, you mentioned the gerrymandering and I wanted to sort of follow up a little bit on that because one of the big cases of Supreme Court this term was a successful attempt to sue the state of Alabama for violating the Voting Rights Act by a congressional map that deprived Black voters in Alabama the opportunity to choose a candidate of their preference.

And the sort of shorthand math of this is that the Republicans carved basically had one majority Black district in the state of Alabama and should have had two. The Supreme Court somewhat surprisingly found for the plaintiffs there is really a remarkable bit of lawyering in very difficult circumstances by the Legal Defense Fund.

The Alabama legislature just redrew a map that just said, screw you, we’re sending back a map that only has one Black majority district. They changed it a little bit. And as someone who represents a neighboring state and is in this fight, I’m curious what you think of that kind of thumbing the nose from Alabama and also the implications of that millage decision?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Well, I wonder what Chief Justice John Roberts is thinking right now. Because part of what he said in his reasoning in the Shelby decision was that southern states no longer do exactly what you just said Alabama did and they did do. He said the southern states, they don’t mount these kinds of challenges.

Chris Hayes: The South has changed.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: I guess.

Chris Hayes: I think that’s a literal quote.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Yeah. Against the Supreme Court decision and we’re literally watching it in real time. Listen, Congress needs to do its job. We need to pass the Freedom to Vote Act. Voting rights has a history of being bipartisan in this country. When we’ve made progress in this country on this issue, it has been on a bipartisan basis.

And I would remind my colleagues in the United States Senate and in the House that the last time the voting rights law was passed, the year was 2006. George W. Bush, Republican, was president and it passed the Senate 98-0. Many of my colleagues who voted for it in 2006 are voting against it in recent days.

And that after January 6, after the most violent assault on the Capitol we’ve seen since the War of 1812, after literally hundreds of voter restriction laws are being introduced in state legislatures all across the country. This is a moral moment in America. One day our children and our grandchildren are going to stand up and ask us, what were you doing when the House of Democracy was on fire? What were you doing when there was an assault on our democracy and the covenant we have with one another?

And I think all of us will be called to account. And I want to be on record as someone who stood up and fought for this. And I hope we’ll get it done because there’s just too much at stake.

Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.


Chris Hayes: You had never run for office, if I’m not mistaken, before that first Senate run. You have now won five elections in a two-year span in the most contested, toughest terrain probably in the country. Probably Georgia and Arizona are probably the most sort of evenly divided statewide places. Those have been the sites of some of the closest elections.

You went from no experience running for office to more reps than anyone. What have you learned?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Well, you say I have no experience and that’s true. I never ran for office, but I run a Baptist church. Let me just tell you.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: That’ll get you ready for just about anything.

Chris Hayes: Well, you talk for a living.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: The politics there —

Chris Hayes: I’m not a preacher myself, but I also talk for a living. So, I’m in a similar line of work.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Yeah. Well, listen, let me just say, first of all, that I’m deeply, and I mean this, I’m deeply honored that the people of Georgia have given me the privilege of representing them. It’s a special thing for the people of your state to say when we take stock of our lives and what we want for our children.

Since we can’t all go to Washington, that crazy town, we’re going to send you, and we’re going to trust that you’re going to think about our interests when big decisions are being made and you’re in the room. And so, for me, that’s a sacred covenant. It’s something that I take very, very seriously.

What I’ve learned in the process is that we really have to fight and that we don’t know when that moment will come when we can make a difference, but we have to keep fighting. Think about my own election. I knew when I decided to run for the Senate that it would be consequential, but who knew that there was no way I could have known that the whole country would literally be watching Georgia.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: At the end of the night, with Joe Biden elected the President of the United States, we would still be waiting to see who would be in charge of the Senate and we would need two seats. Who could have predicted that two seats would be in the same state? And if someone gave you those odds, who would have picked Georgia as the state that would have made such a huge difference for the country and given us a pathway to pass the American Rescue Plan, to pass the CHIPS and Science Act, to pass the largest bill for veterans benefits in a generation, and to pass the first gun safety bill in 30 years?

So, I’m frustrated that we haven’t gotten the voting rights laws passed so far, but I’m not about to give up. After all, I was John Lewis’s pastor and he had no reason to believe he could win as he crossed that Edmund Pettus Bridge. He knew that there was brute force, literally, on the other side of that bridge, but he kept walking.

And somehow, by some stroke of grace, mangled with human resiliency, bent the arc a little bit closer to justice, and what I’ve learned is that I enjoy being in this fight and I intend to be in it.

Chris Hayes: So, you’re a pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a legendary church in Atlanta. Martin Luther King, Sr., was pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr., was co-pastor of that church. John Lewis was in your congregation. That obviously is the kind of job that prepares you to communicate.

That’s what you do for a living, you preach, and preaching is talking and preaching is communicating. So, it’s not crazy that you would have the skills to run for office and communicate, but they are very different audiences. The audience inside your church on a Sunday and the millions of Georgian voters across the state, counties large and small, Black and white, rural and urban, what has been your rhetorical approach? How is it different than your rhetorical approach as a preacher on Sunday?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Well, if you come by my church on a Sunday morning and you listen to me on the floor of the Senate or giving a stump speech, I don’t know that it’s that different, to be very honest.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: I have been trying to talk to everybody for a long time. I believe in what Dr. King called the beloved community. My church is predominantly African American, although we have white members and in recent years since my election, we have even more. I’d like to see my church be more diverse.

Dr. King used to lament that the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. So, I’ve been trying to talk to people for a long time about a range of subject matters from healthcare to voting rights to mass incarceration, because I see these as moral issues and I’ve been framing them within the context of my faith.

And, you know, while I am a Christian, I believe in our democracy. I believe in the separation of church and state. So, I also am intentional about trying to speak in a way that’s anchored in my faith, but reaches out to people of various faith traditions and people who claim no particular faith tradition at all.

That is the agreement we have with one another as an American nation and that’s my job representing all of the people of the state of Georgia.

Chris Hayes: What’s most surprising to you about the job of being a U.S. Senator?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Well, I’m surprised that every now and then, even with all of the divisions in the Congress, you find unlikely allies to get things done. You know, I have good relationships with people on the other side of the aisle and I don’t agree with them on a whole range of things, but sometimes you’re surprised to find out who you got to work with to get something important done.

Heck, I worked with Ted Cruz to pass an amendment last Congress because he wanted this interstate built out in Texas that also runs through Georgia. The same road that runs through Georgia runs through Texas. So, Ted Cruz, most of the time he’s talking and I’m wondering how could you possibly get dressed to come here to say that?

But we work together on that issue. I jokingly called us the Raphael caucus. People might not know that his name is also Raphael.

And right now, I’m working with Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana to get insulin, the cost of insulin, capped for folks who have insurance and people who have no insurance at all. We were able to pass my bill last Congress, which caps it for seniors on Medicare, but insulin shouldn’t be expensive. It’s a 100-year-old drug. If you need it, it’s an absolutely necessary drug, big pharmaceutical companies as a result of the ways in which dark money has flooded our system.

And we have too many politicians that are bought, dark money in our politics impacting our ability to afford prescription drugs. Well, John Kennedy and I are working right now. We introduced a bill which will cap the cost of insulin. So, I am pleasantly surprised to see who you might need to work with to get good things done.

Chris Hayes: What’s the worst part of the job?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Look, change is slow. Change is hard. It comes and fits and starts. And so, this work really is not for the faint of heart. You have to be willing to hear no over and over again and still keep knocking. And you still keep coming and you have to take the long view. And it’s frustrating when you know that there are, in some instances, people who know better, that there are people who work in the building with me who know better, but they are making a craven political choice.

And in this instance, I just think the stakes are so very high that people have to decide, are they going to be a patriot or are you just going to be a politician? A part of what gives me a certain freedom in this job is that while I enjoy being a senator and I appreciate the things I’m able to do that I wouldn’t be able to do if I didn’t have a vote in the United States Senate, my project is change. That’s my project.

It’s not politics. It’s change. I’m not in love with politics. I’m in love with change. And I put up with politics because every now and then, it allows you to get something very important done. And I think the democracy would be healthier if we leaned into our roots as a representative democracy, where citizens send other citizens to represent them for a season, but those people are rooted in the community itself.

But nowadays, we have too many politicians who are so focused on the next election that they’re not thinking about the next generation. And as a result of that, the public policy is short sighted and the consequences are sometimes deadly, for example, on the gun safety issue.

If the only thing we can tell our children in a nation where there are mass killings, every day this year, on average about two a day. And if the best we can tell our children is here’s how you hide when a bad person comes with a gun to your school, then what is politics for? What is this really about?

And that in a moment where, by the way, according to a Fox News poll, and I don’t often say that, a Fox News poll, 87 percent of Americans, 87 percent believe that we ought to pass something that looks like universal background checks and still we can’t get it done. Why? Because the people’s voices have been squeezed out of their democracy through dark money, through partisan and racial gerrymandering, through all of these tricks that I’m trying to address in this voting rights legislation. And in a real sense, we need to get it done to liberate the country and to save politicians from themselves.

Chris Hayes: I want to return to the point that you made about the time scale and patience, because I think it’s a really interesting one. I mean, my job, one of the things that can be difficult about it, that I enjoy, is it has a very short time scale, which is I make a show every day. And if you’re a preacher, you’re preaching and you’re doing things. You know, it’s not like you’re the dictator of the church, but you’re in charge, you know, you write your sermon, you figure out what you want to do.

You go from that and that time scale and that environment in which you’re the guy to being one of 100, quite junior in terms of where you are in this sort of pecking order. And I wonder just how you’ve dealt with that psychologically or what that experience has been like.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Again, I take the long view and it is frustrating, but this is not about me.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: It’s my children that I’m thinking about. I’m a father. I have a daughter who turned 7 yesterday. And 7 is a special time in your life.

Chris Hayes: So, great.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: It’s a sweet period. And I have a four-and-a-half-year-old son. So, I’m thinking about them. And so, whatever frustration I’m feeling in the moment, the question for me is what kind of country are they going to inherit?

Chris Hayes: We’ll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: I don’t know if you’re going to go with me here, but I’m going to try. We’ll see where we get. What was it like to run against Herschel Walker? Honestly, that was one of the wildest things I’ve covered and I’ve covered some pretty wild races.

And no shade to Herschel Walker’s, you know, obviously, athletic achievements or his beliefs or anything. It just felt so random in a way. I mean, obviously he’s a beloved son of Georgia and Georgia football player. So, it wasn’t random in that respect, but like he doesn’t really live in Georgia.

There’s a lot of people that you can imagine representing Georgians. He seemed an odd choice. And I think the majority of Georgians agreed with my, with how I felt about that and voted for you. But what was the experience of that race like?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: I don’t know that I spent a whole lot of time thinking about him, honestly. I remain focused on the work that I feel like I’m supposed to do. And I think in a real sense, and this is not me avoiding the question, I really do think in a real sense that it’s not about him.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: There’s a politician in this state, in the Georgia congressional delegation, and I don’t talk about her because I think she’s a consequence of partisan gerrymandering. If it weren’t her extreme voice, it’d be somebody else. If it weren’t my opponent in the last race, it would be somebody else.

I live in a state and we live in a nation where about half the people are wearing a blue jersey and half the people are wearing a red jersey. And in some sense, it doesn’t matter that much who I was running against. I needed to try to speak to the better angels of our nature and ask us to think about the country, think about the state.

Chris Hayes: Well, I’ll say this. I mean, there was a lot of question. I’ve covered your race closely, one could say. There was second guessing of your strategy in that race, which was you didn’t talk very much about Herschel Walker. You didn’t really run a bunch of attacks. There was all kinds of openings for that.

You ran your race as the incumbent senator up for reelection. You ran a race where you said, here’s what I’ve done. Here’s what I want to do. And there were second guessing of that strategy, which I think in the end was borne out, that your strategy was borne out because you emerged victorious. So, you’ve been consistent, I guess I would say, on that perspective.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Yeah. At the end of the day, I place my faith in the people of Georgia. After all, that’s what democracy is about. And elections are about choices.

So, you’re right in terms of the spirit and the tone of our race. But I think we did present a very clear choice for anybody who wanted to see it if it weren’t already obvious. And elections are about choices. And at the end of the day, thankfully, the people of Georgia saw my work and sent me back.

Chris Hayes: I covered a bunch of the 2010 midterm races, which was after the first two years of united democratic governance in 2009-2010, right? So, you had a Democratic president, Barack Obama, you had Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. And obviously, those midterms were a wipeout for Democrats.

And there’s a lot of reasons that that was the case. But one of the things that struck out was, I think quite unfairly, the Affordable Care Act was quite unpopular, and the Democrats who were up for office had voted for it. And again, if you trust democracy, it wasn’t some lie. I mean, they really did vote for the ACA and people really didn’t like it. And so, what was in the bill was contested.

But in this case, I was struck in your campaign how much you talked about the legislative agenda of the unified democratic governance. You just said it right now, the American Rescue Plan, the CHIPS Act, the infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains that insulin provision, if I’m not mistaken.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: That’s correct.

Chris Hayes: In a very divided country, it seemed that you were comfortable standing on that. You were not running away from that record and you were not just comfortable with it. It was the core, in some ways, of your messaging was about those legislative achievements.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Yeah, we got good things done for the people of Georgia. And I run into people all the time who say thank you for capping the cost of insulin. I think here is the challenge we have in this moment. I think as you look at what’s happening in our country with these assaults on our democracy and the ways in which there are people who are going along with this, I think it’s a dangerous situation when people don’t see the connections between the work that’s being done in the Congress or by their government and where they actually live, their actual lives.

And whenever you have that increasing divide between what the people need and what they can get from their government, then we’re in a dangerous place. So, in the places where we’re able to get good things done for people, I think it’s important to point it out that we were able to cap the cost of insulin. We were able to provide the resources that we needed to work our way through a pandemic.

But at the same time, I think it’s important to underscore the ways in which there is this increasing divide between what the people want, I think on both sides of the aisle and what they’re able to get on a whole range of issues from gun safety to climate change. And that’s why we don’t shrink back in a moment like this. We have to redouble our efforts.

I know the Republicans are in charge. They’re the majority in the House, but the people are in charge. And I’m going to keep appealing to the conscience of the people, even as I fight on their behalf.

Chris Hayes: I want to close on this question. Like you said, you’re a preacher. You hadn’t run for office before, even if you had a high public profile and had sort of been in public life.

There’s all kinds of people around the country. I’ve got a friend right now running for local office down in Tennessee, who have considered or have entered into running for something in the last few years, particularly. And I’m curious what advice you would share as someone who has recently taken this up, been successful at it, or is doing it now to people that are school board, local city council, planning commission, thinking about doing it.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: I would lead with the words of Howard Thurman, who was a mystic and a poet, a graduate of my alma mater, Morehouse College. He said, ask not what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

And my life has been about service. It is why I answered the call to ministry. And it is why after years of being an activist in the space around voting rights, health care, mass incarceration, climate change, I finally and reluctantly decided to run for office.

So, if you feel that passion in your heart, follow it. But know that it’s not for the faint of heart. You really have to lay a lot on the line, you make a lot of sacrifices. But for me, every single day, especially when I look in the eyes of my children, it’s worth it. And I’m deeply honored to do this work.

Chris Hayes: Are you getting to see your kids enough?

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Oh, it’s never enough. But this summer, we’ve spent a lot of time together.

Chris Hayes: Summer’s the best.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Senator and Reverend Raphael Warnock is the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the great city of Atlanta. He’s authored numerous books, including his latest, which is titled, “A Way Out of No Way.” And he is the Democratic senator from the state of Georgia, one of two.

Great pleasure to have you on. Thank you so much, Senator.

Sen. Raphael Warnock: Thank you. Joy to talk to you.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to the senator. That was a fascinating conversation. You can definitely check out his book, which is quite interesting, “A Way Out of No Way: A Memoir of Truth, Transformation and the New American Story.”

As we get ready for our summer mailbag, be sure to let us know what’s on your mind. You can send us your questions, thoughts, and feedback to withpod@gmail.com. We’ll try to answer as many questions as we can. And get in touch with us on X. Am I really saying that? Formally known as Twitter. It’s really something sick about the unilateral ability of one rich man to change language, but I guess that’s the way it works.

There’s a lot of changes to keep up with. So, yeah, you can get in touch with us on X, which is I guess what we call it now. You can use the #WITHpod.

You can also follow me on Threads @chrislhayes. I’m chrislhayes on Bluesky if you’re over there, if you’ve gotten in there. So, get in where you fit in, in the new balkanized world of social media platforms. And also go over to TikTok.

“Why Is This Happening” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O’Melia. This episode was engineered by Bob Mallory and Cedric Wilson, and features music by Eddie Cooper.

You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.

“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O’Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and featuring music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to NBCNews.com/whyisthishappening?

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