Before he became one of the great basketball players of his time, Charles Barkley was a son of the Alabama soil. He went home to help Doug Jones pull off his upset victory against Roy Moore in this week's special Senate election. Here's what he had to say on CNN after Jones was declared the winner:
This is a wake-up call for Democrats. Democrats, I told Mr. Jones this, and I love Doug, they've taken the black vote and the poor vote for granted for a long time. It's time for them to get off their ass and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor. They've always had our votes and they have abused our votes .. This is a wake-up call for Democrats to do better for black people and poor white people.
Professional Democrats were not nearly as insightful. They overlook some of the most critical lessons of this election, including this one: They might not have won this election at all if Alabama Republicans like Richard Shelby had not encouraged voters to write in other names rather than vote for Roy Moore. As of this writing, the number of write-in votes is greater than Jones' margin of victory.
In other words, Democrats were rescued by a conservative Republican politician. How often is that likely to happen?
And instead of acknowledging this vote as a "wake-up call" for their party after a decade plagued by losses, however, centrist insiders are seizing on it as an opportunity to fortify their hold on an institution they're slowly strangling – and to take cheap shots at the left.
Charles Barkley is right: Black voters did play a critical role in Jones' victory. Without them, an accused pedophile would be preparing to assume one of the highest offices in the land. But this begs the question: Why did African American voters turn out in such heavy numbers, despite the barriers thrown in their way by Republicans eager to thwart democracy?
The answer is not yet entirely clear, but a clue can be found in an observation by Washington Post reporter Eugene Scott:
More than two dozen black voters here said they did not feel inspired to show up for a candidate who they felt did not aggressively pursue their vote. They were moved to wait in line — some people for hours — with the goal of keeping Moore from winning.
Their antipathy for Moore certainly understandable. The defrocked judge commented in the runup to the election that the last time America was great was "at the time when families were united - even though we had slavery - they cared for one another. Our families were strong, our country had a direction."
He went on to say he thought all constitutional amendments except the first ten should be repealed - including the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, and the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship and equal rights to former slaves. And Moore said he had doubts about President Obama's citizenship, echoing Donald Trump's racist "birther" theory.
African-American voters were also aware of the well-documented claims that Roy Moore sexually abused teenage girls, and they undoubtedly heard his bigoted remarks against Muslims and Jews. Black Alabamians turned out in impressive numbers to save the country from the scourge of a Sen. Roy Moore, and they undoubtedly did so for a number of reasons.
The Poor Vote
Barkley is also right when he says this vote is a "wake-up call" for Democrats. They will not always have the good fortune to run against a candidate who reaches Moore's staggering levels of venality, ineptitude, and moral perversion.
Barkley's meaning couldn't have been clearer: Democrats can't take black voters, or poor voters of any race, for granted. They must offer concrete policies to improve their lives. There's not much time to waste, either, either in Alabama or nationwide.
More than 40 million Americans live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. The U.S. has a higher rate of poverty than any other Western, developed country. And Philip Alston, the UN's Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, recently told a reporter that Alabama's sewage disposal conditions were the worst he'd seen in a developed country. As AL.com reported:
On Thursday, Alston visited communities in the Black Belt's Butler and Lowndes counties, where residents often fall ill with ailments like E. Coli and hookworm - a disease of extreme poverty long eradicated in most parts of the U.S. - in part because they do not have consistently reliable access to clean drinking water that has not been tainted by raw sewage and other contaminants.
Jones carried that part of the state decisively. But how long can Democrats count on being rescued by the very people our government is failing?
Interestingly, Alabama's GOP-friendly suburbs also went for Jones. Is that a sign of their growing discontent with Donald Trump, or was it a one-time effect -- the result of Moore's views, which are extreme even by Republican standards, and the impact of the stories of his sexual predation on family voters in these areas?
It's too early to know for sure, but Democrats shouldn't rush to assume this is a sign of victories to come. Some of them did anyway.
Throwing an Elbow
And yet, despite Barkley's clarity, a few short minutes later Democratic politician Bakari Sellers offered a completely different interpretation of his words. Sellers insisted that he and Barkley were friends, affirmed the former athlete "spoke the gospel," and added that he wanted to shout "amen" as Barkley spoke. But then Sellers said:
You have, you know, the Bernie Sanders, the Elizabeth Warrens, Joe Biden who are focusing specifically on the Trump-Obama voters and white working class voters, saying bring them back into the fold. There's a group of us who think we need to make sure that we're speaking to the base and giving them a reason to come out, because the country's getting browner and the way to electoral victories is through that.
That's a gross mischaracterization of Sanders, Warren, and Biden. None of them are "focusing specifically" on Trump-Obama voters or white working-class voters. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Democratic Party's progressive wing has taken the lead in addressing the social issues that plague black and brown Americans, as well as the economic issues that are hurting middle-and lower-income people of all races.
If any faction of the party places too much emphasis on Trump-Obama voters, it's the so-called Blue Dog Democrats who lean right on economic issues ranging from the minimum wage to Wall Street reform. They consider the Sanders/Warren wing of the party their nemesis – and they're right.
The Left Side of the Road
Sellers had already taken a swipe at the party's progressive faction earlier in the CNN broadcast, when he said, "What Doug Jones showed tonight is that there's a wing in the party that wants a litmus test. And Doug Jones doesn't fit anybody's litmus test."
That's not entirely accurate. Jones did say that he won because he was "center of the road," but that's a ritual disclaimer for any red state politician. While he wouldn't represent the leftmost wing of the party in Vermont or California, Doug Jones is quite progressive for a Southern Democrat.
His website includes this declaration, for example, which comes straight out of Bernie Sanders' platform: "Health care is a right, not a privilege limited to the wealthy and those with jobs that provide coverage." It celebrates the New Deal's impact on Alabama, while touting Jones's support for the Lily Ledbetter Act and a higher minimum wage.
Sellers appears to be defending his own faction within the party, but he does a disservice to progressives – and to Charles Barkley – in the process.
But Sellers isn't the only professional Democrat to read this election result incorrectly. "The recriminations have been tough and stupid," says longtime Democratic operative Robert Shrum, "(and) the Bernie Sanders people arguing with the Hillary people has been counterproductive. Jones sends a powerful signal not to do that."
Does he? Jones' victory was by a far narrower margin than it should have been, because the national party has neglected states like Alabama for years. Part of the intraparty struggle that Shrum dismisses is a struggle to ensure that the party fights for all voters, in all states, with policies that will appeal to precisely the kind of white/black alliance Charles Barkley describes.
"We're looking at a wave election next year," says Shrum. But then, he has lost so many races that people sometimes talk about the Democrats' "Shrum curse."
Sadly, Shrum is far from the only party insider peddling bad advice to Democrats.
Writing for Fox News on the morning after Jones' victory, the serially incorrect Douglas Schoen asserts that if they want to win, "Democrats will need more than a message of resistance or opposition. They will need a centrist, pro-growth agenda of their own."
Schoen correctly notes on Alabama that "early indications from exit polling indicate deeply negative favorability and approval ratings for both major parties." This is also true at a national level, where Republicans are unpopular and support for Democrats recently fell to a 25-year low.
A reasonable person might conclude that these low approval numbers reflect a lack of faith in either party's ability to improve people's lives. But Schoen, like other veterans of the party's failed leadership, has yet to learn this lesson.
Instead, Schoen proclaims Democrats will only "succeed in 2018" if they implement an alternative governing strategy that is fundamentally different from what the most progressive voices in Washington are advocating."
That's exactly what Democrats have been doing for the last ten years. In the process, they've lost two thirds of state houses, two thirds of governorships, both houses of Congress, and the presidency. These failures were produced by 25 years of "centrist" leadership. They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
To hear these folks talk, you'd think they've been out of power for decades. But they've been in charge, and they're the ones who got us into this mess. Sure, they might win the day in 2018 or 2020 – but only if Republicans cooperate by running a slate comprised entirely of proslavery advocates and accused child molesters. Otherwise, Democrats better be prepared to learn how to win.
One thing's for sure: These aren't the people who can teach them.