“I’m coming for you, Georgia,” she promised. The multiracial crowd surged forward to surround her, and she stayed in the middle school gym until she shook every hand.
—A story in Nation Magazine about Georgia legislator and candidate for Governor, Stacey Abrams
Progressives are fractured and disillusioned. The Democrats not only lost the White House in 2016; in the wake of the election, they are in possession of 11 fewer Senate seats, more than 60 fewer House seats, at least 14 fewer governorships and more than 900 fewer seats in state legislatures. The GOP controls the governorships of more than a third of the states, the most since 1922. The recent loss of a promising Democratic congressional candidate in the Atlanta region has progressives in a deep funk, wondering what it will take to resurge.
There is another story emerging out of Atlanta–this one involving the gubernatorial candidacy of Democrat Stacey Abrams. This Georgia state legislator holds cause for some hope. The journey will be long and the road is rough, but the lessons her candidacy teaches are worthy, and may reflect what it will take for progressives to win elections.
An autopsy of the 2016 election finds that the Democratic Party not only must contend with white defections to the Trump-led GOP, but there is an even more threatening trend, according to political scientist Thomas B. Edsall: declining turnout among minority, young and single voters. He cites the Voter Participation Center, whose mission is to increase civic engagement among the Rising American Electorate: unmarried women, people of color, and millennials.
According to the Center’s website, despite making up a majority of the voting-eligible population, the Rising American Electorate is underrepresented at the polls; in 2014 (the most recent analyzed data), over 75 million RAE members didn’t vote.
Three analysts at the pro-Democratic Center for American Progress, Robert Griffin, John Halpin, and Ruy Teixeira, arguethat “rather than debating whether Democrats should appeal to white working-class voters or voters of color — both necessary components of a successful electoral coalition, particularly at the state and local level — a more important question emerges: Why are Democrats losing support and seeing declining turnout from working-class voters of all races in many places?”
Could it be that this vast and rising percentage of the American electorate has lost confidence in government broadly; so much so that increasing numbers of citizens of today and leaders of tomorrow, in distrust and disgust, are tuning-out of the trust-range of the political system? Some tune-in to appeals from the extreme left; others move to the right, exacerbating tribalism. Many are not voting.
The winners of the future may be those candidates who can stop the movement to the extremes, and reach out and inspire the Rising American Electorate. This will take a hybrid, centrist approach that resurrects the principles and values of democracy, what I label “civitas” in my upcoming books.
Stacy Abrams is testing this theory of centrist inclusion. As the minority-leader of the Georgia General Assembly, she represents House District 89, which includes portions of the City of Atlanta and unincorporated DeKalb County.
Abrams is founder of the New Georgia Project, which focuses on voter registration and outreach to Georgia’s growing population of color.
An article in Nation Magazine notes that “Abrams has long argued that too many Democrats are using the same old playbook, pining for the white voters who began migrating to the GOP in the 1960s, when the two major parties essentially switched their stands on race.” The article continues,
‘There are two theories of the case, running in a red state,’ she says. ‘You convince conservative voters who left the party years ago to come back, by offering them a candidate who appeals to the value system they hold to be true. But if you look at Georgia, that’s about 23 percent of our base. John Kerry, Barack Obama, Michelle Nunn—they all got about 23 percent of the white vote. The likelihood that we can increase that by the margins necessary to win statewide is a theory I do not share. I look instead at the greenfield opportunity of other progressive voters: African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and some white voters who don’t vote. I believe the alternative theory of the case, and one we’ve never tried in Georgia, is to cultivate voters who’ve never been reached.’”
Abrams believes that working class voters and Bernie Sanders supporters on the left share similar interests. That’s the same coalition, she notes, that “got us the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society. That coalition we understand. So, whether you are Bernie Sanders or Bill Clinton, you may look to it.”
Yet, a new path blazed with a new coalition is emerging. She recognizes that the Southern Strategy of the GOP continues its appeal, especially to some white voters who harbor racists sentiments. Abrams asks, “Why are we going after the same coalition we’ve been chasing unsuccessfully since 1968? This is going to be a majority-minority state in less than a decade—if we don’t figure out how to activate this body politic, it will have consequences for everyone.”
She rejects the tribal “zero-sum” and “us” versus “them” approach that pits white working-class voters against voters of color, the Nation article observes. “Working class is working class,” she told reporters. “I’m representing everyone.”
Abram’s appeal is rooted in her capacity to reach people through her authentic moral authority. She grew up poor, and boot-strapped her way to a Yale law degree and success as a political figure. She speaks truth to people, especially those who are disaffected and suffering, and inspires their trust. Both truth and trust are rare commodities in today’s political culture. She rises from an urban district and will test her capacity to reach across boundaries to rural voters.
She wants to return power to people, to strengthen democracy on the home ground–a prescription for support of local, self-determination and home rule at the community level. She clearly understands the need to regenerate the nation’s mediating institutions, those seedbeds of democracy that stand between the individual and the larger society. Included are the faith community, the news media, education, local governments, civic organizations, and non-profits dedicated to the public good. Primary among mediating institutions, grounding them all, is the family.
Abrams shows her strong understanding of the importance of a healthy family. She knows the importance to human happiness and flourishing of a community working in common cause for its common good. She tells a story about her parents and family that brings crowds to their feet. The story shows a depth of moral character, and belief in the power of love to empower people to the virtues of serving a cause greater than self. The Nation article reports:
“She rallied the crowd with a moving story of her father having to walk home, miles, from his night job, though on rainy nights her mother would wake her kids, pile them in the car and go look for him. One night, they found him walking in the cold rain without his coat. He’d given it to a man without one. “He told us, ‘that man didn’t have anybody coming for him, and I knew you all were coming for me.” Abrams then pledged, “I’m coming for you, Georgia,” she promised. The multiracial crowd surged forward to surround her, and she stayed in the middle school gym until she shook every hand.”
Her family story, and the reaction of the crowd to her telling it, is like a great work of visual art: worth a thousand words. She reaches people on a visceral and spiritual level, as all great moral leaders must do. She appeals to the better angels of human nature, not to fear and anger.
For all of these reasons, she could be a harbinger of things to come: our first best hope that many citizens will not go left or right, but deeper into the nation’s political and moral heritage of ideals to engage in what we are calling the Cosmopolitan Uprising, a grass-roots, resurgence of civitas. This is the way to close the breach of faith in our political system and restore America to its place of global leadership and domestic promise.
Read more at The Civitas Project.