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Who Is Stealing America’s Future?
In January 2019, my grandmother passed away. Wilter Abrams, known as Bill to family and friends, was a formidable woman. She gave birth to six children in a span of four years—two daughters and then two sets of twin boys, born in 1946, 1947, 1949, and 1950. She and my grandfather, Walter Abrams or Jim, raised five of their kids into adulthood in the crippling poverty of Mississippi and segregation, losing my father’s twin brother in his infancy. Neither of my grandparents had unexpressed opinions, and they brought their children up to also hold strong convictions. Both of my grandparents were cooks at the local state university, serving students at a school their own children could not attend.
My grandfather, a slender bantam of a man, served in World War II as a navy cook and fought as a boxer during his tour. When he got drafted into the Korean War, he did his duty again, knowing the entire time that he was returning to the segregation and racial venom of the Deep South. Bitterness fought with practicality as he returned twice to a country that denied him basic civil rights. In 2011, in the weeks before he passed, I left the special legislative session where we were drawing new political districts. I shared my frustration about the ways black and brown voters were being stripped of power. A man of colorful language, he basically warned me not to let the bastards get me down.
Just before the 2018 election, I traveled to my parents’ home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The detour from the campaign trail was unusual, but both a fundraising opportunity and a deep call to see my family brought me there. One evening, I went to the master bedroom my parents had ceded to my grandmother when she could no longer live alone. She sat in her favorite recliner, watching the news on MSNBC, cell phone in her lap. I perched on the edge of her bed. Grandma turned down the volume and she asked about my election. By then, national attention had been fixed on the voter suppression allegations against Brian Kemp and on the tight numbers in our contest. I explained the latest developments to her and vented about the worries I had carried from Georgia.
When I finished, she patted my hand. Then she told me about the first time she’d ever voted. Like my grandfather, she had been incensed at the strictures of Jim Crow since childhood. Smart and quick, she had seen lesser minds advance because of racial discrimination. But she understood how the systems worked, and when her children became agitators in the civil rights movement, she warily supported their activism. Both she and my grandfather had been quieter in the movement because they understood the consequences if they got caught. Putting food on the table and keeping their house kept both of them primarily on the sidelines. But Grandma had faced the menacing growls of the massive dogs used to control protesting crowds, and she had been violently sprayed by the water hoses used to remind blacks of their place. She’d gathered up the bail money to free her teenage son from jail when he got arrested registering voters. At one point, the local police were calling her regularly to interrogate her about the protest actions of her children. By the time the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, she understood its significance. But she also knew not to expect immediate change, and she was right. Across much of the South, the implementation came very slowly; thus her first real opportunity to vote didn’t arrive until 1968.
That night, I listened to her talk and, suddenly, her voice grew tremulous. I worried that I had worn her out. But I quickly realized that the soft trembling came not from exhaustion but from shame. Quietly, she recounted the day of the election, how Granddaddy, his brother L.P., and others got ready to go and cast their first ballots in Mississippi. My dad would still be two years too young to vote, but she had the opportunity. Yet, she told me, she refused to leave her bedroom, where she sat paralyzed by fear. The laws had changed, but they had changed before. There was the promise of an emancipation that still left her great-grandparents enslaved, and the school desegregation that took nearly a decade to arrive. But the right to vote carried the most significant victory—and she did not believe this promise was real. She explained how my grandfather called for her to meet them at the front door, but she wouldn’t budge. Finally, he stormed down the hall and into the shadowed room. Impatiently, he demanded to know what was taking her so long, when history awaited their arrival.
Grandma squeezed my hand as she remembered the explanation she gave to her husband: “I’m afraid, Jim. I’m afraid of the dogs and the police. I don’t want to vote.” She covered my hand, and her eyes held mine. “Stacey, your grandfather got so angry. He reminded me about your daddy and your aunts and uncles. All those young black children who fought so hard to get these rights. And there I was, afraid to use them. I was ashamed of myself.” Instead of cowering in their bedroom, fearing the worst, she followed the example of her children, the call of her conscience. She screwed up her courage, gathered her purse and coat, and told my grandfather she was ready to go. Together, they traveled to the precinct to cast their very first ballots. By her side, she clutched my hand again, the paper-thin skin stretched tight. She leaned into me and rasped, “I’m so proud of you, Stacey. I know I can’t vote for you, but I’m so very proud that my granddaughter is on the ballot and our people can be heard.”
When I tell this story, it’s not because of my grandmother’s pride in my campaign, although that means a lot to me. I use this story as a warning of the fear that even the most stalwart can feel about their exercising the power of the vote. A woman who had braved economic hardship and rabid racism recoiled not at the theft of power but the possibility of taking it. That perversion of democracy continues to play out across our country every day. Voter suppression works its might by first tripping and causing to stumble the unwanted voter, then by convincing those who see the obstacle course to forfeit the race without even starting to run.
A few months ago, my youngest sister, Jeanine, met some friends at a local restaurant for margaritas at the end of a long workweek. One of the women sitting around her table made a point of telling Jeanine that she had voted for me for governor. Jeanine started to thank her for the support, but the young woman wasn’t done. She then told my sister she had no intention of voting again. Recounting stories she’d heard about voters who had been sent to the wrong polling place or suddenly had their registration vanish, she said the entire process seemed too suspicious and in the end her vote didn’t matter. She told Jeanine she saw malicious intent in the treatment of folks who couldn’t afford gas for a second round-trip to the polls or had no available time off to fix problems. Disillusionment hit her that much harder because she’d believed that the outcome could be different if she tried.
Across America, would-be voters continue to turn away like my grandmother did, or opt out of the system like my sister’s friend. Their fear is again and again made real by stories of neighbors denied provisional ballots or lines that wind around city blocks because voting machines lack electrical cords. By undermining confidence in the system, modern-day suppression has swapped rabid dogs and cops with billy clubs for restrictive voter ID and tangled rules for participation. And those who are most vulnerable to suppression become the most susceptible to passing on that reluctance to others.
The mechanisms of voter suppression have transformed access to democracy in ways that continue to reshape not only our partisan politics but the way we live our daily lives. In 2020, a poor woman in South Georgia, miles away from a doctor or a hospital, may discover her pregnancy too late to make a choice. If she makes more than $6,000 per year, she is too rich to qualify for Medicaid and too impoverished to afford anything else because the governor refuses to expand the program.1 If she is black in Georgia, she is three times more likely to die of complications during or after her pregnancy than a white woman in the same position.2 Her child is more likely to attend underfunded schools, face a return to “tough on crime” policies that target black and brown people, and live in a state with a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. All because her vote didn’t count in 2018.
In 2018, I ran for governor of Georgia, with the goal of building a new coalition of voters to change the electorate. In response, Donald Trump tweeted nasty words at me. Tucker Carlson ranted about me. Breitbart and Fox News called me a liar. My cardinal sin is that I have refused to concede the outcome of the 2018 gubernatorial contest, and I have made a crusade of calling out and defeating voter suppression. I do so as a private citizen, and this reality greets me every day. As I have traveled the country in the months since the election, I typically begin my speeches the same way. “I am not the governor of Georgia,” I tell the assembled crowds, to boos and hisses of support. Then I declare with equal conviction a truth I hold deep in my heart: “We won.”
In our campaign, we increased turnout to record numbers, engaged voters who never wanted to before, and forced the closest election in Georgia since 1966. As I traveled the state for eighteen months, running for governor, I met skeptical Americans who neither trusted government nor believed their votes counted. But 1.9 million voters showed up for me on Election Day, the highest number of Democratic votes in Georgia history. We won because people trusted, if only for a single election, that it was worth a leap of faith. In political circles, what we accomplished would be dismissed as a moral victory. To that, I say, absolutely. Because I learned long ago that winning doesn’t always mean you get the prize. Sometimes you get progress, and that counts. This lesson has been drummed into me for most of my waking life. When it comes to voting in America, I certainly believe.
Civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis often refers to the right to vote as “almost sacred.” As the child of ministers, I understand his hesitation to label a simple, secular act as sacred. On this, though, I disagree. Voting is absolutely sacred. It is profound. In a democracy, it is the ultimate power. Through the vote, the poor can access financial means, the infirm can find health care supports, and the burdened and heavy-laden can receive a measure of relief from a social safety net that serves all. And we are willing to go to war to defend the sacred.
I am not calling for violent revolt here. We’ve done that twice in our nation’s history—to claim our freedom from tyranny and when we fought a civil war to recognize (at least a little) the humanity of blacks held in bondage. Yet, as millions are stripped of their rights, we live out the policy consequences, from lethal pollution running through poor communities to kindergartners practicing active shooter drills taught by nursery rhymes. I question what remedy remains. The questions that confront me every day are how to defend this sacred right and our democracy, and who will do so. As it stands now, on one side, we have a Republican Party in power that believes that it has complied with the letter of the law, having twisted the rules to barely reflect its spirit. On the other hand, the Democrats—the party to which I hold allegiance—talks about full civic engagement but takes inconsistent steps to meaningfully expand the electorate and build infrastructure. Embedded in this duality is a fundamental concern: Who is entitled to full citizenship? Based on our national story, and from where we stand now, the list is far shorter than it should be.
Full citizenship rights are the bare minimum one should expect from the government. Yet, for two-thirds of our history, full citizenship was denied to those who built this country from theory into to life. African slaves and Chinese workers and Native American environmentalists and Latino gauchos and Irish farmers—and half the population: women.
Over the course of our history, these men and women, these patriots and defenders of liberty, have been denied the most profound currency of citizenship: power. Because, let’s be honest, that is the core of this fight. The right to be seen, the right to be heard, the right to direct the course of history are markers of power. In the United States, democracy makes politics one of the key levers to exercising power. So, it should shock none of us that the struggle for dominion over our nation’s future and who will participate is simply a battle for American power.
Right now, we are experiencing a massive cultural change, spurred by a demographic transition sweeping the nation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people of color comprise nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population; and millennials and Gen Z are the largest combined age cohort in the country. When added to socially moderate and progressive-leaning whites, this population is a New American Majority, and their impact on American life can be felt in nearly every corner. Diversity, which we can admit is an incomplete descriptor of this transformation, has altered how we engage and interact, from the Black Lives Matter movement to marriage equality to Dreamers pressing for action on immigration to women challenging the silence of sexual harassment and assault.
We can also trace a darker, angrier politics to this evolution, including a resurgence of neo-Nazi rhetoric in the open, domestic terrorism against black, Jewish, Latino, and LGBTQ+ groups, a xenophobic response to immigration, rising religious intolerance, and a retrenchment of hyperconservative ideology. Those who see their relative influence shrinking are using every tool possible to limit access to the political power. For those who cling to the days of monochromatic American identity, the sweep of change strikes a fundamental fear of not being a part of an America that is multicultural and multicolored. In their minds, the way of life that has sustained them faces an existential crisis, and the response has been vicious, calculated, and effective.
However, they are not using new tools. At its inception, our nation served as a refuge to those whose difference placed them in danger; but the same newcomers stole land from and murdered the original inhabitants, enslaved blacks and stripped them of their humanity, and denied basic rights to women and nonwhites from abroad. This history means we understand what is at stake, how our opponents will try to block change, and, most important, our obligation to realize our destiny. At its core, America’s challenge is a question of who we are. Some on the right will dismiss this as absurd identity politics, but identity is politics. I will make a case for that fact here. Choices are based on personal needs—end of story. Yet so much of today’s politics require mollifying people terrified of this basic fact. A multiracial, multiethnic, youth-driven majority has grown over the last twenty years; and as a result, we’ve seen nothing less than a sea change toward progress.
There’s a famous psychology test of situational awareness, where the subject is told to count how many people he sees engaged in an activity. The viewer instinctively focuses on the task so intently, he invariably misses a glaring oddity: a moonwalking bear crossing through his field of vision. As Americans, we have become accustomed to a fundamental belief in the inevitability that we’ll get it right in time: that from bigotry to poverty to the planet’s very sustainability, eventually, we will make the right choice. This confidence in the American experiment has welded together a disparate group of folks, driven by conflicting desires and intersectional needs. But our belief in the resilience of our national narrative has been so complete that we’ve missed the Moonwalking Bear in our existing political system: those at risk of losing power—that powerful minority—have changed the rules of the game. Again.
As the first black woman ever to win a primary for governor for a major political party in American history, one who ran against one of the worst purveyors of voter suppression and xenophobia since George Wallace, I watched in real time as the conflicts in our evolving nation became fodder for racist commercials, horrific suppression—and the largest turnout of voters of color in Georgia’s history. Because, despite the final tally of the election, our campaign energized this New American Majority in tremendous ways, proving the resilience and possibility of our national destiny. What excites me about this book is not the litany of challenges to our body politic—although they must be explored and exposed—but the potential I saw in the tired eyes of an African American shift worker waiting in a four-hour line to cast a ballot of hope.
This is not a behind-the-scenes campaign book but a narrative that describes the urgency that compels me and millions more to push for a different American story than the one being told today. It’s a story that is one part danger, one part action, and all true. It’s a story about how and why we fight for our democracy and win. Using stories from my own life, those of others I’ve met as I’ve traveled through Georgia’s rural towns and cities, interviews with candidates on the same path I am on, as well as political insights I’ve gained along the way, this book will be a primer on how we can guarantee our right to choose the vision we want for our country—and how we make it so.
Real Access to the Right to Vote Isn’t a Guarantee—and That’s a Problem
Most of us can recite the preamble to the Constitution (or sing it if we learned the words from Schoolhouse Rock!). The promises of justice and liberty come with the responsibility for electing leaders to protect and make them real. Yet, from limiting original voting rights to white men, to the elitist and racist origins of the Electoral College, American democracy has always left people out of participation by design. Any lasting solutions come solely from the U.S. Constitution, the highest legal bar imaginable, and over the centuries we clawed out access to the ballot for people of color through the Fifteenth Amendment, women in the Nineteenth Amendment, and young voters in the Twenty-Sixth Amendment. But each of those amendments contained a loophole for suppression: leaving implementation to the states, particularly the ones most hostile to inclusion. Add to that the generational underfunding of the basic mechanics of elections, where incompetence and malfeasance operate in tandem, and the sheer complexity of the national voting apparatus smooths suppression into a nearly seamless operation.
Since 2008’s election of the first black president, we have achieved extraordinary victories. Americans, too used to seeing themselves only on the margins or not at all, have participated in historic and hopeful wins in the House and hard-fought victories for the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races. However, across the country, we witnessed a “power grab” from the minority desperate to hold on to power. The examples of this abound: Native Americans living on reservations in North Dakota were told that in order to vote, they had to have street addresses—where none existed. In Mississippi, impoverished elderly folks who needed an absentee ballot had to pay for a notary public to submit the ballot—resulting in a new-fashioned poll tax. In Georgia, tens of thousands of people of color had their applications for registration held up because of typographical errors in government databases and a failed system called “exact match.” Of the fifty-three thousand applications blocked by this process, 80 percent were from people of color.
Voter suppression—from getting on the rolls to being allowed to vote to having those votes count—is real. But Americans need a robust understanding of what suppression looks like today. Today, the ones barring access have shifted from using billy clubs and hoses to using convoluted rules to make it harder to register and stay on the rolls, cast a ballot, or have that ballot counted. To move forward, we must understand the extent to which the shrinking conservative minority will go to create barriers to democracy. Citing voting rights experts and my own work in expansion of voting access for the past twenty-five years, here I will not only explain the problem but offer concrete solutions to fix it.
Who We Are Matters: Identity Politics and the Census
The United States has always fumbled in its pursuit of social equality, but we face a new round of concerns that are particularly damning. Whether it’s the stories of police brutality against blacks or the invisibility of the disabled community, who we say we are as a country is not currently held up by how our systems behave. For the New American Majority—that coalition of people of color, young people, and moderate to progressive whites—to be successful, we have to stop letting them tell us who we are and how to succeed. That begins when we reject the false choice of “identity” versus “universality.”
We are strongest when we see the most vulnerable in our society, bear witness to their struggles, and then work to create systems to make it better. Whether it’s the civil rights acts of the early ’60s or the advance of women’s rights or marriage equality, we are a better country when we defend the weakest among us and then empower them to choose their own futures. In these pages, I will dissect how identity has been weaponized against the very communities that need its power. Through stories of how identity politics have shaped and changed the fabric of our nation, and with ideas for how we reclaim the power of identity via the U.S. census, this book will detail a path forward where identity is celebrated, not feared.
Voting by identity works. Just look at how the right’s power has been apportioned. Now, it’s time for the New American Majority to leverage the same tools to achieve the goals of expanded access to opportunity. In theory, this should work too. Our numbers are bigger. Our successes, from the New Deal to the Affordable Care Act, are more durable. Our coalition is energized. We have the ability to permanently affect policies and shape the delivery of justice, but we have to pay attention to what’s been accomplished under our noses and own the identities that made it possible.
Defeating Populism and Winning Elections to Save Democracy
My experience in 2018 was pretty straightforward. I ran for office, dogged by a racist demagogue who carefully disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of Georgians and who controlled the levers of the election. I watched him be rewarded for joining a growing pool of political leaders who revel in a pervasive, systemic process of stripping the right to vote from some and building obstacles to access for others.
But the threat is also coming from inside the coalition itself: citizens grappling with racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty are the least likely to vote. They have come to expect suppression from the opposition and inaction for the winners. Worse, the candidates who should engage them are afraid to reach out. We need active and relentless participation in our elections and government. Unfortunately, candidates and their consultants tend to view these groups as the hardest and most expensive to reach, so campaigns typically decide to hunt elsewhere for votes. Or political leaders fear that visible engagement with these marginalized groups will cost them votes from white traditional voters, and they deliberately ignore their communities.
True progress can only happen if we knit together the “who” of identity with the “how” of voting into effective, inclusive campaigns and movements. We must dispel myths that give primacy to the archetype of a working-class white man in Ohio who voted for Reagan in 1980, and instead expand our polity to recognize that his daughter might be married to a Kenyan woman who is waiting for permanent residence and their first child in Arkansas. The blue wave election of 2018, which included victories and close losses in unexpectedly competitive territories, demonstrates that demographic changes have come to fruition and are ready to become a political road map to sustained progress. But to do so, we must understand the hard work of civic engagement. We can’t wait for election time to come around.
Candidates and the campaigns they run matter now more than ever. I ran a campaign different from anything that proceeded it and, by doing so, proved that what happened with Obama was not a fluke but a foreshadowing of how we can win even more. In our campaign, and in campaigns around the country, new people were able to step forward and win—and they did so by recognizing the intersection of identity and voting rights.
Beyond Congress, there are the unmentioned corners of power we too often cede: state and local elections, from school board and county commission to boards of elections and secretaries of state. These elections matter because the architecture of our rights begins closest to home. The attention to national politics makes sense for those who have been denied access. States’ rights—the idea that each state should be allowed to set its own rules—controls much of how life is lived in America. The practical reality is that where you live determines your ability to marry, buy a house, get an abortion, or start a business, and creating equality in these areas has usually required federal action to guarantee basic rights. However, by ignoring the power of nonfederal offices, those who long for a more homogenous, segregated bygone era have grown stronger and more resilient.
The Trump administration has amplified weaknesses in our democracy, but he and his enablers in Congress and the judiciary have shone a spotlight on the dangers of populism here and abroad. Americans must understand the compelling nihilism of populism to avoid a permanent breakdown in democracy. Across the globe, former democracies are slipping into autocracy, and the United States is not immune. To restore our country, we have to deconstruct what got us here and how to repair our nation before it’s too late.
Whether it’s the looming 2020 election or the first congressional election post-redistricting in 2022, or a post-Trump era, we must do the same long-term planning of those who work to deny us agency. Our obligation is to fortify democracy’s infrastructure and to train those who have been isolated from power to use this formidable weapon of demographic supremacy. Demography is not destiny; it is opportunity. We have internalized the worst lessons of our opponents and hamstrung our own progress by catering to the backbiting, loathing, and timidity of fear. At its core, I hope this book will be a manual of action where readers know how to protect the right to vote, champion the diversity of who we are today, and demand political leadership that does both from now on.
I have two siblings who missed out on most of my campaign for governor: a brother who watched my race from a television in a state prison and a sister who is forbidden to engage in partisan politics as a federal judge. My vision for America isn’t one where Leslie is the star and Walter is simply a cautionary tale. My America sees my brother and my sister as the promise of what our nation can and must become—a place of extraordinary success that transcends barriers and a place of redemption that defies the cynicism of our politics. This is a vision that only comes into being when everyone has a true voice in our futures. America, for all its faults, has always been a place of promise and renewal, of mistakes made and the constant pursuit of atonement. This is a new manifesto for our progressive future, one emboldened by understanding that our time of waiting is over. The fight for our future has already begun.
And guess what? We won.
Copyright © 2020 by Stacey Abrams