The Democratic victory in Georgia is historic and its implications go far beyond this election.
What Georgia progressives are doing is no less than the third campaign to reconstruct the South, a task that has been under way since the end of the slavery. The first attempt—from 1866 to 1876—ended when the North made a deal with the former slave owners to let them rule the South again without slavery. The Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror drove Black (and poor white) voters and office holders from power, and a virtually all-white electorate created a white dictatorship—the Jim Crow system—that lasted for more than seventy years. The second reconstruction effort was the civil rights movement of the 1950s -1980s. It sought to end white supremacy by forcing the Federal government to ban legal segregation and then to desegregate schools, jobs and housing as well as to assure people of color the right to vote. This effort was largely stymied in the 1990s and early 2000s by the rise of neo-liberalism, which opened the door to more and more aggressive efforts to re-segregate schools, housing, jobs and suppress minorities’ voting rights.
And now we are on the cusp of the third effort at reconstruction. This movement has its roots in the popular revolt against neo-liberalism after the 2008 financial crisis. From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to MeToo, this effort gathered momentum in the South. In Georgia, reconstruction has long focused on voting rights, in large part because Atlanta is one of the centers of the civil rights movement elders—in particular John Lewis. Stacy Abrams’ campaign for Governor of Georgia in 2018 was so powerful that the only way for Georgia to remain Republican was through naked (and quite delegitimizing) acts of Black voter suppression. This movement also gained momentum through the fight to remove Confederate statues, especially after the white terrorist attack on Charlottesville Virginia in 2017.
The New Georgia Project (Stacy Abrams) and Black Votes Matter (LaTosha Brown) kept the momentum going after Abrams’ defeat in 2018 and provided the backbone of the 2020 electoral campaign. The most important feature of this campaign was the methods that successfully mobilized a record 2,472,002 voters for the Democrats. For years, activists did the hard work of grassroots organizing, convincing ordinary people to become politically engaged through their community networks of churches, workplaces, schools and beauty shops. The activists built their organizations and coalitions from the bottom up, identifying new leaders and training them as they grew. What they built was far more than a get out the vote campaign and will be active well beyond this election. And in the immediate future, this movement has positioned Democrats with an excellent opportunity to retake the U.S. Senate on January 5.
Georgia provides no less than a blueprint for every progressive organization in the United States about how to do its work. We must all center our work on the painstaking tasks of upholding the vital community ties that marginalized people have built, vital connections that provide them with safety and support and dignity in a hostile world. Our coalitions must be based on and led by people from these communities. While winning and exercising political power is important, we cannot prioritize each election or campaign over the hard work of building and safeguarding the relationships within and between different marginalized communities. Progressives must have the discipline to painstakingly build these relationships and to understand the long game we are playing.
Conditions in the South are favorable for this work: Black communities built on powerful bonds and a profound culture forged in the slavery and Jim Crow eras still exist and form a fertile basis for the efforts at reconstructing the South today. Of course, vibrant communities of marginalized people exist everywhere in this country (similar work done among Latinx people in Arizona also produced important electoral victories in 2020). It is in these communities that progressive movements—and their leaders—must be rooted. Progressives must always remember that building long-lasting relationships of trust within and between marginalized communities is more than a tactic to win political campaigns: it is the practice of social justice today that will make possible the reconstruction of America we for which we so sorely long.