The most pernicious assault on American democracy today are the laws and measures enacted in various state legislatures under Republican control that aim at voter restriction. Among the foremost voices in the struggle for democratic rights in the United States is Stacey Abrams, U.S. politician and activist. Her campaign for protecting voting rights and resisting disenfranchisement of black and other minority voters has been central in pushing back against these insidious moves that dismantle democracy from within using formally legitimate means. We open our third series of Democracy in Question by asking Stacey to shed light on organizational and political issues around voting rights, democracy, and demography.
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Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change. (2018)
Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America. (2020)
Rules of Engagement (2001)
The Art of Desire (2001)
Power of Persuasion (2002)
Never Tell (2004)
Hidden Sins (2006)
Secrets and Lies (2006)
What is Hot Call Summer?
(00:13:20 or p.3 in the transcript)
Hot Call Summer was Abram’s ask for people to call their senators demanding they support the For the People Act. Source.
What is nativism?
(00:26:30 or p.4 of the transcript)
Nativism is xenophobic nationalism. An ideology that wants congruence of state and nation as a political cultural unit. Source.
What is the insurrection of January 6?
(00:27:30 or p.4 of the transcript)
On January 6, 2021, the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., was violently attacked by a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump. Source.
Shalini Randeria, Host (SR)
New President and Rector of the Central European University (CEU), Vienna, former Rector of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, Senior Fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Vienna
Stacey Abrahms, Guest (SA)
Political leader, voting right activist, former member, and Democratic leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, Founder of Fair Fight and New York Times bestselling author.
Published 15 September 2021
SR: Welcome to "Democracy in Question," the podcast series that explores the challenges democracies are facing around the world today. I'm Shalini Randeria, the new rector and president of Central European University in Vienna and senior fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.
We launch our third season on world democracy day with a [00:00:31] very special guest. I would like to welcome Stacey Abrams, one of the most important voices in the fight for democratic rights in the United States today. She served 11 years in the Georgia House of Representatives, 7 as Democratic leader, and in 2018, she became the democratic nominee for Governor of Georgia, the first black woman ever to be nominated for Office of Governor. And although she lost [00:00:59] this election by a small margin, she garnered more votes than any other democrat in the history of the State of Georgia. Stacey is also a New York Times best-selling author. Her books include "Minority Leader:How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change." And last year, she published "Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America." She has also published several novels [00:01:30] written under the pen name Selena Montgomery. It's wonderful to have you with us this evening, Stacey.
SA: Thank you for having me.
SR: The very first episode of "Democracy in Question," in October 2020, addressed the challenges posed by the Trump presidency for American democracy. Now, we are in the post-Trump era and it seems that the Republican Party has recommitted itself to furthering Trumpian politics on every front. Since 1986, [00:02:00] republicans have worked to limit access to the polls recognizing that, when more people vote, republicans lose. Perhaps the most pernicious incidents of the war on American democracy today are the laws and measures enacted in various state legislatures under republican control, all of them with a single aim, voter restriction.
Stacey Abrams' campaign for protecting voting rights [00:02:30] and resisting disenfranchisement of black and other minority voters in the U.S. has been central in pushing back against these moves. In this episode, we explore with Stacey the organizational and political issues around voting rights, democracy, and demography in the United States. I'd like to start from an issue that has been your life's work in politics, voting rights. One of the most significant threats to democracy, [00:03:00] and not only in the United States, today comes from the suppression of voting rights currently underway. And, of course, for the U.S., this is not new, it has had deep historic roots in the history of disenfranchisement of black and other minorities, which you deal with in your stirring book "Our Time is Now."
Let me start with a biographical question to you. Your parents were both civil rights activists in Mississippi, and you described [00:03:30] them with a term, which I found really interesting, "super voters." How did these super voters influence your own work as a voting-rights activist and your own foray into public life from an early age?
SA: Thank you so much. The term "super voters" is used to describe people who rarely miss an election. And that perfectly describes my parents. When I was growing up, my mom and dad would take us [00:04:00] with them to vote in every election, as far as I could tell, because it seemed that there was an election every year. We voted at my elementary school. And, so, one of my clearest memories was us going into the voting booths sort of splitting between mom and dad, because I have five brothers and sisters, and us trailing out of the booth. But in retrospect, what I realized was that my parents wanted us to understand that it wasn't sufficient [00:04:30] to say, "You wanted the world to be better," you were obliged to do the work in every part of making that so. That meant ensuring that we were volunteering and serving communities that needed aid, that we were active in school and doing our part to improve our likely outcomes and that we were engaged in the political process. [00:05:00]
What was the most telling for me and what I think not only stuck with me but has really molded me was the realization that my parents rarely saw a direct benefit from the work they did. My mom and dad would take us to volunteer in soup kitchens and in homeless shelters. And yet sometimes we had no running water or our lights got cut off because my parents struggled against sort of the entrenched nature of race and gender and poverty in the South. [00:05:30] My mom and dad would take us to go and vote knowing that most of the votes they cast would not change the outcome of the election. We were liberal democrats in a conservative state, in a conservative area. My parents didn't have their electoral votes always count for the presidency because of the inequities in that structure but that never stopped them from participating. Because they wanted us to understand that the act of [00:06:00] participation, the act of citizenship is its own responsibility. You are not guaranteed an outcome but you are obliged to participate. And for me that has really cut across all of the work that I've done and the way I approach it. Which is to say I'm not assured of victory but I can absolutely assure myself of engagement.
SR: I remember you mentioning in the book how [00:06:30] difficult it was to mobilize people to come out and vote in that generation and people were really afraid of even going to the polls. Do you remember this atmosphere of fear and anxiety?
SA: So, that preceded me. My understanding is really drawn from my parents, from my grandparents. Specifically I tell the story of my grandmother who was born in Mississippi in 1929 who came of age in a state where she worked [00:07:00] for decades at a college that her children were legally not permitted to attend. My grandfather was drafted into both World War II and the Korean War and was sent abroad to fight and possibly die but was denied the right to vote when he returned to his home in the United States. And, so, when the civil rights movement really hit the crescendo, that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, [00:07:30] while on the whole it was a celebratory moment, for so many people there was a disbelief that this nation that had for the entirety of their lives, for the entirety of their parents' lives they were not equal citizens, it's hard to suspend that disbelief simply because a law is passed. The Constitution changed, a war was fought and still the disenfranchisement [00:08:00] of black people had persisted.
And, so, the weight of that historical knowledge added to the very recent experience that so many blacks in the South had of being attacked physically and mentally and emotionally, but often physically, meant that, when the right to vote was made manifest, there was a great deal of cynicism that that right was real. And, unfortunately, [00:08:30] that doesn't subside simply because the world changes. People carry with them their trauma. They carry with them their fear. And when something that resembles what you know reasserts itself, there's both an individual harm and there is a community harm.
And that's the challenge I think that we face today and that's what I try to address in the work that I do. I may not have personally ever experienced it, I was born in 1973, so, [00:09:00] for the majority of my life, we had the protection of the Voting Rights Act. But when that was ripped away, I completely understood those who would tell me that they were deeply concerned that we were returning to those darkest moments of the voting rights struggle in the 20th century.
SR So, at the present moment, what we are seeing, especially after President Biden's election, is a really concerted effort and a new and calculated strategy [00:09:30] by the Republican Party to once again limit voting rights, especially for black and brown communities, and to restrict their participation in the electoral process. You yourself have been at the receiving end, even personally, of this voter suppression in the 2018 election when you went to cast your ballot. So, could you share this experience before we go on to the larger struggle of the community as a whole?
SA: Certainly. One of the goals [00:10:00] that we had in the 2018 election was to encourage voters to vote early. We knew that because of the voter-suppression activities of the Secretary of State's Office/my opponent that it was going to be incredibly important that we front load as many voters as possible in case there were challenges. It would give us more time to remedy the concerns. And, so, one of the ways to encourage people to vote early was for me to model that behavior. I didn't vote early [00:10:30] normally, I believed in voting on election day, that's how I was raised, that's what I thought of, but I wanted to signal that this was not only the right thing to do, it was an easy process.
And, so, I arrived at the voting booth with a phalanx of cameras in tow from press, both local and international, because we wanted to publicize that people needed to see this happen. So, I go inside,I go through the process. I get to the clerk, [00:11:00] the registrar who's supposed to give me my ballot. And she leans in and tells me I've already voted. And I respond, "No. I would've remembered that. I'm running for this kind of important job, I would've remembered casting the ballot for myself." And she just looks so worried because she has to tell me that, according to the system, I am not permitted to cast a ballot.
I'm a lawyer, I'm a candidate, I'm well versed in voting rights, [00:11:30] I was a former legislator, and I'm of a fairly stern, you know, constitution. And, so, I kindly said, "I need you to go and get your supervisor so we can get this resolved." I could tell she wanted to do the right thing but the system did not allow it. And when she brought over her supervisor, we were able to resolve it. But what was so telling about that moment was that I came armed with both personal power [00:12:00] and with public viewing and still face this challenge. Imagine what it would mean to someone who's a first-time voter or a timid voter or someone who has experienced voter suppression before. The urge to just accept that you've been denied your right, your franchise, is overwhelming.
SR: So, the Democratic Party and the Biden administration have identified the issue of voting rights to be a top priority. And yet, the broad election reform bill [00:12:30] For the People Act, as it's called, introduced in June this year, stands rejected by the U.S. Senate. So, how do you see the future of legislative attempts to address this deliberate erosion of voting rights?
SA: I would recast the current status of the bill in this way. It has not been rejected, wholly, what has happened is that you've had two essential test votes to ask for [00:13:00] action. And those test votes have said that republicans, that the 60-vote margin necessary to end debate has not been permitted. But the bill isn't dead and that's what's so critical. And part of it for me is it's that we cannot let one or two procedural hurdles let them invalidate our actions.
And, so, in response, Fair Fight, the organization I've created, we launched what we call Hot Call Summer. Tens of thousands of phone calls [00:13:30] have been made to senators. We have seen action and movement on this. We also saw the House take action, at the middle of August, near the end of the month, to move forward the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is part and parcel of the voting-rights legislation we need to see. I believe that we have the opportunity to pass these bills. My faith is in this: [00:14:00] this is not a question of partisanship. While democrats are the ones taking the lead, we're the ones raising the hue and cry, this is not about winning elections as democrats, this is about making certain there are elections to be won or lost. And we have to continue to cast this as patriotism, not as partisanship. That shift in frame is essential if we want to, not only encourage our elected leaders to take action, but if we want to galvanize [00:14:30] our citizenry to demand action.
The second piece is that we may not get everything we want at once but we must secure something that keeps the process moving. And, so, I do think that there is a conversation happening about the scale of For the People Act. Senator Joe Manchin put forward a framework that he said he could work with. That is an important piece of progress because, prior to that moment, [00:15:00] he was not amenable to the passage of the legislation.
And, so, we've seen points of progress along the way. Our responsibility as citizens is to cultivate those points of progress, not to compromise our values but to compromise our needed victories. [00:15:30] And part of that comes from, you know, my life as a legislator. I was in the minority, I was never going to get everything I asked for. I was effective because I understood how to get the things we need. And for the future of democracy in the United States, our focus has to be on, "How do we secure the things we need?" The things we want are still valid and viable and necessary, and I spend a whole book talking about what they are, but our focus has to be laser-like on getting what we need.
SR: So, the organization which you founded, Fair Fight – one of the aims has is to bring in new voters. Could you say something [00:16:00] about the ways in which it has gone about doing that? Because I think this could bear lessons for democracies all over the world, not just in the U.S.
SA: I will actually talk about a trio of organizations. Fair Fight has gotten the lion's share of the attention because of the work we've done on protecting the right to vote. But before I created Fair Fight, I created the New Georgia Project. The New Georgia Project has really been the lead on voter registration. That work is singularly focused on [00:16:30] how do we get people to believe that their right to vote is real and sacred and pull them into the process. And the way we did that, to your question, was by meeting them where they are. So often our voter-engagement theorems rely on people waking up one morning deciding, "I want to be a super voter," and putting themselves in the process. If that was going to work, it would've happened already.
And, so, instead, those of us who understand [00:17:00] just how vital this is have the superior responsibility of going to the people for whom this is less a truth and more a theory. Our job then is to go to those communities. What we did for the New Georgia Project, at its outset, we deployed staff to all 159 counties in the state of Georgia and, over a 4-month period, collected more than 85,000 applications to vote. Not every one of those people got through the process and not every one of the people who got through the process voted. [00:17:30] But what was transformative was that we went and asked them, instead of waiting for them to come to us.
But what was transformative was that the next thing we did was call them back, reach out to them again, and say, "Do you now know how to vote?" Because we presume that, when someone gets a voter registration card, when they become a registered voter, that's the moral equivalent of handing someone the keys to the car but not making sure they know how to drive. If you want to engage [00:18:00] voters, you've got to do both the mechanics and the civics.
And, so, what we did through the New Georgia Project and what is one of our hallmarks is that New Georgia Project does the work of actually making sure people know how to vote, where to vote, what's happening. I no longer run the New Georgia Project, it's now very ably run by a young woman named Nsé Ufot and it's a separate organization, but that was one piece.
The second organization is Fair Fight. We fight [00:18:30] on the issue of structural integrity of our elections and protection of our democracy. Because, if you get people registered and they understand what's supposed to happen, if you haven't protected the infrastructure so that it becomes real, it falls apart. What we do through Fair Fight is ensure that counties are running their elections well, that they have the resources they need. We were so effective at it, in 2020, that it is now against the law in the State of Georgia for the counties to accept our financial support. [00:19:00] Even though it was nonpartisan and we didn't directly provide the resources, we secured the resources for democratic counties, republican counties, urban, rural, suburban, it is now against the law in Georgia and in other states across the country to accept free dollars to help ensure that elections can run.
We also sent out and helped to send out millions of bits of information about how to vote by mail. We provided [00:19:30] information on where to vote, how to vote. We had volunteers who actually staffed locations. We knew people were gonna be sent to the wrong precincts where people go and vote in the United States so we helped redirect them. We had a massive volunteer engagement that called people to answer questions about how voting works. And, so, for Fair Fight the mission is to make sure that, once you know you can vote, making sure your ability to vote works.
And then the third organization, [00:20:00] this is the end of the answer, is called Fair Count. Fair Count was really created around our census. In the United States, we have a constitutional obligation to count every person. Not every citizen, every person. It is often seen in the United States as a once-in-a-decade massive intrusion of privacy. You get this letter that tells you to, "Tell me everything about your family." What I wanted to do instead, and what was so extraordinarily well done by the team that runs Fair Count, is that, instead of seeing it as a once-a-decade intrusion of privacy, we see [00:20:30] this as a 10-year opportunity to build civic power. We go to the most disadvantaged communities, black and brown communities, rural communities, poor communities, and we make certain that they understand their right to be counted, their right to be engaged, and their right to vote. We don't tell them who to vote for but we use the census and the deployment of resources, the money for your schools, [00:21:00] the money for your roads and bridges, whether or not you have to and can escape an extreme weather event in the, you know, occasion of a hurricane or a fire, all of those are driven by who gets to speak for you. And, in the United States, that is both who can vote and redistricting the lines drawn to determine how you can vote. And, so, Fair Count focuses on redistricting and making sure that we have fairness and the ability to actually elect our leaders, [00:21:30] instead of having our leaders decide who their voters will be.
SR: So, I do want to turn to the question of the census because I think it's really central on both sides of the polarized political divide. And, in your brilliant book, "Our Time is Now," you have a really telling phrase. And may I quote you, you say, "The census is more than a statistical juggernaut, it's an organizing tool we can use to salvage democracy." And here, let me first turn to one side [00:22:00] of the problem with the demographics, which is the composition of the body. The 2020 census figures released recently show that, for the first time in American history, there is a decline in the share of the white population and an increase in the share of brown and Hispanic populations. Which is driving much of the population growth in the U.S. between 2010 and 2020.
So, the question here for me would be [00:22:30] can you elaborate into this insight which you had that the census could be an organizing tool? Because I think what you are then thinking of is one can build new kinds of political coalitions. Could you explain what you were thinking of in this context?
SA: The data from the 2020 census was incredibly telling, in part because of how weaponized it was by the Trump administration. The Trump administration tried to [00:23:00] ensure that, if you were undocumented, you could be excluded from the count. They also used their bully pulpit to, essentially, terrify communities and suggest that their participation could somehow lead to deportation. Even for those who should've been able to participate because, in the United States, we have so many mixed-documentation-status families, meaning that you may have, in the same family, someone who has a green card, someone who is a citizen, and someone who's [00:23:30] undocumented. And if one person responds, the fear was that it would expose everyone to scrutiny and that could then lead to a change of status.
That led to a deep concern for Fair Count and for the Leadership Conference and other organizations, extraordinary organizations across the United States, that we had to ensure and doubly protect communities of color and their participation. The result was that we had one of the highest levels of participation among these communities of color, [00:24:00] which then led to data points that signal an increase in communities of color and a diminution of the number of white members of our society who consider themselves white with no ethnic or racial minority attachment.
Now, there's a legitimate critique of how these numbers are being read because there's also a change in the census form that allows you, for the first time, to select multiple racial identities. But the reality is even that selection is [00:24:30] an important turning point in our nation. Because it is no longer anathema to a larger percentage of our population to accept their multiracial identity. And, as an organizing tool, the minute people start to believe that who they are is enough, that who they are is sufficient, that is the beginning of their belief that they are entitled to even more of the privileges and the perquisites and the responsibilities [00:25:00] of citizenship. The mission I have in salvaging our democracy is that we have people at the table engaged in the process, participating in elections, but also participating in post-election activities like going to city-council meetings or standing up to their school boards demanding masks in the midst of a pandemic, you know, calling their state representatives saying that the response to increased crime is not to put more of our children in prison. [00:25:30] All of those actions begin with the belief that you have the right to be here and the right to be seen. Every civic action that follows must begin with the legitimacy of identity and legitimacy of presence.
And, so, as we see this change in the demography of our nation, we're also seeing a change in the emotional connection we have to who we are, meaning that we are more and more willing to see how we fit [00:26:00] and thus more willing to use that power of presence, the power of just being here to demand better for our communities.
SR: But, Stacey, I want to come to the other side of the political divide. Because, on that side, you have a mobilization also around politics of fear, the politics of losing the demographic race, also of raising emotions around white-identity politics, which would like to define the nation in pure ethno-nationalist terms. [00:26:30] How does one tackle the pernicious appeal of such nativist politics?
SA: Nativism almost always precedes authoritarianism and the devolution of democracy. It is the easiest way to win because you convince your adherents that everyone else is the enemy. And the single strongest factor when you're trying to build political power [00:27:00] is to create an other from among the rest of your community, when you signal that someone is not legitimate, those who believe that they are, the nativists, have an increased reason to, not only oppose those who are outside of their scope, but to defend even the irrational leadership that is guiding them. And we saw that for 4 years in the United States, we have seen that in Hungary, we are watching it play out, [00:27:30] we are seeing not only these surges but we are seeing a slower and slower retrenchment. And that's what should be terrifying.
What's happened in the United States, the fact that the insurrection of January 6 is now a controversial conversation, when we say there should be accountability, is grounded in a nativist notion that the people who voted in November of 2020 and, again, in Georgia, in January of 2021, [00:28:00] that they are illegitimate voters. That because they are other, because they're inconvenient, that they are not legitimate parts of our society. And I keep using the word "legitimate" because, to use your framing, nativism begins by saying that there is truth and there is lie. And if you are not native, then you are the lie.
And, so, we have to first begin by dispelling and fracturing that language and fracturing that construct. [00:28:30] That is why for me identity is such an important part of what I talk about. It's why in "Our Time is Now" I lean very headlong into the notion of identity politics because authoritarianism and nativism begin by trying to tell you only one identity has power and truth and everything else is false. When that takes hold, it allows just a myriad of sins to be committed against those who've been othered but it also weakens the resolve [00:29:00] and the thinking power of those who hold to this notion.
When someone can convince you that, simply because of a social construct like race, that you are more entitled to justice and liberty and protection than someone else, that starts to wear down the basic constructs of how society is formed. And, so, it's not just about the salvaging of democracy, it's about the salvaging of our social order. [00:29:30] And the extent to which we are watching political leaders, who are desperate for individualized power, cling to and, worse, exacerbate this nativism under the guise of protecting some long-ago halcyon notion of who we are, we are ceding not only our nation and our organizing power, we are ceding our future. And that should be terrifying to everyone. [00:30:00] Because, if they're willing to do this to get power, what are they willing to do to keep power?
SR: Thanks so much, Stacey, for this really powerful defense of, not only our democratic and our voting rights, but also for a liberal, inclusive, plural social order. Thank you.
SA: This has been just a delight. Thank you for having me.
SR: What we've been reminded of by Stacey Abrams is the importance of the daily work of keeping democracy alive and the significance of voting, [00:30:30] irrespective of whether one's ballot influences the outcome. The very act of participation in elections, and in political life more generally, is an obligation. The struggle for equal political rights for blacks and minorities are needed in order to make the rights that the constitutions give us real. The engagement by voters is, therefore, patriotism, [00:31:00] it's not partisanship. What we need to do is to protect our electoral infrastructures as much as we protect our social and technical infrastructures. Fair Count, count every person because every person counts. And the census, which counts us is, therefore, an opportunity to build civic power and not an intrusion by the state [00:31:30] into the privacy of our lives. Nativism precedes authoritarianism and it does so by turning some citizens into illegitimate minorities, those who don't belong because the country is defined by ethno-nationalist definitions of identity and belonging.
[00:32:00] This was the first episode of Season 3. Thank you very much for listening. In the next episode, we discuss the politics of fear sweeping across Europe and elsewhere, following the rise of right-wing parties and movements in recent years. My guest will be Ruth Wodak, emeritus/distinguished professor at Lancaster University and visiting professor at the Central European University in Vienna.
But, in the meantime, you can go back and listen to any episode you may [00:32:30] have missed. And, of course, let your friends know about this podcast if you've enjoyed it. You can stay in touch with the work of the CEU at www.ceu.edu and the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at www.graduateinstitute.ch/democracy