Voters waiting to vote in polling place sourced from Getty
After the 2018 midterms, Democrats—for the most part—rejoiced. They took back the House, finally holding some meaningful lever of power during the Trump administration to hold hearings, fire subpoenas from Jerry Nadler’s infamous (and frankly underused) subpoena cannon, and send legislation over to the Senate, which forced Mitch McConnell to refuse publicly popular bills in the name of a mostly unpopular modern republican legislative agenda. One of those very bills, in our current moment, stands out as exceptionally important. HR1, or the “For the People Act of 2019”, seeks “to expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethic rules for public servants…” Americans voted Democrats into the House of Representatives, the chamber of the people, by an overwhelming margin in 2018 to protect their healthcare and to help move the needle back towards normal Americans as opposed to the uber-rich, who primarily benefitted from the Republican tax cut passed under Paul Ryan’s House. However, Americans voted Democrats into power to also provide a check on the Trump administration. They voted Democrats into power to, potentially, preserve the light of Democracy in these dark times. To hold onto a hope that, well, is worth holding.
November 4th, 2018 was a celebration – but not for everyone. Travel to Atlanta, Georgia, perhaps, to find what should be a less hopeful scene. Stacey Abrams lost a tightly contested race to current Governor and former Secretary of State Brian Kemp. As Secretary of State during the election process, Kemp effectively manipulated the election, making it more difficult for voters to vote on election day. This may not be the only reason Abrams lost, and it certainly is not the only reason that people in Georgia, a Republican state since the flip of the parties in the south during the 1960’s, voted for Kemp. However, it is undeniable to even the casual observer that, on November 4th, 2018, the light of democracy was stamped out in Georgia for some voters. Stacey Abrams, however, has not given up. Since the election of Brain Kemp, Abrams has been fighting tirelessly in Georgia to promote voting rights and to fight against voter suppression. Now more than ever, we should all strive to be more like Stacey Abrams, fighting for democracy during difficult times.
American democracy currently faces two fundamental crises. Firstly, ever since the Shelby County v. Holder decision of 2013, oppressive voter ID laws, long wait times, and other strategies marshalled primarily by Republicans such as Brian Kemp and Scott Walker have accelerated voter suppression across the nation. These strategies primarily discriminate against Black and Latinx Americans, leaving out voices that are already so frequently discriminated against. Secondly, there has been a rise in voter suppression since 2013. Our apathy to the role of government, given its current limited role, has contributed to the rise of Donald Trump and the decreased faith in democracy writ large. However, there are political leaders, in and out of the electoral system, helping to fix our current crisis.
But let’s get back to Stacey Abrams – since losing to Brian Kemp by a slim margin, she’s been leading a new organization in Georgia called Fair Fight Action to fight for voting rights and against voter suppression. Although Senator majority leader Chuck Schumer recruited the former state minority to run against David Perdue for one of Georgia’s Senatorial seats, Abrams has decided to focus on the fight against what she calls the bureaucratic entrenchment of voter suppression at the state level. The organization seeks to fight at both the legal and grassroots levels, already leveling cases against the state of Georgia. Through grassroots activism, Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight Action have been working to connect the effects of voter suppression to the disenfranchisement of Georgians. Abrams has pointed towards Georgia’s failure to pass Medicaid expansion despite a broad national movement to expand healthcare to those who are unable to acquire it privately or through an employer. Furthermore, Georgia recently passed a draconian abortion law, or the “heartbeat” law, that bans abortions past six weeks, along with other measures that harshly criminalize people who go out of state for an abortion or even drive others out of state to get an abortion.
Without voter suppression—given the margin of victory for Brian Kemp—it’s likely that Stacey Abrams would have taken office and prevented laws such as the heartbeat bill. She would have given Georgia the opportunity to fight for progressive priorities such as Medicaid expansion. When voters are suppressed, progressive agendas are not only stifled but Republican legislators frequently work radically towards the opposite. However, structural threats to democracy intersect directly with the more theoretical problems, for the same people so frequently suppressed in the democratic process feel as though our democracy does nothing to benefit their lives. As Stacey Abrams recently said in an interview with Dan Pfieffer of Pod Save America, “we have to connect the dots. The people who are most likely to be victimized by voter suppression are the very ones who have been convinced that voting is irrelevant because they’ve never seen their lives truly advanced.” Democracy, at its best, works to directly solve the problems voters experience on a day-to-day basis. Democracy, at its best, serves the people. When democracy stops functioning, as it has since the emergence of neoliberal political theory in the early 1980’s, apathy sets into the citizenry – opening the door for potential authoritarians.
For decades, the American public sphere has been receding. Since the increasing pressure to privatize as much as possible, the American government has failed to serve its people, falling short on the democratic promise. When the government fails to serve its people by cutting welfare programs, neglecting infrastructure, and generally investing in the wealthy while leaving the middle class and poor to fend for themselves, democratic politics itself begins to fall apart. But democratic politics themselves are worth saving. The notion that the people deserve a voice deserves a fight. The hope that we can form a government that truly represents the people, not special interests nor militarism, deserves to be held. Democratic politicians—especially the youth that includes people further on the left than the recent democratic party—such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley have worked so far to reinvigorate the hope that politicians can work for the people. Democratic presidential candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren, continue to campaign without taking money from special interest donors and run campaigns powered from grassroots. If we believe in democracy, if we want to govern for the people and by the people, we must continue to work against voter suppression and emphasize the power of democratic government to create real, positive change in people’s lives. It’s our only hope.