Print Edition - 2019-02-10  |  Free the Words

The Stacey Abrams revolution

  • She represents a repudiation of the idea that Democrats must downplay “identity” to appeal to the country at large
- Jamelle Bouie

Feb 10, 2019-

In 2017, former Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky gave the Democrats’ response to President Trump’s first address to Congress. The visuals were striking. Beshear, an older white man, was seated in a diner in Lexington, Ky., among an almost entirely white group of patrons. He was dressed casually. Several of the men in the background looked like they did factory work or another form of manual labor. You didn’t need to listen to anything Mr. Beshear said to get the obvious message: The Democratic Party is a big tent, with room for the kinds of working-class white men who backed the president.

Coming as it did after months of intra-Democratic Party recrimination over the 2016 election results, Beshear’s response felt reactive. Democrats were fighting on the president’s terrain, trying to cast themselves as the authentic representatives of white working-class America.

This background is what makes the Democratic response to Tuesday’s State of the Union address so interesting. To rebut the president, offer its vision and give viewers a sense of what the party really looks like, Democrats chose Stacey Abrams, former minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives and 2018 nominee for governor. Abrams lost narrowly to Gov. Brian Kemp in an election marked by accusations of voter

suppression and disenfranchisement. But in defeat she has become a national Democratic star, so prominent and admired that she was given the task of responding to the president.

The ascension of Stacey Abrams, like the unprecedentedly diverse class of Democrats elected in 2018, represents a definitive repudiation of the idea that Democrats must downplay “identity” to appeal to the country at large.

Abrams’s message was largely what you would expect for a Democratic rebuttal—with a focus on broadening economic gains, addressing climate change and expanding domestic programs like Medicaid—but the visuals of her rebuttal were, again, the most important element at work. The first black woman to give a response to the State of the Union address, Abrams stood at a podium backed by a small, racially diverse crowd made up mostly of women. It was a cosmopolitan picture of the country, one informed by the explosion of involvement and activism from all groups of Americans but of women in particular.

If choosing Beshear symbolised an effort to play on the president’s field and try to win some of his supporters, then choosing Abrams represents the opposite: a rejection of strategies aimed at that slice of white workers and an embrace of the diversity of the Democratic Party.

ut there was more at work than just the visuals. Abrams’s rebuttal invoked her particular vision of an expansive “identity politics” that attempts to link the distinct concerns of various groups into a common struggle against broad disadvantage. She recently articulated this view at length in an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, responding to a critique of identity politics by the historian Francis Fukuyama.

As Abrams put it, ‘The specific methods by which the United States has excluded women, Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community from property ownership, educational achievement, and political enfranchisement have differed; so, too, have the most successful methods of fighting for inclusion—hence the need for a politics that respects and reflects the complicated nature of these identities and the ways in which they intersect.’

And so, for example, she doesn’t just call on political leaders to expand health care; she does so in reference to maternal mortality rates for black women and the threat posed to rural communities by hospital closings.

This Rainbow Coalition style of politics is also the context for Abrams’s vocal support for voting rights against Republican-led efforts to suppress the vote. “The basis for sustainable progress is legal protections grounded in an awareness of how identity has been used to deny opportunity,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs. Voting rights are “the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citisens can have their say about the vision we want for our country.”

The reception to Abrams’s rebuttal from national Democrats was unbridled enthusiasm, prompting calls for a presidential run. But she appears more interested in a second run for statewide office in Georgia, either against the Republican incumbent David Perdue for the Senate in 2020 or against Kemp in 2022 in a rematch. This is another part of Abrams’s brilliance: a recognition that Democrats need to build power at all levels of government, not just in Washington.

If that is Abrams’s intention, then she hasn’t just captured the Democratic zeitgeist but has also plotted a way forward with an approach that treats the patchwork nature of its present-day coalition as its greatest strength—the quality that makes it truly democratic.

—© 2019 The New York Times

Published: 10-02-2019 11:20

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