While all eyes have turned to Trump’s fascist coup attempt in Washington, and rightly so, the political earthquake that has occurred in Georgia since November should not be forgotten. Not only did Joe Biden eke out a victory in the November presidential election, but the January Senate runoff elected two more Trump opponents, this in a state in the Deep South with a long history of voter suppression and racist violence.
In terms of alignments at a national level, this political upset gave the Democrats what the Biden campaign had signally failed to do, control of the U.S. Senate. While the new majority is razor thin — and in fact dependent on tie-breaking votes by Vice President Kamala Harris — it should at least prevent the far-right Republican Party from blocking completely the mild reforms the Biden administration will attempt on economic, environmental, and racial justice, as well as other salient issues.
It is important to note that newly elected Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff ran not only as anti-Trump candidates, but also with some progressive stances. They supported the $2000 stimulus checks for COVID relief. Nor did they adopt the familiar Carter-Clinton-Biden “centrist” strategy of playing only to white suburban “swing” voters, as their campaigns also sought to mobilize the more progressive base of the Democratic Party: Blacks, Latinx, Asians, labor, the poor, feminists, environmentalists, and the LBGTQ community. In fact, the latter mobilizations were the decisive ones.
Warnock, only the second Black senator elected from the Deep South since Reconstruction (the other was a conservative Republican), also hewed to a more progressive stance than Ossoff. A proponent of Black Liberation Theology, he has held the position of senior pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a position once filled by Martin Luther King. Having studied under the Black radical theologian James Cone, himself strongly impacted by some varieties of Marxism, including Marxist-Humanism, Warnock is the author of The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness (2014), a book calling for deeper links between Black Liberation Theology and the Black Church. He writes there: “The black church was born fighting for freedom, and freedom is indeed its only reason for being.” Warnock has also written that the struggle for freedom includes resistance to white supremacy and white nationalism and regards white nationalist Christianity as “the Antichrist” and a tool of “white capitalistic forces” (David Inczauskis, SJ, “Raphael Warnock’s Black Liberation Theology and the Faux Christianity of the Capitol Insurrection,” The Jesuit Post, Jan. 11, 2021). At the same time, with his strong support for abortion and LGBTQ rights, Warnock has avoided the moralizing politics of gender found among some Black clerics. This offers an important pole of opposition to the fundamentalist Christian organizations that have tied themselves to Trump and to the Republican Party.
It is important to note, however, that Warnock’s more progressive positions are posed at a very abstract level, whereas in the concrete he does not support Medicare for all, the Green New Deal, or defunding the police. Nonetheless, he received strong endorsements from the environmentalist Sunrise Movement and from Bernie Sanders because of his stance on issues like the $15 minimum wage, expanding healthcare, environmental justice, and doing more to hold police accountable.
Warnock’s opponent, Kelly Loeffler, saturated the airwaves with attacks on him as a socialist extremist, centering those attacks on his Black Liberation Theology. As Branko Marcetic writes, “Loeffler and the GOP’s strategy against Warnock was to run the Obama playbook again, but on steroids. Loeffler trotted out a stream of desperate attempts to gin up a scandal around Warnock: he’s criticized Israel; he worked at a church that hosted Fidel Castro once; he has made vague criticisms of racism, greed, poverty, the police, and militarism — they even brought back Reverend Wright. Loeffler warned thirteen times in one debate that Warnock was a ‘radical liberal,’ later upgrading that to “Marxist.” (“The Left Won the Argument in Georgia, If Not Much Else,” Jacobin, Jan. 7, 2021). This backfired, particularly antagonizing Black voters, who saw it as an attack on the Black Church, and helping to motivate record levels of turnout in the Black community.
And even Ossoff was forced to move away a bit from his earlier “centrism” in order to appeal more strongly to the progressive politics of Black voters, who were by far the decisive force in his and Warnock’s victories. He also welcomed an endorsement from Sanders and from and the Black Lives Matter political action committee (BLM PAC), as of course did Warnock. Ossoff, who is Jewish, also suffered crude attacks from his opponent, David Perdue, among them an ad that lengthened his nose. This too totally backfired.
The Republican candidates did not move to the center, even after Georgia had gone to Biden in November. Instead, they joined Trump in his “big lie” that the November election was stolen. This put them in the paradoxical position of calling upon Republicans to vote in an election in a state whose (Republican) officials they were at the same time accusing of having allowed a rigged presidential election favor of the Democrats. This may have depressed Republican turnout.
But the biggest story was not the lower Republican turnout, but the incredibly high turnout among Black, Latinx, and Asian voters. This was the product of the immediate events mentioned above, but also of years of organizing led by grassroots activists like Stacey Abrams and Deborah Scott, as well as especially intensive organizing during 2020-21. Demographic changes in the electorate also played a part. In addition, voters of color and other progressives seemed to sense they were making history, that the future of the whole country depended upon them, which, in a sense, it did.
Working in the face of the whole panoply of voter suppression — spurious voter i.d. laws, curtailment of early voting and drop-off boxes, purging the voter rolls, etc. — the hard work of Georgia progressive organizers, the receptivity of People of Color, and demographic changes meant that in the years 2016-2020, the number of Black registered voters increased by 130,000, Latinx by 95,000 (a 58% increase), and Asians by 63,000 (a 52% increase), while Native American registration more than doubled. While white registration also increased in this period, it did not keep up with those in the rest of the population. (Luis Noe-Bustamante “Black, Latino and Asian Americans have been key to Georgia’s registered voter growth since 2016,” PEW Research Center, Dec. 21, 2020.
The growth of Atlanta as a cosmopolitan metropolis and the liberalization of its suburbs has dominated mainstream accounts of the Republican defeats in Georgia. It is true, for example, that Atlanta has become a tech hub and that its LGBTQ community has grown in both size and power in recent years, this in a state whose statutes once led to the notorious 1986 Georgia sodomy law decision (Bowers v. Hardwick) of the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the liberalization of the suburbs is as much the product of Blacks moving in as of changing white attitudes. Many Blacks have moved to the Atlanta suburbs not from the city but from northern states, part of what is sometimes called a reverse Great Migration back to the South.
In addition, the defeats suffered by the far-right Republican Party were also the result of incredible mobilization on the part of rural as well as urban Blacks. For example, in predominantly white Glynn County, where a young Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, was murdered in February 2020 by white vigilantes while jogging in his own neighborhood, the Black vote was much higher than in previous elections. Among the local organizers in this county was Arbery’s aunt, Diane Jackson. (Olivia Pashal, “How Rural Black Organizers Helped Democrats Win the Senate,” Facing South, Jan. 12, 2021).
Some 4.4 million people voted in the January 5 runoff election, double the number that turned out only twelve years ago for a 2008 Senate runoff, and higher even than the 2016 presidential election. The especially large Black turnout in 2021 benefited Warnock and Ossoff. Moreover, college-educated whites were not as strong positive factor in 2021 as some expected, since counties where they constituted a high share of the electorate voted more heavily for Biden in November than for Warnock and Ossoff in the runoff. A split among Republicans also seemed to help, as the most pro-Trump counties also saw the biggest dropoff in terms of turnout. (Nathaniel Rakich et al., “How Democrats Won the Georgia Runoffs,” FiveThirtyEight, Jan. 7, 2021).
Another indicator that the white “middle class” was not as decisive as mainstream politicians and media like to say, is seen in the fact that Warnock — who is Black and more progressive — decisively outpolled Ossoff, the better funded favorite of the mainstream Democrats. Warnock won by a decisive 2% margin (93,000 votes), whereas Ossoff’s margin stood at 1.2% (55,000 votes).
The January 5 victory is by no means a permanent one, either for Georgia or the U.S. Senate. Warnock, who is filling the seat of a retired senator, will have to run again in 2022, at the same time as the gubernatorial and legislative elections. Republicans still control the governorship, the Supreme Court of Georgia, and the legislature. The latter is already maneuvering to make sure turnout in 2022 is lower than 2020 or 2021, above all by restricting absentee ballots and early voting.
Nor is it clear that Warnock, let alone Ossoff, will truly fight for the needs of their constituents once in power. But a challenge has been hurled down, above all by the Black masses, which will surely have echoes in the Carolinas, Mississippi, Alabama, and other southern states with large Black populations. Nothing less than the Republican “Southern Strategy” initiated by Richard Nixon has been turned on its head.
January 5 was a victory with deep roots in Georgia, the product of decades of struggle. It is the product of the unresolved situation at the end of Reconstruction when Black suffrage was violently suppressed and revolutionaries like Tunis Campbell, who had represented formerly enslaved Black farmers who gained land in the Sea Islands, was driven out of the state in 1877. It is the product of the struggles of the National Colored Farmers’ Alliance of the 1890s, which for a considerable time gained the support of whites in the People’s Party, who defended their Black allies from the KKK. It is the product of over a century of intellectual ferment in the historically Black colleges and universities of the Atlanta area (which King attended and where W.E.B. Du Bois taught). It is a continuation of the militant civil rights campaign in Albany, Georgia in 1961-62, which featured young organizers like Charles Sherrod. Above all, it is a continuation of the Black Lives Matter protests in Atlanta last summer and the struggle to bring the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery to justice.
Viewing the ramifications of January 5, 2021, in Georgia in historical and dialectical terms, we can appreciate anew the immortal words of Sam Cooke:
It’s been a long
A long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh, yes it will