Have Democrats stumbled onto a recipe for winning in the South?
Tuesday is runoff day in Georgia — when control of the U.S. Senate will be decided. If Democrats sweep both races, they will have exactly 50 seats, which means Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will get to act as a tiebreaker in the chamber. If Republicans win either race, Mitch McConnell will remain majority leader, and President Biden will find it virtually impossible to pass anything.
Whether Democrats prevail or not, it is remarkable that these races are at all close, and especially that Joe Biden actually won the state in November. Hillary Clinton lost Georgia by five points in 2016, and it had not gone Democratic in a presidential race before that since 1992. It's a success built on years of grinding organizing work that suggests a potential future model for breaking the Republican stranglehold on the South — if Democrats care to follow it up.
Stacey Abrams is surely the most famous Georgia organizer, thanks to her whisker-thin defeat in the 2018 gubernatorial election to Brian Kemp — who at the time was administering the very election he was competing in, and probably won only thanks to vote suppression. Her theory of the case is that instead of chasing the mostly white and conservative-leaning voters who left the Democratic Party as American politics polarized in recent decades, as Democrats had been trying and failing to do, they could run up the numbers among younger folks and people of color who weren't registered to vote. That combined with the Biden's campaign focus on suburbs seems to have created a victorious coalition of minorities and more-educated white people. (I should note there are a great many other less well-known but equally impressive organizers working in Georgia aside from Abrams.)
The Democratic Party's focus on the suburbs has led some analysts, like historian Matt Karp, to fret about the prospects of assembling a working class coalition which might back the transformative policy necessary to fix America's deep problems. And while the prospect of NIMBY suburbanites consolidating an iron grip over the party — where naught but means-tested tax credits for job creators would be on the agenda, as the rising seas slowly swallow coastal cities — is depressingly plausible, the coronavirus pandemic has also wrenched open the broader policy discourse.
For instance, Georgia Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock have campaigned hard on the near-universal $2,000 pandemic relief checks suggested by President Trump. This idea is both crazy radical by American standards and incredibly popular, registering some 78 percent approval, and even Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have reversed themselves to express rhetorical support. McConnell, naturally, blocked the checks last week.
This suggests that lefty economic policy could be the final ingredient for a winning political stance in Georgia and across much of the rest of the South. "Want a $2,000 check? Vote Democrat" is simple, memorable, and popular.
Should Warnock and Ossoff win, that would be a golden opportunity to have another try at passing the $2,000 checks, as David Dayen argues at The American Prospect. A whole bunch of House Republicans voted for them last time, and McConnell would no longer be able to keep the bill off the Senate floor. Several Senate Republicans have expressed support, and one suggested that there would be enough votes among GOP senators to get over a filibuster. At a minimum, forcing Republicans to block the checks would make clear who is in favor and who is against them, and Democrats could attempt to pass them with a bare majority through the reconciliation process.
Importantly, there is no political trade-off between catering to the Democrats' nonwhite base and this kind of sweeping economic populism, as is sometimes suggested by center-left social justice advocates. On the contrary, because so much of American racism functions through material deprivation, simply doling out resources equally will have a marked anti-racism effect. In particular, universal checks would be a godsend to the heavily non-white poorest people who do not work and are therefore not eligible for unemployment insurance. As Matt Yglesias points out, economic assistance was the core of how the Democrats started to win Black Americans away from the Republican Party in the 1930s and 40s — as well as how they won over many white Americans at the same time.
I do not expect Democrats to do this. The bipartisan vote to break Bernie Sanders' brief filibuster of the defense bill last week, which he was attempting to use to force a vote on the $2,000 checks, smacked of a classic moderate feint — supporting a super-progressive policy when it has no chance of passing, only to back away if it gets at all close to passage. Moderate economists and pundits are plainly uncomfortable with the checks, I suspect because they fear the base might come to demand more from government instead of passively taking dictation from the party leadership.
However, people can surprise you. If Warnock and Ossoff do win, and Chuck Schumer becomes Senate majority leader, I suggest Democrats try actually following through on their promises to help the American people. It's just crazy enough to work.