Ben Jealous, Stacey Abrams, and the Dawn of a New Day in Democratic Politics
On December 15, 2010, Ben Jealous wrote me an email introducing me to Stacey Abrams. He wrote, “Thanks for agreeing to talk to Stacey Abrams, Minority Leader of the GA Assembly. As I mentioned she is like a sister to me, and is the first woman to lead a party in either house of the GA Legislature. Stacey’s success will be transformative for the level of justice in GA.”
Today, Stacey is the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, and Ben is the Democratic nominee for governor in Maryland. A new day is dawning in Democratic politics, and the future looks bright if we learn the right lessons and follow the path blazed by Barack Obama and now being trod by Ben and Stacey and others.
There are three powerful political lessons from Ben’s win tonight, especially coming on the heels of Stacey’s triumph last month: (1) Inspire the voters with a compelling vision and bold and unapologetic policy proposals; (2) Prioritize voter turnout over trying to change the minds of voters who don’t agree with you; and (3) Tap into and unleash the enthusiasm of African American voters.
First, Be Bold
Ben ran as an unapologetic progressive. Indeed, that is life’s work and track record. Having come of age in the Rainbow Coalition campaign of Jesse Jackson to his tenure as President of the NAACP, Ben has dedicated his life to social justice and far-reaching change. From Medicare for All to a $15 minimum wage to embracing immigrants to police reform, he proudly championed a strong progressive agenda. At a time when many Democratic consultants and candidates mute their true beliefs and moderate their message in the mistaken belief that they can woo Trump supporters, Ben can count, and he knows that more people oppose this administration’s hate-filled policies, and he ran his campaign secure in that knowledge. Which leads to the second point.
There Are More of Us Than More of Them: Invest in Turnout
Most money in Democratic politics still goes to television and digital ads designed to change the minds of supposedly swing voters. In the process, hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted that could be much more effectively spent on human beings talking to and organizing their neighbors. The electoral calculation of how to allocate your money proceeds from your mathematical assessment of what is required to win. Most consultants lack the confidence and belief that progressives and Democrats are the majority of voters, and they therefore squander their precious resources in the pursuit of those who aren’t with us. But what Ben and Stacey have shown is that most people are with us, and if we get those people to become voters, then we will win. It is the formula that propelled Obama to victory twice, and it is the smart strategy in a country that gets browner by the hour. Which leads to the third point.
Love Black People
Like Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire, Democratic candidates need to start shouting, “I love Black people!” Looking strictly at the math, Black voters are the cornerstone of the Democratic Party, comprising 24% of all Obama voters in 2012. They are the most loyal Democratic voters, and made the margin of difference in Doug Jones’s Alabama Senate upset by giving him 96% of their votes. And what’s most striking and promising about Ben’s win is that he did what Bernie Sanders and others could not — inspire and mobilize progressive whites and also attract wide and deep support among African American voters. Those two constituencies combined provided an unbeatable force, especially when joined by Latino and Asian American voters.
Hope is Alive
The political trend is now evident, and the road ahead clear. Next up are Andrew Gillum, running for governor of Florida and David Garcia, bidding to be governor of Arizona. Both of those candidates are following the path that propelled Ben and Stacey to victory. With so much terrible news and hate-filled leadership, Ben’s victory is truly cause for celebration. Not just because a great progressive leader won, but because he represents the latest surge of a wave that can wash across the country and spread justice, and equality and love from coast to coast and border to border.