Just over two years ago, Republicans reigned supreme in American politics. They controlled not only the presidency, but also both the Senate and Congress. Even more, they were placed in a unique position to turn the nation’s highest court into a bastion of conservatism.
This week, the Democrats will take control of the White House as well as both houses of Congress. And they will be in a strong position to push for historic legislation, including on climate change, which could upend American politics for generations to come.
The remarkable turn in America’s political fortunes holds great lessons for besieged liberal democrats across the world. This is especially true in the Philippines, where another authoritarian populist currently seems like an impenetrable fortress ahead of a momentous presidential election next year.
President Duterte may not be on the ballot, but he has lots of options on the table, including dynastic succession, to prevent Vice President Leni Robredo, the de facto leader of the opposition, from succeeding him.
But if Robredo decides to throw her hat into the ring, she can draw valuable lessons from the horridly fraught yet ultimately encouraging US elections.
What makes Joseph Biden’s victory in the November elections particularly remarkable is how uncertain it seemed even days after the votes were cast. The last time an incumbent lost a reelection bid was almost three decades ago.
Not even the patent blunders of the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan prevented the unpopular George W. Bush from securing a comfortable reelection in 2004. In fact, there aren’t many single-term American presidents in the past century, underscoring just how historic Biden’s landslide electoral college victory is (306 vs. Trump’s 232) on top of seven million more votes (81 million vs. Trump’s 74 million).
The 46th US president owes his victory largely to grassroots mobilization, especially among the African-American community, which first saved his wobbly Democratic primaries campaign and, during the November elections, helped hand him swing states such as Georgia.
And if there is one person that best symbolizes the “people power” that propelled Biden and the Democrats to their fateful victory, including the election of the first black Democratic senator from the South, it’s Georgia’s progressive organizer, Stacey Abrams.
The long-time Democratic activist’s indispensable contribution to Biden’s victory was founded on three core principles. First, the need for visionary leadership, namely supplanting tired and discarded forms of liberal politics with a bold, new, and inclusive version. As Abrams argues, one can’t just “recreate the last successful elections, or to borrow from [the other side]”; instead, what is needed is to “think about who we [truly] are” and what principles and values to stand for.
Second, sustained and inclusive organization on the ground is critical, often months if not a full decade ahead of historic elections. Following the decisive defeat of Democrats in Georgia’s 2010 state elections, Abrams proactively pushed for decisive reforms within Georgia’s Democratic Party. Even more crucially, she launched a landmark enfranchisement campaign focusing on “ripe for outreach” minorities and new migrants from more Democratic states, ushering in a “New South” altogether.
Key to her success was her recognition of the need to “constantly be in the presence of communities” and the importance of genuine empathy, because “if you want a community to trust you, they need to believe that you understand their pain.”
Taking her mother’s advice that one needs to “meet people where they are, not where you want them to be,” she launched “listening sessions” campaigns months ahead of elections, including in rural conservative areas. Her ultimate goal has been to ensure that “no one is unseen, no one is unheard, and no one is uninspired.”
The third crucial element of her political activism is faith and moral conviction in the face of darkness. Hailing from a family of pastors, and herself a student of theology, Abrams actively “studied theological texts” to form a “cogent philosophical-political ethic” and inspiring narrative that have now upended American politics.
As Georgia’s most celebrated son Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”