On November 3, 2020, as the polls closed across the 50 States of America , the world turned its eyes on the key battleground States that would determine who the next U.S. president would be. While there were close contests in the key swing States, Georgia, an unlikely contender, flipped Blue, much to the surprise of everybody except Stacey Abrams. What can the Indian progressive front learn from this?
Ms. Abrams, a Democrat, is the former gubernatorial candidate from Atlanta , who has been credited with turning the southern state of Georgia from a Red State (that voted for the Republican Party) to a Blue one (that voted for the Democratic Party). It is important to note the sociopolitical and geographical context of Georgia, which voted for the conservative Republican Party for decades. Georgia has a significant Black population (32.6% of the demography). A former Confederate State which lost the Civil War, it could be argued that it still harbours the vestiges of racism that manifests today through voter suppression, especially in predominantly Black neighbourhoods.
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Georgia’s history and the positional significance of Ms. Abrams’ leadership (an African-American woman herself) informed her approach. Soon after the flip, congratulatory messages poured in for her and her organisation, the Fair Fight foundation , for standing at the helm of fighting voter suppression in Georgia. Her work brought 8,00,000 Georgian residents, predominantly Black, into the political process. These residents were at the receiving end of policies and operations of voter suppression and intimidation, a silent majority whose political engagement was ‘activated’ by Ms. Abrams’ leadership.
Unlocking choice and action
Ms. Abrams managed to galvanise three important elements that produced a political impact at scale in Georgia: a value framework informed by every citizen’s constitutional right to vote, representatives on the ground who embodied this value framework, and technological infrastructure for scale and sustainability. It appears that her campaign operationalised this framework to invoke agency for a historically suppressed community. This activated a citizenry whose political participation single-handedly furthered the core tenets of democracy — an informed and active voter base.
Citizenship is typically seen through the lens of electoral participation, claim making, and resistance. There is, however, an undercurrent of citizenship which is now moving to the forefront — active citizenship. The active citizenship approach works to habituate citizens to utilise their agency in making claims of the State. It involves building the civic muscle of the citizens to engage with civic issues, and political participation. Ms. Abrams sets an example of active citizenship, in the case of Georgia’s Black electorate.
Although she is a Democrat, the Fair Fight foundation maintains that it is non-partisan, whose mandate and value framework is to fight voter suppression and induct as many citizens into the political process as possible, for a fair and free election. This value framework was echoed by a network of representatives on the ground who mobilised and informed a citizenry that had faced systemic political erasure. These representatives become crucial in building trust and confidence in the community to drive agency and empowerment. They played a critical role in enabling disenfranchised communities to exercise their citizenship.
The predominantly Black grassroots organisers played a pivotal role in helping citizens unlearn historical loss of agency to actively engage with the political process. A key feature of representation in leadership is to speak to the unique issues faced by specific communities, and focus on amplifying these issues until reform becomes a national focus. For instance, in her gubernatorial campaign, Ms. Abrams focused on criminal justice reform, and gun control, both issues that deeply affect Black citizens. This not only builds trust and solidarity, but also drives validation for communities navigating these issues on a daily basis. This approach has been buttressed by the accelerated pace of digital transformation where increased information dissemination and expanding avenues for citizen engagement has resulted in amplification of citizenship practices. The Fair Fight foundation used a data-driven approach to identify the demography that was excluded from the political process. It then utilised grassroots campaigning and technology to drive political participation at the last mile. Digital technologies helped amplify and scale Ms. Abrams’ campaign to reach suppressed voters across Georgia.
Lessons for Indian progressives
The Indian progressive front would benefit from the Abrams example. It is important to first address that in India, most campaigns for political participation of suppressed groups are often led by a partisan mandate over a constitutional one. In most cases, new vote banks are created through unscrupulous practices, with the goal centred around the victory of a political leader or party, and not around the political participation of an informed citizenry from diverse socio-structural contexts.
The Stacey Abrams campaign ensured a representative leadership that amplified the voices from the bottom up. While identity politics may have been utilised to mobilise marginalised groups into political institutions, her success in Georgia is not necessarily because of an alignment with a specific party, but because of a simple constitutional mandate — voting rights for all.
In the Indian context, we know that there are issues of missing voters, specifically in the case of religious and caste minorities. How can the progressive front address this without devolving to party politics? An issue-based approach embedded in suppressed communities is perhaps more effective than a partisanship-led approach. In the case of Georgia, the campaign retained focus on issues faced by Black communities. Perhaps a campaign led by party politics may have offered stop-gap results — as it does in the Indian context through vote bank politics — but these are often reactionary and untenable in the long run.
A significant lesson for Indian progressives is to acknowledge that in the American context, there exists a space within a major party for promising, diverse, and independent voices like that of Ms. Abrams to flourish — one which turned the tide against a quasi-authoritarian opposition. A redistribution of agency and decision-making powers for representative leaders with the means to address voter suppression in their own communities seems to be an important first step to strengthen a crippling democracy. Leveraging offline and online architectures to drive access, information, and impact at scale is also of critical importance to build a viable opposition. Perhaps the Stacey Abrams example offers a sense of self-reckoning for Indian progressive voices that could successfully lead the charge against authoritarianism.
Lakshmee Sharma is a Senior Research Associate, Aapti Institute; Kanimozhi Udhayakumar is a Data Analyst, Aapti Institute