If everything goes like I expect it will, my day on January 5, 2021 will look something like this: wake up, brush my teeth, get dressed, drive a few blocks to the church where they set up the food pantry in the parking lot on Wednesdays, grab a paperback and maybe a folding chair out of the trunk, and get in line to vote. I’ll wait in line for a long time — too long, if my past experience is any indication. This is by design. My neighborhood is 97 percent Black. When Black people vote in big numbers in Georgia, it’s usually bad news for the people who run things, so they do whatever they can to make sure we don’t. I’ll fill out my ballot in a recreation room on a machine that looks like a giant ATM. It’ll spit out a receipt the size of a Denny’s menu, which I’ll hand to an old lady wearing a face mask for scanning. The guy with the glasses will give me a sticker with a cartoon peach on it. I’ll thank the poll workers and be on my way. Then back home at around 8 p.m., I’ll put my kids to bed, turn on the TV news, and watch our future go up in flames.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the fate of the United States — and, in a lot of ways, the world — rests on what happens in voter precincts across the state of Georgia less than a week after we say good riddance to 2020. On that day, Georgians will decide the partisan makeup of the U.S. Senate. If Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both defeat Republican incumbents in their runoff elections, the legislative body will have 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans by the end of the month, with Vice-President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. This would be good. But if even one of them loses, things will get really ugly, really fast. Republicans will keep control of Congress’ upper chamber, with current majority leader and practiced obstructionist Mitch McConnell in the driver’s seat. The implications could not be more dire. A Biden White House has little hope of appointing progressive judges, expanding health-care access, or reforming law enforcement — let alone packing the Supreme Court or pursuing a climate agenda commensurate to the scale of the crisis — with a Republican majority blocking the way. What’s more, the structural advantage that the GOP enjoys in the distribution of Senate seats probably means a decade-long drought for Democrats, if not more. That means the cost of defeat in either one of these races is likely the difference between a productive Biden presidency and one so ineffectual that the 2022 midterms — and likely the 2024 election after that — are poised to be Republican bloodbaths.
This outcome, the ugly one, is probable. Its likelihood accounted for most of the sinking feeling I had even as each new batch of incoming votes from overwhelmingly Black districts pushed Biden closer to the win column. Republican voters typically turn out at higher rates in special elections and runoffs than their counterparts to the left, and Democrats won’t have Trump on the ballot to motivate their base. Even if this weren’t the case, Senator David Perdue came so close to netting over 50 percent of the vote this month that it’s hard to imagine him not pulling off a bigger margin as the only conservative on the ballot. (Libertarian Shane Hazel won 2.3 percent of the vote on Election Day.) The Republican vote was similarly split in Warnock’s race: Governor Brian Kemp’s appointee, Kelly Loeffler, edged Trump darling Doug Collins in November, while Warnock managed to consolidate much more of the Democratic vote; the right will be more unified this time around. Victories for Perdue and Loeffler are far from inevitable. An ungodly amount of money and campaign resources will be poured into the race from both sides, and the unusually high stakes could be a special motivator for Democrats. But the fundamental question of whether things in Georgia have changed enough in recent years to push Ossoff and Warnock over the top remains ominously unanswered, especially for a state that’s been so red for so long. To hope feels daring, even dangerous.
I don’t know that I’ve earned my pessimism. I’ve lived in Georgia for only three years. But if there is hope, I know as well as any lifer that this status quo is not the natural state of affairs that it often feels like; it was made, and so can be unmade. It is currently being unmade in and around Atlanta. The first election I voted in as a Georgia resident was the gubernatorial race between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams. A former state representative and voting rights activist, Abrams capitalized on the idea that there was untapped electoral potential for Democratic power in low-propensity voters. She sought them out, got lots of them to go to the polls, and ended up with the tightest governor’s race since 1966. She fell short of her goal but the blueprint was there. Despite the efforts of vote suppressors at the highest levels of state government, Georgia didn’t look so conservative anymore, and people inside and outside of it began to treat it that way. The white flight suburbs around Atlanta, built up over decades as refuges for white people who didn’t want to live near Black people or send their kids to school with them, had watched their walls slowly crumble for decades. The shifting political fortunes of the state’s 6th Congressional district, which was held by Republicans starting when Newt Gingrich got elected there in 1979, reflected how things were changing north of the city; the metro area’s population boomed as more Black, Hispanic, Asian American, and liberal-leaning white residents flooded in. Efforts to register and engage more voters hasn’t stopped since. The 6th is now held by a Democrat, Lucy McBath, for the first time since Jimmy Carter lived in the White House. Polling ahead of the 2020 election showed this was no fluke. The state that Trump carried by five points in 2016 looked like a legitimate tossup heading into November, and Biden flipped it on the strength of late returns from many of those same suburbs.
So here we are, tentatively under the impression that it’s a new day in Georgia. We won’t know how durable this change is until January 5, and I’m not hopeful that we’ll like what we learn. That’s how unreal it still feels. And history continues to stalk us. People have fought and died for generations to transform the state into a place that didn’t send feckless white supremacists to the legislature, to the governor’s mansion, and to Washington. The dawning realization that it might actually be possible, followed almost immediately by confirmation that we won’t be able to do much with it, and that another Georgia election outcome will be the reason why, is enough to make you question how much it mattered. The answer for many will depend on how much worse everything gets. There are no moral victories with stakes so high, no condolences for the outrageous fact that it all came down to a state population still very much contending with the ghosts of Jim Crow. The results in Georgia may have stunned Americans but they guarantee nothing. There’s consolation in knowing better is possible. We just have to hope it’s not too late.