On January 6th, two events took place that shook the US political landscape. While crowds of Trump supporters, militia members, Proud Boys, and Nazis broke into the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., it was announced that the Democratic Party had won the narrowest of victories in the U.S. Senate thanks to victories in two runoff elections in Georgia.
By Sean Joseph – Workers’ Voice U.S.
The night before, the Rev. Raphael Warnock had been declared the victor in his race against Senator Kelly Loeffler, becoming the first African American to ever represent Georgia in the Senate. The other race was a bit closer, and on January 6th Jon Ossoff followed Warnock, defeating Republican Senator David Perdue. The Democratic Party will now control the House, the Senate (with the tie-breaking vote of Kamala Harris), and the Presidency come January 20th. Beyond this, what do the victories of Ossoff and Warnock mean? In what way, if any, do these victories represent a shift in local, regional, or national politics? Let us start by comparing the new Senators.
Jon Ossoff is a 33-year-old white Jewish man. His parents are the owner of a publishing company and the founder of a Democratic PAC. He attended the prestigious Atlanta-area liberal private school, The Paideia School. He interned for former civil rights leader and US Representative John Lewis. He graduated from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, after which he worked as a National Security staffer to US Representative Hank Johnson. At some point, he received an inheritance from his grandfather, who had owned a leather factory in Massachusetts. He was then hand-picked by a friend to take over a production company which created investigative reports about foreign countries. At this point Ossoff was 26. He purchased the company with his inheritance. Four years later, he pops up in the north Atlanta suburbs and, thanks to his connections with Lewis and Johnson, as well as his mother’s connections through her PAC, he becomes the Democratic nominee in a high-profile special election to the House of Representatives. Ossoff loses, though it is a close race. A few years later, we reach the present day: Ossoff, a 33-year-old with few distinguishing characteristics and almost no accomplishments other than those that can be directly traced back to enormous privilege, wins the nomination to take on the incumbent Senator David Perdue, and somehow wins in a hard-fought and massively expensive runoff.
Raphael Warnock’s background could not be any different. A Black man of 51 from Savannah in south Georgia, he grew up in public housing and attended public schools. His parents were both pastors, his father working as a mechanic for a living. He attended the historically Black Morehouse College and later attended Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University. He worked at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church while in New York City and, after a period in Baltimore, Maryland, became the Senior Pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the historic congregation of Martin Luther King, Jr.–a highly prestigious role within Atlanta community and political spaces. His church participated in and played host to many protests and activist coalitions. Most prominently, he fought for the freedom of Troy Davis, an unjustly convicted black man from Savannah whose death sentence was sadly carried out in 2011 despite mass protests. Warnock was also prominent in the community campaign for the expansion of Medicaid and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, taking part in several acts of civil disobedience. He defeated Kelly Loeffler in the special election to replace Johnny Isakson. Speaking of his mother, he said, “The other day, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States Senator.”
The contrast between the two could not be any wider, and yet they represent the twin bases of the Democratic Party in Georgia. Warnock is the bearer of the legacy of King, from an impoverished background and steeped in the activist tradition of the Black church. He has had to take political positions throughout his career and has won respect for his involvement in various campaigns, often lending prestige and legitimacy to community demands. He has fought to expand access to healthcare and to end the death penalty. Ossoff on the other hand is the representative of the empty soulless politics of the suburbs. Ossoff distinguished himself by being almost entirely unwilling to take a stand on specific questions of policy. He is a representative of the dominant faction of the Democratic Party, which prizes stability and respectability over challenges to injustice. He talks about the need to fight climate change and expand access to healthcare, but when pressed to support specific policy proposals such as Medicare-for-all or the Green New Deal, he waffles and evades, affirming the importance of the issue and the great job done by whoever has championed the policy the question is about, but never saying yes or no. He gives vague outlines of what he thinks would be positive, going through the motions of politics without committing to anything concrete.
The election victories of Warnock and Ossoff are the result of the mobilization of these twin bases. The Democrats explicitly focused on increasing Black voter turnout and solidifying support among that base, as well as chipping away at the historic suburban base of the Georgia GOP in the metropolitan counties north of Atlanta. Ossoff campaigned for a return to normalcy, for the respectability so prized by the petit-bourgeois suburbanites. But he also had Warnock to assist him, whose background and story appealed to the growing minority populations in the suburbs and the strong communities of the Black Belt. Paired with the voter registration campaigns of Stacey Abrams, and the last-minute demand for a $2,000 stimulus, the Democrats finally succeeded in turning Georgia blue. It is the culmination of a demographic trend which has been taking place over the last two decades as working-class people of color are pushed out of the gentrifying urban core and into the suburban communities of Cobb and Gwinnett counties. Over the past two decades the Sixth Congressional District, once the heart of the Republican Revolution in 1994 and home of Newt Gingrich, has shifted a whopping 23-percentage-points in the direction of the Democratic Party. These trends in former Republican strongholds in the northern suburbs, combined with a massive campaign to turn out urban Black voters and voters in the rural Black Belt of south Georgia are what brought these two seemingly contradictory figures to the Senate under the banner of the same party.
Seemingly contradictory, but not actually. While Warnock possesses the activist bonafides befitting the pastor of a church like Ebenezer Baptist, the campaign saw him walk back several of the strong stances for justice he had taken in sermons in the past. For example, Warnock walked back comments he made condemning Israel for shooting unarmed protesters near the Gaza separation fence and apologized for his signature on a letter comparing Israeli policy in the West Bank to apartheid. He embraced the pro-Israel Democratic Majority for Israel PAC’s endorsement which has a history of attacking any semblance of pro-Palestinian sentiment in the Democratic Party. Such actions are typical of activists or “radicals” coopted into the Democratic Party and elected to office. Rather than changing the party, the party changes them. Just recently we saw AOC and the rest of the squad – including every DSA-endorsed Representative – vote for Nancy Pelosi to continue her tenure as Speaker of the House. They vote for massive military budgets used for imperialist slaughter while claiming to be opposed to imperialism. This is the reality of the Democratic “left.” Either you are an empty vessel for the corporate politics of the Democratic Party in the style of Ossoff, or you are a respected activist and leader whose activism is rendered hollow by the demands of the party.
Unable to provide an alternative to the crises of capital, the Democratic Party and its activist “left” sheepdogs will continue to disappoint and deflect. Just one more election, just one more compromise candidate. The change the working-class and oppressed across the country and the world need cannot be attained through the Democratic Party. We must understand it as an organ of our oppression. We must mobilize, revitalize, and create institutions of working-class power. We must retake our unions and build new ones. We must build a mass revolutionary party. Only a systemic critique can address capitalism and only systemic change can address its malcontents. Only the working-class in itself and for itself can connect the struggles of all oppressed peoples and build the movement for our liberation. Let us look past the half-billion dollar charade that was this runoff. It is not Senators and occasional elections that will free us from want and oppression. Only we can do that ourselves as an organized class. We must build our power independent of the Democratic Party and its politicians to fight for what we need all the way to the end, even when it’s inconvenient for those in power.