At 3:30 on Wednesday afternoon, my 9- and 12-year-old daughters came bounding upstairs. They wanted to turn on the television.
America was coming apart.
I watched with them for a few minutes. The mob swarming the Capitol. The “F--- Biden” flag rippling in the breeze.
I’d been heartsick, these last four years, about what my kids were seeing. About the impression they were forming of their country.
But now I was actually sick to my stomach.
Until that moment, I’d been planning to write something different from this piece. Something focused solely on the implications of Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff winning their Senate runoff elections in Georgia.
It looked like the start of a long-anticipated but heretofore out-of-reach shift in American politics — the nation’s growing diversity opening up new possibilities for Democrats in traditionally conservative parts of the country.
And it was a moment of new possibilities for Joe Biden, whose ambition for an FDR-size presidency no longer seemed far-fetched; the Georgia victories would deliver Democrats control of the Senate and complete their Washington takeover.
But now there was this strange collision.
The gut-wrenching defacement of American democracy — of my kids’ democracy — had smashed up against the promise and power of a new day in the capital.
It was political. It was personal. And it felt like a turning point.
In this tumultuous week, something had changed in American public life.
In 1946, the federal courts struck down Georgia’s only-whites-can-vote primaries.
And Maceo Snipes, back in his small town of Butler, Ga., after having served in the military in World War II, became the first Black person in Taylor County to cast a ballot in a gubernatorial primary.
The next day, four white men turned up at his grandfather’s farmhouse, where Snipes was eating dinner with his mother Lula, called him outside, and shot him in the back.
Later, a sign was affixed to a local church that read, “The first Negro to vote will never vote again.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1965 tamed some of the worst voter suppression in Georgia and other Southern states. But it persisted, in some form, into the 21st century.
From 2010 to 2018, Georgia’s then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp purged 1.4 million recently inactive voters from the rolls. And an “exact match” law, requiring names on voter registration forms to perfectly match those on identification, disproportionately affected Black people.
That and a deep conservative streak in this majority-white Southern state had limited the Democratic Party’s power for decades.
But something was shifting on the ground. A great “reverse migration” saw Black people returning to Georgia in large numbers — drawn by Atlanta’s booming economy and thriving Black culture. Seven Atlanta-area counties registered some of the nation’s largest gains in Black population in the 2010s.
The Latino and Asian populations grew, too. And Stacey Abrams, a Black state legislator who took over the Democratic caucus in 2011, launched a new strategy to revive her moribund party.
Rather than doing all they could to court white, rural voters and narrowly win the occasional high-profile election, Democrats leaned into the state’s mounting diversity. Through an organization Abrams founded called the New Georgia Project, she started registering tens of thousands of voters in traditionally ignored communities.
A 2016 state law that automatically registered those who applied for driver’s licenses — an important departure from Georgia’s history of voter suppression — swelled the voter rolls, too.
And in 2018, in a run for governor, Abrams fell just 55,000 votes short of a major upset.
But she kept organizing, building toward a Democratic majority. And in the fall, Abrams’s decade-long project scored a major victory with Biden’s narrow win in Georgia. This week, it peaked with the Warnock and Ossoff triumphs.
To be sure, President Trump’s uniquely noxious politics played an important role in his defeat. The wrecking ball he swung in the run-up to the Senate runoffs — incessantly talking up voter fraud hoaxes and leaning on the Republican secretary of state to “find” him enough votes to reverse the November result — no doubt took a toll.
But the demographic shift that powered the Georgia earthquake is undeniably a mounting force. In 1976, about 1 in 10 American voters were nonwhite. Now, it’s about 3 in 10. And the shift in the electorate has been especially sharp in the last four years.
There are 5 million fewer voting-age white Americans without a college degree now than there were in 2016, the New York Times reported in the fall, and there are 13 million more voters of color and college-educated white voters combined.
It will be some time before these changes fundamentally reshape an American political system that gives outsize power to whiter, less populous parts of the country. Biden, when he takes office, will have a very narrow Democratic majority in the House, and the Senate will be split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting any tie-breaking votes.
But in an odd way, that thin margin might enable the sort of transformative presidency Biden is envisioning.
Without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Democrats will have little incentive to pursue fractious fights over immigration and voter rights. Instead, the focus will be on a procedure known as “budget reconciliation” that allows for a simple majority vote on tax-and-spend issues — and tax-and-spend issues alone.
These are the economic issues that have always animated the president-elect — and have taken on a new urgency in the last year.
Last spring, with the coronavirus bearing down on the country, Biden hunkered down in his lakeside house in Wilmington, Del., and began plotting a sweeping approach to the country’s health and economic crises.
In the short term, he wants to go bigger — “a hell of a lot bigger,” he’s said — in stimulating the economy.
That could start with a $1 trillion to $2 trillion relief bill that would send bigger direct payments to taxpayers, enhance unemployment benefits, restore a COVID-19 family leave provision that expired at the end of the year, and shore up struggling state and local governments.
In the long term, Biden wants to take big swipes at inequality and climate change.
Before the Georgia Senate results came in, the focus was on what the incoming administration could do on its own — rejoining the Paris climate agreement and cancelling some student debt. Now, a whole new vista has opened.
Suddenly in play is a plan to hike taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, generating an estimated $2.5 trillion in revenue over the next decade that could be used to finance big new investments in infrastructure and clean energy.
Austan Goolsbee, an economist who served as an outside adviser to the Biden campaign, says there could be substantial movement on child care, too, after the pandemic forced large numbers of women to drop out of the workforce and take care of their kids.
“The whole space of child care, I think, is going to be a very live one,” he says.
And then, there is some under-the-radar legislation that is newly viable. In the fall, the Democratic-controlled House approved money for school desegregation for the first time in decades, with some GOP support. Now, the measure has a shot in the Senate.
And that could change kids’ lives.
My own kids were huddled on the couch with my wife, watching the mayhem unfold on TV.
I was standing on my own; I was shaking and I didn’t want them to see.
Biden was speaking now, telling us “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol” do not “represent who we are.”
“The work of the moment,” he continued, “and the work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy — of decency, honor, respect, the rule of law — just plain, simple decency. The renewal of the politics that’s about solving problems, looking out for one another, not stoking the flames of hate and chaos.”
His talk of unity sounded more than a little naive. The mob that stormed the Capitol will never come around.
But as I watched, I realized that its power lay not in its aspiration to a pie-in-the-sky coming-together but in its capacity to soothe.
To soothe those of us watching the spectacle unfold with our children. Those of us who need “plain, simple decency” in the White House, at least, if not the whole of the country. Those of us who need to shake that feeling of dread and forge ahead.
The lesson of this extraordinary week is that our divide is irreparable — but that there is a way forward nonetheless. A path to a moral majority.
You can see it taking shape already. The marauders have left Capitol Hill. Something new is coming.