After she enthralled the audience on Thursday at a gathering of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the leading abortion-rights advocacy group, in Washington — expounding on everything from the impact of lost access to reproductive care for poor and nonwhite women to the necessity of pinning down debate moderators to ask about voting and abortion rights to the necessity of reaching out even to voters who do not like you — I had the chance to sit down with her.
She is as sunny, steady and self-assured in person as in public. I asked her about the current scandal enveloping the Trump administration — one alleged to involve, among other things, a massive coverup. “I think it’s critical that we begin with the core issue,” she says. “The president of the United States made an offer and also a threat to a foreign leader.” She said every law student knows you don’t need an explicit threat. “To predicate the delivery of goods and services to the government of Ukraine premised on receiving information or at least having an investigation launched against a political opponent is black-letter law. And it is problematic.” She adds, “The notion that he had to make a threat a la a 1920s gangster movie is both a misreading of the law and a lowering of the standards we should have for the highest office in the land.” She reiterates the main issue is that the president “misused his office for political gain.”
She says, “We have always been a nation that has expressed our politics tribally. What is different today is that we celebrate the refusal to accept facts.” Instead of accepting reality, we “double down.” She observes, “We give the highest credence to the boldest lie. That’s what terrifies me."
She acknowledges that on election night 2016, “I was deeply disappointed. I was certainly despondent. I wouldn’t say I was surprised.” She points to the language and environment Donald Trump created as affecting voters’ sense of right and wrong.
However, she takes the view that it should serve as a wake-up call. “I also believe it was a galvanizing moment to remind us that our democracy is not perfect, that it is both resilient but it is vulnerable.” She argues, “Our obligation is to fight for its resilience by shoring up its vulnerability.”
She has been fighting for voting rights since she was 18. Coming from the deep South, she had heard the kind of racist, homophobic and xenophobic language Trump used. “The glorification that he received for it was deeply disturbing,” she says. Before and after Trump, she explains, she has been driven by a basic conviction. “I fundamentally believe that poverty is immoral, that it is economically inefficient and that it is solvable. And by attacking all its vestiges, we make our country stronger and our people stronger."
She acknowledges that Trump’s election had an electrifying effect on women. During her 2018 run, she recalls, “What was so extraordinary in Georgia is that we saw that effect happen across the state, regardless of where you lived in Georgia. Women were activated, and they believed they could effect change. It was also irrespective of race.” Nonwhite voters who had not been courted by either party organized themselves.
African American women’s strong participation in U.S. politics is characterized by their votes for policies that are most needed in their communities but for which they often receive the fewest resources. To white women who had voted Republican and now recognize the toxicity of the GOP, Abrams says, in effect, “Welcome aboard." She also says, ”You will find from every woman of color you talk to, every African American woman you speak to, that the more, the merrier. You may have taken a moment to arrive, but thank God you are here so we can get this work done."
She tells people, especially women and those who are marginalized and intimidated by the thought of running for office, “We often tell ourselves we have to be experts in everything before we run. However, there is an entire class of politicians who woke up one day, had a good hair day and decide they should be in charge of the world.” She tells audiences that “all you need is the ability to ask questions and some intellectual curiosity." The problem with lackluster politicians, she observes, is that “they lack intellectual curiosity.” She explains, “They refuse to ask questions, which means they are not open to information. That goes back to the challenge of facts. When you think you know everything already, your willingness to take in new information and reach new conclusions is almost impossible.” She tells people in underrepresented communities, “If you are capable of asking questions and more importantly of listening to answers, you are more than prepared to run for office. There are people already running for office who lack both capacities.”
I asked her how women behave differently from men in political organizations. “The research will tell you that women are more collaborative and they have a tendency to cultivate leadership within their ranks.” Women, especially women of color, she says, become “expert in navigating obstacles men don’t see. You are often underresourced so you become better at hacking solutions.” She thinks women tend to look at obstacles as “opportunities for guerrilla warfare.”
Her work now centers on efforts to extend voter registration, improve access to the ballot box and guarantee all votes are counted. “We have been trained to see voter suppression through the lens of the 1960s.” Today, voter suppression is not violent or overt but is “more insidious," often treated as”user error." She explains that what a well-prepared or economically comfortable voter may see as a small inconvenience may seem like a “massive obstacle” to someone without resources or experience in voting. “We are on the cusp of losing the machinery of democracy, in part because those who are targeted are fast becoming the majority of the population. My clarion call is that we have to work on this now because it is only going to become worse.”
She also recognizes the danger of outside meddling and media manipulation, but she puts the onus back on politicians: “We don’t have the federal will to block election insecurity and deal with foreign interference.” She also points out that in a free society we cannot eliminate disinformation. Because we can only control certain factors, it behooves us to focus on those. “Candidates have to be responsible for outreach to communities they have ignored.” When candidates opt not to communicate with certain people, they cut off the flow of good information. Voters don’t stop getting information, but rather get only disinformation. “Candidates have to be intentional about filling that pipelines. We didn’t do that fully in 2016,” she points out.
Democrats running in 2020, she cautions, should not assume certain voters will always vote their way or never vote their way. She tells candidates, “Talk to everyone. Spend your resources on everyone but spend a commensurate amount based on their ideological belief, meaning they are more likely to vote for you.” She draws an analogy to a game of roulette. “You’re putting all your chips on what you guess the wheel will do. I say spread your money around and your likelihood of victory goes up.” Democrats, she says, keep “waiting for the winning number” rather than “playing all the odds.”
Democrats have been pleading with Abrams to run for an open Senate seat, but she has made clear she is not interested. For now, she is dedicating her time to making sure Democrats don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, including underestimating the danger of voter suppression. Don’t kid yourself, however. When Democrats finally pick a presidential nominee, Abrams is sure to be on the short list for vice president.