To run or not to run, that is the question Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has pondered aloud as she makes the rounds promoting the reissue of her 2018 book. Abrams has a number of options to consider. She could run for Senate in 2020. She could wait and take another crack at governor in 2022. Or, she could jump into the already swirling pool of Democratic presidential hopefuls.
Only Abrams knows what is the right decision for her, but the more I see, the more I hope she takes the big plunge. A Stacey Abrams presidential run could dent a whole lot of American myths about race, gender and class. And while she’s at it, she just may have a shot at being the disruptive candidate America needs.
Abrams is the living embodiment of the idealized notion of the American Dream. She grew up one of six children in a family that she describes as the “genteel poor.” They didn’t have money, but they had big aspirations and a love of learning. Abrams worked her way through college; she earned a bachelor of arts at Spelman, master’s degree at the University of Texas-Austin, juris doctor degree at Yale — and went on to make history as the first black woman to be minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. She was the first black woman to be nominated for governor by a major party in any state in the country.
You can just hear the narrator intoning: “With hard work and perseverance, anyone can succeed. America is the land of opportunity.”
But, Abrams doesn’t seem to buy that narrative. For one thing, in spite of all of her success in the grand American meritocracy, Abrams still found herself filing for governor at a time when she owed $170,000 in consumer and student loan debt and $50,000 in taxes. As Abrams explained in a recent podcast interview for The Cut and Gimlet Media, she was aware of the way this debt would be weaponized against her in a gubernatorial run and, against the advice of some well-meaning friends, she decided she was just going to do it anyway. “If I have to be the poster child for why indebtedness is not a disqualifier, I’m okay with that,” she explained.
See, she didn’t buy the ambient cultural narrative that only the wealthy are worthy, that if you are behind on your bills you are fundamentally unfit for leadership. It wasn’t easy or comfortable, but she was going to call B.S. on this particular myth by exposing her messy finances to public view and standing proud in the face of the inevitable shaming. In doing so, she dealt a righteous blow on behalf of the 60 percent of Americans who can’t cover a $400 emergency.
There’s also the way Abrams talks about her talents, as she did in a recent interview with Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski: “I’m the daughter of two people who worked hard to make sure I had the best education but who also gave me an innate capacity, and I’ve tried to hone that. … The issue isn’t, ‘Do I know I’m smart?’ It’s ‘Do I think that makes me better?’ I don’t think it makes me better.”
Abrams has examined the idea that those of us lucky enough to be blessed with the particular kinds of intellectual traits currently prized by the marketplace are inherently superior. She has found that notion intellectually and morally bankrupt. For all the “thought leaders,” “tech gurus,” and “masters of the universe” out there, Stacey Abrams has a message: You aren’t that special.
To dare to say these things at all in America is courageous. To dare to say them as a self-described “sturdy black woman with natural hair” is damn near revolutionary.
Abrams says she has been counseled to lose 100 pounds, straighten her hair, or to give up entirely because she is “too dark.” I’d love to see Stacey Abrams slaying on a presidential debate stage, if for no other reason than for others who don’t “fit the mold” to question: Who made that damn mold anyway?
But there’s an even larger reason why I’d love to see Abrams run. America is a toxic stew of loneliness, mistrust and increasing tribalism based on race, gender, class, geography, political identity and probably a whole bunch of other stuff. I’m honestly not sure if we can recover from the current tailspin of inequality, anger and despair that has brought us the likes of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE.
In Stacey Abrams I see the tiniest glimmer of hope. Because the only possible way out is with someone who can forge an alliance of America’s working class, in the country and in the cities, against those who have endeavored to hoard all the goodies for themselves. Maybe, just maybe, Abrams’s identity as a black woman and Christian, a working-class American and a Southerner, a misfit and an outsider, can scramble the signals enough to help birth that alliance.
Here’s a woman who can say “y’all” with credibility and then move straight into a discussion of her work on the operational dissonance of the income tax. Couple that unique, complex identity with Abrams’s apparent skepticism of the American meritocracy and maybe — just maybe — you’ve got a candidate who understands the need for a new American project and actually could pull it off.
Yes, I know it’s a long shot. Part of my hope rests on ascribing a vision to Stacey Abrams that I don’t actually know her to hold. Her stint as minority leader of the Georgia House was marked more by pragmatism than revolution. Would she hold up on the national stage? Could she break through the crowded field? What does her fully articulated vision for the country look like? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’d like to find out.
Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.