A Political History of Georgia

Next month’s Senate runoff elections in Georgia have made the state the center of attention for national media.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

Right now you can head over to theintercept.com/give and donate to support The Intercept’s reporting. Your donations are what allow us to do the kind of independent, investigative accountability journalism the public relies on.

All donations are welcome. Consider becoming a sustaining member at $5 or $10 a month; it may seem small, but it has a big impact over time. Your donation — no matter the amount — does make a difference.

With runoff elections in Georgia next month poised to determine which party will have control of the U.S. Senate, national media have turned their eyes south. To help you digest the coming avalanche of Georgia coverage, Ryan Grim sits down with Intercept contributor George Chidi to discuss his state’s raucous political history.

Ryan Grim: Welcome back to Deconstructed, this is Ryan Grim. Before we start the show today, I wanna ask you all a favor. Right now you can head over to theintercept.com/give and donate to support The Intercept’s reporting — that’s theintercept.com/give. Your donations are what allow us to do the kind of independent, investigative, accountability journalism the public relies on. Later on the show, we’ll talk about a story The Intercept broke that exposed the shady financial dealing of Georgia senator David Perdue, an investigation that is now shaking up a race that determines control of the Senate and the fate — for better or for worse — of the Biden administration’s legislative agenda. This stuff is important, but it’s expensive to do.

Democracy depends on the public’s right to know. That’s why our journalism will never be hidden behind a paywall. The Intercept gives reporters the freedom and support to do deep investigations that just don’t get done anywhere else. We are committed to bringing you voices and ideas you won’t find elsewhere:

All donations are welcome — consider becoming a sustaining member at $5 or $10 per month. It may seem small, but it has a big impact over time. So pause this thing, head to theintercept.com/give and donate now. I mean, if you feel like it. No pressure. That’s theintercept.com/give. Your donation — no matter what the amount — does make a difference.

Now, if you want The Intercept to know that you’re a Deconstructed listener, there’s a link in the show notes that you can give through. Either way, we appreciate that you’re listening. Now, on to the show.

[Musical interlude.]

Sidney Powell: I think I would encourage all Georgians to make it known that you will not vote at all until your vote is secure. [Applause.]

Lin Wood: If Kelly Loeffler wants your vote, if David Perdue wants your vote, they’ve got to earn it. They’ve got to demand publicly: “Brian Kemp, call a special session of the Georgia legislature.” And if they do not do it, if Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue do not do it, they have not earned your vote. Don’t you give it to them.

That was a recent rally in Georgia headlined by former trump lawyer Sidney Powell and Republican heavyweight attorney Lin Wood. But it’s not the only blow to the GOP’s chances in the upcoming Georgia Senate runoffs.

CNN Newscaster: The latest attacks from Ossoff target the timing of Senator Perdue’s sales of more than $1 million worth of stock from Atlanta-based Cardlytics, a financial company where Perdue was once a board member. In emails obtained by The New York Times, Cardlytics CEO at the time, Scott Grimes, emailed the Senator on January 21: “David, I know you’re about to do a call with David Evans. As an FYI, I have not told him about the upcoming changes.” Senator Perdue responded: “I don’t know about a call with David or the changes you mentioned.” The Cardlytics CEO emailed back the next morning: “David, sorry, that email was not meant for you. Wrong David.” An email mix-up.

But the next day, on January 23, financial disclosure forms show Perdue sold between $1-$5 million in Cardlytics stock. Six weeks later, Cardlytics stock plummeted when the CEO announced he was stepping down, forecasting disappointing earnings. On March 18, with Cardlytics stock at $29 per share, financial disclosures show Perdue bought back between $100-$250,000 worth of Cardlytics stock. Cardlytics is trading this week at around $120 per share.

RG: On Thursday, I added new reporting to this scandal, namely that David Perdue had previously lied and claimed that an independent outside adviser made his trades, but it’s now clear he personally directed the sale after that email exchange with the CEO.

I’m joined by Intercept correspondent George Chidi, who’s based in Atlanta and has been closely tracking these races. You’re gonna be hearing a lot about Georgia the next two months, so today on the show we thought we’d take a look back at that state’s tumultuous history and how it ended up in its present political mess.

George and I are gonna run through the history of the state — from Oglethorpe to Talmadge, from Tom Watson to FDR, from Jimmy Carter to Stacey Abrams. But first, George, how is that Sidney Powell-Lin Wood rally playing in the news down there?

George Chidi: Oh, my goodness. So for the most part, people, the news, like the AJC, and the television stations, and whatnot — they’re not really talking a whole lot about it. Where it’s coming through at all is in social media. And in that case, it’s really bifurcated. The progressive people in Georgia are seeing this and it’s mockery, and conservatives are seeing this and they’re torn, like there’s a real internal argument happening in social media between, frankly, how crazy do we want to be? And whether or not we need to dismiss this stuff in order to move on and win the two competitive Senate races that are still on the table.

RG: What about David Perdue’s stock trading scandal? He’s been running this hilarious ad that refers to himself as totally exonerated, which is the least ringing endorsement you can give yourself in a campaign ad.

GC: It’s very Trump-like.

RG: It is. It is.

Ad Voiceover: Perdue was cleared by the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee — the SEC — and DOJ. Perdue was totally exonerated. Jon Ossoff: you just can’t believe him.

RG: But is it getting much play? Is this resonating or do people just not care? And if he’s corrupt, he’s our corrupt guy?

GC: Oh no — they care, but not enough. They care, but it’s pecking at the edges. And Perdue’s ad, I might add, is running, but those are not the ads that people are paying any attention to. Because they’re not running a lot of those ads. Like, they’re out there in order to be out there.

Most of Perdue’s ad buy is about attacking Jon Ossoff as a Marxist radical and all the rest of it.

RG: Mhmm.

GC: Like, it’s rare to see a positive advertisement at all from Perdue, and completely none from Loffler. Loffler, as far as I can tell, hasn’t run a single positive ad at all in the entire cycle. I’m exaggerating, but only marginally — like the vast majority of the advertising has been attacks on Warnock.

Ad Voiceover: This is America. But will it still be if the radical left controls the Senate? Raphael Warnock calls police “thugs” and “gangsters”; hosted a rally for communist dictator Fidel Castro.

GC: And the ad buys are $300 million, apparently, of ad buys have been placed for the cycle in Georgia. It’s unreal. It’s insane.

RG: And what about on the Democratic side? What are Warnock and Ossoff doing?

GC: So it’s a mix. Ossoff has taken the attack role. The Ossoff and Warnock campaigns are running as a joint campaign: they’re sharing staff, they’re sharing resources.

Ossoff has taken the attack role here, and he’s pounding on the stock trades, but his ad-mix and his public communication mix is 50/50. It’s a much more even split between attacking Perdue for being distant, and not holding town halls, and not talking to people, and being some sort of corrupt avatar of corporate America, and his own sort of take on trying to get rural hospitals going and talking about pandemic relief. Warnock is almost exclusively positive, talking, again, about pandemic relief and the soul of the nation stuff.

It’s a fascinating problem, as I’m looking at this. Both of them have to win. So they’re being very tightly connected. I think somebody got the memo and over on the Republican side, that only one of them has to survive this, so they’re taking a kind of a different tack, each of them.

RG: Right. I think what you said earlier about a lot of voters, you know, caring about Perdue’s corruption, but not quite caring enough, really kind of flows out of Georgia history, because it’s a place where political beliefs are held so intensely, and it’s kind of —

GC: It also has a lot of political corruption in its history.

RG: Right.

GC: So, it is, even now, viewed as one of the more corrupt states in the United States. Let me tell you, as a close observer, for the last 10 or 15 years, it’s gotten better. It’s actually better now than it had been, but it took a lot of hard work.

The people who care about the corruption issues, by and large, they’re the minority. The things that motivate voters here are the big-ticket abortion and gay rights for the religious right. Sort of a general anti-, I don’t want to say anti-Black, but the sort of white racial resentment, driving some part of that, and this really old plantation class split, where folks who’ve got money are looking to protect it from the big, bad, evil government. Those are the things that motivate the right, at least, in Georgia.

RG: Right. It’s been that way for hundreds of years, in some ways. And so tell us a little bit about James Oglethorpe and the founding of Georgia, and a lot of people might not know this, the really only Southern free state, at least for a while, you know, founded as a free state. How did that happen?

GC: Right. So like — first things first, if you walk into the State House, at the top of the stairs, in the most prominent place in Georgia, you will see a giant bust of James Oglethorpe; and even now, he’s a revered figure here. Georgia was founded as a state that would not have slavery in it.

RG: Right.

And what’s amazing is that while it was founded as a free state and Oglethorpe was a genuine humanitarian, was opposed to slavery, he was this Englishman who had been a kind of prison-rights advocate, who saw the possibility of a colony in Georgia, as this classless society, he was going to bring over all these people who were in debtors prison, and turn them into artisans and farmers and create this kind of utopian society in Georgia.

But the reason that the Crown was OK with it at the time was not because they were humanitarians; they needed a buffer between South Carolina and Spanish Florida, because down in Spanish, Florida, you had some Native American tribes, but you also had the Spaniards who, if enslaved people could get from South Carolina down to Florida, if they would convert to Catholicism, they had their freedom. And then they would form them into kind of guerrilla armies and send them back up into South Carolina, where they would inspire slave revolts.

And from the 1600s on, you had relentless slave revolts in the Caribbean, which — people forget — the Caribbean was part of Southern culture at the time. The Caribbean was really the kind of center of power and the thing that the English and the Spanish and the French were fighting over.

And the mainland colonies were kind of a side project. But as those slave revolts picked up in the Caribbean, a lot of these planters fled and moved over to South Carolina. And so they were tired of losing their human property through Georgia down into Florida. So they tried to create this whites-only, pro-slavery — but free — state.

But the problem was they couldn’t find white people, because they wouldn’t allow Catholics, because they figured the Catholics were going to be linked with Spain, or France, or Ireland, which was — you know — they’re all at war at this time. So they couldn’t find enough people to work the land over there who were white and so they went and, like you said, reverted fairly quickly, 20 years or so, right, they legalized slavery.

And Oglethorpe is going back and forth, invading St. Augustine, invading Florida, the Spanish are invading back. And you don’t really have today’s Georgia take off until, what? After the American Revolution.

And what’s fascinating is that Georgia was actually the place where the cotton gin was invented, is that right?

GC: I believe so.

RG: Which then really explodes slavery through throughout the South. But not throughout the whole state. It’s not not like South Carolina where it was dominated. So which parts of Georgia were the ones where slavery was prominent, and where wasn’t it?

GC: So it’s interesting, there’s still a belt. You can start that belt in Eastern North Carolina. And that belt goes through the center, and just above the the Southern line of Georgia — still primarily African American, because of the legacy of slavery. And that’s important, if you want to understand the history of Georgia and sort of Southern politics, one of my pet peeves is how the Confederate revisionist romanticists like to claim all of the South as their own. Appalachian North Georgia — Ringgold, Georgia; Dalton, Georgia — when people were coming together, just before the Civil War to say, are we going to succeed or not? By and large, North Georgia told the plantation class from South Georgia to go jump in a creek. They weren’t having it. They didn’t want to go.

And as so much of Georgia politics is about — like there was a national convention a few weeks later, and they got them all drunk, and then they said yes. But even now, like, yes, the delegates were bribed, they got them drunk, they delayed some of them, and they stole it. They stole it! That was secession. They stole secession in Georgia.

RG: Right. Probably plenty of bribes to go along with it.

GC: A lot of folks either chose not to fight — in the north of Georgia, I might add — a lot of folks in the north of Georgia either chose not to fight or fought for the union.

RG: Right.

GC: Even now, there’s a Union County, Georgia. So it’s interesting.

Atlanta, I mean, they burned Atlanta to the ground, they burned most of this stuff to the ground, you started to see a few African-American elected leaders.

RG: And so how did that play out, then, in Reconstruction?

GC: I mean, Reconstruction was horrible, don’t get me wrong, like it was painful for everybody. Except Black people, for whom it was somewhat less painful. And that didn’t last long.

Eventually, guys in white sheets started taking control back, town by town. Everything sort of went wrong. And, eventually, African Americans were effectively re-enslaved, to a point where people who were confronting that in government, were being shot in duels.

RG: And it starts, in a way, with 40 acres and a mule. You know, Field Order No. 15, so General Sherman, marches from Atlanta to the sea, burning everything on the way. And as he’s marching, hundreds and then thousands of people free themselves, and walk off of plantations and are following him.

He, in order to try to figure out what to do with this roving band of former slaves, comes up with Field Order No. 15. But that was something that, as I understand it, was pushed for by local Black clergy, and activists and organizers, kind of with the enslaved community. He said, “What do you want?” And they said, “Well, what we want is land.” And so he divvies up 40 acres per family, plus, if they want a tired, old mule that the Union Army is no longer using, they can have one of those. And, you know thriving communities begin until Lincoln is assassinated and white supremacist Andrew Johnson comes in and essentially takes it all back.

Now, I understand something similar happened on Sea Island, right, where the local, Black population there was able to take over the land, but they formed militias and fought off attempts to retake that land. And I don’t know about this day, but held it for decades or maybe more than 100 years.

GC: Fun fact, David Perdue lives on Sea Island.

RG: There you go. Yeah, he has like a multimillion-dollar house there, right?

GC: Yes, he does: 9000 square feet.

RG: And that’s where Republicans — well, the American Enterprise Institute, I believe, holds a kind of an annual lavish retreat where something like 30 to 60 private planes land every weekend when they hold that.

And so you were saying as a result of the terror campaign, there’s kind of a re-enslavement that brings you, eventually, into the populist era. So you’ve got Tom Watson, who ends up later in his career, becoming this kind of proud white supremacist, but post-Reconstruction in the kind of 1880s and 1890s, Tom Watson leads this Populist Party, which is going to be a coalition of Black and white laborers. And it starts to make serious inroads, particularly throughout the South, and he has this famous quote in one of the speeches he gave: “You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both.”

That is the race-class narrative that the kind of more sophisticated left is pushing now, which says that: Look, the elites are using race as a wedge to divide people who have common interests, to use race to divide the working class. So this is 150 years ago, this is Tom Watson pushing that. He makes some substantial progress, but is eventually kind of co-opted by William Jennings Bryan.

GC: Right.

RG: And so the Democratic Party kind of adopts the white element of that and sheds the Black element of it. Why do you think that that fell apart? And what’s the legacy of that effort to create a multiracial populism in Georgia?

GC: I think part of that is to, one, it’s the same political dynamic to some degree that exists still today — a fear amongst modestly educated white people that their labor would be displaced by Black people. Trying to overcome that is unusually difficult. Because there was a lot of Black labor around.

On top of that, there was this sort of long-term resentment that still persists in politics today, you could still see pieces of it, of the cost of educating African-American children. Newspaper editors, eight ways to Sunday, including Grady, would speak at length about the sacrifices that white people had made, since the end of the war, in order to educate Black children, that so much public spending was being devoted toward the education of Black children — and, to some degree, they were arguing that this is a waste, because Black people are never going to be fully educated — educable — equal, it’s not going to work. Like, look at all this waste that we’re doing. But we’re doing it because we want to show our good Christian character and our commitment to this idea. But no, it’s not working, and we should abandon this, and Black people need to be in their place, because the alternative is this waste.

That idea — this idea of wasting energy and resources on Black people — that was extremely difficult to overcome for folks who were still struggling to dig out of the problems associated with Reconstruction and their loss of economic power.

RG: It reared its head in the pandemic too, right? Did you see some of that play out?

GC: A little bit.

RG: Yeah.

GC: Like, why are we spending — even now, despite a pandemic, well, it’s half of the people who are dying are Black. Like they it’s unstated, but it’s there. And why should I be spending my money in order to create financial support for these people?

RG: So then you move into the Great Depression, and now that the Democratic Party is becoming this interesting kind of white, populist beast down south. So 1936 that’s the first time that a majority of Black voters around the country voted for the Democratic Party, or the party of the Confederacy. And FDR wins something like 80-plus percent across Georgia — huge New Dealers down there.

At the same time, they elect Richard Russell, who is a kind of a New Dealer, but a white supremacist, and Eugene Talmadge, who was hostile to the New Deal. And his argument, as I understand it, tracks with what you were saying earlier: he was worried that the New Deal, by raising wages and living standards for everyone, would undo the apartheid that Georgia had implemented. Yet you had this kind of two-tier system, where whites were making one wage and living in certain areas, Blacks were making different wages and living in different areas. That’s how he wanted it to stay. And if you improved everybody’s lot, that put that whole project at risk. And these are people in the same party.

So yeah, who is Talmadge and what’s his legacy?

GC: So I’m gonna back up for a second. Start at the turn of the century: white conservatives in the South had fomented a race riot in Atlanta, through the newspapers, particularly Watson’s, but others, saying that Black people have finally started to run amok, they’re raping and attacking our white women, and we need to do something.

The new Klan emerges. Stone Mountain starts getting carved. Stone Mountain is a monument to the Confederacy in Georgia that, I might add, is two miles from my house and is the largest monument to the Confederacy in the United States. It’s still the most popular thing anybody visits in Georgia, because it’s a nice park. But there’s a giant carving of Confederate leaders on the side of a mountain.

And successively, Democratic leaders — governors, Senators, whatnot — they oriented themselves toward this idea that white supremacy is the most important thing. Eugene Talmadge, I would suggest, is the apotheosis of this political trend. A populist, absolutely, like in the vein of Donald Trump, a chicken in every pot populist. Like, I want the people of Georgia to know that their government is doing what they want it to do. The people of Georgia, among other things, want them Blacks kept in place. [Sighs.] And he, along with Richard Russell, were sort of instrumental in redefining this sense of rugged individualism, a very sort of classic, what we would think of as conservative views: free markets and free ideas, you should be able to do well based on your own individual enterprise and the government’s job is to make sure that it can do that for you, with you, as a partner.

The thing is he got elected because he was able to tap very deeply into the white supremacist, white resentment of the white working class of Georgia, who felt that their position was owed almost entirely to — well, it was not that their position was owed to being superior to Black people, but if there was any question of equality, that that’s enough. Like there are no other issues for a subset of Georgia voters — the white Georgia voters, then: Am I better than the Black guy who’s competing for the same job that I’m competing with?

RG: Right. And after his landslide win in 1936, Roosevelt starts to think that he has the power, that he can maybe do something about this. And now he comes at these Southern Dixiecrats in the next midterm and just gets crushed.

GC: Yeah.

RG: Like they annihilate him.

GC: Like, I think Talmadge won two, three counties. Maybe?

RG: You mean lost two or three counties?

GC: He lost two or three counties. Like he won everywhere. Bearing in mind, you’ve got no Black people voting, but still.

Eugene Talmadge died in office. And there was a question about — he was Governor-elect, he died, essentially in the lame duck period, and the state constitution didn’t say who would become governor in the lame duck period. Would it be the lieutenant governor?

RG: The U.S. Constitution is silent on that, too.

GC: Absolutely. Well, we fixed it now. But there was some question of political philosophical difference between the Lieutenant Governor-elect Melvin E. Thompson, and Ellis Arnall, who is like the outgoing governor. Because the legislature didn’t necessarily get along entirely with Eugene Talmadge. The legislature, they sorted this out by getting drunk, because that’s how they do things in Georgia. [Laughs.]

Quite literally, they had quorum trouble in the legislature as they were trying to sort this out, because there were too many people passed out in the anterooms. This isn’t like 1820. This is 1946! People are alive who saw this and remember it.

RG: [Laughs.] Right.

GC: This sort of backroom struggle for power, I think it informs to some degree, the sort of craziness that we’re looking at today in Georgia.

Newscaster: Senators Perdue and Loeffler issued a joint statement calling for the resignation of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger over alleged failures in the election process

GC: — because he is unwilling to just set aside the election and decertify it in order to assign delegates to Trump. There’s a history here of backroom, double dealing, whatever it takes to hold on to power. Because there’s a fundamental skepticism of democracy baked in, because of all of the effort that had been made to ensure that African-American voters were never able to exercise political power again.

RG: Right. That this is how it’s done in Georgia. It’s been done this way before and they’re just trying to do it again.

GC: I want to say today that we’ve unwound a lot of that. I really think we do. But the DNA of that attitude is still baked into the political culture of Georgia. Like we’ve overcome it because of massive demographic change, and a tremendous increase in education. But politics are hereditary. Like I still argue with Herman Talmadge’s grandson on Facebook, and Herman Talmadge’s grandson both remembers all of this stuff, and is an advocate for it. Like, it’s still there, like, and I think it’s important that we talk through this stuff, so that people who are new to Georgia, and new to politics around here, really get where all of this is coming from.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: And so then you start to see, you know, the realignment that began kind of in the 30s, or depending when you want to date it, where the Republican Party all of a sudden starts to consider Georgia to be potentially competitive. You know, Eisenhower makes a bit of a run at it, but Nixon tries to bring it all home following Goldwater’s run in 1964 with the backing of Strom Thurmond.

And Strom Thurmond becomes kind of like Richard Nixon’s man in the South, in 1968. That he’s the validator.

GC: Yup.

RG: Yes, he’s going to speak vaguely about race. He’s going to talk about states rights, but: I’m Strom Thurmond, and trust me, I’ve spoken with Richard Nixon, and, you know, you can you can believe in him.

GC: Nixon’s sort of attitude towards Georgia Southern racist stuff — and, bear in mind, I’ve heard the tapes, like, yeah, Nixon was a racist, — but he had a keen sort of political ear. And it’s why I find it difficult to just sort of write him off as a cranky crook.

I’m coming back to Stone Mountain, in part because it’s sort of a marker for a lot of this stuff — Stone Mountain started getting carved, then it stopped getting carved, then there was this effort to raise money in order to start the carving again, nd whenever they started doing stuff with Stone Mountain it was always tied almost directly to sending a white supremacist message around here.

You know, a governor in the 50s ran on a platform that, yeah, we’re gonna take the Stone Mountain, the state’s gonna buy it from the private folks who own it to preserve it forever so that somebody else doesn’t try to destroy it. And, you know, he wins on that as part of his platform. And four years later the state owns Stone Mountain.

They started carving it again just as the Civil Rights Act passed. And sort of bringing it back to Nixon, Nixon was asked to be at the ceremony to open Stone Mountain and monument properly. And Nixon didn’t go because he knew what it would look like. He knew it would be this overt symbol of white supremacy —

RG: Too much.

GC: Yeah. So he sent Spiro Agnew in his place. Spiro Agnew was the one who sort of held up the federal flag saying yes, this is a good thing, not Nixon, because Nixon knew how to keep his hands clean [laughs] most of the time.

But yeah, this Southern strategy, you know, emerged from recognizing that white racial resentment trumped a lot of other bread and butter, pocketbook considerations about what would be good for someone, that if you had enough racial resentment, you would vote in the direction that alleviated that, regardless of other considerations.

RG: Right, it took a while to put that coalition together, because you were asking, essentially, populist, pro-New Deal forces to team up with kind of northeastern business, anti-New Deal interests. And so how do you square that circle?

And so right, they finally squared it around the idea of federal power: OK, we in the Northeast think that federal power is bad, because it’s going to tax us and it’s going to create a robust government, it’s the thing that powers the New Deal. You in the south might be OK with that, but you don’t really like a powerful federal government, because it’s going to bring about civil rights, it’s going to bring about equality, it’s going to bring about integration. So we can agree that we both hate the federal government, even if we hate them for different reasons. So you pull that coalition together.

But Jimmy Carter is a fascinating punctuation mark in the middle of this move from Nixon to Reagan. And he feels like a combination of the kind of legacy of Talmadge and the legacy of FDR. He’s hostile to big government. He’s not at all overtly what white supremacist, but he’s coming from South Georgia.

So, Georgia where he comes from, what are the racial politics there? And what is it that allows him to kind of take the mantle of both of those strains of the party?

GC: Carter is like the most fascinating, frustrating political figure that I think has emerged out of Georgia since Talmadge.

You start with this, he’s an avatar of anti-corruption. That’s part of the reason he won here in Georgia, was because there was this long legacy of corruption issues in Georgia, and he was viewed as this person who was above that, because of his personal history, his military background, and the rest of it.

Plains was racially driven by the, you know, Supreme Court decision in 1954, like Brown v. Board of Education, like racial integration was not taken well in that part of Georgia. Carter was a Kennedy supporter. He was an integrationist. But he was, for lack of a better word, nice — nice isn’t exactly the right word. He presented that in a way that was less threatening, I suppose, to the average Georgia voter than others, you might expect. And part of the problem here is like, he was succeeding less dramatics — that’s the context. Less dramatics, like axe handles, like, “you can’t have your Black people come into my store.” Less dramatics.

RG: Right, that’s what he got famous for, there was a store owner who chased a Black customer out with him with an axe handle and was proud of it.

GC: Georgians didn’t want that image of their state to be the thing that was on the nightly news in the rest of the country anymore. And so, they looked for somebody that could send an entirely different message to the country, and that’s where —

RG: These are like the Republican voters who were embarrassed by Trump’s Twitter.

GC: Yeah. Like, we can’t be the state of Lester Maddox.

There was a lot of other stuff going on — like the airport had just started to get built. And it was a thing in Atlanta that was distinguishing Atlanta from places like Charlotte and Birmingham and Macon. Atlanta was not the huge, great, amazing city in 1974 that it is today; Atlanta and Birmingham are equals economically. Atlanta and Georgia were able to sort out some of the racial issues in a way that states around them were not, and were able to create this sort of Atlanta way of this coalition of civil rights interests, and business interests that would were attempting to serve the interest of the community, basically to sidestep this sort of the horrible history of racism in the state for the purposes of making everybody money. [Laughs.]

And I laugh because it works.

RG: Right.

GC: Like whatever else is going on, appealing to people’s mercenary interests is what got them past a lot of this stuff.

RG: Right.

GC: I’m a fan of it, I advocate for it.

RG: You can’t look at Jackson, or Birmingham, and compare them to Atlanta, and say that it didn’t work. You’re right about that.

GC: So that’s Carter. That’s where he emerges from, like: We’ve got to stop being these people. He’s a complicated guy, though. And I don’t want to — there’s no way to have a five-minute conversation about Jimmy Carter without — I mean, there’s a lot there.

RG: Right.

And so the Democratic Party, and people might not realize this, the Democratic Party clung to power in Georgia, much longer than it did in a lot of other places in the rest of the South. And when did they finally get pushed out? And how did they hang on for so long?

GC: So the straw that broke the camel’s back was 2004. Like it was actually that late, and it was abortion — not abortion! Gay marriage.

RG: Right. Karl Rove’s weaponizing of homophobia that election. Right.

GC: It had been drifting in that direction with suburban flight that started in the 80s. White people just started leaving the city of Atlanta en masse. Cobb County drew a line, at the county line, saying Atlanta, thou shalt not pass. People outside of Atlanta would not allow the train system to expand beyond the core county areas, because they were afraid of Black people escaping the confines of the city and getting into the suburbs, which has still had conservative Democrats who were winning congressional races, like in North Georgia and South Georgia and eventually Nathan Deal who was a congressman, switching parties from being Democrats to being Republican, like starting in the late 90s.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the push for gay marriage, essentially. There was a constitutional amendment posed in 2004 to make gay marriage illegal in the state constitution. It passed. Democrats were opposed to it. But not all Democrats; they lost some Black religious leaders and that was enough to lose the state. Everything flipped over at that point.

They flipped 40 seats in 2004, give or take. I mean, it was a route. And Democrats haven’t won a statewide seat in Georgia since — not secretary of state, not agriculture, not a public service commissioner, nothing. The party line vote flipped over permanently, or so everybody thought, in 2004. And it’s been like that until a month ago, with Biden’s win, and potentially with the runoff races here.

RG: So how does Stacey Abrams come onto the scene?

GC: So Stacey Abrams, she’s brilliant. And her biography is, you know, we could talk about it. But she was recognized as a very strategically wise sort of political infighter and the Democrats in the state legislature made her their minority party leader.

Abrams ran for — by the way, she lives up the street for me, I know her, she’s a friend. Abrams ran for governor in 2018 and she fundamentally challenged one of the sitting beliefs like that people had been holding throughout that 16-year period where they couldn’t win a statewide seat that you have to win more than 30 percent of the white vote in Georgia as a Democrat in order to have a shot at winning a statewide seat, that you have to win at least 30 percent.

Jason Carter had run in 2014 for a senate seat against David Perdue. And I heard over and over from his campaign team, “We’re going to get more than 30 percent, we’re going to get more than 30 percent.” They got 23 percent of the white vote, and they lost by seven points.

So like, the strategy has always been trying to run a moderate Democrat that can win 30 percent or more of the white vote, so that you can get to 50 percent plus one vote. Don’t be completely in the tank for racial equality, don’t pander to the Black vote, like you’re trying to, like run a quote-moderate-unquote campaign. And Abrams said: Hey, look, given the demographic changes, and the fact that a lot of Black people just don’t bother to show up to vote, because nobody’s trying to get them, we lose. I’m going to try a different thing. I’m going to run a campaign where I’m just going to try to get every Black voter out there to show up, and I’m going to be who I am, and I may or may not get 30 percent of the white vote, but it’s not going to matter. Because I’m going to have enough other voters, and I’m going to increase voter turnout enough where it’s not going to matter. And she came within, what was it, 50,000 votes? Like she, came within a half a percent of beating Brian Kemp. And suddenly everybody woke up because it was the best showing a Democratic had had in 15 years.

RG: And without the voter suppression and shenanigans, do you think that there were enough shenanigans, that her strategy, absent that, actually succeeds? Or did succeed?

GC: No. Maybe! It’s a question. I took heat for this in 2018, when people were saying, “Oh, it got stolen from Stacey Abrams.” And I’m like, you know, it was close. It was really, really close.

Turnout, at least before November of this year, was extremely high. It’s hard to argue that there was massive voter suppression going on because turnout was as high as it was.

I mean, you can nitpick some of the strategic choices that Abrams made. But it really is nitpicking. If it had gone the other way, you wouldn’t say anything about a flyer targeting African Americans, like John Lewis went on television was talking about how Stacey Abrams is the legacy of the civil rights movement, and white voters sort of took that as an attack on their integrity — some white voters, you know which ones.

But that’s all small potatoes. It’s small-ball. It’s base-hit politics. That’s sort of, you know, blocking and tackling. I honestly can’t say that there was some act of suppression that I can point to and say, “Yeah, that was worth 100,000 votes.”

I just haven’t been willing to make that statement.

RG: How did she do among the white vote?

GC: She won, I want to say 23 percent. Now that you say it, I’m gonna look it up. She did not crack 30 percent of the white vote. And I might add, neither did Biden. He came in just below. He was at like 28 percent or something like that.

RG: Interesting.

GC: So that whole idea of there’s a line, and you’ve got to get above it in order to win. I think that’s done. I think that’s blown away.

RG: So what is your read on how this run-off is looking at at this point? And what are the smart Stacey Abrams of the state saying about how this looks? Because historically, Democrats haven’t come out for these runoffs. Do you think this is gonna fit that historical pattern or?

GC: This is way different.

So fewer people will come out to vote in January, like that much is clear. Fewer people will vote. Like traditionally you would see 25 percent of the electorate shop for a runoff, if it was a runoff of the public service commission — and there’s a public service commission runoff, and the public service commission is very, very important, and nobody knows or cares about the public service commission. And if that’s the only thing that was on the ballot, you would have turnout out of 8 percent. You would expect 25 percent.

I think 50 percent is possible. I think it’s plausible because it’s all the marbles. And because there’s $300 million of ad buys going out there, like people who choose not to vote in January are choosing not to vote in January. They’re not just blowing it off.

But it’s a jump ball. Like, there’s no way to tell whether or not voter outreach and voter mobilization is going to be sufficient to get Democrats across the line, whether or not this sort of lingering resentment, like the hostility and anger that Trump voters have is going to translate into a “screw you, we’re keeping this vote that keeps Perdue and Loeffler in office.” I am unwilling to hazard a guess. My sense of it is that it’s still going to be relatively close, like within two or three points up or down. But anybody who says that they can call it right now is lying.

RG: Oh, I just checked. CNN guessed Abrams had a 25 percent of the white vote.

GC: Yup.

RG: What do you make of the absentee ballot requests so far, which seemed to be trending Republican?

GC: So I wouldn’t read more into that. So, here’s the thing: There are a lot of people who are Republicans who are cross voting now. Like, the Republican Party has lost some steam in Georgia. Like Trumpism has — I’m looking at some long-term Republican officeholders who are voting Democrat, because they’re seeing how Perdue and Loeffler’s defense of Trump speaks to a deeper malaise in Georgia politics. And they are very unhappy that there is this internal squabbling between Kemp and the U.S. senators, like where people are questioning each other’s integrity, and where Trump is attacking Republican officeholders who were respected before all of this.

Yeah, you might see 900,000 absentee ballots being pulled, and that a disproportionate number of them might be Republicans, but I, again, would not read more into that than it is.

One thing is clear, like Democrats vote early. And my sense of it is that they remain distrustful of the mail, and they’re anticipating that with lower a lower turnout race, that trying to vote early by going to their local polling place in person and voting early, where they know that there won’t be any questions whatsoever about whether or not their vote’s going to count, because they’ll stand there and show ID and it will get counted. I think that what I’m looking at is a shift of Democratic voters from absentee ballots to early, in-person voting.

RG: Mhmm. No, that makes sense.

Who’s Raphael Warnock? And does he have any chance at all of peeling off slightly more religious, like evangelical whites than a typical Democrat might? Or is that just a pipedream?

GC: [Sighs.] Some.

So, it’s worth writing about. It’s worth thinking about. I actually want to ask him about it. He is an anti-prosperity gospel. And I love him for it, because that’s one of my personal foibles, that bugs me.

The thing is, white evangelical Christians are still, you know, I want to say, probably about 50 percent of the electorate in Georgia at this point — 40 percent anyway. And 80 percent of them have a theology that is relatively hostile to the theology that Warnock offers. There are liberal, white evangelicals; they exist, there are actually a lot of them. Liberal in the sense of politically liberal, not logically liberal. But they’re already voting Democrat.

RG: Right.

GC: The evangelical Christian vote in Georgia has been shrinking. Part of its demography, and part of it is that that wing of Christianity is losing favor amongst younger people. People are not joining evangelical churches.

So the folks who remain tend to be much more devoted to their theological and political philosophy than those who have already left.

I don’t think Warnock’s sort of religious appeal is to white evangelical voters. I think it’s to disillusioned former evangelical voters who might see something closer to their own political views in what he speaks.

RG: And if you had to guess, and last question, which one of them has a better shot, Ossoff or Warnock? Or do you think that they kind of live or die together?

GC: I think in general they live and die together. I think Warnock has a slightly better chance against Loeffler than Ossoff has against Perdue. And the reason, in part, is because Loeffler’s never won a campaign before. Like she’s never run for public office before. She’s got some high negatives going on. Plus, there’s some vestigial sexism in Georgia politics that is probably a drag on her in particular.

The betting money is that Warnock is pulling Ossoff along. That’s not to undersell Jon Ossoff’s appeal. Like, I think he’s a great candidate. But I think Warnock has sort of the higher profile right now. Also, just part of the way he’s campaigning, like the positivity of his campaigning, frankly, makes him a much more appealing candidate than any of the others. It’s part of the reason why I think Loeffler has been trying to scuff him up by associating him with sort of perceived, radical extremist Black preachers. She can’t do a, “Hey, I’m the white person, don’t vote for this Black person” campaign. But, you could put right Reverend Jeremiah in front of you and let somebody draw their own conclusions.

You know, it’s really frustrating to watch. But I think Warnock is the leader here.

RG: And when does early voting start?

GC: Early voting starts on December 14 and goes up until the Friday before the Election.

RG: Oh, boy. Alright, gonna be quite a ride. George Chidi, thank you so much for joining us on Deconstructed.

GC: Happy to be here.

RG: This race is only gonna get wilder between now and Election Day.

Rudy Giuliani is now in Georgia crying fraud. On Saturday, Donald Trump is rallying in Georgia for David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. But Republicans down there are deeply worried that he’s gonna go wildly off script and send this thing further around the bend than it already is. It’ll be interesting to watch.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: That was George Chi. And that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief. For more on Georgia’s founding as a free state, check out Gerald Horne’s “The Counter-Revolution of 1776.”

I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of the Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to theintercept.com/give — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

And If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!

We’ll see you next week.

Join The Conversation