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Democrats’ Win in Georgia Shows What Voters Really Want From Government

It’s time for political leaders, no matter their party, to listen to voters—and provide financial relief from the pandemic.

Voters enter a polling station at the Zion Baptist Church on Jan. 5 in Marietta, Georgia.(Photo by SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

The thing about quarantine is that it’s expensive. Rent was still due. Medicines didn’t cost any less. Grocery bills probably rose, and with schools closed there were most likely more meals to put on the table. And for many people, the COVID-19 pandemic meant income disappeared. Ordinary people felt the cost of quarantine; the same cannot be said for Republicans in Congress.

The urgent need for more aid—delivered regularly as long as the pandemic lasts—made the outcome of Tuesday’s contest in Georgia feel obvious. People are hurting. A $600 check, nine months after a $1,200 relief payment is an insufficient lifeline for many. Republicans, led in the Senate by Mitch McConnell, heard people asking for help and still refused to offer enough cash to keep American families afloat. This meant that, in the closing days of the Georgia runoff, the election became in many ways a referendum on whether more direct payments would be coming. 

We elect our government, ostensibly, to work for us. To ensure we have access to basic services and infrastructure, to fight for fairness, and, yes, to protect us from harm. After four years of watching our government largely do the opposite—inflicting immeasurable damage and abandoning principles of fairness while methodically destroying basic infrastructure—it’s easy to forget what government is really for. Four years of public malfeasance can instill a feeling that being not just abandoned but often actively harmed by our elected officials is inevitable. When we feel divided and alienated, we doubt the enforceability of even our most basic rights.

Despite our apparent division, recent polls showed that people on the left and right were quite unified about wanting their government to do more to alleviate the financial pain of the pandemic. Americans overwhelmingly supported larger relief payments, with 81 percent of likely voters wanting $2,000 checksincluding 80 percent of Republicansand nearly two-thirds in favor of monthly payments.

This polling turns the common narrative about progressive Democrats on its head. Although the policies of Senator Bernie Sanders and “The Squad” are often described as fringe or extreme, their position on large stimulus payments is in line with the opinion of most Americans. 

People are hurting, and they not only want but need their government (which they’ve been funding out of their own pockets year after year) to give something back. When the government failed to do so, many people didn’t have a hard time identifying who was responsible for that failure: Senate Republicans and, specifically, McConnell. It was McConnell and his Republican supporters who took a position wildly out of step with the stated desires of the American people. Try as they might to cast themselves as middle of the road, these Republicans were, in fact, acting as extremists, in conflict even with their own president. It’s hard to imagine people more out of touch than those who ignored public demand for aid. 

Now that Democrats have most likely won both Senate seats in Georgia, there is hope that Congress can do something for the people who have been hurting. The last four years have given many the impression that the American public is easily duped—that leaders can harm those they have promised to protect while claiming the mantle of heroes. That what those in power actually do once elected no longer matters if they are skilled enough at lying. This election showed that the people aren’t so readily fooled anymore. There was a policy at issue—relief payments—and the people overwhelmingly wanted one thing but watched their elected leaders do the opposite. Those Republican candidates are now set to be booted out of office; even though they belatedly got behind larger relief checks, they were carrying the intransigent McConnell as a liability rather than a standard-bearer. 

Moving forward, as Democrats ascend to power, there are many lessons to be taken from Georgia. One quiet but essential takeaway is especially vital, though: We can no longer play by traditional party-line rules and must move more boldly into the world of big ideas. When you ask people for their party affiliation, the answer might not give you a clear sense of what they really want out of their government. In this recent polling, we saw self-declared Republicans nationwide taking a position more in line with Sanders than McConnell. Elected officials who stick to outdated models of party-line policy and don’t remain rooted in the public mood also risk losing their footing. But those who listen to what their constituents are asking for—even if those requests are big—will be rewarded by a more enthusiastic voter base. People will vote on the issues that keep them up at night, the issues that make them grip the steering wheel a little harder and worry about their kids. They don’t care if these problems are hard to solve, or require creative, unprecedented solutions. They are looking for leaders who are uninterested in traditional, lazy platitudes and half-truths. Leaders driven by the real challenges American families face. 

It shouldn’t be groundbreaking to point out that voters are firing politicians who refuse to follow the will of the people. But in 2021, this feels like a vital and important milestone. We are moving out of years of degradation, and toward a new future in which the challenges to come will require leaders bold enough to meet them. 

Emily Galvin-Almanza is co-founder and executive director of Partners for Justice, a program focused on breaking the cycle of poverty and incarceration. She is also a senior legal analyst at The Appeal and an anchor of “The Appeal Live.” You can follow her on Twitter at @GalvinAlmanza.

Sean McElwee is a co-founder and the executive director of Data for Progress. You can follow him on Twitter at @Sean McElwee.

Ethan Winter is an analyst at Data for Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @EthanBWinter.