What I Wish I Knew Before Going Into Politics

Photo: Courtesy of Stacey Abrams.
I chose to run for elected office at the age of 32, because I believe that political action is essential if we want to create lasting progress on important issues like education, the environment, health care, and income inequality.

The tough questions, the most daunting issues, need champions in government, innovative entrepreneurs, and courageous nonprofit leaders to make changes now that will have long-term effects. And actually achieving that progress is a massive undertaking.

I learned that firsthand. Growing up as the daughter of a librarian and a shipyard worker in southern Mississippi, my family was hit time and again by the economic insecurity that is driven by racism, sexism, and the ills that come with being born in the wrong zip code. Still, every day, my parents taught us that serving others must be our first priority — an edict that carried me to Spelman College and Yale Law School, then to New York City to help ex-offenders with HIV fight job and housing discrimination. It drove me to start a nonprofit to support disadvantaged communities, including victims of Hurricane Katrina, and to lead generational projects in the city of Atlanta before running for office.

After each success and defeat, I remain driven by the responsibility to act.

In each role, I learned how to do more — often with less. I am honored to serve as House minority leader in Georgia (the first woman in the history of the state to lead a party). From this post, I have been privileged to help people like my parents, who are grandparents raising a grandchild, and to protect families from misguided tax policies. Of course, I have also seen devastating defeats — losing a battle to stop attacks on voting rights, and watching women lose more of their reproductive rights.

Yet, after each success and defeat, I remain driven by the responsibility to act. Action can come from different sectors, but none of it has meaning if you do not hold the door open for others to follow. That has never been more true than in this historic year for women in public service. If government — if politics — is your calling, then I offer three pieces of advice before you begin:

1) Know You Don’t Know It All

I am the daughter of, not one, but two ministers. When your parents are in the business of saving souls, you learn at a fundamental level that you don’t have to know it all — and that perfect knowledge is impossible.

Yet, the most common mistake of political ambition is the false notion that you have to be the one who can save everyone. Given the scope of the issues we face, too often, we assume that the right leader is the one with the most brilliant mind, with the most unique approach.

I do have core beliefs, but I do not have an unshakeable position on every issue.

We internalize that to be valued, we must take all the credit and be the author of every solution. Wrong. The best ideas, the best policies, are typically collaborative, and those that succeed are the product of a community.

When a woman, a person of color, or a millennial prepares to run for office, she can be intimidated by the belief that the winner will be a political genius, and the only person who can actually create change. Worse, we talk ourselves out of running because we haven’t already solved the world’s problems. The reality is much simpler: The ones who deny themselves a place in the room where the work gets done will be the victims, not the leaders. Too often, race, gender, and age convince us to sacrifice our potential power because no one has told us we have it — or that we already have enough. So, the first thing to remember is that you’re ready if you’re willing to do the work of learning and taking action.

Photo: Courtesy of Stacey Abrams.

2) Know What You Believe

Another essential element to being an effective political leader is to know, not only what you believe, but why you believe it. It sounds basic, but elected officials often find themselves adrift because they never bother to understand who they are and what they think is true. Beyond the easy labels of party or ideology are the deeply held convictions that shape those labels.

Adherence to the label of conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, exempts us from having to know our own minds. Beliefs are anchors. Without them, leaders run the risk of caving to opportunism — making choices because others do so, not because the decision is correct. The anchors of belief should never weigh down the capacity for thoughtful engagement and reasonable compromise. Effective leaders must be truth seekers, and that requires a willingness to understand truths other than our own.

A leader represents, not only those who share her core values, but those who despise all that she holds dear.

In political circles (in the era before Trump), the idea of “flip-flopping” had become a death sentence to ambition. Despite the dystopian saga playing out in this election, the end is not nigh, and those days will come again. Smart voters know that people evolve in their beliefs. The trick is admitting you know more than you used to, and that smarter is better. Voters accept that a person can change what he or she believes, as long as that change is authentic and grounded in true examination of philosophy and reality.

Knowing what you believe holds great power because, as an elected official, you are called upon to balance the needs and desires and the arguments of many. A leader represents, not only those who share her core values, but those who despise all that she holds dear. Politics is a constant test of your capacity for learning.

I know legislators who have a definite, firm, and unshakeable opinion on everything, before any new information is shared. Talking to them is exhausting. That’s because public policy usually is not good or evil, or even that interesting. It is mundane, routine, and cuts across neighborhoods, nations, and ideologies. So, when a belief allows only for a single myopic focus, a solitary filter that has no room for debate, leaders miss the true role of government and of public policy. These shortsighted leaders are easy to spot. They are the ones who have a definite opinion about every headline, and who give you the answer before you ask the question. And if you can’t point out who in your circle of friends is that person, it just might be you.

The most common mistake of political ambition is the false notion that you have to be the one who can save everyone.

I do have core beliefs, but I do not have an unshakeable position on every issue. I do not believe taxes are good or evil, and I don’t believe coal is a moral issue. I do believe that poverty is an abomination, and that freedom of speech must be held sacrosanct. Most of all, I accept that, in many cases, I won't know enough about an issue to render immediate judgment. That is why I attend meetings and read everything I can. Whether you are a legislator, an administrator, or an active citizen, always keep clear in your mind the difference between policy and belief. Policy is what you should do. Belief is why you do it. But when you believe too much, you are often willing to do too little.
Photo: Courtesy of Stacey Abrams.

3) Know How To Make Friends

The decision to enter politics is a lonely one. Only you can decide that ceding your privacy, free time, and a corner of your sanity is worth the investment. But, once you’ve made the choice, make certain you have friends who will tell you the truth about yourself and challenge the truths you hold dear. They are the ones who will show you consistency of thought and clarity of rationale. They are the ones who you know have beliefs, and who you can trust understand the difference between political theater and reality.

Friendship is the first step to collaboration, to the joint exercise that creates the only times in which politics really works. In my job, I am supposed to fight with the Republican speaker of the House, but some of my fondest and most effective moments are the ones that begin when we call each other “my friend.” We don’t say this cynically, but in recognition of a longer history that will survive after the battle of the moment.

The ability to share credit, to share ideas, and to share pain bolster the exercise of politics. I am made better because of the friends I have who despise politics, and by those who subsist on little else. Both groups draw me to a center where I never forget that politics is what I do. It is not who I am.

As your own star rises, you’ll reach for the memory of where it all began. Look no further than the people who know you, who love you. They will remind you to be kind, to be thoughtful, to be brave. They will negotiate with your certainty. They will vote for your bills. And they will see in you what you first saw in yourself: a person who wants to do right by others.

A person ready to serve.

Stacey Abrams is
House minority leader for the Georgia General Assembly, and state representative for Georgia's 89th House District. The views expressed here are her own.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated Abrams' age at her first election. She was 32, not 36.

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