Idealism in Politics
As November 3 draws ever closer, the primary question for Democratic and Progressive candidates is whether or not their increasingly vocal base will actually cast a ballot. It is by no means a new question — high voter turnout has been the fundamental winning strategy for Democrats for years — but staring down the barrel of what could be the country’s best chance of unseating an authoritarian president with a fanatic voter base, the question remains the single most important issue for the 2020 election.
It is a well-known fact among political scientists that the United States has one of the lowest turnout rates of active eligible voters than most developed democracies. In fact, our 2016 turnout per the country’s voting-age population was calculated at 55.7%, placing the United States 26th out of 32 highly developed democracies.
Let’s pause here for a second.
Out of 32 highly developed democracies, the United States, which continues to tout itself as a global leader, which went to war several times for the lofty goal of “spreading democracy” to other countries, whose leadership has far-reaching impacts on the livelihoods of millions in other countries, landed near the bottom of the list on voter turnout. This is a country that was founded on the idea of having a representative government — “no taxation without representation!” — where large sections of its voting base had to fight for their right to vote, and yet the likelihood of an eligible voter casting a ballot in a presidential election might as well be left to the toss of a coin.
Obviously, there are a lot of factors at play regarding America’s habitually low voter turnout. Voter suppression in the form of purging registrations, requiring additional identification to vote, decreasing polling places, and voting hours that overlap with a 9–5 work schedule are all used as tactics to decrease voter turnout. This year, voters are also challenged with safety related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the attempted sabotage of USPS to undermine mail-in voting, and even good old-fashioned voter intimidation. However, there is a bigger challenge that Democratic candidates have continued to struggle against: a voting base that won’t compromise.
And that phrasing alone will likely turn off plenty of these particular voters, many of whom fervently argue that they’re refusing to compromise on their morals, that the candidates are both bad, or that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) influenced the presidential primary to prevent a progressive candidate from winning. For the sake of full transparency, I wanted Bernie Sanders to win in 2016. In 2020, I just wanted the field to shrink before the voting base could turn against every candidate except for their favorite one. It is fair to say that I haven’t gotten what I wanted in a presidential election since 2008.
Sometimes, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
Has the DNC overstepped by manipulating the primaries to ensure their favored candidate wins the nomination? Yes. A political party should be working toward the will of its voting base and that is near-impossible to do that if said party makes the base’s choice for them. While the degree of this meddling in 2016 could be debated by another person in another article, the progression of events in the 2020 primaries raised plenty of questions among progressive voters. The facts paint the picture themselves: Democrats lost Iowa to chaos, Biden lost New Hampshire and Nevada, his campaign was running out of money, many political pundits had announced his candidacy dead, and then a political miracle fell into his lap as moderate candidates Klobuchar and Buttigieg dropped out without warning immediately before Super Tuesday and endorsed his campaign.
I am not here to tell people to let this particular incident go. I am not here to tell voters looking for a more progressive candidate that they have no right to be frustrated because they do. I was frustrated, I still am frustrated, and many people are in that boat with me.
However, the problem arises in the reaction to that frustration. Many eligible voters (particularly in my weird generational cusp of Millenial/Gen Z), have decided to take an ideological stand: until the DNC elects a progressive candidate, they will not vote for a Democrat. This is a conversation I have had with acquaintances and strangers alike, many of whom have decided to teach the DNC a lesson by refusing to vote, or who simply refuse to help elect a man who won’t champion Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, or any number of critical issues on the 2020 ballot. There is a mindset among a portion of voters that either the candidate they wanted wins the primary or they won’t vote.
In a good majority of articles and discussions about this phenomenon circulating, the author takes a disdainful tone toward this subsect of the voting population. Something along the lines of “you can’t take your ball and go home, grow up” which is… wonderful argumentative rhetoric that will absolutely change the mind of everyone reading it. (She wrote, with heavy sarcasm.) However, I would like to approach this discussion from a place of political survival and it is my hope that maybe one or two people who run across this piece will be willing to cast a vote for the candidate they didn’t want.
Republicans keep winning.
This is a statement that has come up again and again in modern political history. Prior to Bill Clinton’s presidential win in 1992, the Democratic Party was floundering: four of the preceding five presidents, spanning a period of twenty years, had been Republicans. In 2000, despite Gore and Bush being in a dead-heat, Bush was given the victory by the Supreme Court. In 2010 and 2014, sweeping Republican victories in Congress effectively neutered Barack Obama’s attempts at policy change (infamously ending with the refusal to consider Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court). In 2016, despite nearly every poll and political analyst projecting a win for Hillary Rodham Clinton, we got stuck with Donald Trump.
It is increasingly public knowledge that the GOP’s primary demographic is among white voters. In contrast, the Democratic Party is favored by a larger range of demographics: people of color, low-income voters, LGBTQ+ voters, young voters, etc. From a purely numerical standpoint, it should be significantly easier for a Democratic candidate to win a national election than a Republican as the country continues to diversify, however, that’s not the reality of the America we live in.
“An old truism holds that, all other things held equal, a smaller pool of voters tends to be better for Republicans and the larger the pool gets, the better for Democrats.” — (Ewing, 2020)
Based on the results of elections in the post-Kennedy era, the Republican voting base turns out more consistently and regularly than the Democratic voting base. To take it a step further, I would argue Republican voters are more willing to compromise when it comes to their elected officials, which contributes to their higher turnout rates.
When George W. Bush ran for reelection in 2004, he was far from a popular figure within his own party. However, for many Republican voters, John Kerry was clearly further from their wants as a voter. Even if Bush wasn’t their ideal candidate, even if they didn’t agree with all of his politics, Republican voters recognized that having a president from their own party impacted how America would manage the War on Terror for the next four years. It is more than possible that these voters also understood that the legacy of a president outlives their time in office: even if Bush would only have four more years in The White House, his choices would (and have continued to) impact the country for longer.
It only takes five minutes on YouTube to find a video of a reporter asking questions at a Trump rally. Generally, these videos consist of the reporter saying something along the lines of “does Trump’s [insert outrageous/ridiculous/blatantly corrupt thing Trump recently did] impact your choice to vote for him in 2020?” The response from the Trump voters will vary but a repeated theme is “I don’t like how he does [insert combative thing Trump did], but he’s going to build the wall/bring back jobs/etc.”
There are dozens of think pieces written about the strength of Trump’s support among evangelical voters where the author questions how these faith-based voters would support a serial adulterer. In my opinion, it all boils down to compromise. While there are certainly evangelicals who simply deny the factual flaws in Trump’s character, there are many who will claim “we’re all sinners” and point to Trump’s commitment to seating a Supreme Court justice that will help overturn Roe v. Wade. These voters are willing to put a man in the oval office who likely has not read a single chapter of one book of the Bible because abortion is such a big issue for them.
As we look at the continued fervor of dedicated Trump supporters, this pattern holds true. While there are plenty who will refuse to put any fault on the Trump Administration for its continual series of blunders and fuckups, there is also a contingent of Trump voters who plan to vote for him in 2020 despite disagreeing with some of his actions in the last four years. Why? Because Trump will tick more of their preferred policy stances than Biden. Whether their primary focus is border security, smaller government, abortion, or any number of Trump’s talking points, there is a recognition that having some of their policy stances moved forward is better than none of them.
And that’s where Democrats are continually poised to lose.
The Harsh Truth of Politics
Republican voters are willing to compromise more often than Progressive and Democratic voters because they understand the bottom line of politics. Politics is a story of power: who has it, and who doesn’t.
When the dust settles this November, there will be one candidate who won, and that single candidate will go on to shape the future of the country over the course of the next four years, leaving a legacy that will impact the country even longer. Regardless of how many people vote, or how many refuse to vote, one ticket will win the election.
To be completely frank, the idea that your elected official should always have a policy stance that you agree with 100% of the time is hopelessly naive. By virtue of how our democracy works, an elected official will represent anywhere from hundreds of constituents to over three-hundred million. Democrats disagree with other Democrats, Progressives even disagree among each other on how to tackle particular issues, having a candidate perfectly in-line with your vision of the future win is only a reasonable expectation if you become that candidate yourself. It is impossible for any single elected official to cater to the wants of every single constituent 100% of the time, and it is the duty of that elected official to support both those who vote for them and those who did not.
This particular duty is one Trump has flagrantly shirked during his time in office, as made even starker by his resounding silence as the West Coast struggles to combat a series of devasting wildfires. To have an elected official that only serves the people who voted for them is to have someone like Trump, and I think it’s fair to say that no Democrat or Progressive is interested in following the slide into oblivion Trump’s divisive rhetoric has created.
A functioning democracy is inherently about compromise.
When members of Congress refuse to compromise it creates a legislative gridlock where nothing gets done. We witnessed this with the longest government shutdown in history under the Trump Administration, with the struggle to get the CARES Act passed for COVID-19 relief, with the current stalemate of additional relief funds despite the continued spread of the coronavirus.
When the President and Congress refuse to compromise, it creates national gridlock where nothing gets done. We witnessed this with the refusal to consider Merrick Garland for a position on the Supreme Court, no doubt fostered by continual resentment among a Republican-controlled Congress at President Obama, who had resorted to the liberal use of executive actions to bypass congressional gridlock.
When voters refuse to compromise, they hand the election to the candidate that is furthest from their own political goals. We witnessed this with Trump winning swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2016, where the margin was so narrow that additional turnout from the left could have pushed Rodham Clinton to victory.
“A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1858
The above warning from President Lincoln was addressed at the nation as a whole during the most divisive time in America’s history. His warning that the refusal to compromise would eventually lead to the disintegration of American society rings loud and true in 2020. While many argue, justifiably, that there is no room to compromise with the current Trump Party, there is room for compromise within the Democratic Party.
The Real Choice: Why Compromise is Necessary
When Democrats and Progressives choose not to vote in an election, the power swings to the right, and that should be concerning to all of us considering how thoroughly Trump has hijacked the Republican Party. What we are looking at this November is not just a choice between two old white men but a choice between allowing white supremacy to continue growing louder in this country without any kind of federal check and an attempt at fostering unity within a deeply divided nation.
The choice between Trump and Biden is not just a choice between a talking point machine emboldened by alt-right advisors and a man who consistently speaks out against the increasing violence from the far right (which is the biggest terrorist threat the US currently faces). It is not just a choice between the single most corrupt president this country has ever had and a politician who continues to demonstrate a heart of service, i.e. the position our elected officials are supposed to hold. It is a choice between a regressive slide into an era of proud bigotry and a push to rectify the harm Trump will leave in his wake.
As a Black woman, the argument that Progressives are holding a moral high ground by refusing to vote for Biden is not just baffling, it’s hurtful. It sends the message that your personal pride is more important than the survival of the marginalized communities Trump has turned into the enemies of his base. Black Lives Matter, to many Trump supporters, is considered a terrorist movement that poses a genuine danger to their livelihoods (as hammered home by the Republican National Convention). I am living in an America where the presence of a MAGA hat is growing increasingly difficult to distinguish from a white hood, and to hear people consider themselves morally superior by refusing to vote for the candidate best positioned to defeat Trump is to hear that my life, that Black lives, still don’t matter enough.
The mainstream rise of the disgustingly fear-mongering QAnon conspiracy theory which paints Trump as the sole defender against satanic, baby murdering, blood-drinking, liberal ‘elites’ directly puts the villains of this theory in danger. Even more so with the fact that Trump has refused to debunk the completely nonsensical belief and Pence’s recent visit to a fundraiser hosted by QAnon believers. (What is QAnon?)
There are entire communities that are directly endangered by a Trump victory, and these communities largely lean to the left. The people who will be punished by a refusal to vote moderate in November will not be the DNC or establishment Democrats — who will still have jobs and the popular position of resisting Trump until 2024 — but the people in the very communities that policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal are best-poised to help.
A “protest vote”, or protest non-vote, among left voters is not a bastion of moral superiority or a bold political action in this election, it is a refusal of allyship. As mentioned earlier in this article, the barriers of voter suppression are disconcertingly prevalent in 2020, which means the number of voters who will be able to effectively turnout in November is hampered, giving the Trump Party an advantage there is no need for them to have.
Political action is necessary if we wish to hold onto our democracy and the increased rights and freedoms marginalized communities have fought to receive in recent history, and it is the civic duty of anyone able to vote to do so: if not for yourself, then for the people who can’t.
P.S. Pushing the Progressive Movement Forward
As a progressive voter myself, it was not enjoyable to watch the chance of a progressive president like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren slip through our fingertips. However, as a political scientist, I also watched the Democratic primary with the acknowledgment of how difficult it would be for Sanders or Warren to push their progressive agendas forward due to the fact that Progressives in Congress are among the minority. (This is also the same barrier that would hamper a Green Party candidate in the unlikely scenario of a national victory.)
A president cannot make sweeping national changes like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal without the support of Congress, as Congress is the body that creates our national laws. I encourage anyone who wishes to see that shift toward more progressive policies to turnout in the primaries for progressive nominees, to turnout in local and Congressional elections (including midterms), and elect progressive representatives. If the groundwork is laid out now, the next Progressive Democrat to run for president has not just a better chance of winning the nomination, but in having an impactful presidency. And if the next president doesn’t fall under that progressive banner, at least they will have a Congress to hold them accountable.