By Tommy Richards, Ph.d
For Indivisible Chester County and its allies going into the 2018 elections, the main enemy is not Donald Trump or other Republican elected officials, nor is it gerrymandering and voter ID laws. Rather, the main enemy is a pernicious combination of voter apathy and voter cynicism. This blog post is meant for the cynical and the apathetic (or, perhaps more likely, meant for you to forward this blog post to them as they won’t be on this website.)
To understand the dangers of voter apathy, let us consider the 2016 Presidential Election in Pennsylvania by the numbers. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by roughly 44,000 votes in this state, while third party and write-in candidates received 268,000 votes. Even more stunning, four million eligible voters – 40% of the Pennsylvania electorate – stayed home and did not vote. These third-party voters and no-shows undoubtedly affected the presidential race, and down-ballot candidates even more so, for sometimes only a few dozen votes can swing a local election. If only a fraction of these people voted for Democrats in 2018 in Pennsylvania, and around the nation as a whole, it would lead to countless state and national victories. We would not be in the situation we are in today, and I would not be writing this blog post.
It is worth noting that there are good reasons for voting for a third-party candidate, and there are even good reasons for not voting at all. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian, then it makes sense to vote for Gary Johnson. And, if you have difficulty getting to the polls for health, transportation, or work issues, it makes sense that you did not cast a vote (which is why voting should be made easier, not more difficult – it’s already difficult enough). Yet, it is almost certain that a significant number of third-party voters made their decision based upon their cynicism about the two-party system, while a majority of non-voters did not show up because they were apathetic or contemptuous about politicians in general. These positions are defined by two frequent statements overhead in countless conversations in which politics comes up. We all have heard them. The first goes something like, “I hate these two parties. They are both self-serving, and subservient to the wealthy and special interests. Why can’t we get a real third party?” The second is usually more emphatic, “Ugh, politics. I hate all politicians! They are all corrupt!”
While both positions are somewhat understandable, neither is ultimately justifiable. Let’s start with the disdain for the two-party system and the desire for a third party (either of the center or of the left, depending on whom you ask). Yes, in theory it would be nice for voters to have more choices, and find parties and politicians that align more with their specific political views. The more historically minded who make this argument usually cite that there is nothing in the Constitution that mandates political parties of any sort, let alone our current two-party system. Indeed, the Framers of the Constitution specifically disdained political parties, or what they deemed the problem of “faction.” Yet, ironically, the system they set up made the formation of parties almost a necessity in order to win elections. The United States government functions as a winner-take-all system: whether the winner of a race wins by one vote or millions, that candidate gets 100% of the power. This system inherently fosters a two-party system, because voters will quickly withdraw their support from any candidate who winds up in a distant third place, as it has become all too clear that that candidate has no hope of victory – and thus no hope of achieving political power. On a national level, it was Thomas Jefferson who first recognized the new political dynamics under the Constitution when he founds his beliefs marginalized in Washington’s administration. He then laid the groundwork for creating the (Jeffersonian) Republican Party, which was soon renamed the Democratic-Republicans, and then just the Democrats. Some political scientists may lament that we do not have a parliamentary system that leads to greater choice, but our current political system is the one we must live with. We’ve been doing so for more than two hundred years.
Certainly, there have successful third parties in American history – successful as measured by historical impact and not long-term political victory. Parties such as the Know-Nothing Party (anti-immigrant), the Free Soil Party (antislavery), and the People’s Party (more commonly known as the Populists – rural reformers) won electoral victories at the local and even national level, but not enough to sustain themselves indefinitely. Their ideas were all eventually incorporated into one of the two mainstream parties. Other third parties that achieved some level of national success were based upon the popularity of a single candidate and thus did not last after that candidate’s influence diminished, the best example of which is Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Party in 1912. Only one third party, the Republican Party in the 1850s, truly achieved lasting success, but that was because the issue of slavery destroyed both other major parties (the Whigs for good, while the Democrats split along sectional lines until the aftermath of the Civil War). Needless to say, to defeat the Trumpian agenda, supporting the Democratic Party has a vastly greater chance of success than starting or joining a third party facing impossible odds.
This is not to say the Democratic Party is necessarily a paradigm of virtue. Party operatives clearly hoped – and put measures in place to facilitate – a Clinton primary victory over Bernie Sanders (who, crucially, is not actually a Democrat). Yet Sanders lost to Clinton not because of the Democratic Party’s opposition, but, to put it simply, because Clinton received more votes. The cards were slightly stacked against him, but he was not stripped of something he earned through corruption or undemocratic practices. The process may have been somewhat distasteful, but it was not illegitimate. For Sanders supporters, and for people on the left more generally, the solution is not to start, join, or vote for a third party. This will only diminish the influence of progressives. Rather, it is to work with the Democrats and move the party left. This sort of movement has happened countless times throughout American history, and it can be done again. Indeed, one of the reasons the Republican and Democratic Parties have survived for so long is their flexibility over time. No one can say the party of Barack Obama is the same as the party of Woodrow Wilson (a virulent white supremacist), let alone the party of Jefferson. And certainly no one can say the party of Republican Donald Trump is the same as the party of Abraham Lincoln (certainly not Trump himself, who just discovered this easily googleable fact – “Nobody knew!”). Ultimately, the immediate solution to defeating Trump and the GOP agenda is to accept that we have a flawed two-party system due to very old and largely unforeseen decisions made by the Framers of the Constitution, and work within that system to bring about change. The Tea Party figured this out quickly in 2010, and now the GOP is very much the Tea Party’s party. Whether your goal is to move the Democrats farther left, closer to the center, or keep them exactly where they are, the Democratic Party is our only hope – you may not like it, but you should accept it.
Then there are the many complaints of the anti-political non-voter about the nature of politicians in general. Just as there is truth in the criticism of the Democratic Party, there is truth in the criticisms of politicians. Politicians craft their ambitions in rhetoric that exudes selflessness, but this rhetoric hides that all politicians to a greater or lesser degree are self-interested, desirous of political power, and possess what many see has outsize egos. Indeed, perhaps a large ego is a prerequisite of the job, for politicians have to believe that people like and want to vote for them. Moreover, politics has always required backroom deals in proverbial “smoke-filled rooms,” which many find distasteful. Politicians, in essence, are not saints, even if they may speak in saint-like terms.
But this does not mean that politicians are fundamentally corrupt, self-serving, or morally bankrupt. Rather, it means they are human. In other professions that proclaim public good, we do not begrudge a level of self-interest. Doctors save lives, but they are paid very well and achieve social prestige. Teachers educate America’s youth, but some are paid decently (although all should be), and all receive good benefits and get summers to do what they choose. This is not to say politicians should not be held to a high moral standard, but that the fact that they possess self-interests that do not always map neatly onto the interests of the voters does not make them corrupt or hypocritical.
History demonstrates this fact. In February every year we celebrate two American politicians: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Yet the hagiography surrounding both men – Washington as the “father of our country,” Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” – obscures their inherently political nature. Lincoln was arguably the greatest politician in American history. He knew how to make moving speeches, but he also knew how to make backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms. Stephen Spielberg’s recent Lincoln makes this point, although it the passage of the 13th Amendment was even harder than portrayed in the film. Other examples of Lincoln’s political nature abound. The Emancipation Proclamation was just as much a political act as a moral one, as it sought to change the dynamics of the Civil War without actually freeing any slave (only slaves in the Confederacy not under Union control were free). “Honest Abe” was not exactly dishonest, but at times he could be less than honest.
George Washington seems less political. Indeed, he worked his entire life to seem above politics. But this too was an inherently political act. Washington tried to appear apolitical in order to maintain the most political influence he could have over the fledgling United States, the survival of which was in very much doubt. Even in his famous farewell address, he warned of the baneful influence of “faction” – just as his very cabinet was in the midst of dividing themselves into two parties. At times, however, we catch glimpses of his inherently political – and at times unabashedly self-interested – nature. Sometimes it bordered on the comic: Washington just happened to wear his old army uniform during the Continental Congress’ debate over whom should become general of the Continental Army – and they quickly got his less-than-subtle message. Other times it seemed he seemed very much the politician that today’s cynics decry: Washington personally speculated in western lands, and made decisions as president that would ensure his speculation would not go to waste. Washington was a remarkable human being in so many ways – but his flaws too were very human.
One month before President’s Day we celebrate a third remarkable American politician. Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. was undoubtedly a politician, even though he ever held or ran for any political office. He and his allies in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were always political: they needed out what would be the most effective ways to gain public support, which in turn would hopefully move politicians in Washington to respond. In the end, they succeeded, forcing a sympathetic but politically hesitant LBJ to put his own substantial political skills to passing the Civil Rights Act – a point Ava DuVernay’s film Selma makes very clear. We often remember King as the man who said “I have a dream,” and presto chango, segregation ended in the South. Yet the March on Washington was a carefully crafted piece of political theater that had originally been planned to directly attack the federal government for its failures to protect black rights in the South. In response, President Kennedy persuaded King and his allies that the march needed to have a less provocative tone. As to King’s speech itself, it was one of the greatest speeches in American history – but it is rare that a speech effects political change by itself. Only the messiness of politics will do that s, with all its deal-making, its weighing of interests, and its moral compromises.
The final point, then, is this: the greatest achievements in American history have invariably been accomplished by politicians (whether elected or not) using inherently political means. These politicians were all too human, and all possessed profound flaws, but sometimes these deeply flawed men and women produced legislation that was truly transformational. The Bill of Rights, the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, the 19th Amendment enshrining women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964-5, and even Obamacare, which has altered public opinion to such an extent that a majority of Americans now believe it is the government’s job to provide health insurance – these were all political acts. To stop the Trump agenda in the short term, and achieve the changes our society so desperately needs in the long term, will require an engagement with politics and politicians. To choose not to vote out of a misguided sense of moral authority continues to put our republic in peril. Trump and his allies thrive on voter cynicism and voter apathy. They want you to stay home, or pull the lever for a third party. Go vote, and vote Democrat, and get your friends and relatives to do the same, secure in the knowledge that it may not be a pure choice, but it is the best choice.