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What If They Held an Election and the Emerging Democratic Majority Didn't Show Up?
July 8, 2003
By Sandra E. Jewell

You have to hand it to those right wingers. They never let the nitty-gritty of elections get lost in the fuzz. When they were gathering strength during the 1980s they hijacked existing action instead of splintering into side shows that would have diluted their momentum. In their parallel universe, think tanks, issues, talking points and public policy may be important but no one ever confuses substance with an election's one overarching priority: winning.

For them that reads "turning out the vote," first, foremost and always. Getting voters registered and to the polls is a central point in headlines and in every discussion that emanates from the right. With an agenda that has little popular support they shrewdly capitalize on what they do have: zealots who insist on an election day reckoning.

Progressive Democrats, on the other hand, are a cerebral lot. We hardly ever froth at the mouth and usually reside in an alternate, more responsible zone where tolerance and self-determination are cherished. We discuss values and philosophy endlessly: our agenda and vision, strategic ideology, coalition building, "framing" the issues, and the processes, appearances and methods we should use in the next election.

Getting most of the vote, the single crucial factor in winning any election, has been dismissed more than once in the progressive literature as a middling priority, or less. But mostly it isn't mentioned at all.

The left seems to have a fine tendency to lose sight of the forest at crucial times and get lost in the thicket of ideas, hopes and disappointments. If no candidate captures our interest, well, maybe we just won't vote at all. Where is the payoff for trudging to the voting booth and waiting in line in the middle of a busy day when the Republican and Democratic candidates look and sound like tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum? And with the Democratic "opposition" collectively caving on issue after issue, it appears that we may as well stay home.

Which is exactly our assigned role in the script created by the right wing.

When we become disgusted and demoralized with the irrelevance of Democratic candidates and withhold our vote, we have by default voted for the right. That's how they win and they know it. In the 2000 election the margin was so close that it provided cover for a coup by the Supreme Court. Dubya's ecstatic supporters hope that we'll always play our part for them and stay home on election day.

The act of voting creates a constituency. The sponsors and benefactors of our current government are corporations and other wealthy sources, which disheartens so many of us that we don't vote, which leaves the plutocrats to fill the vacuum, which discourages more of us from voting, ad nauseaum, in a cause and effect cycle that couldn't be more circular. Corporate interests pay for the government that they want, and we acquiesce, not by silence but by failing to vote. They couldn't care less for our numbers, our opinions, for justice, for democracy itself. When we don't vote, we withdraw from participation in the government which absolves the elected from shame, guilt and any sense of obligation to us. They then feel justified in their decision to ignore most of the population in favor of aiding and abetting the small percentage who will help them get and keep their jobs.

The democratic wing of the Democratic Party must make the clear case that we are instrumental in helping Democratic office holders win and keep their jobs. That can only happen if we vote, by all means possible, in overwhelming numbers. We need to nudge the disaffected middle class back to the voting booth, but even more we need to tap into the huge reservoir of the deeply marginalized working poor. So what might a grassroots get-out-the-vote plan look like?

First, nothing succeeds like television advertising. Expensive, you say? Why not enlist the support of the sympathetic wealthy, who must at times feel that they, too, reside in an alien land. Witness Warren Buffett's opposition to the elimination of the estate tax. Look at the Hollywood celebrities who have taken the lead in driving environmentally friendlier cars. Bono was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Sean Penn paid for his own visit to Iraq. If we looked we might find sympathetic foundations with available grant money. Online fundraising and issue ads are being perfected now by Moveon.org with amazing results. If we combined the organizational genius of Moveon.org with significant funding from ourselves and generous benefactors, the timetable for salvaging our democracy might be considerably foreshortened.

Second, or really co-first, we become intrinsically involved with getting out the Democratic vote. We become enablers for the vast segment of the electorate who need our help. It's a mistake to think that the indigent and the working poor can vote in their own self interest without assistance. Not only are they too often fundamentally defeated by the capitalist system, but many times they are so busy working two or three jobs that they barely have the time to raise their own children much less engage in pointless frivolities like voting.

These days voter registration can be done online in most states at www.newvoter.com, which presents some interesting possibilities. We might take our laptops to a street corner and register voters ourselves. On election day carpools we've organized take the registered to the polls. We can ask churches, volunteer groups and non-profits that work with inner city children and other indigents to encourage the adults with whom they come in contact to register and vote. Social workers, public defenders, others whose jobs take them into contact with the poor can take advantage of their access and assist them in registering and voting. We have to be committed and vocal; we have to see the job as possible; we have to make it happen ourselves. And all along the way we have to remain mindful that this battle may not be won immediately. It took us the better part of 20 years to get far behind and it may take us awhile to surface once again on the radar screens of our public servants. A short attention span could be an expensive luxury.

Public interest and civil rights watchdogs confirm what we already know, that Democrats vote for the greater good considerably more often than their opponents. From this premise it follows that a Democrat in office will usually vote more responsibly than a Republican. Therefore, to begin, we support Democratic candidates no matter who they are or how dissatisfied we may be with their politics. What's important at this point is the support, not the candidate. If Joe Lieberman is the next Democratic presidential candidate, what do we do? We control our revulsion long enough to vote for the twinkie, that's what. If Howard Dean wins the nomination and we don't like his stand on the middle east what do we do? We vote for him anyway. With enough votes, we become a constituency, no matter who we elect. Once we've established ourselves as a constituency by getting out the Democratic vote in election after election, we become an indisputable and indispensable citizenry. Just ask any senior, black or gay activist, or right winger, about the potential of a voting block that actually votes.

We can't wait for the current crop of Democrats favored by the party to get religion about egalitarian principles. They've already been bought and their asking price was too high for us anyway. The good news is that a simple tool, the vote, can be a formidably persuasive device. And it's still free.

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