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