There was a presidential election the year I turned 18, so I took the opportunity to exercise my newly gained franchise. In that contentious contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, I chose third-party candidate, Ralph Nader. Because he won tens of thousands of votes in the decisive state of Florida, Nader was called a “spoiler” when Gore lost. While other factors played a much greater role in Bush’s dubious victory — namely voter suppression and the electoral college — third-party voters made for a convenient scapegoat.
I didn’t vote for Nader out of some shallow anti-establishment impulse. I liked his platform, particularly his call to repeal the anti-union Taft-Hartley Amendment. His views were more like my own, so I picked the person I agreed with.
It really left a bad taste in my mouth to be scolded for “throwing my vote away.” To waste something, it must first have value. I lived in Texas, a solidly red state, so my vote didn’t count for squat. And if Nader hadn’t run, I wouldn’t have voted at all.
Out of the five presidential elections I’ve been eligible to vote in, I’ve only participated in two, and the self-righteous discourse about voting has always irked me. I’ve been told not voting is an act of “privilege” often by people with comfortably upper-middle class salaries and Cadillac health plans.
I have a chronic disability and I was kicked off Medicaid last year because I made too much money, which is to say my income is higher than the federal poverty line by some arbitrarily defined amount. My deductible on my ACA-subsidized plan is $5,000, so if I have an unexpected hospitalization — something that has happened three times in my lifetime — I could be financially crippled.
The lesser evil doesn’t cut it for me.
Non-voters are treated as bad citizens. We’re told that if we don’t vote, we’ve forfeited our right to even have a say. Sitting out elections is described in judgmental, value-laden terms: “If you don’t vote, then you don’t care.”
But chalking it all up to “apathy” locates the problem within individuals. It would be more accurate to call it “disillusionment.” Political scientists explain low voter turnout in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. Aside from a sense of fulfillment that comes from doing one’s civic duty, most people don’t get much out of voting, while the costs are usually just enough for them not to bother.
Many feel their vote doesn’t matter, and they’re not wrong for the most part.
Unless you live in a tiny handful of states, your decision will have absolutely no impact on the outcome. And you’re usually not even given a real choice, either.
In America’s two-party system, you pick who will misrepresent you the least. You’re given the option between the candidate who is diametrically opposed to what you believe in and one who will, at best, feebly work toward an agenda that vaguely aligns with yours.
This perfectly valid argument is often countered with some platitude like “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
That assumes “good” is even an option.
The fact that I came of age in the Bush era goes a long way to explaining my cynicism about electoral politics. I remember when the ostensibly lesser evil marched us to war in lock step with the greater.
When the US government initiated the War on Terror, it made the single most important political decision of the 21st century—one that cost half a million lives and $6.4 trillion—and I felt like I had no say in the matter. Congress was near unanimous in its support and Gore would have done the same damn thing.
Who could I have voted for to stop this calamity?
There was no option on the ballot for peace, so I joined the anti-war movement. Within days after the Twin Towers fell, we were organizing.
It’s so fashionable now to say you were against war—even Trump tries to claim he was a dove back then—but amid that post-Sept. 11 hunger for vengeance, we were pariahs.
If you need a reminder of what it was like, watch Michael Moore’s Oscars Speech.
In the early days, we held little rallies attended by a handful of people that would draw dirty looks and jeers. However, by 2003, the movement had swelled and there were protests in the thousands—tens of thousands in some cities—in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Around the world millions marched.
Bush dismissed the demonstrations as “focus groups” and went to war anyway. But sustained protests ultimately helped to turn public opinion against the war. Bush’s approval rating plummeted and just two years later the country had reached a tipping point. By 2007, most Americans were ready to get out.
A lot of the people in the anti-war movement were like me, which is to say they only sporadically went to the polls, but they were nonetheless engaged in politics. There just wasn’t a candidate who represented us.
When Obama ran for president, he pandered to this growing anti-war sentiment. Pointing to a 2002 speech in which he expressed his opposition to “dumb wars,” he differentiated himself from his hawkish opponent Hillary Clinton. He also vowed to close Guantanamo Bay.
On some level, this appealed to me. I was skeptical about how committed Obama was to all that “hopey changey stuff,” but I had election day off from work and the polling station was at a Fiesta two blocks from my house, so I went and cast my vote for him.
Again, it didn’t really matter since I was in Texas. However, the act did have some value to me because it was a big historical milestone—the first black president—and I wanted to be part of it.
Obama’s presidency was a disappointment—albeit one I saw coming. He managed to wind down US involvement in Iraq only to expand the War on Terror to multiple other theaters. He traded the one big “dumb war” for several smaller—and more inconspicuous— “smart wars” fought with “surgical strikes” delivered by high-tech drones.
Obama was timid in his first term despite having control over Congress and a firm mandate. Instead of being aggressive and using this advantage to push through some of his more ambitious proposals, Obama opted to pursue bipartisanship with a Republican minority hell-bent on obstruction.
He “reached across the aisle,” staffing his cabinet with conservatives like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Theoretically, this was supposed to be pragmatic, but rather than helping to “get things done,” this philosophy of governing from the center merely served to preserve an entrenched status quo.
In handling the financial crisis, Obama showed deference to the ultra-wealthy by picking someone with incestuous ties to Wall Street to oversee the bailout. Though Obama was successful in restoring the health of large financial institutions, ordinary people were still struggling.
Out of that frustration came Occupy Wall Street. In this movement, we again saw a third force outside institutional politics that showed its head in the anti-WTO protests, the Nader campaign and the anti-war movement.
This third force has coalesced around two areas—opposition to an imperial foreign policy and neoliberal economics—where there has been a lot of continuity between Republican and Democratic administrations.
In 2015, when Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy in an unassuming ceremony, nobody—not even Sanders himself—expected it to take off like it did. But he gave voice to all these currents that had been bubbling under the surface for nearly 20 years. The third force had finally found its candidate.
I didn’t vote in 2016 for a few reasons. I was living abroad but still registered in Texas, so I’d have to undergo a lot of hassle to cast a vote that was essentially rendered ineffective by the electoral college. I also assumed, like most people, that Clinton was going to win in a landslide.
However, if Sanders had gotten the nomination, I would have gone to the trouble. Given that voting in our undemocratic system is a symbolic act for most people, the only reason to vote is if that act has meaning. In this particular instance, it didn’t.
Of course I thought Clinton was preferable to Trump, but I wanted to vote for something—not against someone. If my vote wasn’t actually going to help defeat Trump, then I’d rather not give it to a person who embodied the Washington consensus on foreign policy and finance. Clinton had not only cozied up to Wall Street but also courted the endorsement of neocon ghouls and war criminals like Robert Kagan and Henry Kissinger.
In the wake of the election, Clinton wrote in her 2017 memoir What Happened? that Sanders was partially to blame for Trump’s victory even though he stumped for her at 40 events and called on his supporters to rally behind her. More of her voters broke ranks and cast ballots for McCain in 2008. There were also many more who, like me, had no intention of ever going to the polls for anyone but Sanders.
Many Democrats wanted Trump to win the nomination because they thought defeating him would be a breeze. He was a gun to hold against the head of anyone even thinking of sitting it out, and he still is. While it may be true that Trump does present a particularly grave threat, I recall Democrats speaking in much the same terms about Bush in 2000.
Every election it’s the same refrain: It’s more important now than ever to “vote blue no matter who.”
When a Bernie supporter is asked “Will you support the eventual nominee?” it’s more of a statement than a question. It’s meant to dredge up the Democratic defeat in 2016 and ritualistically assign guilt to Sanders.
A recent poll found only about 53 percent of Sanders’ supporters would commit to voting for the eventual nominee. Around 87 to 90 percent of the other top contenders’ supporters said they would.
The poll was touted by the “blue no matter who” folks as proof positive that Sanders’ base was a bunch of cultists and nihilistic bomb-throwers who would happily let the world burn if Sanders doesn’t get nominated.
They want so badly to assume the worst about us “Bernie Bros” that they can’t imagine we might put thoughtful consideration into the choices we make.
I devoted much of this essay to an autobiographical account of my own voting history to illustrate why people—particularly members of the Sanders coalition—might decide to vote or not.
Sanders often talks about the 99 percent, but his campaign is also about the 60 percent of poor folks who consistently don’t vote in elections. Voter turnout in the United States is abysmal compared to other developed nations. America’s 40-year high is equal to the United Kingdom’s 40-year low.
This can’t be entirely explained by our antiquated electoral college system or other flaws in the democratic process. The lack of candidates that speak to the interests of ordinary Americans is also to blame.
Turnout is strongly correlated with income levels. There’s a pat, classist explanation: the poor are undereducated, ignorant and disengaged.
But another way of looking at it: They get too little from voting while the cost is too great in relative terms (taking time off from work, traveling to polling places, etc.).
In the 2008 election, which had the highest voter participation in recent history, the turnout for the top three income brackets exceeded 70 percent. For those who made more than $150,000, it approached 80 percent. The wealthy have more stake in the outcome and they also see their interests reflected in the candidates.
By contrast, the turnout among the bottom three brackets hovers around 40 percent. The traditional non-voter—the poor, young and uneducated—is Sanders’ base. It’s no surprise his supporters are Bernie or bust.
He’s the only reason why they’re even in play.
Sanders is bringing voters into the electorate but not into the Democratic Party—and that’s what has the establishment worried.
The third force in American politics that has been building its power from the ground up outside the system for the past 20 years now threatens to upend it. We’re seen not as a resource to be used but barbarians at the gate.
“Blue no matter who” is an expression of this anxiety. They’re trying to rein us in by asking us to pledge fealty.
But parties, like voters, are rational actors. They respond to sticks and carrots. If the Democratic Party, by virtue of being the lesser evil, can capture the votes needs to keep winning elections, why should they listen to the hoi polloi? Instead, the establishment every incentive to pander to the moderate Republicans and appease the donor class.
As important as it is to defeat Trump, it’s also necessary to address the political rot that gave rise to him in the first place or else there could well be another Trump in four to eight years.
While Trump won mainly by weaponizing racism and xenophobia, dissatisfaction with the Affordable Care Act and other policy failures also left the Democrats vulnerable to attack. According to an analysis of 2016 campaign advertising, Trump ran significantly more ads related to policy than Clinton, who went all-in on the “Dangerous Donald” strategy. Instead of articulating a clear, positive vision, the Democrat’s rallying cry of late has been “I mean, have you seen the other guys?”
The candidacy of Michael Bloomberg, a lifelong Republican, highlights the abject absurdity of the core premise of “blue no matter who:” Trump is such an existential threat that everything else must be subordinated to defeating him. He polls better than most candidates against Trump, but should we “vote blue no matter who” even if it means swapping one racist New York billionaire for another?
If one of the main arguments against Trump is that he erodes democratic norms, then it would be a pyrrhic victory for democracy for him to be beaten by an oligarch who just bought the nomination.
Bloomberg is a bigger threat to democracy than Trump
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If you’re in a swing state, then by all means put a clothespin on your nose and vote like the French did back in 2002. But there’s also a different kind of strategic voting you can do if you live in a safe state. You can abstain and refuse to validate a broken system or reward a party that neglects your interests.
I’m living in Washington State currently, which hasn’t voted Republican in almost half a century, so my actual vote doesn’t count for anything. The threat of withholding my vote, on the other hand, can have a practical effect.
Most importantly, if Sanders’ supporters decline to commit to “vote blue no matter who,” it creates the necessary leverage to ensure fairness in the nomination process. Right now there’s a roughly 40 percent chance that no candidate will get enough pledged delegates to get the nomination in the first round of the Democratic National Convention. Sanders could hypothetically win every state and still fall short.
Given that Sanders is projected to get the most votes in the primary by far, “vote blue no matter who” to one of his supporters means: Pledge to vote for the democratic nominee even if he gets robbed of the nomination.
The Democratic establishment has made it abundantly clear that it hopes to stop Sanders from being the nominee. In a contested convention, superdelegates could shift the balance to someone else in the second round — a very real possibility, given that DNC Tom Perez has stacked the rules committee with people hostile to him.
When they’re weighing whether or not to take this action, they’re going to have to consider the effect it will have on turnout, with the full knowledge that the consequence most certainly will be defeat in November.
Our insurance policy is the near certainty that we won’t turn out if that happens. I’ve given lots of reasons why people decide to vote or not, but the bottom line is this: No amount of shaming will bring us to the polls if our votes are taken for granted and ignored.