By one count, the 2018 midterm elections were a triumph for democracy, with record-breaking, historic turnout levels. Nationally, close to 50 percent of those eligible actually voted, which is the highest midterm turnout since 1914. But don’t be deceived by this sign of an activated voter base, because it disguises a lurking threat to the US political system posed by democratic exhaustion.
A democracy makes demands on everyone. In fact, the system is premised on a significant demand, the notion of a “democratic bargain” — that is, asking everyone to acknowledge the possibility of losing an election and then agree to accept that outcome. The problem comes when the demands of the democratic system extend beyond what’s reasonable and, in some cases, what the law establishes. Even more, when those demands are borne disproportionately by some.
The 2018 midterm contest offered plenty of reason for concern on those counts, with its hefty material toll — time, energy, financial resources — levied on those forced to fight battles that should have been long-resolved or new battles patently contrived.
Consider voter ID, now law in most states, with a majority requiring or requesting some sort of ID. Even conceding that voter ID — for better or worse — is the product of democratically elected legislatures or the result of ballot issues, its implementation is loaded with provisions that appear blatantly intended to disenfranchise.
North Dakota’s law voter ID law, for example, requiring IDs that listed a street address, was an affront to the state’s Native American population, given that reservations do not typically employ residential addresses. The US Supreme Court chose not to step in and prevent North Dakota from enforcing this ID provision, ultimately rejecting challenger’s claims that a change so late would generate voter confusion.
The strict voter ID law in Missouri, on the other hand, was softened by an October 2018 court order, allowing for alternative forms of ID. But in that state, some poll workers defied the order, as reported by the Center for American Progress, telling voters they “‘[didn’t] agree’ with the ruling and [didn’t] believe they [were] required to follow it.”
Some moves to suppress the vote pose a literal price tag on the ability to participate. In 2019, New Hampshire will impose the equivalent of a poll tax on out-of-state college students, legal voters in the state in which they attend college. The state will require that they become “residents” of New Hampshire, which could involve a sizable — several hundred dollar — vehicle registration fee.
Certainly these cases point to the significance of the rules and their implementation, and it’s naïve to think that the provisions governing politics — any rules for that matter — are not biased in some fashion, working to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others. In fact, battles over the rules are a legitimate part of a democratic system. But the midterm took this lesson to an extreme, and in doing so forced eligible voters to fight battles reminiscent of a much earlier era.
The Pall of Democratic Exhaustion
The material costs these battles impose are substantial, but the costs are not limited to time, energy, even money. They carry a heavy psychological toll as well, subjecting some voters and the groups that represent them to the constant stress of having to engage in an ongoing fight for their already-established legal right to participate. It’s exhausting merely to observe, to watch it transpire; it has to be exponentially exhausting to experience first-hand.
A pall of democratic exhaustion, associated with multiple dimension of politics, hangs over the US electoral system. In some cases, it’s wrought by deliberate attacks meant to intimidate or to otherwise weaken political opponents, in other cases the byproduct of what would seem to be rational decisions or processes with no nefarious intent. Regardless, it’s a heavy — and in many cases unnecessary — weight to carry, and its effects threaten the entire system.
President Trump does his part, quick to use his presidential platform, alternating between moves to intimidate and to discredit. His October 20, 2018 tweet may have been targeted to early voters, but the threat had broader applications. “All levels of government and Law Enforcement are watching carefully for VOTER FRAUD, including during EARLY VOTING. Cheat at your peril. Violators will be subject to maximum, penalties, both civil and criminal.”
The president also continually rehashes the last presidential election. Weeks after the 2016 contest, he tweeted that “… I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” And a full two years after the election, his tweets still wander regularly to “Crooked Hillary.”
While President Trump actively attempts to discredit election outcomes, voters themselves doubt the integrity of the system. The Grinnell College National Poll, released on December 3, 2018, in the field at the end of November 2018, shows that the American public expresses concern about whether votes were counted accurately in the midterm election. At the national level, one-half of the voters are skeptical that the votes were counted the way that voters intended. 30 percent have “some concerns” about the integrity of the vote count, while 20 percent are “mostly not confident.” It’s no surprise that skepticism is more prevalent among people of color. Non-whites are 11 percentage points more likely to express the extreme lack of confidence in the vote count than are whites (27% to 16%). A full 37 percent (38/104) of blacks feel mostly not confident that votes were counted as intended in 2018, representing an extreme drain on the sense of efficacy of voters.
The constant drumbeat of chaotic news also takes its toll, with Democrats in particular expressing that they’re “exhausted” by the president’s tweets and White House palace intrigue. This may just be the tip of the iceberg. While post-election stress disorder is not a diagnosable condition, the American Psychological Association found increases in stress levels, especially for Democrats, tied to the 2016 contest. In a post to Psychology Today, Dr. Jennifer Sweeton, licensed psychologist with an expertise in trauma, explains that the stress disorders tied to 2016 were marked by the same patterns as stress disorders generally, “with a magnified impact on people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ communities, differently-abled individuals, the religiously diverse, etc.”
Admittedly, sometimes the cause of exhaustion is more mundane than deliberate attempts to disenfranchise or chaos-inducing behavior. The long, drawn out post-election season marked by recounts and challenges are facilitated by the basic reality that the electorate is closely-divided and contests marked by razor-thin margins, so asserts Yale Law professor Stephen L.Carter. Of course, politicians and their teams take these contested results and run with them, extending the vitriol of the campaign period well past the election.
President Trump is, again, a skilled abettor, having tweeted for an end to the Florida recount because “large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots [were] missing or forged [so an] honest vote count [was] no longer possible…” Whether prompted by manufactured charges of misconduct or basic cases of automatic recounts playing out, the extension of the electoral season well past the election itself offers one more drain on the psychological resources of the voters, and also the campaigns.
Campaign staff themselves are actually vulnerable to the sort fatigue the plagues the system more generally, ironically in campaigns’ pursuit of mobilizing voters to the polls. The hours are long and the effective pay rate often lower than minimum wage. In other words, even with noble goals in mind, the US democratic system finds ways to sap the energy of participants.
And so, lurking behind the extraordinary turnout of 2018, is a disconcerting air of exhaustion, stemming from a variety of causes and likely independent of the patterns of electoral wins or losses. It may account for some of the 120 million eligible Americans who didn’t vote, a portion of these actually subverted from participating and others perhaps too worn down to try. But the sense of democratic exhaustion is more pervasive, extending to realms in which participation is not directly undermined, just weary under the weight of electoral politics more generally.
This is a problem for US democracy, even for those who appear to be at a strategic advantage given the patterns of democratic exhaustion. Without a doubt, the burdens are disproportionately borne by those already marginalized in politics, and this itself violates the norms of democracy and weakens the system. But principled notions aside, the deliberate attempts to wear down opponents by suppressing the vote is a wasteful deployment of resources, a temporary salve, and one that keeps those who follow this path from engaging in a real contest of ideas and policies, that — who knows — they just might prevail in if attentive to the messages of voters.
And for those who fuel the exhaustion, make no mistake that in delegitimizing US democracy, you are delegitimizing your own cause as much as your opponents’.
Barbara Trish is a professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Rosenfield Program at Grinnell College. She is also a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. Dr. Trish has a special interest in technology — especially tracking and metric-driven phenomena — and its impact on politics, especially campaign politics but also life more generally.