The Democrats’ Big Problem: Convincing People to Vote

On the one hand, I’m glad that this conversation is happening more often now. On the other hand, I’m disappointed that it’s happening in all of the wrong places. On the third hand – we’re dealing with Zaphod Beeblebrox, here – isn’t it good that the discussion is happening in the first place?

I should back up. After all, you’re unaware that I just read this article in Vox about the many problems the Democrat Party is facing. The article is mainly about the stone-cold fact that unless the Democrats can get their shit together on the local level, then no matter who you elect in office, you’re going to run into the same sorts of troubles you’ve been having for the past 15 years: All of the sparks of progressivism that started up after Bush in the early 90s are starting to unravel at the local level.

Look at Facebook and, if you’re in a left-leaning group and in a left-leaning area, chances are you’ll see slews of posts about how people just need to support this issue or that issue and vote for, say, Bernie Sanders, and we’ll start seeing a resurgence of progressivism in the United States. Well, as much as I agree that people should vote for Sanders, what those sorts of posts are missing is that, at a certain point, the President can only do so much. You’ve seen this for the entire eight years of Obama’s presidency, no matter whether you’re looking at his first term or his second term: By and large, his efforts have been sabotaged or completely stymied. The ACA is a step in the right direction, but it is, at best, a mis-sized bandage on a gaping, seeping wound. While we’ve gotten same-sex marriage approved by the Supreme Court, it was a long, challenging road to get there, and we only got there with action from the Court itself, not the legislative or executive branches. Ignoring the fight that it took to get either of those ideas into reality is damaging not only to discourse but to the health of the Democrats and their supporters.

See, what you’ll see if you look at Facebook and if you fit that criteria I mentioned above, then you’ll notice an overwhelming uniformity of ideas. It’s not quite groupthink, but it’s close. You’ll see everyone saying the same thing, and expressing shock and horror at the fact that not everyone in America has the same beliefs. God forbid you have an extreme group of friends who go all reactionary and defriend people who express an opposite point of view. Once you’ve hit that point, you know that you’ve gone a full 360 degrees and wound up in the negaverse of political discourse. But it’s the tone of what these folks are going on about that I’d like to discuss. In their quest to become so ideologically pure, they’ve gone and ostracized anyone who’s more moderate than they are and, in doing so, potentially crippled the party that has the best shot of looping together everyone from Democratic Socialists to Blue Dog Democrats.

Now I know, people shouting on Facebook (or Tumblr) seems like it shouldn’t be an indicator of the health of a party – after all, a good chunk of voters probably don’t wind up spending their time doing that. A good chunk of voters are probably busy having mental breakdowns at offices and developing coping mechanisms for permanent existential funks. However, I contend with very little data points or evidence to back my claim, that those who shout the loudest get the most attention – and in the case of the folks on social media, the attention is invariably on the Presidency.

But what, exactly, is the problem with that?

Well, as the Vox article above points out, when you focus on the Presidency, you invariably don’t talk about local elections. To actually give you talking points, and to make it something I’m more familiar with, let’s look at the 2012 election in Tennessee, specifically – for the sake of simplicity – Tennessee State Senate. That document lists the total number of votes for candidates in the Tennessee state districts. First, take a look at page 3, District 6, Knox County, in which you see a total of 72,435 voters ticking a box on that ballot. I took a look at a paper[1] published by Alice E. Brading that breaks down voter activity in ballots. Ms. Brading found that, when you go down the ballot, you see a declining trend of people even finishing ballots: From over 98% in the Presidential race to just squeaking over 80% at the end of the ballot (p. 32). Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well, look at the turnout for that election: just under 61% (p. 29) of eligible voters made it to the polls in one form or fashion in that election – and that’s a Presidential election! A big-ticket election!

Let’s next take a look at percentage of voter turnout from Davidson County, home of Nashville, the state capital. From the Tennessee election commission-provided data, you can see that Davidson County had a similar voter turnout to Knox County: 65.62%. Of 369,339 registered voters in Davidson County, that’s a total of 242,361 (approximately) voters. According to these numbers, there was a population of 648,295 as of 2012. Now, granted, population does not equal eligible voters, so I don’t have the number of eligible voters. So, we’ll just assume that only about 57% of the county’s population is eligible to vote. Now, over 65.62% isn’t, well, horrible. It’s not a ⅔ majority, but it’s not like we’re dipping into the 50s, here!

Oh, wait. Oh. Oh. 46% turnout in Davidson County, 2010. Do you remember that midterm election? That was one of the first major instances of the Tea Party surging to the front as a force in the Republican force. It was also an election that skewed heavily Republican. Knox County’s election turnout in 2010 was better, with 54%, but at that point, it’s like saying “Well, I didn’t burn down the whole building – just most of it.” So what can we draw from these numbers – surface-level as they may be? Well, considering the outcomes of local elections, while voters tended toward Democratic candidates for President in 2012, they went Republican in local elections in 2012 and 2010. But let’s go a bit more in detail here and consider the group I mentioned at the start of it: Those in Generation Y, or the Millennial Generation. According to Pew Research, at a national level, voter rates for voters aged 18 – 24 was abysmally low. Over a 24-year period (from 1988 to 2012), it did not reach 50%, whereas you crack the 75% mark for voters above 65 years old.

Now, consider who the Democrats are typically popular with: Younger voters tend to lean more liberal. That’s especially true with more left-wing candidates like Sanders. If the trend of young voters continues, then you’re going to see more of the same as always: A lot of passionate young voters who lean left doing everything they can to talk up their Presidential candidate, but more than half of them not showing up to the polls on Election Day. Or, if they do show up, not doing so again for midterm elections. That last bit is what is murdering the Democrats, and what not many people seem to talk about when they discuss what’s happening in elections – at least on a macro level.

That is, and I think, the biggest thing the Democrats have to focus on: They have to work on getting their local level politics at the forefront of their rhetoric. They have to mobilize worthwhile candidates – as the Vox article mentions, it sometimes seems like the Democrats think globally and act globally, but on a local level, which doesn’t work. Let’s take the Democratic debate, for example. You have Sanders and Clinton as the forerunners, and then a few other guys who are running as Democrats, which baffles people in states that aren’t as left as California or Oregon. It may be that Webb was a liberal in his state, because – I don’t know – he shook a Muslim’s hand once. What the left forgets is that the word “Party” implies people of a wide political spectrum getting together to compromise and provide a holistic view of a political ideology. It is not, and should not be, a single party with a single ideology. That way lies danger and – as many commentators remark – the ability of the Republicans to be flexible is a strong point the Democrats don’t have, but desperately, desperately need.

Remember: Democracy does not work based on what most people think. It works based on what most voters think.

[1] Brading, Alice E., “The Choice Is Yours: A Study of the East Tennessee Voter’s Decision Process” (2013). University of Tennessee Honors Thesis Projects