If you hold liberal values, you should vote!

by Emrys Westacott

Some people whose political views are liberal and progressive say they will not vote in the 2020 US election. They detest Donald Trump and his Republican enablers like senate leader Mitch McConnell; they oppose Trump’s policies on most issues–the environment, immigration, health care, voting rights, police brutality, gun control, etc.; but they still say they won’t vote. Why not?

One justification sometimes given for such a stance is: It has to get worse before it gets better. Yes, Trump and co are ruining much that is precious and causing a lot of suffering; but that is what has to happen to provoke revolutionary change. People will only be goaded into action when things become sufficiently dire.

To this, I have two responses. First, if you really believe that, then you should vote for Trump. If you want to see the country driven into a ditch, he’s clearly your man! Just look around. Why leave the job half done?

Second, this way of thinking on the left goes back a long way, but the brutal truth is that it has not delivered. Leftists have been anticipating and calling for “the overthrow of all existing conditions” since The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848. One can understand and to some extent sympathize with this demand. Some of the social ills associated with American capitalism–systematic racism and sexism; massive inequality; economic instability; an obscenely high prison population; tens of millions suffering chronically from material and cultural deprivation­–seem to demand more than piecemeal tinkering for their solution.

The fact is, though, that in the modernized, industrialized countries, the sort of revolution that seemed likely in Marx’s day simply hasn’t happened. And since most people in these societies now have a lot more to lose than just their chains, dramatic wholesale revolutionary transformation from the bottom up seems unlikely. Significant continuous reform seems the more plausible option.

The other common reason given for not voting is: It makes no difference who get elected. The two main parties are as bad as one another. The Dems just wear a velvet glove over the iron fist. They both essentially run capitalism for the benefit of the elite and don’t really give a damn about those who suffer from the system. Voting gives politicians the stamp of legitimacy; not voting is a principled refusal to do this.

To this, I have three responses. First, it’s simply false to say that it makes no difference who is president or which party is in power. Try telling that to the hundreds of thousands who have died or lost loved ones during the current pandemic as a result of Trump’s vainglorious incompetence. Try telling it to the millions who are currently facing destitution, eviction, homelessness, or bankruptcy because Trump and the Republicans refuse to provide adequate federal assistance. Try telling it to the families torn apart by Trump’s immigration policies, to the workers who are now less protected by health and safety regulations, to the citizens who are effectively disenfranchised by Republican voter suppression tactics, or to anyone affected by Trump’s rolling back of environmental protections (i.e. everyone). Read an obituary of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and try telling yourself that it makes no difference who sits on the Supreme Court.

Second, to not vote expresses a strange (one might even say callous) indifference to the suffering endured by the victims of Republican policies. If you are of a liberal persuasion, you presumably think that we should try to reduce avoidable misery. So shouldn’t you use your vote to do this? Sure, Obamacare isn’t universal health care; but its repeal would be devastating to millions with pre-existing conditions who will no longer be able to get health insurance. Yes, Obama had a checkered record on immigration; but Trump’s policies on immigration are willfully vicious, breaking up families and blighting the prospects of so many young people for whom America has long been home.

Withholding your vote doesn’t make a statement any more than playing air guitar makes an actual sound. Ask yourself: what is the collective impact, in practical terms, of each refusal to vote against The Bad because the currently available alternative is Not Good Enough? Answer: it increases the likelihood that the present nightmare will continue. Ask yourself: What would Donald Trump want you to do, given that you aren’t planning to vote for him?

Third, the stakes in the 2020 election are extraordinarily high. As many analysts and commentators have already noted, democracy itself is on the line. Trump and his Republican enablers are evidently willing to utterly trash democratic norms and practices (imperfect as they are) in a desperate attempt to retain power in the face of demographic and ideological trends that they cannot resist by democratic means. Gerrymandered districts, disenfranchised felons, unnecessary requirements for registration and voting, insufficient polling stations and ballot boxes, inaccurate census taking, an impaired postal service, deliberate misinformation, intimidation tactics directed at minorities and immigrants: all of these stratagems are employed by the Republicans; and when challenged, such nakedly anti-democratic maneuvers are often upheld by Trump-appointed judges.

This shameless Machiavellianism–and shameless is the mot juste here–was apparent in the rush to seat Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court right before an election after refusing to even give Merrick Garland a hearing when Obama was president. And Trump made it clear that part of the motive for doing this was to ensure that a partisan right-wing majority of justices was in place to rule in his favour should the outcome of the 2020 election depend on the Supreme Court.

Plan A in any election is to win the most votes. If that fails, Plan B, in a functional democracy, should be to accept defeat gracefully and either revise your policies or do a better job of persuading people to support them. But the Republican Plan B this time around appears to be to create enough uncertainty, controversy, suspicion, and general messiness to “justify” not conceding defeat. They then hope that they can manipulate the system—perhaps by means of the Supreme Court or the House of Representatives–to spit out the decision they want.

They are doing this out of fear. Demographically and ideologically the Republicans are facing into a tide that they are afraid will soon overwhelm them. Their party is increasingly unrepresentative of an increasingly diverse population. Their policies on almost every issue–climate change, health care, minimum wage, taxes, gun control, police brutality, inequality–are opposed by overwhelming majorities. But their response is not to change their policies. Rather, it is to oppose the will of the people by using every anti-democratic tool available, including fueling crazy conspiracy theories, allowing foreign governments to influence the electorate through specious social media, and even encouraging armed supporters to show up on the streets.

The tighter the result of the coming election, the easier it will be for them to work Plan B. So Plan A for anyone who wishes to thwart the threat to democracy posed by Trump, McConnell and the rest is pretty obvious. To rework a phrase of Michele Obama’s: Vote as if your democracy depends upon it. Because it does.

Voting in free and fair elections is a fundamental right. Withholding your vote is also a right, of course. It could even be called a privilege. But it is a privilege that, if exercised, may be lost.

A cart full of children from an orphanage is rolling down a slope towards a cliff. A group of bystanders have managed to grab hold of some ropes and cables attached to its frame and trailing behind it. Collectively they haul on these, trying to prevent a catastrophe. You have a choice. You can either grab a rope and lend a hand. Or you can just watch, choosing to withhold your help. After all, there is so much wrong with the world–like carts without safety brakes and kids without parents–that saving the children’s lives won’t really be doing them any great favours.

But if you think those kids’ lives matter, you should help. And if you think anything at all matters, you should vote!