Members Only | October 31, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Fascism Threatens Us. So Does Indifference
Liberals must demand greater accountability from every citizen. Vote!
New York magazine did us all a great service Tuesday by publishing a story about 12 young Americans who are probably not going to vote next week. The piece is a riot of sorry excuses for craven irresponsibility, but it’s no less illuminating because of it. The piece suggests that our sociopolitical ills did not start and will not stop with the current president. The article suggests that our problems begin and end with us.
It’s now finally getting traction empirically: those who did not vote in the 2016 election are most responsible for Donald Trump’s rise to power. This is because some 40 percent of eligible voters didn’t vote. This is because there is no such thing as not voting, as the late David Foster Wallace once put it. One vote for Candidate A is made double by a non-vote for Candidate B. This is the way it’s always going to be until our form of government, in which the winner takes all, is reformed to allow for third parties. Since that’s not going to happen, this is the way it will be.
Yes, voter suppression is a real evil. Yes, the Republican Party, in Southern states, is doing its best to prevent minorities from getting to the ballot box. Yes, the Supreme Court is complicit in this evil. It decided not long ago that institutional racism was insufficiently evident to warrant keeping the provision of the Voting Rights Act that required former slave states to get clearance from federal authorities whenever they made changes to voting laws. And yes, those same former slaves states are precisely the ones now trying to bar Americans from exercising their right to vote.
But when put in the right context, it’s clear that the number of people prevented from voting—for reasons that include bothersome inconveniences like absentee balloting—are small compared to the larger number of people who didn’t vote in 2016 for reasons having nothing to do with voter suppression tactics. A lot of attention is given to lawmakers trying to revive Jim Crow. But not enough attention is given to people who rationalize their decisions to not vote. America’s democracy, or rather its liberal democracy, is being threatened by fascism, but it’s also being threatened by indifference. Liberals must demand greater accountability from every citizen.
I admit this is an old-fashioned take. The more commiserable, or hipsterish way, of appealing to young voters would be to concede to their disaffection and express solidarity with their disillusionment in not seeing anyone they’d like to vote for—not seeing anyone who inspires them to vote—but urge them to vote. To be sure, my position as a moral scold is probably a poor choice, as telling young people what they should do is a good way for them not to do what they should do. But whatevs.
Tim, age 27, who has never voted, told New York:
That’s kind of a problem with social attitudes around, you know, “It’s your civic duty to vote.” I once told a co-worker that I didn’t vote, and she said, “That’s really irresponsible,” in this judgmental voice. You can’t build a policy around calling people irresponsible. You need to make people enthusiastic and engaged.
Actually, as we say on Twitter, judging young people for not doing what they are supposed to do is a great idea. Calling young people irresponsible is precisely how to build morale, because voting isn’t only about material or instrumental outcomes.
Indeed, voting isn’t only about holding those in power accountable. Voting isn’t only about getting your piece of the pie. Voting isn’t only about demonstrating the will of the majority. (As Jennifer Victor argued Tuesday, these are problematic assumptions in any case.) Voting is, above and behind everything else, a moral act. Not voting is immoral. If you don’t vote, you get whatever fresh new hell you deserve.
You’ll notice I’m not talking about parties. I doubt very much that the Democrats will benefit from the youth vote, because the youth is more fiction than reality. The youth vote was supposed to show up for George McGovern in 1972. The youth vote was supposed to show up for Walter Mondale in 1984. The youth vote defined the 2008 election, but it didn’t really, according to Martin P. Wattenberg. Contrary to popular believe, Barack Obama spent more resources on reaching the elderly than on the under-30 set, and this is the guy who nevertheless got young people fired up.
In pointing out the fictional aspects of the youth vote, I’m hoping you’ll see my argument is entirely moral. It’s the right thing to do in a liberal democratic republic whether you’re voting for a Republican, a Democrat, or the Great Pumpkin.
There are two features of the New York magazine article in defense of young Americans who don’t vote. One is the concern that they don’t know enough about politics and that they’ll get it wrong if they vote (though you really don’t need to be informed; I mean, look at who voted for the current president). Two is the structural impediments to voting for young Americans. Both are things liberals will spend a lot of time debating, as they rightly should, but both are things that threaten to prevent liberals from demanding greater accountability from each and every citizen.
Something is lacking in this country, something strong enough to countervail the rising tide of fascism. We need something that drives young people to pursue doing the right thing even if doing the right thing is made difficult by forces beyond their control, forces that attempt to infringe on their rights and liberties, forces that are emboldened every time they decide they are not going to vote. What is lacking?
Liberals must take a stand.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.