Big question of the midterms: Have liberals finally realized the power of voting?

Tuesday's election is a critical test: Will the left finally grasp that getting power and keeping it is crucial?

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 5, 2018 4:30PM (EST)

Voters wait in line outside a polling place in Cincinnati   (AP/John Minchillo)
Voters wait in line outside a polling place in Cincinnati (AP/John Minchillo)

The 2018 election is the most closely watched and anticipated midterm election of my lifetime. Largely that's because of the unanswered question hanging in the air: If this is a referendum on Donald Trump, what is America's verdict? Approval ratings and other polls can only do so much to measure whether the majority of Americans -- who probably don't want to live in an authoritarian state -- fully understand the seriousness of the threat that Trump, who openly longs to be a fascist dictator, presents to our democracy.

Tuesday's election represents the first real measure of whether the public gets it. High turnout leading to massive Democratic wins, most political observers assume, means the voters have truly absorbed that Trump is a clear and present danger. Lower turnout, apathy and a mixed result will suggest that most voters are still under the impression that Trump is an annoying but ultimately inconsequential figure, and don't yet realize that his choices have the potential to truly derail their lives.

But Tuesday's election isn't just about whether the public gets it. It's also a referendum on the question of whether liberals have finally realized what conservatives have always understood: Voting matters, more than any other political action one could possibly take.

It matters more than protesting. It matters more than opining on social media. It matters more than constructing carefully planned out policy positions or popularizing catchy slogans like "Abolish ICE." It matters more than debates, evidence or emotional appeals. It matters so much that literally all other political action is irrelevant and a waste of time and energy, if it's not backed up by consistently voting in every election and — and this part is important — voting for Democrats.

The idea that voting reliably for Democrats is the most important thing progressives can do to advance their agenda has never been popular in progressive circles. There's a waxing and waning of the number of people who cling to the silly theory that progressives can push Democrats to the left by withholding their votes as punishment — it was popular in 2000, but less so in 2008, and then regained popularity for the 2016 election. But there is always some proportion of people on the left who think the way to manipulate Democrats into embracing a more progressive agenda is to keep allowing Republicans to win elections until the Democrats finally wise up.

Well, playing hard-to-get doesn't work in dating — research has consistently shown that people are more attracted to someone who is responsive — and it doesn't work in politics, either. When Republicans win elections, politicians do not read that as a vote of public desire for more progressive politics. Instead — and this should be obvious — politicians take that as evidence that the public is conservative, and they tailor their politics accordingly. Republicans become even more right-wing and Democrats become more centrist.

In 2016, political science researchers from Columbia University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, put together a survey demonstrating that members of Congress and their aides, regardless of party, believe the public is far more conservative than they actually are. And not just by a little bit. On the whole, both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill imagined their voters were exponentially more right-wing than they really are on issues ranging from gun control to the minimum wage, health care, the environment and infrastructure spending.

It's easy to be contemptuous of politicians for misunderstanding their constituents, but let's take a moment to look at things from their point of view. Republicans keep winning far more elections than Democrats -- especially midterm elections and state-level races -- and have controlled most state and federal levers of power for most of the past few decades. It's reasonable to conclude voters keep choosing Republicans because they want Republican policies. And politicians will always be more invested in watching that bottom line of votes than in elaborate research generated by political scientists at elite universities.

If the situation were reversed and suddenly Democrats started winning a lot more elections by healthy margins, the conclusion that the vote-count-driven establishment in D.C. and at your local statehouse would reach is that the public has shifted to the left. They would adjust accordingly, with Republicans moderating their views and Democrats becoming far more progressive.

It is not random coincidence that the most conservative Democrats in Congress hail from swing states or even red states where most voters back Republicans most of the time. Growing progressive politicians in such environments is like trying to grow tomatoes in a backyard that only gets direct sunlight for an hour a day. You can yell and scream all you like, but the plant simply won't bear fruit.

To be generous, there are understandable reasons for liberals' failure to grasp that there is no path to progress that doesn't go straight through consistent and vigorous voting for Democrats. Liberals often like to believe that there are factors in a democracy that matter, beyond raw power. There's always an abiding hope that education, evidence and reasoned discourse will turn the tide. Liberals, for instance, have relied heavily on the courts to secure human rights, leading many to believe the side of right will prevail at the end of the day, so long as we have truth and justice on our side.

This is dumb. It has always been dumb. Perhaps the one-two punch of having a proud ignoramus in the White House and a judiciary swiftly filling up with right-wing hacks will help liberals realize that all the good intentions and the best arguments hardly matter, if you have no power to back those things up.

And yes, there are people — quite a number of people — who have been disenfranchised by racist voter suppression methods employed by Republicans. This just raises the moral duty of those who can vote to do so, and makes it even more disgusting that anyone who has access to the ballot would make excuses instead of voting. Making voting easier is a great idea, of course, but Democrats will never make that happen unless and until they have the power to change it — power they can only get by winning elections.

As I write this, I am pessimistic. The 2016 election was lost in no small part because a large number of liberals — particularly those who are more privileged and used to being catered to — got it into their heads that they had no obligation to vote, because Hillary Clinton wasn't exactly their bespoke ideal of a candidate. And yes, a lot of that was just a rationalization of sexism, as evidenced by the fact that 51 percent of white college-educated women voted for Clinton but only 39 percent of their male counterparts did. Even so, if more liberal voters saw voting as a means to gain power, instead of a way to express their esoteric political views, then that kind of rationalization would have had no real traction in the first place.

Bad habits are hard to break, even in the face of a rock-bottom moment like the Trump presidency. Yes, a huge number of people are more active than ever before — phone banking, protesting and even running for office — but by and large, those people were already voters who are simply adding more action items to their previous level of political engagement. But when it comes to voters, we won't know until the returns come in on Tuesday night whether Trump has been a wake-up call for those who think they're simply too cool to vote. As I say, I'm pessimistic. But I have never hoped so much that I'm wrong.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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