As the truism holds, if voting didn't matter, they wouldn't try to keep you from doing it."
This is folk wisdom intended to inspire people to fight for more democracy and not less of it.
Donald Trump, movement conservatives and the Republican Party exist in their own distorted reality. As such, they have twisted an exhortation to democracy into a modus operandi where democracy is snuffed out and voting rights are denied to anyone who dares to disagree with them.
The 2018 midterm elections were and are replete with such examples.
In Georgia, Texas, Florida and elsewhere, Republican officials have purged hundreds of thousands of voters from registration lists, reduced the number of polling places in black and brown and poor communities, refused to count mail-in and absentee ballots and sent out false information designed to confuse voters about how and when to vote. They are using the courts to suppress the vote and have engaged in tricks reminiscent of the Jim Crow South to deny nonwhites the opportunity to vote -- and to ensure that when they do actually vote, their votes are not properly counted.
In another example of his unprecedented norm-breaking and sullying of the presidency, both before, during and after the 2018 midterms Donald Trump has attempted to intimidate those Americans who support the Democratic Party with threats of prison for the almost nonexistent crime of "voter fraud."
Republicans around the country have picked up this cudgel as a tool for limiting democracy through a logic and strategy wherein the only "real votes" are those made by white people, especially white conservatives. Here, the votes of nonwhites are always suspect.
Trump never misses an opportunity to frighten, fear-monger and encourage violence by his supporters against the Democratic Party and their voters. He is now sending out outrageous fundraising emails about the 2018 midterms:
President Trump REFUSES to let the corrupt Democrats of Broward County STEAL our election victories in Florida ....
When Democrats LOST the White House, they invented a fake story of “Russia collusion” to try and overturn the 2016 election.
Now that Democrats failed to take our Senate majority during the mythical blue wave, Democrats are now miraculously finding bins of votes.
Our Republic is at stake.
The Republican Party's assault on American democracy is a painful national civics lesson and an opportunity to ask a fundamental question. Why does voting matter?
On the most basic and fundamental level, in a democracy voting is a way of holding elected officials accountable to the people. Ideally, voting is also a way for the people's will to be made known and, when appropriate, responded to. Voting helps to force accountability and transparency in government. It is also a form of civic ritual that cements citizens' connections to and investment in the nation and state.
These principles expose the fact that Donald Trump and his enablers believe that voting and elections do not count unless he and his right-wing agenda are victorious. In this authoritarian vision of America, Donald Trump is to be immune from criticism or accountability by anyone. The media and the public are to pay fealty and to be loyal; he is the American king, god or emperor. The truth is what Donald Trump and his news media and supplicants say it is; empirical reality does not apply in Trump and his movement's fantasy world.
Donald Trump believes he is above the law. His efforts to bend the Department of Justice to his will and to stop Robert Mueller's investigation are only the most high-profile example.
There are many other examples of how Trump's disdain for democracy and the law reflects an autocratic belief that the state is just a means for him and his inner circle to enrich themselves. It was entirely predictable that Donald Trump would preside over one of the most corrupt presidential administrations in American history.
Donald Trump's presidency, by many reasonable measures, should be considered illegitimate. He won with the help of a hostile foreign power that sought to manipulate millions of Americans into voting for him. Like other Republicans, he benefited from massive voter suppression. He lost to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes.
Trump has utter disrespect for the moral leadership role and other responsibilities of the presidency. He has no respect for the Constitution or the rule of law. He channels and encourages the worst aspects of America's national character. He diminishes the standing of the United States around the world. He has elevated white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other hate-mongers who should be in the refuse pile of history into the mainstream of society, and yes, the highest levels of government including the White House. He feels no responsibility to the American people as a whole, but only to the most enthusiastic members of his political cult and his plutocratic class.
On a range of political issues, from the social safety net and managing the economy to gun control, the environment, civil rights, health care and foreign policy, the Republican Party's agenda is rejected by a majority of the American people.
The vision that Trump and the Republicans want to force on the American people is so unpopular that even voters in "red states" supported liberal and progressive positions in the 2018 midterms on issues such as expanding Medicaid, restoring the voting rights of felons, legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage.
This anti-democratic ethos is all part of a larger strategy under which Republicans work to protect the interests of the very rich and very powerful at the (literal) expense of the American people. America's plutocrats and other members of the right wing know that a healthy and functioning democracy is their enemy. In her award-winning book "Democracy in Chains," Nancy MacLean explains this plot against American democracy:
The United States is now at one of those historic forks in the road whose outcome will prove as fateful as those of the 1860s, the 1930s, and the 1960s. To value liberty for the wealthy minority above all else and enshrine it in the nation's governing rules ... is to consent to an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form ....
The libertarian cause, from the time it first attracted wider support during the southern schools crisis, was never really about freedom as most people would define it. It was about the promotion of crippling division among the people so as to end any interference with what those who held vast power over others believed should be their prerogatives. Its leaders had no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy. And today, knowing that the majority does not share their goals and would stop them if they understood the endgame, the team of paid operatives seeks to win by stealth. Now, as then, the Calhoun-style liberty for the few -- the liberty to concentrate vast wealth, so as to deny elementary fairness and freedom to the many.
This anti-democratic ethos supposedly works to protect the power of white Americans, especially rural white conservatives, in a society where the relative power of whites as a group is perceived to be decreasing.
Trumpism considers America's multiracial and inclusive democracy as an existential threat. The 2018 midterms were a rebuke to that vision. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post explains it this way:
For over two years, Trump and his Fox News helpmates have perpetrated the fraud that only they are the voice of “the people.” That’s what authoritarian regimes and their followers always say. Trump spent two years talking almost exclusively to and for his core group. Sure enough, he can get them out to vote in Missouri, Indiana and North Carolina. But they aren’t a majority of voters nationwide; not even close. His demagoguery, lies, cruelty and incompetence — what his supporters ignore or even relish (he’s our liar!) — the majority, a large majority, of equally real Americans despises.
The 2018 midterm elections are a reminder that presidents and parties have to talk to the whole country. The midterms are also a lesson that victimology only goes so far.
The past is not always a neat and clear prologue. The route can be ugly and twisting. A Republican Party that once embraced the proud tradition of Abraham Lincoln, "The Great Emancipator," is now better suited to Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. It is committed to keeping black Americans and other nonwhites from voting.
In his landmark 1905 book "The Aftermath of Slavery," William Albert Sinclair demanded justice for black Americans. Voting was an integral part of this struggle.
The negrophobists of the South thoroughly understand that, in order to annul him as a factor to be reckoned with in American life and civilization, his ballot, which keeps open "the door of hope, the door of opportunity," must be demolished....
And controlled by a perverted moral sense and a diseased mind, a mania on the questions affecting the negro, some of these leaders are now making a bold, desperate, even reckless effort to "Jim-Crow" the President of the United States and to "Jim-Crow" the government of the United States and to "Jim-Crow" this great Christian nation of eight millions of free people into a "Jim Crow nation." Surely the cup of iniquity of the Jim Crow politicians is not only full, but is running over....
This "Jim-Crowing" of the South by unequal laws, or by statutes which contravene the spirit of the Constitution of the United States, and by barbarous customs, is intended to place all colored persons on a different footing from the whites before the law and in every other relation of life, and thus force the race into hopeless degradation. It means the revival of the ante bellum doctrine that negroes have no rights which white men are bound to respect.
Smith words are immortal: His observations apply to Republicans and other white conservatives in America more than 100 years later.
There is other political folk wisdom to consider as well.
"If voting made a difference, they wouldn't let us do it." "The political parties are so alike that voting doesn't really matter." "Both political parties are the same."
In the age of Trump this is no longer true. A diverse and inclusive Democratic Party and other people of conscience who are determined to protect the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution are opposed by a Republican Party that has been subverted into an antidemocratic reactionary movement. Its goal is to protect the power of Whiteness and the unearned advantages of white people (especially white conservative men) and the global plutocracy.
But one must never forget that voting is never enough in a struggle to preserve democracy and to create positive social change. In some ways the power of voting can be illusory and mask much deeper problems. Last week's 2018 midterms -- which was not a "blue wave" but more like an average storm -- can be viewed as a perverse mandate for Trump and the Republican Party's white backlash agenda. Writing for the Globe and Mail, Sarah Kendzior warns:
The character of the country was on the ballot, and we emerged a Cubist portrait of contradictions and embarrassments.
We did not repudiate racism and hate en masse. We did not restore dignity and decency to the electoral process by ensuring the integrity of the vote. These should be non-partisan objectives, and Democrats attempted to make them non-partisan objectives by fortifying voter rights, negating the corrosive influence of dark money, and seeking to uphold American propositions so long-standing they are somewhat cliché: America as a land of immigrants, a beacon of freedom and opportunity. Some Republicans, in response, labelled basic constitutional rights and fundamental precepts of American identity as radical and dangerous, and smeared those who seek to uphold them.
Never forget that voting in a democracy works both ways. There is action and reaction, where one group mobilizes to create positive change and is opposed by others who are invested in the status quo. This contest is not balanced or fair. "One person, one vote" is a rule on paper that does not reflect reality as it exists. Trump's voters and supporters are afraid, energized, motivated and easily manipulated. They do the bidding of a president, political party and movement that is willing to break every rule to win, keep and expand power.
To defeat Trumpism and today's broader right-wing movement will require not just voting and all that results from it but also sustained organizing, the real corporeal politics of mass protests, strikes and marches, and opposing Trump and the Republican Party's foot soldiers at every opportunity. And yes, the Democratic Party must also be held accountable to the best will and desires of the American people.
If the resistance to Donald Trump and American fascism stops at the voting booth, then he and the antidemocratic values he represents will have already won. The 2018 midterms were but one early skirmish in a much longer struggle.