On paper, I’m about as much of a Democrat as one can be. I have voted for the Democratic candidate in every single election that I have been eligible in, and worked on Democratic campaigns and for partisan organizations.
In reality, I’m someone who generally thinks that the Democrats were not doing nearly enough to help the working class even before the pandemic. They have no interest in reigning in the disastrous economic and environmental effects of late-stage capitalism, let alone dismantling it altogether. I’m skeptical of even the most progressive members of the party, especially after the de-facto leader of the “Squad,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, voted present (rather than no) on a bill to fund Israel's Iron Dome, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren proclaimed that she was a “capitalist to her bones”. Put me in a room with establishment party members like Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and Terry McAuliffe and we would agree on very little.
Yet I voted for Biden rather than Trump and McAuliffe rather than Youngkin. However, not only do I refuse to shame anyone that declined to vote or voted third party, I believe that vote shaming only harms the most vulnerable socioeconomic groups and benefits political elites.
First, it is necessary to dispel a few myths about voting. During the last two presidential elections, many people - politicians and everyday Americans alike - argued that staying at home or voting third party is “a vote for Trump.” The logic is quite shaky. First off, it assumes that an individual who stayed at home would have voted for Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden if they had decided to vote. However, somebody who voted for Republicans their whole life and decided to stay home for Trump’s election would have voted for Trump if forced to choose. Likewise, many people who voted for third parties, especially people who voted for the Libertarian party, might have also chosen Trump if they were forced to vote.
The second myth about voting is that it is a privilege to decide not to vote as it means you are in a high socioeconomic strata and not directly affected by policy choices. The data shows the opposite to be true. One study by Columbia University found that “only 46 percent of potential voters with family incomes less than twice the federal poverty line voted in the 2016 presidential election, compared to 68 percent of those with family incomes above twice the poverty line.” While voter suppression in the form of felony disenfranchisement, strict voter ID laws, and election day being on Tuesday during work hours certainly explains some of this disparity, disillusionment with the candidates, campaign issues, and the political process were named as reasons for not voting by many respondents. In other words, people don’t stay home because the issues don’t adversely affect them, they stay home because the issues will adversely affect them no matter who is in power.
This might seem a bit extreme, and I do not think it is fair to say that the two parties are the same. However, take the example of immigration. While Trump’s “build the wall” rhetoric was both racist and dangerous, President Obama deported 3 Million immigrants during his time in office. Despite Joe Biden’s pro-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail, his administration has deported thousands of Haitian immigrants in South Texas and Vice President Kamala Harris bluntly told Guatemalan migrants not to come to the US.
Without delving too deep into policy specifics, it can often seem that the Democratic party wants to pay lip service to progressive ideals without fully committing to them. Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats might have kneeled (and for some reason donned kente cloth) to show their support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but Joe Biden largely wrote the crime bill which contributed to the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and also argued that “most cops are good”. Symbolic support for BLM seems disingenuous, considering the organization has called to Defund the Police and argued that law enforcement as a whole serves to threaten black lives- not protect them. President Joe Biden also said he would believe the science and listen to experts about Coronavirus, yet his administration failed to make rapid tests readily available for the holiday season and now argues that there is “no federal solution” to Covid.
Still, one might argue, voting is a matter of harm-reduction, and the Democrats are the clear choice. By this logic, doing anything that lets the Republican party win (including abstaining from voting) is morally wrong. As Obama suggested during the Virginia gubernatorial race, there is “too much at stake” to sit this one out.
The endgame of this reasoning is quite sad. You can’t expect Democrats to actually deliver on their promises. You can’t expect them to provide Americans with Medicare For All, tuition-free public universities, a $15 federal minimum wage, meaningful action on climate change, a child tax credit that doesn’t expire when Americans need it most, or any policy that actually helps working class Americans. You can’t expect Democrats to do anything but be marginally better Republicans, because too much is at stake.
If we commit to this harm-reduction logic, Democrats have incredibly cushy jobs. They can do nothing of substance while in office, claim that their Republican opponents are a threat against democracy itself come election time, and rely on voters to support them no matter what. Instead of making a positive case for themselves, they need only make a negative case against the other party. They can maintain their power - even use that power to enrich themselves - without lifting a finger.
This is not a world I wish to live in.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.