One hears a lot these days, particularly from those on the left who are disappointed by the last few years, that electoral politics do not work – or do not work any more. It is given as a reason for some to be apathetic and a reason for others to engage in direct action.
It is an odd claim, since the efficacy of electoral politics is evident all around us. The problem for the discouraged is that sometimes they just don’t have the votes to effect the change they want – which is especially likely to be true if they don’t vote.
Electoral politics certainly have worked for conservatives. Particularly with the election of Reagan in 1980, the 1994 Gingrich Congress, Bush in 2000, and the 2010 Tea Party extravaganza, conservatives have achieved many goals: unions were throttled; tax rates for the affluent and business were slashed; even the mildest gun control has been taken off the table; “welfare” as it existed for generations was ended; the Supreme Court took a couple of steps to the right as did their decisions; and so on. These accomplishments largely came via elections. (One might suspect that corporate money played a more direct role in some cases. Perhaps, but not on issues that were financially neutral.)
To be sure, not all conservative dreams have materialized. Roe v. Wade stands; Social Security and Medicare remain unprivatized; and the EPA is still operates. But the center of Washington politics is now moved so far to the right that Obama’s efforts to return to Reagan policies gets him labeled a socialist.
So, why are so many on the left insisting that electoral politics do not work? Perhaps they do not work for the left. But even that assertion is not persuasive. Electoral politics were key to passage of fundamental civil rights legislation, protection for women in the workplace and home, and environmental regulations. That Obama won in 2008 almost certainly helped forestall far worse economic suffering for average Americans and the election brought the first major expansion of health care in 40 years — albeit each achievement by a thin congressional margin.
The Cost of Abstaining
Such unrealistic discouragement about electoral politics may explain the Great Abstention. The graph below, which I generated from census data, shows the difference in vote turnout, by age group, between 2008 and 2010. Between those two elections, the percentage of citizens aged 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 who voted dropped by over 25 points, just about cut in half. The drop in turnout for those aged 55 and older was only about 10 points, or about one-seventh the 2008 balloting.
In actual numbers, the 18 to 34 group lost over 15 million votes between the presidential election and the congressional election, while the 55-plus group lost about 5 million votes. Given their presidential preferences in 2008, we can roughly estimate that, between these two age groups, abstention in 2010 cost the Democrats about 13.5 million votes and cost the Republicans about 6.5 million votes – a net loss to the left of 7 million votes, or more than 7 percent of the 2010 electorate.
No wonder the GOP and the Tea Party celebrated a landslide.
Voting does not work for you – if you don’t vote. Not voting does work – for the other guy.
Compared to What?
The major problem with the claim that electoral politics do not work (ever or any more) is the missing part of the argument: compared to what? What is the alternative route to, say, tighter bank regulations, affordable quality child care, or fairer taxes?
I have heard flights of fancy, for example that people can make change by setting up some sort of alternative community – actually, I heard that in the ‘70s, too. Personal growth for some; continuing stress for most. Or that a sufficiently large mobilization could bring the “system to its knees.” That seems to work in some political systems – perhaps because parliamentary governments more easily fall or perhaps because some countries have a cultural history of popular action dating back to food riots against the king. But in the United States the likelier responses to large-scale mobilization (say, like the action at the 1968 Democratic Convention) are a backlash and popular demand to restore social order, even at the point of a gun.
What is the realistic alternative to the “ground game” – to registering your voters and getting your voters out? In our system, not much.