When I was a young reader I used to read Nancy Drew mysteries. And they scared me: I couldn’t take the suspense, so I often found myself flipping to the back of the book, checking out the last page, just to know that somehow the good guys were going to come through ok. Once I knew that, I could enjoy letting the rest of the book unfold.
I find myself in this election wishing I could flip to the back of the book just to know if it’s true that everything will be ok.
Donald Trump’s presence in this election, compounded with the extraordinarily weak slate of other Republican candidates, has me worried in a way I haven’t been worried before. And I’ve been worried before: after the debacle of 2000, and the disenfranchisement I personally witnessed in 2004 in Florida and 2008 in Ohio, I seriously wondered whether it would even be physically possible, much less politically possible, to elect another non-Republican ever again.
As someone who has always been on the left side of the political spectrum in terms of my policy preferences I’ve never felt good about any of the Bush, McCain, or Romney candidacies. But what worries me now isn’t the specter of those sorts of policy platforms being represented in the White House for the next four years but something much worse. While I cannot imagine a situation where I would ever vote for Cruz, Rubio, or even Kasich, none of them give me the same palpable fear for the future of American democracy, much less for the world, as the violent and xenophobic demagoguery of Donald Trump’s campaign. As I semi-joked once, he’s a guy who likes firing things; are we sure we want to give him access to the nuclear launch codes?
Particularly when, in place of measured temperament, he has instead resorted to ethnic vilification and encouraged the physical suppression of dissent (as well as engaged in other bullying and abuses of power), it is breathtakingly terrifying to find just how well he appears to be playing in Peoria. How does a free, democratic society survive when so many people find so little wrong with a major candidate for the head of state of a major country so ready to make the official policy of America be so hostile to so many citizens of the country, to say nothing of the world? We’ve seen something similar happen before at the end of the Weimar Republic, when similar policies and politicians were swept into power initially through the democratic process, and we know the terrible history that followed when these officials used their office to gut the protections limiting their power. There is no reason to believe the same horrors won’t follow if we somehow vote in a leader whose platform essentially demands the dismantlement of the Constitutional protections underpinning the American Republic as well.
On the other hand, there is some reason to believe his popularity may be overstated. The fact that Trump seems to do better in states with open primaries than closed suggests that it’s possible that many Democrats are crossing over and voting for Trump as a way of trolling the Republican party, helping them put forth a candidate so odious that it will lead to record turnout in the general election in November to vote for the Democratic alternative. Anecdotally I know this is happening, although personally I fear this is playing with fire. His apparent popularity seems to be lending his views an air of legitimacy they might not have garnered on their own. He’s essentially become the Pied Piper of racists, and he’s leading many of the darker hearts among us out from the shadows to his side.
It also seems dangerous because if he ends up the candidate in the general election, then it is possible he could ultimately end up being elected. Should that happen, all efforts to advantage the Democratic candidate will be for naught. And this relates to a significant reason why I am so deeply worried.
Like in 2008 I find myself somewhat agnostic about the Democratic candidate. I find myself flip-flopping between my appreciation for Hillary Clinton’s tremendous qualification for the position and Bernie Sanders’s ability to inspire. My more nuanced thoughts on the relative merit of each would be worthy of their own post, but for now it will suffice to say that I count myself among one of the many people who would say, “I prefer X, but come November I would vote for either.”
But there have been allegations, particularly by Sanders supporters, that the DNC has not been even-handed in letting Democrats choose which candidate the party should put forth in November, and some of these complaints have centered around voter turnout. In particular, so far turnout in the primaries appears to have been lower this time around than in previous election cycles, giving rise to the fear that it will also be lower in the general election as well. Each candidates’ supporters use this information to suggest that the other candidate won’t be viable in the general election (questionably, in my view, since many Democrats may not actually have a significant preference and therefore see no reason to vote in the primary), but Sanders’s supporters have also accused the DNC of deliberately suppressing turnout in order to benefit Clinton’s campaign.
Even if Sanders’s supporters are right about the DNC’s intentions, and that the DNC has not been enthusiastic about registering more voters in order to favor Clinton’s candidacy, the DNC should not necessarily be doing more on that front right now. And the reason for this seemingly counter-intuitive view (after all, if I want a Democrat to be elected there needs to be as many Democratic-leaning voters in November as possible) is that now is not the time to do voting registration drives. And the reason why it is not is because of the perversely disenfranchising voting laws of so many states.
My experience in Ohio in 2008 taught me that the very same communities that the Democrats want to reach out to are the ones most likely to be affected by, say, rigidly strict precinct laws, including those that won’t count a ballot even if it is cast at the right voting facility but at the wrong table. Minorities, particularly poorer minorities, and younger people (including college students), may be more likely to move between now and November, and registration drives that happen too long before the key election may lull voters into thinking that their registrations are fine, when they ultimately may not be fine because of a subsequent change of address. The bitter irony of a premature voting drive could be that all these people who went to the effort to register won’t actually be able to cast countable ballots when it finally counts.
Instead what the DNC needs to do is to make sure this sort of disenfranchisement does not happen come November. At a certain point the rubber is going to hit the road and a Democratic candidate will be going up against a Republican one in the general election. And when that happens the DNC needs to be ready, not just with registered voters but with teams of poll monitors and election-expert legal teams to ensure that these voters are not turned away, whether by voting rules, poorly-run precincts, or other intimidation and harassment (yes, this happens – read the linked-to pieces about my experiences poll monitoring in 2004 and 2008). It is a complete failure and disgrace that the franchise is still denied to so many and that it should take a politically organized effort to ensure that every citizen who wants to vote can, but since that’s the way things are right now it is incumbent on the DNC to do the immense amount of organizing legwork to make sure that it has the infrastructure in place to provide this critical protection. Every single person who wants a ballot should get one, and every single one of those ballots should be counted, but it’s up to the DNC to put forth the organizational effort needed to make sure that can happen. And THAT is an effort that needs to be starting now.
For it’s one thing if the majority of Americans truly wish to have someone like Trump be their leader, but it’s another entirely the majority does not want him to be, yet nonetheless gets him. It does not matter how amazing the Democratic candidate turns out to be; if no one who wants that person can vote for that person, then our democracy will have failed long before someone like Trump has even taken office.