Raise a Glass to the Stay-at-Home Voter?

How dismal was election night 2002? At the party I attended, the mood was so glum that one young man stood up in the TV room and announced that he had just the thing to cheer us up: A five-minute compilation of commercials from Paul Wellstone’s first campaign. He popped it into the VCR, and we all stared at the screen as the dead candidate ran for the Senate in 1990.

I know what I’m supposed to say about the Democratic losses: The Dems stood for nothing/were indistinguishable from Republicans, so why not vote for the real thing? The last part of that argument has never made much sense to me–why would you vote for the more intense version of something you supposedly don’t like in the first place? True, overall the Dems fumbled just about every issue in hot pursuit of the ever-rightward-moving center. But may I play devil’s advocate for a moment? As Nation readers were endlessly informed, there were a number of contests in which the differences between candidates were quite marked. In the Florida gubernatorial contest, could you really mistake labor-backed Bill McBride for Jeb Bush, the dark prince of election 2000? Walter Mondale may not have had Paul Wellstone’s populist fire, but he was hardly a carbon copy of Norm Coleman; Rhode Island’s liberal Myrth York blasted her conservative, business-backed opponent in the gubernatorial race for his retrograde positions on abortion and gun control. Chellie Pingree, the Democrat who challenged moderate GOP incumbent Susan Collins for the Senate in Maine, was a classic progressive with strong positions on corporate reform, education, the environment and healthcare, an attractive personality and a record of public service as a state legislator. Like other progressive-endorsed Democrats–Iowa’s John Norris, Oregon’s Bill Bradbury, South Dakota’s Stephanie Herseth, Arizona’s George Cordova and Illinois’s Hank Perritt–they all went down to defeat.

And what about the referendums and ballot initiatives? Ohio voters could have said a modest, humane no to the insane drug war by requiring treatment for nonviolent drug offenders instead of jail; they voted to keep locking ’em up. (Voters in the District of Columbia went the other way.) In Oregon, voters had a chance to seize the holy grail of progressive politics, government-funded universal healthcare, something Americans famously tell pollsters they want. Seventy-nine percent of the voters said no thanks. A ban on gay marriage passed in Nevada; a living-wage proposal lost in Santa Monica; Massachusetts voted to abolish bilingual education; instant runoff voting was defeated in Alaska; and Colorado voters rejected same-day voter registration.

Of course, each of these contests had its own dynamic. In Oregon, the insurance industry spent a fortune on Harry and Louise-style ads; Mondale ran up against the mighty Republican spin machine’s ridiculous attack on Paul Wellstone’s memorial service (Omigod! They talked politics!); a Maine friend claims voters in her state just like to keep their incumbents unless they’ve totally screwed up. But isn’t that the same as saying that the majority of Maine voters are satisfied with a moderate Republican? If Minnesotans were so turned off by the Wellstone memorial that they voted for Coleman or stayed home, their commitment to Wellstone’s successor could not have been deep to begin with. And if universal healthcare loses its appeal the minute opponents say it will raise taxes, hurt business and drive doctors out of state, it will never win.

True, the Republicans had more money, not to mention Rush and his ilk, Fox and much of the mainstream media, plus a popular President who campaigned tirelessly round the country, plus the discombobulation of 9/11 and the prospect of invading Iraq. But it’s hard to look at the election results and see much confirmation for the view that voters are panting to surge left but the Democratic Party won’t let them. It would be nice to report that centrist Georgia Senator Max Cleland lost because he supported the Bush tax cut. Unfortunately, this disabled Vietnam vet lost to a hawkish gun nut and religious zealot, Saxby Chambliss, who charged him with lack of patriotism for voting against the creation of a Department of Homeland Security that would bar union protection for workers. Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, another centrist Dem, lost to Sonny Perdue after proposing a state-flag redesign that would have minimized its Confederate elements. I don’t believe for a minute that most voters are raving reactionaries yearning to give humongous tax cuts to the richest Americans, criminalize abortion, bust labor, fill the garage with submachine guns and the judiciary with Scalias-in-waiting. But passion counts: Where is the evidence that the majority of voters who oppose these things care as much as the minority who favor them?

Maybe we need new voters, better voters. American turnout is famously low and getting lower–this year it was around 40 percent of the voting age population. In The Vanishing Voter, a fascinating and multilayered examination of the causes of declining turnout, Thomas Patterson argues that nonvoters–disproportionately poor, working-class, minority–are much more likely to support Democratic politics; if everyone voted, Democrats, not Republicans, would control the White House, Senate and Congress today. I heard a lot of stories about people who say they didn’t vote because of one inconvenience or another–not Florida-style shenanigans, but everyday problems with schedules and transportation–to which my friend Josh Freeman acerbically replied: In East Timor, people walked barefoot for miles and stood in line for hours to vote. If people thought it mattered, they’d figure out a way to get to the polls, the way they figure out how to get to the post office.

So which is it: People don’t vote because there’s no one to vote for (except when there is)? People don’t vote because it’s too much trouble (except when it isn’t)? Let’s find out. Let’s move Martin Luther King Day to the first Tuesday in November, so that Election Day is a paid national holiday and King’s memory is honored with something more real than uplifting bromides. Or maybe, it will turn out, not more real.