Why Half of the People Didn’t Vote (Hint: It’s Not Apathy)

Why People Didn't Vote: The US Political SpectrumOn the day after Donald Trump’s victory, CNN proclaimed that Hillary Clinton had lost the race because “African-American, Latino and younger voters failed to show up at the polls in sufficient numbers.” It was just one of the first instances of an idea that became central to media commentators’ effort to explain Clinton’s spectacular defeat, despite news networks’ collusion with DNC officials & spending twice as much as her opponent. November 9th ( the same day ), the Washington Post published their own version of the CNN article, with the subtly accusatory title, “Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Was Crippled by Voters Who Stayed Home.” A quick look at the data will show anyone that turnout was low, of course — that’s a fact — but is it true that African-American, Latinx, & young voters “crippled” democrats’ campaign by “failing to show up at the polls?” Or could it have been the other way around — could democrats have crippled the voters’ turnout?

To shed more light on the issue, let’s look at some facts the media neglected to mention…

The 2016 Election:
Why Voters Didn’t Vote

Democrats probably lost because of low turnout among their usual voters — but, to put that in perspective, the loser of every election loses because fewer of their voters showed up than they’d hoped. That’s how elections work and, since many things can affect voters’ behavior & turnout, a candidate’s basic job is to figure out how to get their likely voters to the polls. Instead of blaming their voters for lower turnout, liberals ought to be asking “why didn’t our likely voters — particularly young people, working people, & people of color — show up?

That’s a bit of a trick question, though. While the democrats’ campaign strategy clearly didn’t do much to inspire voters, what most articles have ignored is the fact that voter turnout was already declining long before November 8th, 2016.

Young Voter Turnout
Has Declined for Decades

Graph of Young Voters Who Didn't Vote
Overall voter turnout in US presidential elections vs. turnout among voters, ages 18-24, 1964 – 2012

The truth is no one should be shocked about less young voters turning out — in fact, in the US, the participation of young voters has been falling since the 1960s. There are a few exceptions — in 2008, for instance, voters aged 18-24 spiked to 44% — but, generally speaking, it’s been a downward slope from about 51% in 1964 to 38% in 2012. Between ’92 and ’04, turnout languished at 32% — that’s less than 1/3 of the youngest age group! These figures, by the way, are only for presidential elections — during the midterms, it’s become normal to see less than 1/5th of young folks at the voting booths. For comparison, overall turnout has also declined but at a much slower rate — in fact, during the same time period, the overall turnout has stayed within the 50-60% range.

Young People Didn't Vote Trend
Same chart but with lines added to more clearly show the trend. The yellow lines are a running (or cumulative) average, recalculated each year. The black lines show the trend’s direction

As an age-group, young voters have historically favored democrats and, while boomers have voted to the right, it is well-known that recent generations have tended toward the left — particularly millennials. How, then, were media analysts still surprised that somehow Clinton didn’t defy the overall trend, seizing the presidency on the wings of young voters, in spite of the DNC snubbing them during the primaries?

Liberals Upset Blacks & Latinx Voters
Crippled” Clinton’s Campaign

Voter Turnout by Race
Voter Turnout Trends, by Race

Other groups that democrats apparently felt entitled to were Black & Latinx voters. While turnout among Blacks continues its long trend of growth, turnout among Latinx voters has increased at slower rates, compared to other demographics. Despite that fact, Clinton seemed to be relying on what some called the “Trump Effect,” which liberal pundits thought would drastically increase turnout among people of color — obviously, this either didn’t happen or, at least, it didn’t happen as dramatically as they’d hoped. 

But why? Did Black & Latinx voters who “stayed home,” as the Post puts it, really “cripple” a campaign that would have been perfectly fine? Was voter apathy really the reason that 2016’s turnout was lower overall than previous presidential elections?

Or perhaps it’s the democrats’ fault for abandoning their voters?

The Two-Party Choice
Simply Isn’t Meaningful, Anymore

Instead of staring blankly as the US hemorrhages what’s left of its voter turnout, helplessly wondering why young folk & people of color are so damned “apathetic,” maybe we should admit this is a chronic condition of our so-called democracy and — since this was the trend before many of us were born — understand that it is very likely a problem, not with the voters, but with the system itself. 

Now, what might make eligible voters — particularly, young, Black, & Latinx voters — disinterested in participating in the democratic process? The obvious reason would be the same reason that any group would feel disinterested — the process doesn’t offer them anything meaningful enough to motivate them.  So — what might be meaningful enough to motivate young, Black, & Latinx voters to participate?

Young, Black, & Latinx Voters
Statistically, Want to Take a Left Turn

Bigger vs Smaller Government 300x166 - Why Half of the People Didn't Vote (Hint: It's Not Apathy)It’s not exactly a secret that — in the United States, at least — millennials at-large & non-white demographics both tend to fall quite a bit to the left of center. How left, you ask? Polling shows that majorities of both Black & Latinx say that the US “should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt,” while only 1/3 of whites say the same. Black & Latinx respondents were also more likely than whites to favor expanding public access to healthcare & raising the minimum wage — they’re more likely to say we should take a softer approach to immigration, less likely to want to increase military spending, & more likely to list unemployment & poverty as the most important political issues.

Like Black & Latinx voters, polling shows millennials landing consistently to the left of previous generations, which explains how Senator Bernie Sanders attracted more young voters than Clinton & Trump — combinedAmong voters under 30, one poll showed that more had a favorable view of socialism than had a favorable view of capitalism, while other surveys show economic issues, such as unemployment & income inequality, are seen as important by today’s young people.

The US Political Spectrum
Is Strangling its Voters

Narrow US Political Spectrum
Democrats & republicans both represent an authoritarian (force-based) version of a more-or-less regulated capitalist economic system

Democrats pretty much abandoned the leftist ideas of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1968, when they told young leftist, anti-war, & civil rights activists to get stuffed & lost to Nixon by shifting to the center. Turnout — nationally & among young people — has been decreasing ever since. The neoliberal policies of the “new democrats” don’t feel like a meaningful alternative to the republican strain of more-or-less authoritarian capitalism — or, at least, it isn’t meaningful enough to mobilize the unemployed, indebted young people, people of color, & others who are exploited by it.

Whether the United States’ authoritarian capitalism is a bit more or less capitalist or authoritarian is simply not a very meaningful choice for those who are anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, or both.

A Brief Food-Related Analogy
to Explore Voters’ Reluctance

Think of it this way — imagine that you’re a vegetarian and you’re a part of some kind of democratic organization, where you go to meetings & eat snacks. Now, say they’re holding a vote about what to keep stocked in the community-fridge — but, because of the way this organization is set up, the two options are going to be some kind of meat or fish. As a vegetarian, would you be excited to vote? Of course not! Even if you had an opinion on the differences between the cruelty of slaughterhouses versus fishing, you still wouldn’t feel super pumped about the whole thing, would you? It’s not that you don’t care what you eat — the opposite is true, in fact. The issue is that, unless you compromise your basic principles about eating, neither option is particularly compelling.

Now, replace “vegetarian” with “millions of US voters” & “meat & fish” with “republicans & democrats” — that is why no one comes to the United States’ crappy meetings, anymore. The 2 parties we get to choose from & their often suspiciously similar policies (which are actively failing us) just aren’t that attractive to a lot of us.

Quit Blaming the Voters!

Now that we’ve gathered some perspective by looking at the historical trends, polling data, & the expanding spectrum of political ideas, I’d like to bring us back to the question that the article began with — whether fewer people voting is the fault of the people or the fault of the system. CNN & the Washington Post can, of course, blame whatever & whoever they’d like for their failure to predict the elections’ results — it helps them sleep. Nonetheless, I must ask — is it fair to hold young voters & people of color responsible for being subjected to trends that started before they were born? And is it rational to expect them to defy statistics? 

Those who want to actually fix the situation must stop blaming groups that have not typically had the power to fix the problem — people of color & young people, for example — and begin directing their stares at those parties & officials who use their power to maintain it. Now, I’m not a “political analyst” or anything — but I suspect that, if people were able to choose between policies they actually believed could improve their lives & communities, the voting booths would become a pretty popular place to be…

In solidarity,
John Laurits

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If you are interested in an objective analysis of 2016 turn-out, Nate Cohn probably has the smartest take at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/upshot/how-the-obama-coalition-crumbled-leaving-an-opening-for-trump.html. U.S. presidential voter participation has consistently hovered around 55% for a century. There’s historical data at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/turnout.php, and this year, after all votes were counted, participation was 54.4%. What’s also true, again historically, is that voter turn-out increases with age, with income, and with education attainment: no news there. John wants you to believe that young people aren’t turning out because they’re rejecting authoritarian capitalism. But then why did Clinton win the 18-24 vote in the key 3 states that decided the election (WI, MI, PA)? Why when… Read more »

JOHN : I read your bog constantly . I am a retired woman of 60+ years. I came out of the era of Vietnam & protested that war profusely . I am STILL a progressive democrat . There are many seniors who supported Bernie Sanders , as did I . The democratic party has left us ; not the other way round. Hillary Clinton failed to see that . That’s on her . She is to blame for her own loss. I am so frustrated as a democrat , that I am seriously considering changing to Independent .

William Gruff
William Gruff
Oh, come on folks! I’m fairly confident the point of the above article wasn’t to challenge you to brainstorm tricks and gimmicks to get more people to vote for candidates and policies that are not meaningful to them. Rather, the challenge is to ask yourselves why the establishment political system has been incapable of fielding candidates and policies that are relevant to more of the population. I know, you believe that Clinton should have been relevant to those who didn’t vote for her, but you are wrong. Reality is in no way obligated to respect your beliefs, no matter how fiercely you maintain them. Reality has instead clearly… Read more »