Voting: The great equalizer in a polarized society

It’s hard to recall an election season with more issues to excite, infuriate or otherwise motivate voters: the deadliest pandemic in a century; extraordinary social upheaval over racial injustice; a norm-breaking president who inspires fierce opposition as well as ironclad loyalty; and millions of people out of work and unsure what’s to come.

And yet, barring a sharp break from tradition, November’s voter turnout will be unimpressive. Since 1968, presidential election-year turnout among Americans eligible to vote has not exceeded 62 percent (and fell to a paltry 52 percent in 1996). That’s well below the rates of many other prosperous countries in recent national elections, including France (68 percent), South Korea (77 percent) and Belgium (87 percent).

U.S. turnout in midterm election years is even lower. For nearly four decades it has failed to reach 42 percent — with one exception. And that exception is a rare bright spot, because it occurred only two years ago, in the 2018 midterms turnout hit 50 percent, the highest non-presidential election rate in a century.

This suggests that shortly before the coronavirus pandemic struck, voters were more engaged and motivated than usual. We will soon know whether that level of interest has continued.

Still, there’s something wrong when we’re celebrating a 50 percent voter turnout. That means many millions of American adults remain too disengaged, despondent or perhaps cynical to trouble themselves to exercise democracy’s most fundamental right. They remove themselves from the mechanisms that determine our nation’s direction, giving politicians little reason to consider their wishes and values.

Numerous studies have tried to explain why. Among the most insightful is the “Hidden Tribes of America” study, by the nonprofit and nonpartisan group More in Common. It concludes that there is “a large segment of the population whose voices are rarely heard above the shouts of the partisan tribes. These are people who believe that Americans have more in common than that which divides them,” and yet “they feel exhausted by the division in the United States.”

The study sorts Americans into seven political “tribes,” spanning the ideological spectrum. It categorizes two-thirds of American adults as the “Exhausted Majority,” with the largest subset (one-in-four Americans) labeled the “Politically Disengaged.” Compared to other adults, these people are far more likely to be uninvolved in community activities, and “much less likely to be registered to vote.”

So, what happens when huge numbers of comparatively pragmatic, willing-to-compromise Americans disengage from the political process? Their space is filled by more ideological persons, on the left and right, who always vote and who, especially in primary elections, punish any candidate with the temerity to work with the other party. And that, in turn, leads to the paralyzing dysfunction we see, especially in Congress, where most bills still require bipartisan support to pass.

Sadly, this dynamic becomes a vicious cycle. Ideological, highly motivated voters on the left and right dominate party primaries, electing officials who vow never to work with “the enemy.” This produces more gridlock, which expands the ranks of the “exhausted majority” and induces more people to stop hoping — and stop voting.

We are approaching an election with undeniably high stakes, larger-than-life personalities and clear-cut choices. If ever there was a time for members of the exhausted majority to shake off their fatigue and get involved, it’s now.

For those who think politics is a bought-and-sold game controlled by the rich, remember: Every American voter casts exactly as many votes as Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates. Candidates will care what you believe and desire if they think you will vote in their contest. But when an “exhausted majority” leaves a vacuum in voter turnout near the ideological center, then people on the political fringes will continue their disproportionate role in our nation’s fate.

“Go vote” is familiar advice to be sure, perhaps ranking with “call your mom.” But never has it been more important. For exhausted, disengaged Americans, it’s the magic key, the great equalizer that can give them a real say in the conduct and competence of our government. It’s government dysfunction and shortcomings, after all, that caused our exhaustion in the first place.

Margaret White is co-executive director of No Labels, a group that seeks to move Washington beyond partisan gridlock and toward solutions to challenges faced by the country.


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