The Party of Negative Hope

Democrats ask voters to avert catastrophe by embracing despair

US President Joe Biden (C) prepares to sign an executive order intended to strengthen the Affordable...
Dan Brooks
nope and mange

How wonderful must it feel to be a Republican in 2022? Sure, your guy lost the last election, but since then Democratic president and possible replicant Joe Biden has dropped to an approval rating of 33 percent, perhaps due to the total collapse of his legislative agenda, which has been stymied by two rogue senators so obviously self-interested that his failure to bribe them has become an indictment of the whole party. If Democrats cannot find the lever that moves Joe Manchin, what could they possibly do about public healthcare, or student loan forgiveness, or a climate-friendly economy, or any of the other promises from 2020 that now seem as empty as a child’s pledge to dunk a basketball? If you are a talk-radio type of guy, or one of the swing voters who apparently believe the school is trying to change your kid’s gender, I imagine the present political moment feels incredibly great.

I wouldn’t know, since I’ve been voting Democrat. I admit that only for the purpose of strict reportorial accuracy, since it feels like admitting I have been taken in some kind of scam. For the last two decades, I have dutifully supported the Democratic presidential candidate in every election, even when casting my ballot felt like digging a splinter out of my thumb with a pin: an irritating process that did nothing to advance my own goals but theoretically prevented something worse. The apogee experience of this approach to democracy came in 2020, when I supported Joe Biden.

I didn’t vote for the oldest U.S. presidential candidate in history because I thought he would make change. I voted to keep other, worse change from happening. This purely negative form of hope was unpleasant enough, since it required me to vote for inaction during an ongoing national crisis, but I accepted the proposition that I was preventing a more awful crisis from taking shape. And then Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization happened, rolling back the constitutional right to abortion, and suddenly my pyrrhic victory against a hypothetical second Trump administration had led to Republicans achieving their No. 1 social policy goal of the last 50 years.

The desire to stay home on Election Day is enormous, and not just for spite.

The thing about the Dobbs ruling — in addition to marking the first time in history that the Supreme Court has taken away a previously enjoyed constitutional right, plus contradicting the expressed preferences of 60 percent of Americans — is that it violates the terms of the bargain I made with the Democratic Party. I agreed to vote for them despite their thinly disguised contempt for my political agenda, and they promised to keep stuff like this from happening. Obviously, elected Democrats do not control the Supreme Court. But they do control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and even before the court officially handed down its ruling in Dobbs two weeks ago, Biden et al had six weeks to pass federal legislation protecting the right to abortion. They did not. Instead, they declared that (A) Dobbs was a disaster that threatened to plunge women and indeed our whole society into a dystopian theocracy, but (B) they just couldn’t do anything about it without 60 seats in the Senate, although admittedly (C) they were about to lose control of the Senate and probably the House in the November election, so (D) vote, y’all.

I am left with two options: I can either vote Democrat again in the 2022 election, effectively rewarding them for the worst political performance since the Carter administration, or I can stay home. The desire to stay home is enormous, and not just for spite. Don’t get me wrong; spite is a huge factor, but there is also a non-normative, realpolitik argument for committed Democrats to withhold their votes in November: if the party is going to lose control of the House and Senate anyway, any electoral defeat that does not result in a Republican supermajority is governmentally equivalent to the scenario in which Democrats lose one Senate seat.

At the level of party strategy, however, the difference between a big loss and a little one is more meaningful; a big loss might cause some consultants to lose their jobs, might budge the ten-year consensus that the future of the Democratic Party lies in moderate Republicans, might finally convince this living mausoleum of 1990s centrists to govern to their base the way the GOP has done with terrifying success for the last three decades. If ever the Democratic base were going to withhold its votes, this year — in which party leadership has all but declared its plans to lose anyway — would be the year to do it.

The counterargument to this position is that not voting is tantamount to voting for Republicans, and the Republican Party of 2022 is a fascist movement that finds it increasingly unnecessary to hide its contempt for democracy. This counterargument is true, unfortunately. For those of us who believe the American system should continue, the choice is between voting Democrat and taking to the street with sticks. We simply cannot afford to horse around right now. Last year, Florida passed a law protecting drivers who run down political protestors with their cars. (This law was subsequently blocked by a federal judge, so I’m sure the Supreme Court will eventually… oh no.) I can think of at least three right-wing paramilitary organizations currently making national news, and Republicans stormed the Capitol after the last election didn’t go their way. Now is the time to vote for elections to continue in the future, and that means voting Democrat.

This arrangement is gigantically dispiriting, because it reduces the range of political opinions I can responsibly express to a biennial yes/no vote on the Republican agenda. Even in this insipid game the odds are against me, thanks to gerrymandering and the inherent distortions of a senators-per-state system operating in a country that increasingly concentrates its population in cities, but as long as we all pull together in a herculean effort at the polls, we can make sure that nothing happens. Then we will enjoy a one-year window in which it is permissible to criticize the Democratic Party, before we all have to pull together once again.

Perhaps the worst thing the Democratic Party has done over the last 30 years — a period that saw a major victory for gay rights in Obergefell v. Hodges and a minor policy victory in the Affordable Care Act, but which has otherwise been characterized by Republican achievements including but not limited to the steady defunding of public schools, “reform” of social welfare into means-tested oblivion, two multi-decade foreign wars, and the formation of a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court, i.e. total defeat of the liberal-progressive agenda — has been to give voters the idea that they have a choice. We do not. It is vitally important that we continue to vote in order to reify the existing system, because there is a crueler and more rapacious system waiting in the wings, but we do not choose which politicians represent us. Our choice is between catastrophe and prolonged despair.

What we have here is the illusion of self-government: a system that promises a beverage of our choice but limits the menu to tap water and pee. Neither Democrats nor Republicans represent the interests of a majority of Americans, because a majority of Americans don’t vote, and those who do are locked into a duopoly in which we must overwhelmingly support the party of inaction or else submit to the minority. The mechanism that was supposed to make voting an instrument of popular rule — by which representatives who won office dared not betray their constituents for fear of losing their votes the next time around — has stopped working. There is no representative democracy in the United States; our choices have been whittled down to the end of the electoral system or vote blue no matter who, no matter what. I know what I’m going to do in November. I don’t know what I can do about anything else.

Dan Brooks is a writer in Missoula, Montana.