Lessons From Alabama: The Impossible Can Happen If You Vote

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Supporters of Senator-elect Doug Jones celebrate his win on Dec. 12 in Birmingham, Alabama. Getty

Social media is sizzling with hot takes after Democrat Doug Jones' upset victory over Republican Roy Moore in Alabama's special election to replace U.S. Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions. But turn your attention instead to the less-scorching but unmistakable reality of this takeaway: Voting is a duty as well as a right, and when citizens take this seriously, the impossible can happen.

And it was impossible, or at least seemingly so. Alabamians had not sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1992, and even he didn't last; Sen. Richard Shelby flipped parties two years later. President Donald Trump won big in the state in 2016, as did Sessions during his Senate runs. Republicans have been the rule in Alabama, and, despite reports exposing Moore's alleged pedophiliac past, many expected it to stay that way. Only partisans and Pollyannas foresaw a historic Democratic victory.

And yet here we are.

How did this happen? We will see attempts aplenty to answer that in the coming days. But, alas, I don't have much hope the conversation will include the responsibility of voters to show up and do what they are supposed to do.

Most attention will be on gaming out how Jones' victory will affect national politics, particularly the president's agenda. (Trump now has one less vote in the Senate, gumming up an already gummed-up path to passing his so-called tax reform plan.)

We should talk about the national implications, of course, but we should also talk about the role of the electorate—specifically, what it has learned from past elections.

This starts with framing, specifically by journalists and the media class. Too often, if citizens don't do what they are supposed to, journalists scapegoat parties, candidates, strategists and donors—precisely the class of people with whom journalists spend time and about whom they write.

The media often avoid judging ordinary people who have better things to do than spend time talking about politics. The result, as it pertains to our political discourse, is a kind of citizens-do-no-wrong quality in mainstream reporting, even if citizens merely parrot Fox News talking points, or say something grounded in pixie dust and rainbows. If voters don't show up, well, it must mean the candidates were unappealing or the issues weren't compelling or whatever. Just don't blame the people for not exercising their rights and making our republic worthy of its name.

The closest we have gotten to holding our citizens responsible was in 2014, when then-President Barack Obama lamented that Democrats who showed up for him in the 2012 presidential election stayed home for the most part for the midterms, thus delivering the Senate to the Republicans, which in turn allowed the Republicans to block the former president's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court and denied the Democrats a majority in the high court for at least a generation.

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Senator-elect Doug Jones. Getty

If the lesson was not learned then, it surely was two years later. Most Democrats had good reason to believe Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election, but were stunned when she didn't. If everyone who could vote did vote in 2016, we might not be witnessing in the White House what some call a constitutional crisis and others call a humiliating dumpster fire.

It appears to me that the real lesson of 2016, a lesson put into practice last night and in every special election since then, is that you—you!—need to vote. In every. Single. Election.

Of course, this cuts both ways.

Just as black Democrats turned out for Jones, some white Republicans could not stomach Moore, the alleged pedophile, and stayed home. This is what happens when citizens do not take their responsibilities seriously. This is what happens when people don't understand that there is no such thing as not voting. Staying home benefits someone. You can be active or passive, but one way or another, you are a participant in a democracy. Alas, rarely are citizens held to account.

Another lesson from last night: Voter suppression efforts, while dangerous and offensive to our democratic faith, are no match for an organized and determined citizenry. The Alabama secretary of state, the official charge of polling places, planned for half the turnout, thus sparking concerns that long lines in black districts would suppress the vote. But despite reports of broken voting machines in predominantly black districts, despite the "misinformation going around," as the ACLU of Alabama communications manager put it, black voters delivered a Senate seat to the Democrats.

This election may be over, but our fight for justice and equality is not. Tonight confirms the power of voters to make a difference.

— ACLU of Alabama (@ACLUAlabama) December 13, 2017

This is what happens when citizens take their duties seriously.

May we continue to learn this lesson.

John Stoehr is a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.