Votes, Not Outrage, Will Give Democrats Their November 'Blue Wave'

Protesters deposit their signs near the White House following January 2017's Women's March on Washington. Mario Tama/Getty Images

More than 4 million people marched last weekend in cities big and small to stand against sexism, misogyny, President Donald Trump and the Republican agenda. To some, the women's march is supposed to indicate that a titanic "blue wave" is coming in November.

As for me, I'll believe it when I see it. Show me the receipts.

Don't get me wrong. I want a blue wave. We need one to save what's left of former President Barack Obama's legacy and punish the cowards and thieves who have damaged liberal democracy. But I'm skeptical, because we've been here before.

Most people believed Trump should not be president and could not be elected. In fact, so many believed this—that a Hillary Clinton win was inevitable—that droves of voters stayed home. Because they stayed home, immigrants are now being purged, our air is being poisoned and our wealth is being stolen—never mind that our national security has been compromised, along with our reputation around the world.

We should blame the GOP. I do. But I also blame something else that's rarely discussed among liberals. We are naturally concerned about voting as a fundamental right, and efforts by Republican legislators to suppress it, but liberals are not nearly as concerned about voting as a fundamental duty. We should be.

This is the case, I suspect, because we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as consumers, taxpayers, Red Sox fans or some other signifier of group identity. These are reinforced by our media and by strategists skilled in the art of enticing blocs to support candidates with political messages tailored to each bloc. This is why we have endless debates over messaging, not policy. This is why we have deathless arguments over optics. We have a cultural mentality that does not compel us to make hard choices between candidates. We have one that relieves us of responsibility when we don't care for the options.

Serious people have objected to this view, perhaps author and journalist Joan Didion most famously. In the introduction to her seminal work, Political Fictions, she said that apathy is not to blame for low voter turnout as much as the parties themselves, which she said had reached "a zero-sum point" in 2000.

"The 'true story' of the 2000 campaign was that the Republican and Democratic parties had at last achieved 'parity,' which meant that they were now positioned to split the remaining electorate," Didion wrote. "In other words, we had reached the zero-sum point toward which the process had been moving, the moment in which determination of the Republican Party to maximize its traditional low-turnout advantage was perfectly matched by the determination of the Democratic Party to shed any association with its traditional low-income base."

I get Didion's argument against making meaningless choices, but choosing between candidates is hardly meaningless. This was the case even in 2000. Does anyone really doubt that if Al Gore had been president on September 11, 2001, history would have turned out differently? Didion's argument, moreover, tends to maximize freedom while minimizing personal responsibility. It does not call on each and every citizen to fulfill the fundamental duty of participating in the American political franchise.

Liberals should strive toward culture of duty nurtured as reverently as profits in the board room and God in church. We need such a culture, because outrage isn't enough. Yes, this president is outrageous, and yes, he was elected at a time when democratic norms were coming undone, making his every tweet feel alarming. But outrage has a way of petering out right when full participation in the political franchise is needed most.

That's what happened after 2008. Outrage drove the Democratic takeover of the House in 2006, and it kept driving until the election of the first African-American president. Then it stalled. It was as if defeating George W. Bush and achieving the impossible meant citizens no longer felt the urgency to vote.

Imagine if everyone who could have voted did vote in the congressional midterms elections of 2010. Imagine if the Republicans had not taken the House and had not blocked every measure Obama wanted, thus forcing him to use executive orders to achieve any real progressive objectives, orders that were immediately reversed once Trump took the White House.

Imagine if everyone who could have voted did vote in the congressional midterm elections of 2014. Imagine if the Republicans had not retaken the Senate and had not scorched the earth to block the nomination of Merrick Garland. Try to imagine a U.S. Supreme Court right now with a liberal majority.

So blue wave? I hope so, but I'll wait for the receipts. I'll be more impressed if and when we get beyond outrage as the primary factor in people turning out to vote. Voting is a right, but it's also a duty, and Democrats should act like it is.

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