Toward a More Perfect Union

A case for compulsory voting in the age of Trump

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For some on the left, one way to end our Trump-era divide—or to answer Trump at least—is to push our own form of “nationalism.” That’s the argument of Jill Lepore in her little book, This America: The Case for the Nation (2019), which is selling at the cash register at the University of Chicago bookstore. It is supposed to be “liberal” “nationalism,” tolerant and inclusive, and that’s why I have trouble understanding it. By definition nationalism excludes. When I was in fourth grade in a Catholic parochial school in 1958, I read in my history book:

“Nationalism is a sin.”
“Patriotism is a virtue.”

I still think nationalism is a sin, even when Jill Lepore is pushing it and it is tolerant and inclusive. Her “liberal” nationalism is her foil to Trump’s, but it is still excluding “democratic” nationalism. She is more interested in a nationalism that is more “liberal” and tolerant than one that is “democratic” and lets her off the hook from reaching out to people who may not be liberal and tolerant. It is a nationalism made to order for an academic in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If you get to the end of This America—and it doesn’t take long—there is no mention of democracy as being a value at all, and who can blame her? Our side just lost an election to Trump. We can have a tolerant, multicultural nationalism without having equality of exchange. Though Lepore acknowledges the objections to liberal nationalism from thinkers like Tony Judt and Judith Shklar, and prefers to rebrand her own version as “New Americanism,” there isn’t much difference. Somehow, she makes Frederick Douglass the patron of this kind of liberalism, and I hope I admire Frederick Douglass as much as Jill Lepore does, but we need to do more than create an America that has a space for Frederick Douglass, and even Frederick Douglass did not want that—after all, he supported Lincoln in fighting to save the Union, to hold on to the worst and most illiberal part of the nation, a poison in the body politic, if that’s what it took to end slavery.

We should be seeking something bigger and different than liberal nationalism, or really any kind of nationalism, and I think there’s a word for it in Walt Whitman—not in his poetry but in his great prose work Specimen Days. It’s in a note Whitman wrote about Lincoln after his assassination:

Not but that he had faults, and show’d them in the Presidency; but honesty, goodness, shrewdness, conscience, and (a new virtue, unknown to other lands, and hardly yet really known here, but the foundation and tie of all, as the future will grandly develop) UNIONISM, in its truest and amplest sense, form’d the hard-pan of his character.

Maybe, instead of liberal nationalism, it should form the hard-pan of our own. For Lincoln, “UNIONISM” was a commitment not to diversity, but to charity, to creating a union with those who wanted no part of his UNIONISM—not just the secessionists, but all the Copperheads, who in the North flipped Wisconsin and Michigan to Trump. UNIONISM was a commitment to what Whitman would call an “adhesive relationship.” To the extent that nationalism good or bad excludes, it puts the Union at risk because the Union is quite a different thing from the nation. The Union requires of us works and not grace—and it requires us to pull people into the Union that a liberal nationalist would leave alone.

What does UNIONISM demand now, when we have one of the lowest voting rates of any democracy in the world, and rump electorates, representing a minority of the population, decide every outcome, and no one accepts any of them as legitimate?

Compulsory voting. Yes, I mean reaching out to the lame, and the politically challenged, and those who work in the most demeaning kinds of labor. Compulsory voting: the opposite of liberal nationalism, by which with the best intentions in the world we would like our country’s working class, or at the very least the white working class, to go away.

I’m also in favor of labor law reform, but I can’t push that in everything I write, so I am trying out the idea of compulsory voting here. Not just for those who are likely Democratic persons—not just for African Americans or Latinos or for the poor of every race—but for all citizens of this country, including those who are likely GOP or Trump voters. Let the Democratic Party be the UNION party, or the party of civic values. That’s my one big idea.

It’s to put in place universal suffrage—for real, not on paper. In my one foray into electoral politics, a special election race to fill Rahm Emanuel’s newly vacant House seat, well under sixty-thousand people voted in that primary, which was in effect the general election itself. If I could bequeath one thing on my country, it would be this—that it never again be possible in a red-hot political city like Chicago for someone to nail a House seat for life with just twelve-thousand votes. On Election Day—Tuesday, March 3, 2009—a blizzard the week before had once again made it impossible to go door to door. But after two months of weather that made it impossible to campaign, Election Day was weirdly nice: in a way, a last flip of the middle finger to the long shots like me. It’s strange, but I could not find anything to do. A staffer suggested: “You want to do something? Here’s a Call Sheet. Call the names on here and ask if they have voted.’ And if they say yes, ask if they voted for you.” I winced. “Wait—I’m going to ask them if they voted for me? That’s . . . like, none of my business is it?” I wanted to say: “What about the Australian secret ballot?” I was done right then as a candidate. I could imagine people slamming down the phone or, worse, saying: “No, you asshole, I didn’t vote for you.” My brother came by to get me out of the office, and we drove out to drop leaflets in a part of the city I had never seen, so suburb-like that I got lost in it, and it took an hour for my brother to find me. Every house I passed was empty. It was the loneliest I have ever been. Everyone was at work. I should have been at work. In mid-afternoon, out there in the sunshine, I felt more like a fool than I did later when we got the vote. No one out here cared who was going to the House.

We don’t even have a representative government, such as Madison himself imagined, because the majority of the have-not class, or the debtor class, or the high school graduates, simply do not cast a vote.

That morning when I looked down the Call Sheet with the names of the hardcore voters I saw what a closed little world the UNION had become. With our call sheets and canvassing and phoning we leave out half the people; by design, it is not government of, or by, or for the people, but half of them. It’s all about turnout, and it’s all about the diehards, or the base, who vote in election after election. Not only do these privileged people start out with voting as the norm for all sorts of reasons, but we keep reinforcing that norm throughout their lives. With our millions, or rather billions, we keep after “them,” that rump electorate. In my special election, all fourteen of the candidates kept calling the same virtuous people, over and over, who must have heard by phone, from each us once, or even twice, and by the way, what was even more jaw dropping: they were often happy to get the calls. At least, that’s what I found, and I was on the phone a lot. I had a script. “Pardon me, I know you’re busy, but do you have a minute to hear my pitch?” I’d wait. I’d think: it’s six o’clock and I bet they’re cooking dinner. They’re going to blow me off. No, wait for it.

“OK. Go ahead.”

They never said no—except maybe if they were on the way to the hospital. “It restores your faith in humanity,” one staffer said to me once as we went door to door. Does it? The way they said yes actually made me sad. It’s the diehards who keep getting reinforced in their good democratic habits, and the others left alone become more isolated and disengaged. It’s not just that we are unable to rule ourselves, or that we do not have a Whitman-type democracy, but we don’t even have a representative government, such as Madison himself imagined, because the majority of the have-not class, or the debtor class, or the high school graduates, simply do not cast a vote. I know the answer: that’s their business, not our business. It is our business, not their business, when they decide to sit it out, and keep the Constitution from functioning.

Checks Unbalanced

For one thing, as long as half or more of the people sit it out, it will be impossible for the people to rule themselves, especially with the gridlock that happens when so many fail to vote. Indeed, it’s been a problem for decades. But for a few accidental intervals, gridlock or dysfunctional government is the norm. At least for the Democrats, I can think of only two times when they had true gridlock-free power: 1934 through 1938, when—by no coincidence—we enacted Social Security, the Wagner Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, and 1964-66, when we had the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and the Immigration and Naturalization Act. Even in 2009 and 2010, the first two years of the Obama Administration, Mitch McConnell had veto power as minority leader. The pitiful voting rate in this country deserves much of the blame; it’s why there is nothing to keep the inequality from going up. I’m tired of hearing how several thousand white swing voters in the Detroit suburbs decided the Trump-Clinton 2016 election. Really? Let’s consider the more than 100 million people who sat out that election, just as even more millions sit out the midterms. Not having voted for a lifetime, they are not capable of voting. No one or few from their families or social circles have voted, nor did they get the education that ensures most who receive it will be voters. It is fine to rail about the barriers to voting in the red states, but most of that 100 million face psychological barriers that are far greater and that no one is trying hard to remove. In a sense, they hesitate even to claim the right to vote. At least in some cases, they have never acquired the civic self-respect, or a sense of civic competence, having never been forced, or frankly even invited, to perform their civic obligation. Toleration of their dropping out only confirms that sense of unworthiness. Many come from families where no one voted and from schools that wrote them off as lost causes for roles as active citizens. It’s hard to take a deep breath and go down a ballot if you’ve never done it before, especially in middle age. By then they are so far out of the public realm it is a waste of money to fire them up. They are the helpless who cannot help themselves—they are the truly powerless.

With only half or even a third of the country voting, every election is illegitimate.

Yet by virtue of this very powerlessness, they have so great a power over us. Of course they decided the election in 2016. They decide every election. Their not showing up puts the gridlock in place; it capsizes the Constitution. Indeed, given the many checks and balances in our Constitution, compulsory voting is the only way to break the political gridlock in this country of the last fifty or so years. We need the debtor class in full force, or nearly so, to keep the creditor class in check. We need the debtor class to come out in enough force to protect itself. That’s not my neo-Marxist view; it’s James Madison’s, in “Federalist Number 10.” In Madison’s view, without the have-not faction showing up to overcome the have faction, we end up with what we now call crony capitalism. In a sense, it is a design flaw in Madison’s machinery. If the debtor class is too discouraged by the checks and balances, they stop showing up, and the checks and balances against the creditor class no longer work. Then the Gini index, which measures income inequality, goes up at the same rate as the Dow, and we end up with an even bigger plutocracy than the Federalists and their heirs in the Democratic Party elite wanted. Compulsory voting may not be necessary in other countries, but it is necessary in ours, at least given what long ago would have been the unimaginable power of our particular form of capitalism.

It is true that in the red states there are various forms of voter suppression, increasingly brazen under continued conservative rule. Still, the Constitution itself is an accidental kind of voter suppression—not by intent but by effect. In its frustration of majority rule, it undermines the norm of voting at all. Under our particular Constitution, the whole country is a red state. Unless we throw out some of these checks and balances (which may be too dangerous at the moment), or start over, or massively amend it (which is nearly impossible, since it takes three quarters of the states), compulsory voting is the only way to fix it, to put in place if not UNIONISM in Whitman’s sense, at least a better version of it than the one we currently have. Without compulsory voting, we have only continuous negative feedback. The longer that half of the country chooses to sit it out, the more it will seem to half or two thirds that getting back in to vote on a regular basis is hopeless—all this personal history of non-voting is the best excuse for not voting. Yes, the way it is set up now, it’s all about turnout, and it could hardly be otherwise, given our extreme inequality. We have to spend billions on getting the right turnout—because half of the people or more are close to psychologically incapable of voting at all.

Without compulsory voting, two bad things happen. First, we have a less representative government, or a government less capable of representing the working class. That leads to more inequality, or less mobility, and in general less rationality—more racism, more tribalism, and other forms of political bestiality. Second, and just as dangerous, with only half or even a third of the country voting, every election is illegitimate. Every election is decided by a rump electorate. Trump says, for instance, that he will only accept an outcome where he wins, and it is indeed unclear, when so few vote, why we would accept any outcome as legitimate. That raises the question: Why then have any elections at all?

Over the Falls in a Barrel

What could be better reasons than these for compulsory voting?

In my case, the biggest single reason I became a convert to compulsory voting is that it is the only way to get a new working class. I am just sick of the one that keeps voting GOP. Let’s get a new group in here—indeed, let’s try getting in the majority of the working class, or let’s say the middle to the bottom in terms of income, who have never voted at all, not even once. Maybe they will be GOP voters too. But at least they’re starting without the bad habits of a lifetime.

Thomas Carlyle, the great Victorian magus, once wrote that the extension of suffrage in Disraeli’s England was like “shooting Niagara.” Well, I’m ready to get in a barrel and go over the Falls.

After all, it would be the nuclear option in terms of ending voter suppression. Think of the changes in recent years: early voting, absentee voting, voting by mail. Now it’s not just possible to vote on Sunday—which was supposed to be the cure all—but up to three or four Sundays in presidential and midterm elections. Can’t find your polling place? It’s on your iPhone. In comparison to forty years ago, the ballots are banging on our doors. Has it made any difference? Overall: none. Of course we have to block voter ID laws and other barriers in the red states. But let’s assume hypothetically that we could get rid of those barriers: it’s less than clear that turnout would go up. It might. Or it might not. At least one study has shown that when voting became more convenient in some places, turnout actually dropped.

Emilee Booth Chapman, an assistant professor at Stanford, does a nice job of answering various objections to compulsory voting in her essay “The Distinctive Value of Elections and the Case for Compulsory Voting.” Some of them seem silly. For instance: “No, no, we just have to turn out our base.” That’s what I have heard all my life, and in the end it can never work. Oh, in particular cases there will be victories, even a lot of victories, but in the long run, with civic norms so weak, the turnout of our base is a way not of ending but maintaining gridlock. The other side will see our victories as illegitimate—as they are, with rump electorates—and they will pull off better turnouts too. Worse, despite all of our high-mindedness, to turn out our base requires a kind of tacit acquiescence in keeping others from not voting. To the extent that we don’t want everyone to turn out, the Democratic Party is the party of vote suppression too.

Bill of Slights

Here’s another objection for which many of you are waiting: “Maybe it is OK to fine people in Australia, but can that be justified here under the First Amendment?”

Fine: let’s talk about that.

Had we kept just those in despair from dropping out of politics, it might have kept us safe from Trump.

It is not just Australia: there are other countries that have a law that requires everyone to vote. But in many of these countries the law is not enforced, or at least not seriously enforced. It looks like a law, but it is more of an exhortation. In Australia, it’s the real thing, however. Yes, there is a twenty-dollar fine. Yet it’s not quite as compulsory as it looks: as Professor Chapman points out, there is a ready list of legal excuses for getting out of the duty to vote, much as, in the United States, there is a list of excuses for (on occasion, at least ) getting out of jury duty. After all, the voting rate in Australia—usually 94 percent—fell to 91 percent in 2016, and that means plenty of people are getting out. Besides, it’s only a twenty-dollar fine—that’s not even half of a parking ticket. You only get in trouble if you blow it off: every year, the Australian Election Commission brings thousands of suits against scofflaws. On the other hand, even in 2016 turnout was 91 percent; it is a nuisance to do all that is required to get out of the duty to vote. One objection that Chapman takes up—I had seen it elsewhere—is that with or without compulsory voting, the rate in Australia would still be 87 percent. I will spare the empirical research here, but most political scientists in Australia scoff at this claim. In the 1922 elections, before compulsory voting, the turnout in Australia had been less than 60 percent. In 1924 compulsory voting began and it has been over 90 percent ever since. Of course it makes a difference! Our own Progressives should have adopted the Australian system of compulsory voting when they adopted the Australian secret ballot. Before we adopted the Australian secret ballot, the political parties in the United States used to draw up and print party ballots and pass them around for people to take to the polls and vote. Why not go all in for the Australian system, and since we have the secret ballot, why not compulsory voting too?

Anyway, the First Amendment is no bar. If compulsory voting were unconstitutional under the First Amendment, then jury duty would be even more so. If it is unconstitutional to require citizens to walk across the street and check off their names on a sheet, in secret no less, then it is vastly more unconstitutional to make them serve on a jury for what may be two weeks or two months and render an opinion as to whether someone should live or die. Of course there are certain excuses for getting out of jury duty, but that’s true for voting in Australia too. Furthermore, a law instituting compulsory voting need not be a compulsory law to vote as such; it could be a law requiring people to vote or fill out a form to opt out. It can be a nudge. Many a behavioral economist will testify that you can design a decision format that mostly dictates the decision.

Even if there were no jury duty, and no opt-out at all, it would still be constitutional. Much of the litigation in my firm is First Amendment; I’m starting to get weary from looking up so much First Amendment law. Under the case law, I can assure you, it is often said that there must be balancing of the burden on speech and the government interest. In this case, there would be no burden on expression at all, since anyone could cast a blank ballot and even that would remain a secret; and, on the other hand, the government can serve an important regulatory interest, namely, promoting the values of citizenship and inclusion and ensuring the legitimacy of our elected government. [1]

Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!

But let’s put aside the First Amendment: maybe it’s a question of conscience. Many people—even if it is a tiny fraction of the electorate—think abstaining from the vote is an important symbolic act. But come now: Can it be so symbolic or expressive if no one sees you doing it? In the civic realm, your cri de coeur is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around.

OK, the system is rigged. We’re so impressed that you’ve figured it out. Why don’t you inspire the rest of us by not paying a fine?

Let’s get real. Look at who the nonvoters really are, according to the Pew Foundation study of the 100 million plus Americans who sat out the Trump-Clinton election. It was nothing personal; most sit out every election. Disproportionately, the Pew Foundation study found, nonvoters are the young, voters of Hispanic descent, and people who are deep in debt. Yes, some used to vote and have now stopped, saying that voting doesn’t matter. But even most of this latter set of nonvoters come from backgrounds where voting was not a norm. And most of the 100 million have never voted at all. Ever. Or had parents who ever voted. Non-voting is a kind of learned helplessness, learned from parents at home, learned from peers, learned from others with the same learned helplessness. Non-voting is part of the larger inequality that only voting itself can end. It is a form of reparation for denial of their right to an equal, high-quality education that would have equipped them to make a real choice about whether to vote or not. In Melville’s famous description of existential paralysis, his hero Bartleby says, “I would prefer not to.” But most nonvoters did not “choose.” They are not like Bartleby sending a message, even in code. It is a status inflicted on them—a kind of low-status civic servitude or bondage from which compulsory voting could free them. Sometimes a bit of compulsion does make us free, just as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act freed many whites whom the culture forced into demeaning blacks, or freed men from demeaning women. Or think about the Australians: because they are compelled to vote, they may paradoxically have less need of it, because now they have the norm or the habit of voting. If we require the 100 million (or far more in midterm years) to start being citizens in at least this minimal sense, our own people may embrace the norm of voting too.

States’ Fights

Let’s get to the biggest objection: it’s impossible. “You might just as well ask for labor law reform, because it’s just as unlikely Congress will do this.” That’s true: we can forget Congress. It is impossible to fix a dysfunctional federal government at the federal level. But there is a way around Mitch McConnell.

Thanks to Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, the states set the rules for suffrage. Forget the federal level: we can enact compulsory voting in individual states—at least the blue ones, at the start. It is true enough that Congress would have the power to stop such a law, at least in federal elections. That’s a worry, but let’s assume Congress is too dysfunctional to act. Even if it could preempt compulsory voting in federal elections, it is hard to see how Congress could stop states from having compulsory voting in their own state elections, which are usually concurrent with the federal ones.

Some might suggest that even if one or two blue states put it in, it will change very little. To the contrary, it will change everything, though perhaps not at first. It will likely lead, eventually, to the end of the Electoral College. It could also lead to the end of flipping the control of the Congress in midterm elections, when often 40 percent or fewer of the electorate participate. It also might reduce the dark money and corporate money that is currently so important in turning out the vote.

Bear with me as I explain:

Suppose one state, like California, perhaps by referendum, adopted compulsory voting. That in itself could go a long way to bringing about the end of the Electoral College, a nasty piece of business that has installed two losers, Bush and Trump, as president in this still young century, and may yet install even more. Suppose California had compulsory voting in 2016—now imagine at 95 percent turnout in the state with the same split of Clinton and Trump votes. Then instead of three million votes nationally, Hillary Clinton would have won the popular vote by around seven million votes nationally, just based on the difference in California’s results. (Pardon me for using round numbers.) Now suppose New York—inspired by all of this—did the same. Then Illinois followed. Then Massachusetts did it. Assuming no change in the split, Hillary Clinton could easily have won by fifteen million votes nationally. Even in the United States, it would be too much. It would throw the country into turmoil. The red states, where states’ rights are defended ad nauseam on talk radio and TV screens, would be furious. We would have two competing forms of government—and only one could survive. Which one would it be? As Lincoln famously said, a house divided cannot stand. Or as the economist Herbert Stein once said, formulating Stein’s law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

The smart money would be on the UNION to win: once we extend the suffrage, it would be hard to take back.

No Fox in the Henhouse

As mentioned, compulsory voting would lead to the end of another kind of minority rule: the way a third of the electorate can flip the control of the House and the Senate in a midterm election year. This would go a long way to stabilizing the government. It is shameful that right now, as I write, we high-five each other over the turnout in the midterm election of 2018. It was still a rump electorate, even if larger than the norm.

Last of all, it might—I hope—bring down the cost of elections, where so much of the spending is about turning out the base. Here comes everyone: the law now does the mobilizing. And even if some white nationalists come out of hiding to vote, we will be better off. Based on the Pew study as well as a few guesses, here’s why the party of the left is better off:

Nonvoters are young. Why not get them in the habit of voting, while the sap is still rising and they are falling into each other’s arms? We are more likely to get a government of the future. It would be terrible for them to cast their first vote much later, when they are old and dried up and just want to settle scores.

Nonvoters are deep in debt. Or poor. A welfare state will be impossible until we get all the beneficiaries of it to vote.

Nonvoters are disproportionately Latino, perhaps the likeliest of any voting bloc to support UNIONISM over Trump-type nationalism.

Yes, compulsory voting will be a crisis for the Democratic Party, and I say bring it on.

Some polls suggest that nonvoters are moderates, and if these moderates vote en masse, an ever-shriller GOP will pay the price. If we just get free of gridlock, the country will drift left, albeit more slowly than one might like. Even in the worst case for the left, it will still have a glacial effect that will end the right’s hothead form of minority rule.

For a moment, though, let me stop being high-minded about citizenship and inclusion and just say it outright—compulsory voting will help the Democrats, even if more white nationalists end up voting too. Even those on the left who are hostile to compulsory voting should give it that much. If in place, compulsory voting will make a wealth tax easier. It will make labor law reform easier. It will make a hike in Social Security easier. Best of all, it will force the Democrats to have a bigger working-class base, or to stop thinking they can get away without having one. Yes, compulsory voting will be a crisis for the party, and I say bring it on. At the next convention in 2020, give the delegates copies of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and resolve to get the whole country on board.

Yes, but might they be “low information” voters? That was the old male sexist argument against giving women the right to vote. But when American women did get their right to vote in 1919, many became better informed—by 1924, the League of Women Voters was organized in 346 of the then 433 congressional districts—maybe better informed than the men.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking: Steve Bannon is out there in his lair, like a minotaur, just waiting for these new voters to stumble along. “Come on in, my pretties.” Isn’t Breitbart a risk?

Of course it’s a risk: I said we were shooting Niagara. We don’t trust the poorly educated. But surely nonvoters must have built up some immunity to Fox, or they would be watching it now and voting for Trump. They are, by definition, contagion free. And we can take heart from the massive original research set out in Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (2018). The three authors calculate that more than two-thirds of the country are just outside the closed loop far-right media world of Fox News and Steve Bannon. That is, they are in a world where there are some standards of objectivity. It’s likely that at least two-thirds of nonvoters, and maybe more, would have a connection to the bigger, fact-grounded world. Besides, right-wing media offers an intense political fantasy life for people who feel they are disenfranchised—it’s the tinker mentality that inspired John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress—while nonvoters typically do not care about the franchise and are not looking for political fantasy lives at all.

I must be done with the objections. No, here’s another: “You say compulsory voting is great, but there’s all sorts of fighting in Australia. I read where they’re now fighting immigration.” OK, look: even with compulsory voting, political sin will continue. Not even compulsory voting takes away that freedom. For instance, in their 2018 and 2019 elections, the country followed the global rightward trend in selecting a center-right/right-wing coalition government over the Labor opposition. But Australia and Belgium, where it is also enforced, are still better than us at being social democracies, and are more egalitarian, in fact. Indeed, if there had been compulsory voting in Germany and other countries, it might have kept the European social-democrat left in power. Had the voting rate been not just 75 percent but 91 percent or higher, the social-democratic left might have been in office in most of the last twenty to thirty years. It’s been out of office because the voter turnout rate in even egalitarian countries has relatively declined. It’s compulsory voting that would put the left in power—give it the few extra points it needs.

Any final objection? Yes: it’s so utopian.

Well, California is a utopian place, and it’s far from utopian to imagine it in place there, and once in place, then it’s in play.

The real objection, of course, is that, deep down, we liberals don’t believe the We the People can be trusted to govern themselves.

Here’s my closing argument for compulsory voting: It is there to stop despair. Had we kept just those in despair from dropping out of politics, it might have kept us safe from Trump.

Indeed, if they can’t drop out, then we can’t drop out, as I might if Trump wins a second term. I’ll have no choice but to keep on. Not that I ever will drop out, but God knows I am in despair, especially when I know that half of the electorate just sits it out. There is a line that runs through Orwell’s 1984 which a better writer would find too corny to quote. Should I quote it? No. Well, I will. It’s what the novel’s hero Winston Smith keeps saying: “Our hope is in the proles.”

The working class sitting it out in 1984 is like the nonvoter working class that is sitting it out now. Our hope in the Democratic Party is still in those who currently sit our elections out—out of political and psychological isolation, out of exhaustion, out of generations-long habit. All we need is a law to finally admit them to our Union.


[1] To be sure, some will mock me for saying that the Supreme Court will follow precedent. I am not saying it will—just that this is the case law. Go ahead. Look it up. It’s in the much cited Burdick v. Takushi (1992), the gist of which is a quote from Anderson v Celebrezze (1983). It’s the law that conservative and not liberal justices developed.

Thomas Geoghegan is a Chicago lawyer whose latest book is Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.

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