In the weeks following Hillary Clinton’s staggering defeat at the hands of Donald Trump in November 2016, New York Times correspondent Sabrina Tavernise traveled to some of Milwaukee’s lowest-income neighborhoods to meet with residents who’d opted not to cast a ballot earlier in the month. Wisconsin was an obvious subject for such a study, given the pivotal role it had played in determining 2016’s electoral college outcome and the relatively small, 27,000-vote margin that ultimately handed the state to Trump. An arguably bigger reason was the precipitous drop in voter turnout that occurred in some Milwaukee neighborhoods, with one district reporting a staggering 19.5 percent decline relative to 2012.
Newly introduced voter ID laws had undoubtedly played a role, as one official with the local election commission told the Times — with Governor Scott Walker’s administration having recently put a raft of voter suppression laws on the books. But, speaking to nonvoters in several low-income neighborhoods, Tavernise found that something else was often at work: despair about systemic underrepresentation in America’s political institutions, coupled with repulsion toward the major choices on offer.
The Invisible Plurality
Tavernise’s report on Milwaukee, while in some ways anecdotal, is nevertheless an illustrative case study — and one that stands out from much of the post-2016 election coverage thanks to its welcome emphasis on nonvoters.
According to the United States Election Project, more than 40 percent of Americans eligible to cast a ballot in 2016 chose to sit the election out. In virtually any other context, a constituency this size would both feature prominently in political commentary and be a hugely significant bloc for which political leaders would compete. Yet, amid the vast cottage industry of post-election debriefs and analyses, you’d often be hard-pressed to find discussion of it at the scale its size implies: measured against the endless media safaris to Trump country, investigations of Russian bot activity, or scolding of third-party activists, the issue of nonvoters pales in terms of tweets and column inches. During campaigns themselves, the millions who regularly decide not to vote hardly ever seem to figure in media coverage and, when they do, it’s most likely as an object of ridicule or contempt.
It’s well known that the United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world — the candidate from the Didn’t Vote party has won every presidential election for the past century. As Tavernise’s investigation of Milwaukee makes clear, one reason for this is deliberate efforts by Republican politicians to suppress the vote, particularly among people of color. But, as it also suggests, many nonvoters simply don’t see themselves reflected in the political system or believe those inhabiting it are working to improve their lives.
Contra the popular caricature of the nonvoter as an apathetic figure — inherently passive and disinterested — that view is both fairly coherent and borne out by the reality of American political institutions.
Quite visibly, Congress looks very little like the country it ostensibly exists to serve — with many demographics notably underrepresented in its makeup. Political leaders on average tend to be far wealthier than the typical American, with many inhabiting a socioeconomic environment that’s practically in another galaxy. Presidential campaigns, meanwhile, are often contests between different shades of multimillionaire — with those providing commentary for the major networks also much better off than the average person. With major newspapers and media outlets, by virtue of their business model, overwhelmingly catering to upper-crust readers, it’s no wonder so many people are uninterested in the horse-race infotainment that so often passes for campaign coverage.
It should similarly come as no surprise that nonvoters are more likely to be nonwhite and tend to have lower incomes: Pew’s data suggests that nearly half of those who didn’t vote in 2016 were nonwhite, and that more than half had incomes of less than $30,000 a year. Given decades of bipartisan deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, and a general consensus around policies that favor big business, it would be very difficult to make the case that such people’s interests have been well served by either of America’s two major political parties, or that their decision to sit out elections is particularly irrational. Even among those who do vote, America’s political duopoly is astonishingly unpopular, with one 2018 survey suggesting as many as two-thirds of the population agree that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats do an “adequate job representing the American people.”
Many nonvoters feel this way too. Here’s a sample of what some Milwaukeeans burdened by high health-care costs and badly paying jobs told Tavernise back in 2016:
“Both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.”
“Give us loans, or a 401(k) . . . Ain’t none of this been working.”
“I felt cornered. We were stuck between Trump and Hillary. They really left us with no choice.”
These are all anecdotal remarks, but the logic found in all of them is borne out by thorough studies like the 2014 book Who Votes Now?. Observing that voting patterns are biased toward those with higher incomes, authors Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler found that “when individuals believe candidates offer distinctive choices, they are more likely to vote” and that support for wealth redistribution and expanded social safety is higher among nonvoters. It’s significant, then, that they also found poorer Americans less likely to perceive significant ideological differences between presidential candidates from the two major parties: “If candidates took positions perceived by poor voters to offer more distinct choices,” they observe, “then income bias could decrease.”
A Politics for the Majority
Disillusionment is often written off as the product of apathy, laziness, or ignorance. But for tens of millions of voters and nonvoters alike, it is a perfectly rational response to a political system visibly slanted toward those with wealth and power.
The existence of democratic institutions notwithstanding, presidential campaigns have long been expensive and stage-managed set pieces that cater overwhelmingly to big donors and powerful interest groups. Three people own more wealth than the 160 million poorest Americans combined, and, against the backdrop of an elite gospel valorizing billionaire entrepreneurs and worshipping at the altar of high finance, tens of millions are beset with spiraling health-care costs, low wages, and a lack of basic dignity in their day-to-day lives. Suffused with racial discrimination, a criminal justice system that needlessly keeps unfathomable numbers of people behind bars, and politicians actively working to make it harder for the most marginalized to vote, American democracy is more a myth than a reality for tens of millions of the country’s inhabitants.
Changing that injustice means bringing nonvoters to the ballot box like never before, with a politics that loudly champions their interests and, for once, puts the needs of the many before the wealth and power of the few.