In the dramatic events of 2016, Brexit and the Trump victory, one lesson must be clear: the importance of voting. In both events, if more voters had turned out to vote the results would almost certainly have been different.
It may not sound exciting or innovating, but those of us who care for democracy should take care always to uphold the sanctity of the vote. Back to basics: Vote! Do not diminish the vote by over-theorising about alternative forms of participation.
With low voter turnout, as traditionally in America, it can be enough for a relatively small constituency in the population to mobilise to carry the vote. This, by all accounts, is what happened in enough states to hand the victory to the Republican candidate. In Britain, the young are predominantly in favour of the European Union. If more of them had voted, the tightly balanced referendum would probably have swung the other way.
There is a tendency now in many democracies for more citizens to not vote. That, paradoxically, includes many of the young who are intensely engaged in social and political issues. It doesn’t matter, they say, it’s all the same. WELL, we now know that it isn’t all the same and that it does matter. Many of the young prefer other forms of participation, in single-issue campaigning, manifestations and the like. That’s well and good but is not an alternative to voting. The vote is the core instrument of democracy and electoral democracy does not work unless enough voters go to the polls. If you don’t vote, you must take what you get and it is too late to complain and protest afterwards.
There is a tendency in some corners of political thinking to hold up participation and activism as an alternative to voting. In a recent roundtable I was in at an American university, one of my co-participants made the case that American democracy remains vibrant thanks to many citizens being engaged and making themselves heard, for example in demonstrations. Of course, citizens should keep up the pressure on their representatives between elections. But if they turn their backs on democracy by not voting, they cannot compensate with other forms of activism later.
The political competition is over power. Democracy is a way of allocating power peacefully and holding its exercise under control. If you don’t vote, you let others decide who will hold power over you. If you don’t vote, you do not represent a threat to those who hold power that you can take it away from them at the next election. When the vote is over, the power game is decided and can then not be undone by after-the-fact protestations.
In America, on the day after President Trump’s inauguration, millions participated in demonstrations across the country around issues of women’s rights and dignity. This was probably the largest day of organised protest is American history with about one in every 100 Americans participating, with brilliant timing, in a glorious day for a righteous cause. However, the man the protests were directed against had the day before taken hold of the reins of power and there was then nothing anyone could do about it. It is right to make one’s voice heard. It is gratifying to see it done on a grand scale for a worthy cause. It is satisfying to participate and to be there with all the others. But the sad truth, once the power game is decided, is that protestations, even on a massive scale, unless kept up relentlessly for a long duration, is of little consequence. In the vote, if we use it, we the people have power. In demonstrations, we are the powerless.