Enough with the Vote Shaming Already

It’s Joe Biden’s ultimate responsibility to sell voters on Joe Biden. (Photo Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Following Bernie Sanders’s all-but-inevitable departure from the Democratic Party presidential primary race, the endorsements have been coming fast and furious for Joe Biden, the Dems’ presumptive nominee, including from Bernie himself.

Soon after Bernie’s surprisingly-early public backing of his friend and former senatorial colleague during a recent Biden livestream, Barack Obama, the yin to Biden’s yang during his tenure in the Oval Office, threw his weight behind Joe’s candidacy. Not long after that, Elizabeth Warren, who notably abstained from endorsements when it came down to just Bernie and Biden, also got behind the latter with a proud endorsement video for the man who loves Amtrak, aviators, and ice cream.

Echoing the positions of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement, however, I don’t endorse Joe Biden. I wouldn’t necessarily counsel against voting for him, mind you, especially for those who live in swing states, and I also believe even probable nonvoters should contribute to the discussion by trying to influence the party platform in a progressive direction. Either way, though, I am patently against trying to shame those who are undecided or have indicated they won’t vote for Biden into doing so.

First things first, if you’ve read my writing for any length of time, you know I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter through and through. How could I advocate not endorsing or not voting for Biden when my main man Bernie suggested it would be “irresponsible” for me not to?

Well, despite what some of you may have heard or might believe, we Bernie faithful are not members of a cult or bots. We can think independently of our inspirational leader. In fact, there are many who donated to the Sanders campaign and who otherwise supported Bernie’s run for the White House who wanted to see him go harder after Biden and his record when they became the final two candidates for the nomination. We believe Bernie’s a great man, but he’s not infallible. We can openly disagree with him.

This is besides the notion that, after years of being labeled as “toxic” and being dismissed as “Bernie Bros” who are predominantly young and white and hate women and want everything handed on a silver platter to them, all of a sudden, our votes are highly desirable and our endorsements are expected to mean something. Well, which one is it? Are we toxic, to be avoided at all costs? Or are we highly-valued members of the voting bloc/Democratic Party supporters? You can’t have it both ways.

(At this point, it might behoove me to mention that the concept of “Bernie Bros” being more liable to attack people online than supporters of other candidates is a myth perpetuated in large part by media outlets, more correctly attributable to his popularity. But please don’t allow me to let observable data get in the way of a good narrative.)

Plus, there’s the matter of the logical trap surrounding the “a vote for anyone but Biden is a vote for Trump” line. By extension, by one not voting for Trump, isn’t that the same as voting for Biden? If not, how so?

This is where, before I get ahead of myself, I openly concede Joe Biden and Donald Trump aren’t the same—and it’s not even close. Trump is a bigot, a cheat, a con man, a fraud, and a liar. Worse yet, he’s not remotely good at his job.

We’ve seen 3+ years of President Trump and the results include an administration continuously full of upheaval and vacancies; a Cabinet full of millionaires, billionaires, and other cronies; an escalation of racist and xenophobic rhetoric; a fast track for confirmation of federal judges thinly veiled in their prejudices and often incompetent; a tax cut that primarily favors wealthier earners; weakened protections for the environment and the LGBTQIA+ community; and a woeful response to the present threat of coronavirus/COVID-19 marked by political favoritism and hampered by a lack of due preparation. All the while, Trump, when not enriching himself, playing golf, tweeting, or watching FOX News, deflects blame, undermining a free press as “the enemy of the people.” It’s hard to imagine a worse president in the modern era than Donald J. Trump.

Returning to the question of the fallacy that not voting for the Democrat is a vote for the Republican and vice versa then, the only way this equivalency loses validity is if you consider that one candidate’s supporters are that much more likely to come out for their chosen nominee than the other’s. Such is potentially a big problem for Biden: enthusiasm. As recently as the end of March, an ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed only 24% of those surveyed strongly support Biden over Trump, while more than half of prospective Trump voters surveyed indicated they are “very” enthusiastic about casting their ballots for the incumbent. That’s worse than what Hillary Clinton encountered in 2016 at this point in the race—and we all know how that turned out.

Why the lack of enthusiasm for Uncle Joe? Maybe because he’s—and I’m just spit-balling here—not that good of a candidate. Through all these proud endorsements by the likes of Obama, Sanders, and Warren, a lot has been said about his character, his lifetime of public service, and his leadership. On the other hand, little, if anything, has been said about his policy positions or a cohesive vision for America’s future, and talk of his supposed progressive credentials flies in the face of his actual record.

The image Obama et al. are creating is an idealized version of Biden, one designed to drum up votes and drive home the differences between him and Trump on dimensions like empathy. It does not consider Biden’s stalwart opposition to Medicare for All and other single-payer health insurance systems, even during a global pandemic that is seeing record numbers of Americans file for unemployment and get kicked off their employer-sponsored healthcare plans. It does not consider his halfhearted embrace of the Green New Deal which would see the United States miss a net zero emissions target date of 2030 recommended by progressives by two decades. It does not consider his support for student debt cancellation only for some income levels, not all, and not after siding with lenders on a 2005 bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to file for bankruptcy and unable to discharge their student loan debt through bankruptcy. It’s revisionist history that re-characterizes Biden’s identity as the poster boy for political expediency as something greater than what it actually is.

All this hagiographic elevation of Biden also fails to consider limiting factors that would seemingly disqualify most other candidates. One is his cognitive decline, obvious to anyone who has eyes and ears. It’s why we have not seen or heard more of him since the coronavirus prompted a state of national emergency in the United States. It’s why he’s reliant on cue cards, notes, or teleprompters during all planned appearances, which are often short and have his wife, Jill, leading him along. It’s why we see clip after clip of him laboring with his speech, struggling to form complete sentences and thoughts. This is more than gaffes or a stutter—and it’s not a secret to Republicans either.

The other big problem with Biden as the candidate of a major party, particularly one that touts its inclusivity and its strong female leadership, is the list of allegations made against him by various women of unwanted touching or close physical proximity. Most serious among them, and yet disappointingly underreported, is the account of Tara Reade, a staffer for Biden in the 90s, who claims that Biden sexually and verbally assaulted her.

Despite comparisons to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh prior to his confirmation to the Supreme Court and despite Reade seeming credible in her retelling of details about the alleged assault, many of the same people loudly calling for Kavanaugh’s withdrawal as a nominee are expressing their doubts about the veracity of Reade’s public statements. The primary difference herein appears to be not whether Reade is believable, but that Biden is a Democrat backed by the party establishment, while Kavanaugh was jammed through confirmation by Senate Republicans. He’s on our team, not yours. At least he’s not as bad as Trump. A victory for women and #MeToo, this isn’t.

Given all this, it’s no wonder enthusiasm for Joe Biden—the “white moderate” warned about by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who is cognitively impaired, has no empathy for young people, has few clear policy goals, and may be guilty of sexual assault—is so low. Even after a term of President Trump, that Biden is a tough sell should be immediately concerning to Democratic Party leadership and the “vote blue no matter who” crowd all the same.


So what, you may be thinking. If you’re not voting to stop the madman in the White House, maybe you should be ashamed. You just refuse to accept that your guy is not the one going for the nomination. He didn’t have the votes. It’s over. Get over your privilege and get behind the winner. We’re ridin’ with Biden.

I get it—a second term of President Trump would not be felt as severely by all Americans, much as is the case now. The horror stories of migrants kept in detention, denied asylum despite the dangers they face in their countries of origin. The families negatively affected by the Muslim ban masquerading as a travel ban. The anti-Asian hate being fomented as a result of fear and misinformation about COVID-19. The administration’s attempt to erase trans people. It’s not something I like imagining.

All the same, time and energy spent shaming people on social media is arguably misused when considering all the people who won’t vote even though they can and because they have been disenfranchised regardless of what party is in power. Glenn Greenwald, in a recent piece appearing on The Intercept, explores how nonvoters are disproportionately lower-income, nonwhite, and dissatisfied with the two major parties.

Citing Pew Research Center data from 2018, Greenwald finds that 56% of nonvoters in the 2016 presidential election made less than $30,000 per year. More than half of non-voters were age 49 or younger or were high-school-educated or less, and nearly half of nonvoters were non-white. Moreover, while voter suppression efforts of these groups are both “real are pernicious,” the idea that nonvoters are frequently not registering because they are dissatisfied with their choices or don’t believe their vote will make a difference is significant. It would, too, seek to dispel “the outright, demonstrable falsehood that those who choose not to vote are primarily rich, white, and thus privileged, while those who lack those privileges — voters of color and poorer voters — are unwilling to abstain.” In saying this, Greenwald is fixated on the bubbles we find ourselves in when we subsist only on a diet of one-sided cable news and social media.

It is this understanding that begs the question: How many indignities are progressives supposed to endure in their earnest attempts to help reform the Democratic Party and to defeat the Donald Trumps of today and tomorrow? Bernie Sanders ultimately didn’t make the case to enough Democratic primary voters that he is the most “electable” and is the right choice to take on Trump and the GOP. His, like any campaign, was flawed.

Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, has suffered from a lack of organization and funding throughout his run. He placed fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary. It was because of his strong showing in South Carolina and the coalescence of the Democratic Party around Biden that he was able to vault to the lead for the nomination and never look back, further buoyed by a media narrative that celebrated his comeback uncritically.

To make things worse, Barack Obama has had more influence on said coalescence than he would lead or like you to believe. As reports have indicated, the former president was influential in getting Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to endorse Biden right around the time they bowed out of the race. Obama also held several conversations with Bernie to help “accelerate the endgame” before the Wisconsin primary results were made public.

Most chillingly, and regarding that Wisconsin primary, according to insider reports, Biden’s campaign was “eager” to have it run as originally scheduled or else they’d turn up the heat on Bernie to drop out, a notion Obama stressed in his conversations with Sanders. For all the “bad optics” of 2015 and 2016, this blatant favoritism of the establishment candidate over the progressive is yet harder to bear four years later. That Biden and his team would encourage people to go the polls during a global pandemic and despite widespread closures and poll worker shortages is all the more reprehensible. This was always about stopping Bernie and then beating Trump. Any pretense otherwise is beyond absurd at this point.

Joe Biden isn’t Donald Trump, and if you’re voting for the former to stop the latter, I understand completely. When people don’t share your enthusiasm for voting strategically and when they perceive that nothing meaningful will change regardless, though, trying to bully, demean, or insult them into voting is of questionable, if any, utility. So enough with the vote shaming already. You’d be better off making calls and trying to engage with disaffected nonvoters by understanding their points of view if you truly want to avoid disaster in November.

“I Feel Like My Voice Doesn’t Matter”: On Why Americans Don’t (or Can’t) Vote

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Maybe the problem with our democracy is not so much with voters and non-voters as it is with choosing the wrong candidates (read: not Bernie Sanders) and rigging the system in favor of moneyed interests. (Photo Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

This is not what democracy looks like.

Despite America’s much-ballyhooed status as “land of the free and home of the brave,” when it comes to voting, a significant portion of the U.S. population remains unwilling or unable to cast their ballots in elections up and down tickets. A recent report for NPR by Asma Khalid, Don Gonyea, and Leila Fadel entitled “On the Sidelines of Democracy: Exploring Why So Many Americans Don’t Vote” plumbs the depths of this modern electoral reality.

First, a matter of statistics. According to the authors’ data, only about 60% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016. If 2010 and 2014 are any indication, meanwhile, turnout for midterm elections is only expected to be about 40%. As the NPR piece insists, it can’t be known for sure how many elections might have experienced different outcomes had all or a even a larger majority come out to the polls.

However, as the report is also keen to stress, voting doesn’t just decide winners and losers. It influences what policies candidates enact upon getting into office. What’s more, it affects how these politicians interact with would-be supporters and which interests they appeal to. In other words, rather than depicting campaign platforms as static and resistant to change, Khalid et al. see them as malleable under the right outside pressure.

What’s particularly disturbing about the who, what, and why of voters vs. non-voters is that research shows these two groups have appreciably different views on matters of policy. The findings of Jan Leighley cited within the NPR piece suggest non-voters are more likely to support programs which expand the social safety net and policies which effect a redistribution of wealth.

This is before we even get to the matter of those who can’t vote, whether because of criminal records, registration issues, or other “irregularities.” The authors place this subset of the population in the hundreds of thousands, a significant number when considering some recent elections have been decided by mere hundreds of votes.

But non-voters who can vote and choose not to are at the crux of Khalid’s, Gonyea’s, and Fadel’s piece. Using data from L2, a non-partisan voter file vendor (you can read about the exact methodology in the linked article), NPR analyzed what separates voters from non-voters. Though the specific circumstances vary from place to place, the authors isolated four factors: age, income, education level, and habits.

In talking to young adults from Las Vegas, the common refrain was that they didn’t know enough about politics or even voting, for that matter, to cast ballots. This echoes the findings of Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, an initiative at Tufts University which looks at youth civic and political participation.

Not only are young people potentially confused about what voting entails, but they are generally pessimistic about its ability to bring about positive change. As they tend to be more itinerant than other age groups, they also feel less connected to the issues affecting where they live. Or they’re “too busy.” Or they don’t feel inspired by many political candidates. Whatever the underlying reason(s), by not voting, young adults are making it that much more likely candidates will opt not to court them in future elections in favor of groups that come out more strongly.

In McDowell County, West Virginia, the issues of class and education loom largest. The median annual income in Welch, WV, the county seat, is only about $25,000 a year. Once again, there’s the perception that no matter who is in office, their county gets the proverbial short end of the stick and is all but ignored by politicians.

Going back to Jan Leighley’s research, class more than any other variable promotes a voting discrepancy; nearly 80% of high-income earners vote, as opposed to only about 50% of low-income earners. As having a college degree makes a person that much more able to secure employment and start a career, it is no wonder education level is a factor as well. Throw in the need to work multiple jobs and other potential responsibilities, and voting certainly stands to be less of a priority.

As for El Paso, Texas, the NPR study found low Latinx turnout. At least in El Paso County, there are specific reasons which may combine to explain why over 60% of registered voters don’t come out to the polls. Part of the reason may be that immigrant families may not be familiar with voting, and that children of immigrants born here may not have had their parents serve as models in this regard. This may help inform why Asian-American voter participation is also low. Additionally, Texas hasn’t been a politically competitive state for decades now. Plus, El Paso doesn’t exactly have a good track record with respect to corrupt public officials, so there’s that, too.

Still, as Khalid et al. show, it’s not just in Texas that Latinx voters are disproportionately staying home, even when candidates for public office like Donald Trump are painting Mexicans with broad strokes as criminals and rapists. In addition to the idea that Latinxs feel a disconnect with the political process—this is emerging as a common theme across demographics—the reality is that voter outreach to non-voters is, as the article puts it, “anemic.” Rather than try to engage non-voters, candidates will plumb voter files for people who do vote frequently and try to reach out to them. This does not bode well for a robust increase in voter turnout.

Perhaps on some level, one sympathizes with political campaigns on this last note. As the NPR article states outright, “It’s more expensive and time consuming to chase down infrequent voters.” Inconvenient as this truth might be, though, it doesn’t provide a solution going forward. This is not meant as a criticism of the report, which appears to be well-researched and incisive. Nonetheless, it’s a limitation, as complex as any potential solution to low voter turnout may be.

Thus, for all the report’s valuable insights, it’s, well, kind of a downer. Maybe this is unavoidable in the face of stark electoral realities, but for those of us seeking an inspired and inspiring path to action, we’ll have to look elsewhere for answers.


My time as a frequent voter and political observer has been admittedly brief. However, rather than take the tack of many to harangue the non-voting among us into submission—Lord knows I’ve received my fair share of vote shaming despite actually going out to the polls—I tend to focus on how the voting process can be reformed and how the major parties should do better given their prominence.

At the risk of oversimplification, a big way to generate more enthusiasm for voting is to produce better candidates who run on genuinely attractive platforms. In this sense, the person(s) behind the campaign are less important than the ideas and ideals they embrace. Why else would Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian secular Jew from Vermont with a Brooklyn accent, be so popular among people who follow politics, especially young people?

This is, of course, not to say that Bernie’s 2016 campaign and stances were perfect. For instance, his positions on foreign policy issues at times lacked nuance, and his defense of gun ownership and gun manufacturers when gun violence is such a hot topic (mostly because Americans keep getting shot and killed at rates far surpassing those of other developed countries) was characterized as out of touch. I, for one, support his views on not going after manufacturers unless they behave unethically or illegally, but I also recognize his defense of attitudes from a state that prizes hunting as a tradition as a liability for a presidential run.

As some might even aver, Sanders is really a one-issue candidate. That one issue, however, is a central one: widening income/wealth inequality and the dissolution of power and viability of the working class. It’s a problem that some of us can afford to ignore, but the vast majority can’t.

Accordingly, when Bernie talks about these subjects as well as getting money out of politics (the “rigged economy” train of thought), it resonates. Take the example of health care. When Americans have to choose between paying medical bills and buying basic necessities, that’s not merely due to poor choices—it speaks to a broken system. It’s no wonder he and candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who espouse similar views (including advocacy for Medicare for All) have captured the imagination of so many people.

It should be stressed that great candidates don’t just grow on trees. Part of producing better candidates is being able to choose from a deeper pool. I’m not just talking about “diversity” in the narrow sense of ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or other identifying characteristics, though these are important. I mean more individuals with a progressive mindset should be running for office. This is easier said than done when people have families and jobs and lives. You know, better people than me.

Nevertheless, along these lines, party leaders should make the effort to reduce or lower the barriers for civic and political engagement. Part of this is demystifying the voting process and the ability of running for office. While I don’t feel we should necessarily encourage people to make ill-informed decisions, there’s also the matter of other voters caring about one issue or choosing based on ugly prejudices (see also “President Donald J. Trump”). In all, it would appear to be a wash. The same goes with candidates for public office. For every noble statesman or stateswoman to serve in an official capacity, there’s someone who is ill-qualified for their role and/or good for nothing else but running for office (once again, see also “President Donald J. Trump”). As the saying goes, this is politics, not rocket science.

When politicians are not compromised by their obedience to moneyed interests, and when the threshold for political participation is more reasonable (i.e. fewer fundraisers charging several hundred dollars a head), only then, I believe, will we set the stage for a meaningful dialog between elected representatives and their constituents. This includes town hall meetings with residents—you know, ones to which officials actually show and field questions rather than ditching them and complaining about unfair treatment. You ran presumably because you wanted to serve your state/town/what-have-you. Do your job.

I speak about these things in the abstract, realizing full well it is difficult to bring about positive change. To reiterate, easier said than done. It takes time, effort, and cooperation forged through a shared vision. Then again, no one said it would be easy, and furthermore, the desired outcomes are worth the struggle. We as a nation have to do better when it comes to voter turnout. The alternative is to stay home and ensure that our needs continue to go unanswered and our voices remain unheard.