Turnout for last month’s election was low — under 37% nationwide and under 50% in Washington State. National turnout for youth (18 -29) was at about 21.5% according to The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Under 30% of registered voters voted in Texas and New York.
Why was turnout so low?
Disillusion with politicians in general is one explanation.
Thomas Frank blames Republicans’ patented brand of fake populism.
Howard Dean blames gutless Democrats.
Jamelle Bouie in Why Democrats Can’t Win Over White Working-Class Voters says that working class white people think “The Democratic Party is too associated with blacks and too associated with welfare to win over enough whites to make a difference.” Kevin Drum makes the same analysis in Mother Jones (“Can We Talk? Here’s Why the White Working Class Hates Democrats“):
[Social welfare programs] benefit the poor but barely touch the working class. Does it matter that the working class barely pays for most of these programs in the first place, since their federal income taxes tend to be pretty low? Nope. They’re still paying taxes, and it seems like they never get anything for it. It’s always someone else.
Socialist Mike Whitney makes a convincing case for Obama being to blame for low turnout.
The New York Times also blames Obama … Obama Is Seen as Frustrating His Own Party.
It’s hard not to hold Obama largely responsible.
In 2008 the public was disgusted with Republican corruption, mismanagement, and war-mongering. They were ready for real Change that Obama promised. (But here’s a scary thought: 45.7% of voters voted for McCain and Palin in 2008.)
While Obama was never going to live up to the unrealistic hopes raised by his masterful campaign, it’s clear that he barely even tried to enact real change. Democratic partisans who blame just Republicans for the failures of Obama’s leadership are in major denial.
The electorate voted for change in 2008 and instead got a president that surrounded himself with Wall Street cronies and Bush holdovers; a president that protected the war criminals and Wall Street crooks and prosecuted the whistle blowers; a president that promoted a health care plan devised by the Heritage Foundation; a president that expanded the power and activities of the military and the surveillance state; and a president who compromised early and often so that 90% of the Bush tax cuts were made permanent.
Obama himself said, “My policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.”
Obama tried to be post-partisan and to “look forward.” Instead he got crushed.
What’s most perplexing is Obama’s failure to communicate clearly who’s to blame for our problems. He’s a great speaker, but he mostly allowed the GOP to control the messaging.
As William Kuttner wrote in HuffPost in 2010, “Let’s stop pretending. Barack Obama is a disaster as a crisis president. He has taken an economic collapse that was the result of Republican ideology and Republican policies, and made it the Democrats’ fault. And the more that he is pummeled, the more he bends over.”
In fact, Glen Ford made a good case that Obama’s talk about post-partisanship was just a smokescreen to justify corporate-friendly policies. In Psycho-Babbling Obama Ford wrote, “Rather than face the fact that Obama is not a friend of the people, leftish commentators insist on conducting a psychological analysis of the president.” .
I think Obama’s central mistake was his decision not to prosecute Bush officials for war crimes — the worst sort of offense: starting a fraudulent war that killed 100s of thousands of people and wasted trillions of dollars. In general, nobody was held responsible for that disaster or for the economic crash of 2007 and 2008. This kept the truth hidden and allowed the wrongdoers to recoup and roar back to life. By 2010 Republican had won back the House. What a disaster! Thomas Frank bemoaned the debacle in his book Pity the Billionaire.
No wonder people didn’t bother to vote. People voted for change and got more of the same.
And it annoys me to no end when Obama supporters pretend Obama did a good job.
So, my hypothesis in this article is that turnout was low largely because of Obama’s failure to lead and because of peoples’ disillusionment with politics in general. I’d be curious to see objective evidence about this hypothesis. Have political scientists and pollsters done interviews to figure out why people didn’t vote? I know many of my coworkers ignore politics because, they say, it’s too depressing and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Of course, you can’t just blame Obama. He couldn’t have changed much alone, even had he tried. The corruption is endemic in D.C. and extends to the highest reaches of the Democratic leadership. For example, in this New Yorker article, Ryan Lizza quotes former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who may challenge Hillary for in the Democratic primary in 2016:
There is a big tendency among a lot of Democratic leaders to feed some raw meat to the public on smaller issues that excite them, like the minimum wage, but don’t really address the larger problem. … [They’ll] say we’re going to raise the minimum wage, we’re going do these little things, when in reality we need to say we’re going to fundamentally change the tax code so that you will believe our system is fair.
Lizza writes, “He added that one Northeastern senator—Webb wouldn’t say who—’was literally screaming at me on the Senate floor'” in anger over Webb’s plan to tighten regulations of Wall Street. Who was the screaming senator? Chuck Schumer? Hillary?
Hillary is even more friendly to the Pentagon and Wall Street than Obama, but at least she probably wouldn’t have been such a push-over. But if she’s the standard bearer for the Democrats in 2016, the Dems are in for a lot more trouble.
Anyway, it’s clear that Obama barely tried to enact change. Had he fought and lost it would have been better than compromising and repeatedly losing. His compromises didn’t earn him one iota of concession from the GOP. Instead, his compromises disheartened and confused the voters and allowed the GOP to control the messaging.
And it pissed off a lot of erstwhile supporters who lost hope and faith in the democratic and Democratic process.
In the future it will be a lot harder to fool voters and Democratic activists into believing the populist rhetoric that candidates spew when they’re running for office. Obama tricked me, I admit. I volunteered, donated to his campaign and celebrated his victory. By 2010 I was angry.
Democrats sometimes deliver, on wedge issues such as gay marriage, gun rights, and marijuana legalization. (On the other hand, Obama merely followed and didn’t take the lead on these issues.) But on the central issues of economic justice, the Democratic leadership mostly serve the 1%, despite their rhetoric. So, in 2016 the Dems are gonna have trouble tricking progressive again.
We really need to stop Hillary and take back the Democratic Party from the corporate Dems.