In Today’s Political Climate, the One and Only Thing that Matters Is Voting

Mass marches and protests used to make a difference in spurring political change. Now there’s only one thing that actually matters.

In this age of polarized legislatures and polarized citizens, some once basic tenets of political participation have changed.

This thought struck me last summer as I watched mass demonstrations involving gun control after the murders in Buffalo and Uvalde, and abortion rights after the Supreme Court invalidated Roe v. Wade. My purpose is not to argue a position on either topic — only to comment on the state of methods for petitioning our government.

I grew up in the era of civil rights demonstrations and protests against the war in Vietnam. It is beyond dispute that in both cases, massive public uprisings had meaningful impacts. In time Congress passed civil rights legislation. The Vietnam War ended.

Today, marches and rallies in most cases mean little or nothing. They are mere exercises in venting; they mistake activity for actual progress.

WHO WILL LISTEN?

The reason for this is clear. In the 1960s, legislative races in statehouses and for Congress were more competitive than they are now. To incumbents, a street full of angry citizens represented potential votes to put them out of office — the only threat most politicians have ever understood.

Therefore, they had to pay attention.

Now, the majority of legislators, state or federal, are in safe seats, in many cases secure for life. Most U.S. Senators represent essentially one-party states. Can you imagine a Republican winning a Senate seat in California or a Democrat in Utah?

As for members of the House of Representatives, the districts they represent are gerrymandered, their voters selected for them by computer programs so that they can count on winning 60 to 70% of the vote versus any opponent from the other party. If they look out their window and see a protest against something members of their party strongly favor, they are free to ignore it. They’ll be re-elected regardless.

WHAT OF LETTERS?

If demonstrations are futile, then so is that old standby, the letter to the Congress member. Years ago, legislators had to pay heed to such letters. I recall a time when even a handful of well-written personal missives on a given topic (as distinct from mass-mailed postcards) would cause an office-holder to take notice. I used to write such letters regularly.

Now, my state assembly member and senator and my U.S. Representative are from the opposite party. Why would they pay any attention to my letter advocating something their solid majority opposes? So I rarely write those letters now.

In that form of cynicism I am not alone. My son-in-law recently got caught in red tape when applying for a federal government benefit. I suggested he contact his member of Congress, since constituent service is part of a legislator’s job. He declined, on the grounds his representative, a member of the other party, likely didn’t believe in the program in question and would not help. 

SO, WHAT TO DO?

Meanwhile, the protests against the end of Roe did nothing to change how the Supreme Court ruled. The gun control protests arguably aided passage of a law, but one that at best enables members of both parties to say, “Well, at least we did something.”

So where petitioning the government is concerned, in these polarized times, there’s only one thing that makes any real difference. That is voting. Demonstrations and protests may let off steam and breed feelings of solidarity, but they will not significantly “move the needle” on whatever issue is of concern.

They are meaningful only to the extent that they revolve around registering people to vote, firing up people to vote, getting people’s commitments to vote and to bring others of like mind to the polls. Any demonstration without those aims is a waste of time and energy, neither of which are in infinite supply.

Drum a few incumbents out of office, and others will take notice. And then the ground is prepared for meaningful change. The midterm elections next month will help prove the point — one way or the other.  



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