The 2020 presidential election is, as you’ve likely heard it called everywhere else, unprecedented. So much is changing and political strategies are adapting — or at least, they should be. Democratic politicians seem to be stuck in the past, operating on the same philosophy that lost them the 2016 election. Rather than changing to fit the completely different situation they are in, their message has become “vote blue no matter who,” a dogma that, by its very nature, shoves the needs of their constituents to the back burner. A campaign run on holding voters hostage doesn’t work, because it isn’t really a campaign at all; it is a campaign against your opponent rather than for your candidate.

You cannot mobilize voters without giving them reason to support you. You can disparage your opponent all you want, but a vote they lose is not the same as a vote you gain. Plenty of frustrated citizens are giving up on the election process altogether; to get their support, a candidate needs to be worth supporting, not just the lesser of two evils. Trying to guilt trip people into voting for someone is a better way to deter the apathetic and the undecided than to draw them in. Meanwhile, those who do vote for you have no reason to be enthused when your main selling point is fear of the other side winning. Even if you win the election, your prime rallying point ceases to be. You’ve beaten the enemy, and to what end? Your half-hearted constituents will stop listening.

Democrats are shooting themselves in a foot that’s already bleeding by not only failing to mobilize their usual voters but by actively driving many of them away. For minorities, particularly Black Americans — whose votes they cannot win without — the Democratic Party has always been a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and now they aren’t even bothering to wear the disguise. The lesser of two evils principle they’ve trapped voters with is starting to fall apart.

People aren’t stupid enough not to notice when they’re being exploited. More than half of Black voters agree that the Democratic Party doesn’t pay close enough attention to the Black community despite their massive support for the party and making up almost a quarter of their primary votes in 2016. Democrats have taken the Black vote for granted, and Biden is no exception — remember that “you ain’t Black” gaffe? The Democratic Party is steadily losing its monopoly on the Black vote, even if they don’t know (or care) yet. Black voter turnout declined in the last election for the first time in two decades, the sharpest decline of any racial group since 1996. 

His running mate Kamala Harris’s track record in criminal justice is also a controversial point for their campaign. In the past few decades, Democrats have embraced and even competed with Republicans to be the purveyors of some of the most harmful legislation for people of color in living memory, namely for the war on drugs and an increasingly punitive criminal justice system — and, once again, Biden is no exception

A bad history with criminal justice is not easily overlooked amid mass protests against police brutality, and the Democratic Party’s hand in said brutality hasn’t gone unnoticed. Expecting the votes of poor people and people of color while oppressing them at every turn is not just ludicrous, it’s downright insulting, and Democrats won’t be able to take their votes for granted much longer. Disillusioned Black voters who only vote blue for fear of Trump won’t be held hostage anymore should the Democrats win this November.

The Democratic Party isn’t doing any better with other minorities. Hispanic voters will be the largest ethnic minority in the 2020 electorate, and they favor Trump. Latinos have generally been more conservative than other ethnic minorities because of the huge portion of Cuban-American Republicans. But in 2016, Latinx in Florida, home to two-thirds of the country’s Cuban voters, overwhelmingly supported Clinton at 62% to Trump’s 35% — and that still wasn’t enough to win her the state. Asian Americans, the fastest growing minority bloc, vary wildly by nationality in terms of party preference, but Asian American voters in aggregate favor Biden, especially the youth. But their turnout rate is low (42 percent in the 2018 midterms) because they, just as Black voters, feel ignored by Democrats, Asian Americans are neglected by both parties. One in three unregistered Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have no intention to register to vote.

The “vote blue no matter who” mantra is just one of many ways Democrats are telling minority voters they don’t care about them. It says rather explicitly that getting their vote is what the party is concerned with, not whatever comes afterward. It says their support for the disadvantaged is one-and-done, a box filled in on a ballot. It says they are prepared to blame the very people whose necks they’ve been stepping on when their losing strategy loses and people don’t risk their lives and livelihoods to vote for someone who couldn’t care less about them. “Don’t blame me,” it says. “I voted blue.”

The Democratic Party winning a presidential election without a motivated constituency would be nothing short of a miracle. The ideological split between moderates and progressives, most evident in the results of the primaries, makes for a candidate with inherently shakier support than Trump, whose party is strictly — and willingly — unified behind him. Progressives aren't enthused about Biden or Harris, and that does translate into lost votes come November, however few they may be. While the voter registration rate for Democrats is higher than the rate of Republicans as is (40% of registered voters compared to 29%, respectively), they fail to earn votes where it counts electorally and they lag behind Republicans among the blocs that make up bigger portions of practicing voters. Yes, the low turnout is due in part to voter suppression; yes, the electoral college has its issues and gerrymandering favors the right; yes, left-leaning voting blocs are growing, but their turnout rates are still comparatively poor. We know it’s possible for the party to overcome these hurdles because Barack Obama did it; he mobilized voters into record turnouts because he promised change, and he won. Twice.

The Democratic Party turning their backs on a huge portion of their voting populace isn’t some sort of sacrifice necessary to win the election, it is the shovel the Democratic Party is using to dig its own grave — if not this year, then in the years to come. Ignoring and stifling the voices of the people you’ve hurt, plugging your ears when they ask for accountability and telling them to take what they are given is a surefire way to cement their contempt for you, not to get them to vote for you. Strong-arming them into voting for you doesn’t work because minorities have already lost the election, and they know it. They lost the moment an establishment Democrat took the primaries again. They lose no matter what color the White House turns in January. Black Lives Matter was born in Ferguson under a Democratic president; six years later, the Minneapolis protests revived the movement, because nothing had changed. In the words of Eric Benjamin, a Black Michigander, “It’s never gonna matter who the president is. The cops are still gonna pull me over in my Cadillac and ask me, ‘How did you afford this car?’” 

The worst part is that we’ve already seen this lesser of two evils approach fail. Four years ago, Democrats leaned on the assumption that Donald Trump would not — could not — win a presidential election. They assumed that, given the choice, those who didn’t like either candidate (the most common reason people didn’t vote that year) would choose the predictable, “safe” candidate. The opposite proved true. Voters were tired of stagnation and elected someone who would change things, even if they weren’t sure what those changes might be. Assuming otherwise again is a great way to lose again when your promise is to return to the old norms everyone is sick of rather than make the massive structural changes needed to progress — and normalcy is looking more unreachable each day, and your voters are increasingly progressive. Polls are currently leaning heavily toward Biden, but they also favored Clinton late in the race even in swing states she ended up losing

We in Michigan, for instance, were expected to vote for Clinton by a huge margin; from July 2016 to the election, of 94 polls in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (all of which Trump won), only three showed Trump leading. Trump also has the advantage of being an incumbent, and though the current recession may jeopardize that, if Americans really want normalcy, they won’t change horses midstream so easily. If a return to normal is what Americans want, it will  likely be the strong economy they enjoyed right before the pandemic, not the normal of four years ago. 

I am not telling you not to vote; I am telling you to look beyond the vote. Invest yourself into elections at every level — state, district, city — and contact your elected officials. Make it clear that, if they aren’t already, they’ll have to do their job to keep their it come election season. Help people directly in ways politicians can’t (or won’t). Buy from local and small businesses to aid local economies whenever possible; volunteer for your community, whatever that word means to you; if you aren’t protesting or striking, support those who are. The actions you take are often far more impactful than the vote you cast.

Ray Ajemian can be reached at rajemian@umich.edu.

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