Why It’s OK If Some Voters Sit Out The Midterms

Voters cast their ballots early for the midterm elections at the Government & Judicial Center in Noblesville, Ind., Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Voters cast their ballots early for the midterm elections at the Government & Judicial Center in Noblesville, Ind., Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)


Occasionally, chatting about current events with someone who disagrees, I’ll bite my tongue about my viewpoint. Just being polite, I tell myself, but the truth is I’m dodging a potential argument. I have lots of company.

A new study says the vast majority of Americans clam up about especially hot issues — immigration, race, LGBTQ issues, and Islam — around all but the like-minded. Blessed to live in a country without government censorship, we self-censor, which, as an antibody reveals the presence of a virus, reflects how off-puttingly toxic our political discourse has grown.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that many of those cautious people are so fed up with contentiousness that they also abstain from voting in local elections.

Why do I say that’s good? Because many non-voters, the study found, are studiously ignorant about public affairs. We should pray that they don’t share their misinformation at the polls on Tuesday.

Before I explain that less than universally held opinion, a word about the unhealthy self-censorship found in the survey by More in Common, a nonprofit devoted to suturing our political divisions. Sixty-eight percent of the 8,000 respondents said it was “acceptable” for them to discuss race or Islam only among “people who are like me.” Almost three-quarters said the same thing about immigration, with 70 percent gun-shy about LGBTQ issues.

Quoting the study, “On issues ranging from gender and Islam to race and immigration, at least 50 percent of Americans claim there is ‘pressure to think a certain way.’ Even among liberal groups, a significant percentage feels constrained.”

Compared with the two extremes of the political spectrum, which the study calls “Progressive Activists” and “Devoted/Traditional Conservatives,” this “Exhausted Majority” (67 percent of Americans) is more likely “to say they would rather avoid having arguments.”

Psychology suggests that evolution hard-wired us to practice this self-censorship; our immune system fights disagreeable thoughts the way it fights germs. Summing up the research, a Vox writer says, “Listening to a political opponent isn’t as awful as getting a tooth pulled, but it’s trending in that direction.”

Now, few of us are upset when the neighborhood racist spares us his rants for fear of being ostracized. But the survey shows that many more people besides haters are afraid to speak out. And there are respectful ways to advocate for, say, less immigration. Holding our tongues squanders a freedom of expression for which many have been martyred (I’d make an exception for rigid or hotheaded types with whom we shouldn’t waste precious life in unpleasant political discussion).

This disturbing self-censorship also argues against the recent spate of harassing public officials in public places. Some defend the practice against leaders who seize children from migrant parents and attempt to legalize voter suppression.

The protesters are right to be horrified but deluded if they think they can out-thug Donald Trump and his borderline hordes. His presidential bullhorn and their boorishness are unmatched. It’s also oblivious to ignore how publicized harassment might chill private citizens’ willingness to express themselves (not to mention their sympathies for the shouters’ cause).

So I’m all for encouraging the controversy-coy to speak their minds, respectfully. But as for the study’s finding that the Exhausted Majority is “less than half as likely to have voted in a local election” than the left- and right-wing extremes? Good.

... if you share my view that the Trump presidency is a cancer on our country, this ignorance is the carcinogen.

It’s one thing for the state to disenfranchise voters for partisan or bigoted reasons. But voters voluntarily bypassing voting is not government oppression, and some apparently haven’t read a thing since they paddled in amniotic fluid: In 2011, when Newsweek gave 1,000 Americans the federal citizenship test, 29 percent didn’t know the vice president’s name, and 6 percent “couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.”

More in Common finds that a chunk of the Exhausted Majority, amounting to 41 percent of Americans, is ignorant about public affairs, and if you share my view that the Trump presidency is a cancer on our country, this ignorance is the carcinogen. He benefited from historically high turnout in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, with study after study confirming his voters were motivated by racial resentment. In a sense, they were well-informed: They wanted a racist president and got him.

But Trump played them for suckers, making myths about an invasion of illegal immigrants (wrong), many of them rampaging criminals (wrong). His non-xenophobic lures were just as phony, from his infrastructure plan to that better, cheaper health plan he promised to replace his African American predecessors.

If people who fell for these cons skip the midterms, which party gains? Some uninformed voters lean liberal on immigration, poverty, and healthcare, the study says, so their absence could crimp Democratic support. A larger number, however, are “likely to say that being white is necessary to be American and that people who hold other religious views are morally inferior.” Trump’s boys and girls!

The president is banking on them turning out this week, having updated his besieged-at-the-border baloney. Hey, if it worked before …

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.



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