By Miles Howard | January 23, 2018
Last Thursday, The New York Times decided to devote its entire editorial section to sharing letters from Americans who voted for Donald Trump.
This concept would have been novel if America’s top paper hadn’t already spent the better part of 2017 profiling members of this demographic. Most of these Trump voter pieces have been presented as chronicles of America’s much-mythologized “silent majority”: that simmering, seething, and overlooked bedrock of the U.S. population that finally exploded into an inferno, torched Clinton World, and fueled the unlikely rise of a real estate tycoon who refused to rent apartments to black tenants and boasted about grabbing women by the pussy without consent.
This narrative is the conventional explanation of how the Trump presidency happened.
It’s also not the complete story.
Here’s a truly staggering fact that anyone with a fledgling interest in U.S. politics should take a good, long moment to consider: Nearly half of America’s eligible voter population did not participate in the 2016 election. In what both parties considered the most important election in recent times, more than 100 million people didn’t fill out ballots. By any measure of healthy democracies, that number is astoundingly bad. Consider this context: the latest metrics from Pew Research Center have put voter turnout in Belgium, South Korea, and Denmark at 80% or higher.
America’s depressed vote caused a bit of a stir when the exit polls from that race were released, especially since Donald Trump won the election with less than 30% of America’s eligible voters behind him. Even a small uptick in turnout from non-voters in a select few states could have altered the results of the election. The takeaway for anyone freaked out by the thought of Trump heading to the White House should have been, “We have to persuade these people to vote next time!”
Unfortunately, like many important conversations that Americans should be having right now, this one never quite took off. The scandals and excesses of the Trump presidency have not only diverted attention from the non-voter issue, but they’ve also fed America’s fascination with Trump’s base. Every time Trump says something offensive or breaks a campaign promise, dissecting Trump voters becomes even more irresistible for the speculative public. Liberals on the coasts ask the same questions time and time again: Who are these folks? How could they vote for a guy like this? How can they stand by him?
These aren’t questions that Americans shouldn’t be asking, but the problem with re-exploring these questions over and over again is that eventually, Trump voters start to appear like the only group of voters who mattered in 2016. Maybe even more importantly, this fascination with Trump voters makes them seem like the only voters who can be engaged by either party.
A number of Democratic Party strategists and sympathizers have certainly made the case that the key to 2020 is converting Trump voters. Many words have been spent defending the idea that Democrats must move to the center on most issues to win back pockets of voters who didn’t come out to support Hillary Clinton. In a similar way, Republican Party leaders have embraced the conclusion that holding onto power in 2018 and 2020 amounts to dogmatically marching to Trump’s drum, as demonstrated by Mitch McConnell’s actions in Friday’s Senate impasse that led to a government shutdown.
All of this speaks to an ignorant political calculation that could backfire badly for both parties: that everyone who could have voted for Hillary Clinton but didn’t aligns more closely with Donald Trump’s hard right ideas.
This analysis over-simplifies America’s non-voters and their ideologies. Why? Because America’s major parties and its biggest media outlets simply haven’t taken the time and the effort to talk to the true “silent majority” about how they feel, what they’ve been through, and what they want.
Having spent years talking with many of these people for my book, The Early Voters, I can say with lived insight that America’s non-voting population is a gigantic grab bag of ideologies and malleable minds. The truth is that America’s non-voters have no core system of beliefs by which they can be broadly defined and pathologized.
During my travels across the U.S., I spent significant time in communities where politics is more a concept than something citizens influence. In these places, I heard self-described (and sometimes proud) non-voters rail against the influence of big money in politics, harken back to FDR’s New Deal as a relic of better times, bristle at the thought of stricter gun laws, and accuse President Obama of setting up FEMA concentration camps for white people. Some of them had once voted enthusiastically before dropping off the map because they were fed up with their “choice” of candidates. Others hadn’t voted at all because they couldn’t afford to acquire the identification documents that their states have recently started forcing all voters to produce.
We are now nearly one month into the new year and nowhere closer to having a serious and actionable conference about non-voters and how to re-integrate them back into America’s electoral system. We have also reached a point where Trump’s approval ratings are historically bad and people talk about an imminent “blue wave” that will restore “decency and sanity” to Washington DC and state legislatures in the elections to come.
However, if Americans who oppose the Trump agenda are serious about removing Trump from office, activating the base in blue strongholds won’t be enough. They will need help from the voters who might have changed the course of U.S. history in 2016 but didn’t. They will have to approach these voters not only with urgency, but humility, empathy, and genuine curiosity. The endgame here shouldn’t just be winning votes for a single election, but convincing the non-voters that there’s actually a place for them in the world of politics. Because once more people get involved, extremist politicians and legislation are far less likely to gain traction.
This isn’t just a national issue. It’s a highly localized one, too. I guarantee you that at least three people in every community have left politics behind
Starting tomorrow, find them. Talk to them. Ask them why.
Do that, and you’re inviting a political earthquake.
Miles Howard is a writer based in Boston. He is the author of the new book, The Early Voters: Millennials, In Their Own Words, On the Eve of a New America. You can follow him on twitter @MilesPerHoward.