The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is too much of a threat for anyone to ‘abstain’ from voting

President Trump. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

While I was a guest on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” on Wednesday, a listener named Ian called in with an enraging comment. He deemed the Democratic convention “Republican lite” because of speakers such as former secretary of state Colin Powell. Ian declared that former president Barack Obama’s push to work with Republicans during his eight years in the White House was “an attempt to appease the Republican right wing, and that’s what brought us Trump.” But it was Ian’s last comment that sent me over the edge: “I have not been convinced. I am still abstaining.”

To quote Steve Harvey, “Aw, hell naw!”

Listen, I know that Ian speaks for more Americans than I would like. But it is highly irresponsible for anyone to say they are “abstaining” from the November election. After everything we have seen over the past 3 1/2 years — all the lies, racism, coddling of white supremacists and trampling of the rule of law — a decision not to vote is a vote for four more years of President Trump.

I’m so tired of those holier-than-thou progressives who continue to demand purity in the face of an existential threat like Trump. They were probably quick to take to the streets to protest for Black lives and against racial injustice, but are hedging on whether voting for Democratic nominee Joe Biden is worth it. They probably rail against inaction on climate change, but seem willing to let a science denier remain in the Oval Office. They most certainly thunder against income inequality and the increasing massive wealth of the mega-rich. And yet, they want to lecture from on high instead of casting a vote that could help remove a man and his family who are using public office to enrich themselves.

Vote like Miss Sylvia: Hand-deliver your mail-in or absentee ballot

In what turned out to be an unwitting preview of Obama’s speech later that night, I reminded listeners that everything is on the line on Nov. 3. Our nation and our democracy hang in the balance. But my fury was nothing compared to that of the 44th president of the United States.

“They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter,” Obama said from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. “That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all. We can’t let that happen. Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy.”

Obama was at his most powerful and most emotional when he widened the focus to reflect on the sacrifices of our American ancestors who endured much worse to make this nation better.

Whatever our backgrounds, we’re all the children of Americans who fought the good fight. Great-grandparents working in firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs, made to feel suspect for the way they worshipped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.
If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors. They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work.

Every four years, it seems, we proclaim the presidential election the most important in our lifetime. This time it is undeniably true. As I told Ian, imagine a reelected Trump and what he would do with a second term. Or, as former first lady Michelle Obama said, “If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can; and they will if we don’t make a change in this election.”

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That change can’t happen if the Ians of the world “abstain” from voting. And it is the height of privilege for someone to stand atop a pedestal of ideological purity only to complain when their inaction helps breed more of the madness they decry below.

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