After Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, my Facebook feed filled up with people telling one another to vote in the midterms. “If you don’t like what’s happening in America, vote!” they said.
And yes, I’ll vote. I always vote. As a believer in democracy, I’m in favor of everyone voting. And if the Democrats take either house of Congress, there will be real change — to a point.
However, there are larger changes that voting won’t bring. Not this time, anyway.
For left-leaning Americans, voting for Democrats has its limits. Here are some of them.
First, most of the Democratic Party leadership is beholden to their wealthy donor base. They love to talk a good game about LGBTQ rights or reproductive rights, issues that are progressive but don’t ruffle the feathers of the billionaires they rely on for support.
They’ll support some degree of social safety net. Between Democrats and Republicans, Democrats are certainly more in favor of policies that help the middle class or the poor than Republicans. But their support has its limits.
Republicans will do things like vote to strip people of food stamps. Democrats won’t do that — but in recent history they haven’t proposed any policies that actually change the income distribution in the U.S. in any significant way.
The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own 40 percent of America’s wealth. That’s more than the wealth of the bottom 90 percent combined. Tinkering with the marginal tax rate or improving the school lunch program can help, but they won’t fundamentally alter the inequality in our nation.
Second, the reduction of “pork barrel” spending in Congress limits ability for compromise. In the past, reluctant members of Congress could be brought around to vote on something they weren’t thrilled about with “earmarked” funding for something like a new bridge in their district.
In the last decade or two, these so-called earmarks were targeted as wasteful at best and corrupt at worst, and they’re no longer used as often to facilitate compromises.
Third, Republicans in particular view compromise as a bad thing these days. In the past, compromise was how Washington did business. Now, particularly on the far right, compromising is seen as lack of commitment to one’s values.
A Republican who works across the aisle must fear a primary challenge from the far right. Compromising can lead to losing one’s job. This drives polarization.
Until recently, Democrats haven’t feared primary challenges from their left flank — more often, they fear being seen as too left-leaning. Perhaps that’s because there’s a far right donor base eager to fund right-wing primary challenges against Republicans who appear too moderate, but the Democrats’ largest donors push them away from the far left, not towards it.
The recent victories of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others suggest this may be changing, but that change is still in its early phases.
In any case, electing a Democratic majority in one or both houses of Congress will put a halt on some of the most right-wing policies coming down from the Trump administration and Republican Congress. It would be a moderating influence on our government.
However, for Americans who want to see significant change to combat the climate crisis, promote racial justice, and reduce economic inequality, simply voting won’t be enough.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ll still be voting in November. But real change means staying engaged long after Election Day — as intensely after the 2018 midterms as many stayed engaged after 2016. It means keeping up on the issues, building movements, and holding politicians of all parties accountable.