I’ve been talking to some people who didn’t vote in the 2016 election. One young man summed up his disinterest by saying he didn’t feel the two party system represented him. Neither candidate thrilled him, so he boycotted the election.
But boycotting elections isn’t like boycotting companies with unethical policies. In a successful boycott, a company’s profits are targeted in a concerted, organized effort to create change. Take the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. At the time, buses in Montgomery, Alabama and elsewhere were racially segregated: whites up front and blacks in the back. When African Americans were made aware that they represented 75% of the Montgomery bus company's clientele, the Monday Boycott was organized.
On December 1, activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus. Following her arrest, African Americans boycotted the buses for an entire year, encouraged by Martin Luther King Jr. Carpools were created, African American taxi drivers gave African Americans rides to work for a dime. Even sympathetic whites drove people to work. And the boycott was hugely successful. Finally, on December 20, 1956, laws requiring segregated buses were declared unconstitutional across the US.
But boycotting democracy doesn’t work to make the system more fair or representative. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Elected officials consider themselves beyond the reach of those who won’t vote. They don’t care how the disaffected feel. And accountability goes out the window.
Singer Billy Bragg spoke at a Bellows Falls fundraiser for John Kerry, right before the 2004 presidential election. Bragg acknowledged that it might seem like there was a mere sliver of difference between the major party candidates. He held up his hand in a V formation to illustrate his point. But in that sliver, he said, dwell millions of lives that will be affected. Access to good healthcare, education, housing and opportunity are all impacted by who gets into office.
As we debate nominations for the Supreme Court, arming teachers in schools, or diverting money from FEMA to fund ICE, we can’t afford to regard Democracy as a spectator sport.
It’s more a case of use it or lose it.