In his post, “Dems Must Build a Democratic Culture, Too” at The Editorial Board, John Stoehr writes about a big, but inadequately-addressed problem facing Democrats, particularly in midterm elections. Stoehr quotes Paul Glastris, editor in chief of The Washington Monthly, who has posed the problem thusly: “There are approximately 50 million Americans who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered. But there are far more “episodic voters”—citizens who are registered but often don’t show up. More than 100 million registered voters didn’t cast ballots in the 2014 midterms. About 145 million didn’t vote in the primaries.”
We can’t really blame the Russkies, or even the Republicans for that gaping void. As Stoehr continues,
We normally think of two groups worthy of our attention: registered and unregistered voters. But those might be the wrong groups to think about. Maybe we should be thinking about unregistered voters versus what Glastris calls “episodic voters.” These are Americans who are registered but do not reliably vote. Why these groups?
For one, because registration is no guarantee of voting. For another, these groups have different value systems. Unregistered voters, Glastris writes, are unregistered because “they dislike politics and don’t believe voting makes a difference.” “Episodic voters,” however, believe in voting. They just don’t know enough. As Glastris writes: “If you were designing a system to maximize the Democrats’ electoral chances, you’d want it to be primarily focused on educating and mobilizing these episodic voters.”
Glastris rightly points to mechanisms that can be put in place to educate episodic voters. But I think there’s more to it than mechanisms. At the root of this problem is that Americans who don’t vote don’t have a habit of thinking democratically*. In other words, they do not inhabit a culture in which self-determination feels real. There are many reasons for that, I’m sure, but I’m also sure liberals groups and the Democratic Party have good incentive for developing such a culture, ward by ward, block by block, even among people who don’t think voting makes a difference in their lives.
This last sentence underscores a glaring weakness of the Democratic party across America — the lack of cultural institutions which encourage participation by eligible ‘episodic’ voters who have every reason to vote for Democrats.
What might a pro-Democratic “culture, ward by ward, block by block” look like? Democratic Block “captains”? Public hearings sponsored by local Democratic parties? Democratic picnics and festivals, grocery co-ops, coffee shops, recycling centers and credit unions? Free health care fairs, financial literacy classes, free rides to the polls? Why not a Democratic community center, something like “Jimmy’s Hall“?
The idea would be to create a community sense that the local Democratic Party is involved in a range of activities that can help improve people’s lives. It could improve the Democratic brand as a more appealing identity in the community, in stark contrast to the Republicans, who don’t even think about helping people who are struggling with real-world problems. Any ideas out there?