Repetition is a powerful tool—mind-bending, even. A number of scientific experiments have consistently shown that hearing the same falsehood over and over can make us believe it’s true. If you’re told enough times that the Atlantic Ocean is the largest body of water in the world, or that there really was a nineties movie in which Sinbad played a powerful genie, these supposed facts just might become your sacrosanct convictions. Psychologists call this phenomenon the “illusory truth effect.” Of course, just because something feels like it must be true doesn’t make it so: the prize for largest ocean belongs to the Pacific, and Sinbad would never debase himself by appearing in a bad film. The illusory effect remains no more than a misinterpretation within our mind. It does nothing to actually alter objective reality.
But politics isn’t about objective reality: it’s about what you can make people believe. Given that repetition can literally control people’s perception of the world around them, it’s no wonder that pithy, repetitive slogans are the great mainstays of political campaigns.
For more than a year now, former President Obama has been repeating the claim that if you do not vote in elections, you have no right to complain about subsequent political developments. At the 2016 Democratic Convention, where his party endorsed Hillary Clinton as its Presidential nominee after a bitterly contested primary, President Obama admonished protesters in the audience with a sharp, “Don’t boo, vote.” A year later, with Donald Trump in the Oval, President Obama would repeat this claim while campaigning for Democratic gubernatorial nominees. Encouraging a crowd of New Jerseyans to vote blue in November 2017, President Obama outright stated: “You cannot complain if you didn’t vote.” Later that evening, this time in a speech on behalf of Virginian candidate Ralph Northam, the President served his catchphrase yet again: “Don’t boo, vote!” The crowd faithfully roared in agreement.
President Obama is far from the originator of this philosophy; nor is he its only adherent. With each election cycle, voting absolutists of all political stripes resurrect the saying and throw it at anyone they suspect may not show up at the polls. To some extent, this may merely be a cynical attempt by political campaigners to garner additional votes, by evoking a sense of duty (and perhaps even shame) in constituents who aren’t otherwise fired-up by their candidate’s substantive talking points or personal charisma. But it’s also true that many people genuinely believe that voting is a non-negotiable moral obligation. The institution of Voting, after all, has a kind of holy aura in American civic life. Voting is one of the exclusive privileges of citizenship, and the minimum starting-point of civic engagement. Fights for suffrage and enfranchisement feature heavily in the progressive narrative of American history. For people who take this sacramental view of voting, the failure to vote is a willful refusal to participate in national life, which in turn strips the non-voting miscreant of any right to complain when national life then devolves into a out-of-control trashcan fire.
But “Don’t Boo, Vote” mantra is ultimately a means of mesmerizing the crowd, using a punchy, commonsense-sounding phrase to categorically silence dissent. “Don’t Boo, Vote” fails to recognize that many people who boo are people who have no right, or no effective ability, to vote. It fails to recognize that those people who do not exercise their right to vote, in the belief—too often fully-justified—that their vote will make no difference to the things that actually matter to them, may still have perfectly good reasons to boo. It also fails to recognize that, fundamentally, a politician supplicating for public support has no right to tell anybody when, and how, they express their rage, grief, and dissatisfaction over the way things are going.
People who did not vote, or will not vote, retain an inalienable right to complain. More than that, they should complain. To suggest that the actions booing and voting are somehow mutually exclusive is at best silly, and at worse cynical. An unbridled right to whine about our conditions and the performance of our representatives is important for several reasons. First, whining should be regarded as desirable by the left, insofar as a society in which people are free to say mostly whatever they want—regardless of how the Constitution formally defines and applies the right to free speech—is essential to the survival and success of the left. In an age when the state has no qualms about repressing dissent among its constituents—e.g., the response to critics of police brutality or the surveillance state—it is baffling to see anyone profess to love democratic processes, and urge others to self-censor in the same breath. For what reason then, other than to feed the self-righteousness of the enforcer, should my right to complain depend on having voted?
Then there’s the fact that many people don’t vote because—often correctly—they perceive the political system to be too heavily stacked against them to be worth a wasted morning standing in line at the polls: the slate of candidates is unpromising, no candidate seems to embody the voter’s values more convincingly than any other, the issues the voter cares about most are never prominently addressed, the voter is suspicious that any candidate is truly concerned for her particular constituency or demographic. Some “Don’t Boo, Vote” believers might answer that voting is a noble end in itself, not just a means of accomplishing change. To satisfy such people, I could write in Real Housewife Teresa Giudice for Governor of New Jersey—not that she wouldn’t be a welcome upgrade from Chris Christie—and, having satisfied the letter of my Civic Duty, retain my standing to complain when Mrs. Giudice then demonstrates her table-flipping expertise at the State Dinner.
But what’s curious about Democrats who advocate booing over voting is that, somehow, they often seem to find ways to take issue with voter’s principled choices to vote for third-party or insurgent candidates. The sustained campaign of vilification against anyone who voted for candidates to the left of Hillary Clinton in 2016 strongly suggests that a vote for the candidate with lower odds of winning also triggers the prohibition against booing. Thus, apparently, to earn the right to complain, you must settle for the Democratic Party’s candidate of choice. This, in turn, gives the Democratic Party little incentive to present Virginians with a better gubernatorial candidate than a guy who literally voted for George W. Bush not once, but twice. Ralph Northam has stated that he “regrets” those votes: and somehow, he is still allowed to not only boo the results of his own poor voting decisions, but even to run for office himself! Bizarrely, it isn’t Northam, but the voter who abstains from uninspiring candidates such as Northam, who is rebuked under the “Don’t Boo, Vote” paradigm.
Presenting “booing” and “voting” as mutually exclusive also seems to imply that political dissatisfaction should only be expressed through voting, not through other, informal modes of complaint. Not only are non-voters denied the right to boo, but voters themselves, having made their choice at the polls, are supposed to silently bear their share of responsibility for whatever their candidate subsequently does. This seems deeply unfair. Many people, for example, are single-issue voters, whose candidates will never articulate a clear position on this single issue while on the campaign trail. It is thus possible to vote for a candidate generally, without voting on a particular issue. Should the voter forever hold their peace when the candidate they successfully elected now takes a position on the previously unaddressed issue, with which the voter disagrees?
I also worry that forbidding booing and lionizing voting will discourage people who voted for Donald Trump from verbalizing their complaints. It could even encourage them to avoid the sort of reflection that would cause them to admit that supporting a right-wing sycophant was a mistake after all. This potential for doubling-down should worry us, considering that active participation usually follows from our formation and re-formations of opinions. Complaints galvanize people to get off their sofa and to the ballot box, if not all the way into the depths of community organizing and social movements.
But let’s go back for a moment to just how undemocratic the Don’t Boo, Vote philosophy is. I strongly believe that the right to whine is key to achieving a fairer society; that our society will serve everyone better if more people—and not fewer—have a say in the decision-making processes that shape their communities and the lives of the people around them. It is thus crucial for people who have been stripped of their right to participate through legal channels to continue to be heard. And Virginia, where the “Don’t Boo, Vote” was recently so well-received, is a great example of why these alternate channels for political engagement are so necessary.
Just in December 2016, a federal Court of Appeals upheld Virginia’s voter ID law, which was erected by the Republican legislature. As a result, it is now likely that fewer older persons and individuals from ethnic minority groups will be able to obtain the IDs necessary to have their vote counted in future elections—an effect that is well-documented (and likely welcomed by the bill’s proponents) where similar laws were passed. Others will have IDs, but for a variety of reasons—such as homelessness, medical illnesses, and inflexible or strenuous labor conditions—it will prove impossible to physically attend a mid-week election or vote by mail.
Virginia is also one of a handful of states where felons lose their right to vote forever, absent their restoration by the Governor. Recent figures show that the number of felons in the state hovers around half a million. Another quarter million of residents are not authorized to vote in elections because they are undocumented. And thousands of more teenaged minors were ineligible to vote in 2016 and will be for the next few years. Should none of these people have a right to complain when the state legislature calls for the unconstitutional detention of immigrants in local jails? Should they bite their tongues when decisions are made that could impact their children and the schools they attend? Or when the Virginia legislature proposes to curtail their reproductive rights?
All of this is not to say that seeking a solid voting turnout is somehow inherently wrong: if you believe that a particular candidate is the right person for the elected position they’re seeking, it stands to reason that you would want as many people to vote for them as possible. This is especially important for left candidates running on a third-party platform in local elections. Electoral politics at the local level can provide a path to regain geographical and institutional strongholds that the left previously ceded to liberals and conservatives alike. After all, it took a strong grounds game and corresponding vote tally for an outspoken member of the Socialist Alternative party, Kshama Sawant, to muscle her way onto the Seattle City Council. In the south, Jackson, Mississippi, will usher in a new era with the radical Chokwe Lumumba, Jr. as its mayor. Meanwhile, in the Northeast, the activist left successfully secured their longtime defender and friend Larry Krasner as the next District Attorney for Philadelphia. This wave of victories could be just the beginning. If the left can turn out the votes, it could very well entrench itself on the city councils and ward board for cities as large as Minneapolis (where another Socialist Alternative candidate, Ginger Jentzen, is outpacing the Democrat candidate in fundraising), and as small as Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts (where Bernie Sanders is making pit stops on behalf of radicals candidates like Ben Ewen-Campen and Will Mbah). Considering that these races and future ones could depend on a handful of votes, I sincerely hope their communities will show up for them.
The reality remains, however, that we live in a country in which a lot of folks are literally or effectively disenfranchised. Some will eventually gain or regain the right to vote, while others may never. None of this should have any bearing on whether they deserve a right to complain, to have a voice outside of these formal channels. The answer should always unequivocally be “yes.” To boo or to vote is false choice—no matter how often those among us, and above us, repeat it. So have at it: boo and vote. Or boo and don’t vote. Your right to boo is precious, and no politician can take it from you.