On Tuesday, more than 110 million Americans headed the polls to vote in the midterm general election. Marked by unprecedented voter turnout—the highest in 50 years—the Democrats gained decisive control over the House of Representatives and governorships in historically Republican strongholds in the likes of Nevada, Kansas and Wisconsin. Indeed, despite losses in Senate races, Democrats—aided by unprecedentedly high levels of voter enthusiasm—have still delivered an electoral repudiation of the Trump administration.
While it is certainly tempting to interpret this midterm election as one of simple Democratic victory, given the unique factors that have driven the results, the root of the midterm results require further exploration.
This year was unmistakably marked by historic levels of youth voter turnout, which—despite institutional voter suppression and gerrymandering—has been able to successfully translate the discontent of younger voters into electoral victories for Democrats.
Young voters posted selfies of themselves at the polls on Snapchat and political memes on Twitter. Wearing an “I Voted” sticker carried a claim to a temporary modicum of social capital. The culmination of these effects could be seen at Duke, where more than ten thousand people cast their ballots on campus—a new record. Moreover, get out the vote efforts have been tinged with celebrity, with the likes of Taylor Swift, Oprah and Beyoncé declaring their support for their favored candidates—the first of whose announcement helped lead to a 663 percent increase in early voting in Tennessee for those between the ages of 18 and 29. Together, the trendiness of voting among young voters helped deliver a national catharsis after two years of an unchecked, unified Republican government. So where was this enthusiasm in 2016?
In the 2016 presidential election, complacency was the keyword of the political realm. Pundits and news analysts who graced the media landscape repeated similar narratives of a Clinton win, dousing the election with the air of an already-secured victory that helped dampen voter turnout to historic lows. With voting levels already the lowest out of all age groups, two percent fewer eligible young adult voters voted in 2016 than in 2008. Even at Duke, fewer students early voted on campus in 2016 than the four years prior. Indeed, the last presidential election demonstrates the folly of depending on the trendiness of voting: it’s unreliable and lacks longevity. Furthermore, once it vanishes, we’ll be faced with the same complacency that has led to one of the most volatile administrations in the country's history.
Voting is not a trend; it is not a product to be sold with celebrity or social capital. The institution—a fundamental pillar of the democracy we so often take for granted—is a civic duty. Our enthusiasm to vote should be driven by such. Cheapening the privilege of voting dishonors those who have fought so hard for it and insults those who are still barred from exercising it as a right. Sure, this social-driven voting enthusiasm produced consequential results within the country. However, as with all trends, it will come to an end. Thus, we must root our decision to vote in the spirit of those who have fought so hard for it and in the sheer power that it holds. These sentiments are much more enduring. Taylor Swift and Oprah need not apply.