‘You Voted. But Did it Really Matter?’

In a post-election conversation, historian Mary Frances Berry addressed policy issues and Republican discontent.

Peeling "I voted today" stickers
In a post-election conversation, Mary Frances Berry emphasized the importance of pushing beyond voter engagement to policy change.

On Nov. 7, Pennsylvania’s electoral votes secured Joseph Biden the presidency. Anticipating news of a Biden win, Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history and Africana studies, called it a time to push forward for change with renewed force. 

In “YOU VOTED. But Did it Really Matter?” a post-electoral conversation hosted on Friday, Nov. 6, by Clio, a graduate student organization, and the Department of History in the School of Arts & Sciences, Berry’s message was: “Voting is just one way of making your voice heard.

“If you only wanted to get rid of Trump, it looks like you got rid of Trump,” she said. “So, if that was what you wanted, you can go off and read a mystery and forget the whole thing.” Regarding policy changes on climate change, race relations, and police reform, however, she said, “the jury is out as to whether you will get anything. First of all, the Senate looks like it’s still going to be under the control of the Republicans, and Mitch McConnell knows how to promote his own agenda.” 

In many ways, Trump was a distraction, she said. “We spent the whole four years getting rid of his face and getting rid of him,” Berry said. “We have not been able to mount effective attacks on the policies, rather than the man.” While Democrats focused “on going after Trump over and over again, Mitch McConnell was over in the Senate confirming new judges. I would go over to C-SPAN and watch him every day,” she said. 

History teaches us to resist, but it’s not about getting rid of a president, Berry said. Effective resistance lies in securing good policies. “We have to mobilize to try to get the issues that I think are important on the table,” she said. Foremost on Berry’s list of concerns are opening public schools, a vaccine for COVID-19 that will not be politicized, and getting a stimulus package passed during the lame duck period because people who are out of work can’t wait until January or February, she said; this would offer nonpartisan support to the economically vulnerable, regardless of political party. 

As a historian, Berry dates “Trumpian” discontent back to “NAFTA, and all of the free trade legislation and the flight of manufacturing jobs in this country. It began with the 1986 Immigration Act, in which we gave amnesty to undocumented people,” she said, and “did not give anything to the working-class types to replace their jobs” or fund their overcrowded schools or hospitals. These are “real grievances,” which were not addressed and “morphed into blaming the people who were coming, and what we call racism,” Berry said. “We failed to make policies that take into account their needs.” 

At this point in history, we pay less for goods that are produced by cheaper labor in other countries, but these savings only go so far for Americans who “never got a decent job again and who pass that idea along to their children,” Berry said. Democrats need to come to terms with this and create solutions that address root causes, she said. “If they don’t do that, we will have another Trump who articulates those concerns. It’ll just keep happening and happening and happening, unless we do something about it.” While we have a new president-elect, “the Trumpians are not going away,” Berry said. 

Advocacy work needs to move beyond getting out the vote and towards policy issues, she said. “If you want something done on policy, whether it’s gun control, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s race, whether it’s education, whether it’s LBGT issues, or foreign policy. Whatever it is you want done, you ought to be weighing in organizations or non-profits you are affiliated with” on their agenda, she said. “You cannot leave this, if you are interested in issues.”

Voting is important, Berry said, but it’s not everything. “We have to keep fighting for better policies.”