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‘Horton Hears a Who!’ is a reminder that every vote counts

In America, as in the Dr. Seuss classic, every voice must be heard if society is to survive.

In America, as in the Dr. Seuss classic, every voice must be heard if society is to survive.Kilburn Experiences/Dr. Seuss Enterprises via AP

You want to see how participatory democracy is supposed to work? Read “Horton Hears a Who!” by Dr. Seuss.

You remember the Whos, down in Who-ville. They’re the people from whom the Grinch stole Christmas. That crisis worked out all right in the end. But before it happened, there was another potential catastrophe — the Whos' backstory, if you will — which threatened them with extinction.

Here’s what happens: Horton, a good-hearted, somewhat bumbling elephant, notices sounds coming from a dust speck, and realizes that the speck is actually an entire tiny planet inhabited by a tiny species called the Whos. His conversations with the mayor of Who-ville arouse the scorn of his intolerant neighbors, who tell him he’s crazy and that there is no Who-ville — it’s a hoax.


The neighbors tip off the thuggish gang that runs everything (their name is “The Wickersham Brothers,” a detail my two sons never failed to chortle over when we read the book aloud during their childhood). The thuggish leaders collude with an eagle named Vlad (I’m not making this up) to silence and intimidate Horton and to destroy the Whos while at the same time denying that they existed.

The fate of the Whos hangs in the balance. Horton is being detained in a cage, and the thugs are about to obliterate the Whos and their entire planet by dropping them into a pot of boiling oil. No one but Horton can hear the Whos. The only thing that can save them from destruction is a full-throated show of good old-fashioned civic responsibility. They need to speak up. Loudly. Every single one of them.

The stakes couldn’t be higher: Every voice must be heard if their society is to survive.

Exercising the right to vote in 21st-century America is no simple matter for everyone, and I’m not suggesting that a children’s book offers all the answers. Insidious voter suppression tactics include the closing of polling places, intimidation at the polls, and disenfranchisement laws that deny the vote to many vulnerable members of society. Beyond voter suppression, there’s gerrymandering, and the perennial thorny issue of the Electoral College and the possibility that it may not reflect the national popular vote. And this year we have the additional challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, made worse by the malevolent, irresponsible antics of a president intent on sowing chaos and undermining our faith in the voting process.


But even though the obstacles in this fall of 2020 are systemic, frightening, and immense, voting is still the most important right we have. The story of Horton and the Whos is a reminder that every voice counts.

This is not an election to sit out. This is not a time to refuse to vote because you’re unhappy with how the primaries went. This is not a time to duck making a choice between two candidates by casting a meaningless vote for a third-party candidate. This is not a time to say, “Well, I’m in a blue state so my vote doesn’t matter anyway.”,

In “Horton Hears a Who!” it seems that every Who is making noise and yet their collective voice cannot be heard by the thuggish leaders. The mayor makes a desperate last search of the town and finds a bored little Who sitting at home playing with a yo-yo. And when that last little Who adds his voice to the rest, suddenly the sound becomes audible, so that even Horton’s formerly intolerant neighbors hear it and agree to abide by the rule of law.


Voting is an act of faith. It’s shouting into the void, knowing that your voice is small but trusting that when it combines with other voices it will be loud enough to be heard. There is always a line between inaudible and unmistakably audible. It takes only one voice to put the sound over that line, and no one knows whose voice it will be.

So we need every voice, all the voices. The obstacles are there. Despite them, or because of them, we all need to vote. We need to exercise our most important right as citizens — to raise our voices and, like the Whos, animated by hope, and the desire for justice, and the urgent need to preserve our society and our planet, to say “We are here. We are here. We are here. We are here.”

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.