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Voting Green in a Swing State

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Some of these are marginal too. He's deported more people than ever, but made some concessions on immigration. Others are not entirely his doing. (Congress helped, passing the NDAA for instance.) Some, like making life hell for medical marijuana growers, are difficult to understand. But unfortunately the seriousness of some of his actions is on a different scale entirely.

The country has been bankrupted by war and its reputation ruined, but the lies that got us there will never even be investigated; that was ruled out by Obama practically the moment he took the oath of office, the first of many betrayals of expectations he engendered in his supporters. The banksters who tanked the economy and destroyed the nation's wealth likewise received blanket immunity. The "stimulus package" given to financial elites was many, many times bigger than the one the rest of us had to share, locking in the material ruin of the working class. He expanded the pointless war in Afghanistan and extended military assaults to many other countries in Nixonian secrecy. He continued every Constitutional excess of the previous administration and extended them to include new grants of executive-branch secrecy and extra-judical power, to include not just war-making, kidnapping, and indefinite detention, but assassination even of American citizens.4 Obama has done more to render the U.S. Constitution a dead letter than every previous right-wing administration combined.

If that is something you can put on the same scale with credit-card reform and call it even, I respectfully suggest you re-examine what is usually meant by the words "progressive" and "liberal." And "American," while you're at it. The presidential oath of office is to defend the Constitution, and this president knowingly betrayed it. That issue isn't even partisan:  Some, no,  every future president is going to use these precedents, and when they are used against you you will have no judicial recourse thanks to Barack Obama.

So if you think Obama is not so bad, really, and has done a lot of good and could do more, then by all means vote for him. And you can stop reading now--the rest of this essay will be of no interest to you.

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The rest of us, reviewing this administration's record and its likely future course with dread, face just one question. Must we reelect Obama to save the country from something worse? This is a serious question, and calls for considered analysis.

Notice first that "Romney's worse so we have to vote for Obama" isn't an argument, or even a syllogism. What people really mean is something like this. (1) A Romney presidency would be worse than a second Obama administration, and (2) if Obama isn't elected then Romney will be, so therefore (3) we should vote for Obama, at least in any state where our vote might make a difference.

Certainly one can't quibble with the second premise. The probability that neither Obama nor Romney gets elected is exactly zero. The first premise too at first blush looks irreproachable from a progessive perspective. Mere common sense seems to endorse the conclusion once the premises are stipulated, and most folks think no further.5 They don't have to agitate their consciences over voting for the war criminal, corporate lackey Obama, they can just vote against the likely greater war criminal (and proudly greater corporate lackey) Romney. And all the rest of it follows too: maybe Obamacare is a sell-out to big-insurance and big-pharma, but at least they won't get their greedy mits on Medicare. (Well, this time. Probably.) And so on.

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Those of us growing gray about the temples are struck most by the argument's familiarity. We have heard it--and consented to it--often before, in fact about once every four years. Replace Romney/Obama with McCain/Obama, Bush/Kerry, Bush/Gore, Dole/Clinton, Bush/Clinton, Bush/Dukakis, Reagan/Mondale, Reagan/Carter, Ford/Carter--no wonder it rings bells. In every election for 36 years a center-left Democrat has run against a center-right Republican, each campaign pandering to their more ideological supporters, and in each case the elected administration tossed a few bones to their left/right base while dutifully serving elite interests.

Meanwhile, as elections come and go, both ideological conservatives and ideological progressives find the country moving away from them; not towards their ideological counterparts, but towards a corporatist, oligarchic security-state. The electorate is apparently not in charge.

Those who are in charge find the partisan electoral process useful because it keeps a potentially dangerous population quiescent, occupied like loyal sports fans not with what is actually being done to them, but with the business of "winning." This is a classic method of control, used by elites in one form or another throughout the ages. Tiny little England built a global empire using it. It works equally well on the unsophisticated and the ostensibly educated. Check yourself: if you have mentally colored yourself red or blue, if you see the country as made up of red, blue, and purple blotches, then your political identity is no longer yours. You have been co-opted. Occupied. Welcome to the game.

By itself this doesn't disprove the partisan argument, and many progressives point to such achievements as increased LGBT rights as proof that voting for the less-bad can result in genuine positive change; that likewise the assault on women's reproductive freedom shows the danger in allowing the other side to win. These are excellent examples, but those using them to urge partisan loyalty omit the essential point that these changes have been occurring independently of which party is in power, because the motive force behind them is serious activism, not partisanship. Gay rights activists have fought a long and sometimes brutal campaign characterized not by loyally supporting the Democratic Party but by confronting it, by being prepared to play hardball with politicians who won't get in line. Anti-abortion forces have done likewise.

That point deserves a double-take: The core activists driving actual political change don't hesitate to imperil a nominally allied candidate's election if that candidate appears insufficiently committed to their cause.6 This fact is obviously a key to their success, and it strongly suggests there is a problem with the partisan argument. But what, then, is the error in that argument? As it happens, this very week's news reports furnish an example that illuminates it completely.

In 2002 the Total Information Awareness program was created within the Defense Department to gather and coordinate intelligence to support the War on Terror.7 The Bush administration had to abandon this project in the face of determined opposition, especially from the left, to what was rightly seen as a grave peril to civil liberties. However, components of the planned program lived on under separate authorities until Obama took office. Like the other elements of Bush's "anti-terror" activities, the TIA program was then consolidated and expanded under new guise. We now know that domestic surveillance and data-mining has not only been greatly accelerated within a burgeoning military-security complex, but it is also now combined with the extra-judicial detention and assassination program (dubbed "the disposition matrix")--at least insofar as both have been bureaucratized within the same agency, an agency whose activities are shrouded in impenetrable secrecy.8

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The relevant point is not the seriousness of this developement--which I hope goes without saying--but that no Republican president could have gotten away with it. It's the "only Nixon can go to China" principle: in a democracy only a nominally liberal leader can put in place the machinery of a totalitarian state, just as only a nominally liberal leader could gut the social safety net (Clinton), or put privatizing Social Security and Medicare on the table (Obama).

This is a clear counterexample to the claim of the first premise--that a Red president is bound to be So Much Worse than a Blue president--and thereby reveals that the partisan argument is unsound.

Let me be quite clear: it is not unsound because of the differentials on some set of policies or issues. Partisans will argue that in this election there are issues--the Supreme Court, Medicare, etc.--where there is a clear choice, and that is true. It is always true, every four years, as sure as the tides. That is by design: the political gamesmanship the argument draws us into is itself the trap. By constraining our discussion to the acknowledged differences between the sides, partisanship tricks us into supposing their similarities aren't an issue, when in fact their similarities are the most critical issue. This is because their differences will remain in contention regardless of who gets elected, but their similarities assuredly will not.

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B. Sidney Smith is a recovering math professor, gardener, and creative loafer living near Appomattox, Virginia. His autobio, curriculum vitae, favorite recipes, and much more besides can be found on his website, bsidneysmith.com.

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