We're up against it now.
Less than two weeks left. Those
on the left confront their quadrennial quandary, and the inescapable debate: to
vote for the Democratic presidential nominee or not. "The lesser evil is still evil." "Don't make the perfect the enemy of the
good." "The Supreme Court!" " Round and "round we go. It is a frustrating, enervating ritual, a
passionate argument between speakers who are not going to change each other's
minds, but do hope to influence those who overhear. In other words, politics. Inescapable.
Inescapable, because the presidential election campaign is a
national public spectacle that demands our attention, purportedly presenting
the most important opportunity to choose between different paths for our
future, and certainly presenting the largest and most attentive audience for
making whatever political points one wants to make. The argument, as the
campaign itself, may seem sterile and futile -- a familiar, exhausting treadmill
that beckons us, irresistibly, on another furious sprint to nowhere. It's even ruining Facebook friendships! Still, it's inescapable, and I will not try to
At this point in American electoral politics, progressives
confront two related but separate issues:
First, the traditional question of whether to vote for the Democrat (Obama,
in this case) or not, and, second, the question of: if not, then what should one
do otherwise -- a question that, I think, involves radically new and disturbing
considerations. I'll deal with the first
question in this post, and the second in a separate post.
I'll distinguish two kinds of arguments in favor of voting
for the Democrat/Obama. The first is from a position that assumes, or believes,
or contends that the Democratic Party as an institution and/or Barack Obama
personally is, or wants to be, a force for progressive change, and is only
thwarted from achieving such change by the obstruction and mendacity of
reactionary Republicans. Thus, we must
give our votes and political support to the Democrat/Obama in order to enable him
to overcome Republican resistance and put us on the track to a progressive
At this point, there are fewer adherents to this view of the
Democratic Party than there are to this view of Obama personally. Too many people understood, and were repelled
at, how the party, under Bill Clinton and thereafter, became, among other
things, definitively corporatist. (I
think before Clinton, but I'll go with the preferred progressive line.) Nonetheless, in 2008, a lot of progressives, including
many of those who had turned away from the party, became enthusiastic
supporters of Obama, whom they saw as a political actor willing -- and with
enough help, able -- to turn the party and country in a progressive
direction. Given the actual course of
his presidency, a good number of those supporters have since dropped away, but
there remains a core of Obama enthusiasts who cling to the belief that he is a trustworthy
progressive leader, and who will argue that we must vote for him for that
I find such an argument ludicrous, near delusional, and
impossible to take seriously. Obama is not a "progressive" and never has
been. His inspiring rhetorical
pretensions to that label were always pretty easy to see through, and always
quickly abandoned in practice. He shares,
and is committed to, the consensus principles of both major parties, and has
swum with the tide of that consensus to the right. As president, he has easily and energetically
taken to the tasks of maintaining and extending American imperialism, Zionist
colonialism, and the primacy of capital (including wasteful, speculative
finance capital) over labor. He is as casually
contemptuous of his constituencies, and as opportunistically dishonest as any
American politician. All of this is so
clear by now that it's hard for me to see those who argue that we should vote
for Obama out of some shared progressive fervor as anything other than fans.
And fandom is not a political
to take seriously at all.
The more honest argument, which we should address, is the
one that admits the truth of the critique of Obama. This argument does not shy
away from acknowledging how Obama has extended the "war on terror" with various
kinds of military attacks on non-belligerent countries -- actions that are
casually contemptuous of international law and constitutional constraints, dangerous,
self-defeating, and, yes, racist. (Why are there not drone attacks against the
many al-Qaeda sympathizers, enablers, and "material supporters of terrorism" in
London or the British countryside?). This
argument also acknowledges Obama's dictatorial assumption of the prerogative to
indefinitely imprison and/or kill anyone, including American citizens, at his
sole discretion; it acknowledges the
unprecedented extent and severity of his war on whistleblowers, part of an
attempt to intimidate independent journalists; it acknowledges how he has, at
the same time, granted immunity to torturers, war criminals, financial
fraudsters, and elite "material supporters of terrorism"; it acknowledges his
betrayal of universal, single-payer, public health insurance in favor of a
scheme that creates a windfall for private insurers by forcing people to buy
their expensive for-profit policies, and his intent to "adjust" Social Security
and Medicare to the detriment of future beneficiaries; it acknowledges his
corporatist scheme to create a job-destroying global "NAFTA on steroids" in the
form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (which I talked about in a
); it acknowledges"
well, the list goes on.
This argument, which acknowledges all
of these Obama policies that are
horrible -- not trivially "problematic," but unequivocally horrible
-- from any progressive point of view, and insists that we
must vote for him anyway, is the one that needs to be addressed. It's the argument that, as I mentioned previously
is summarized cogently in the title of Tom Gallagher's article, "Vote
for the War Criminal -- It's Important!
It's an argument that is made by such deservedly well-respected
progressive figures as Daniel
As Ellsberg recounts his response,
when asked why he was supporting Obama:
""Supporting Obama? Me?!
"I lose no opportunity
publicly" to identify Obama as a tool of Wall Street, a man who's
decriminalized torture and is still complicit in it, a drone assassin, someone who's launched an unconstitutional war, supports kidnapping and indefinite
detention without trial, and has prosecuted more whistleblowers like myself
than all previous presidents put together. "Would you call that support?"
"I don't 'support
Obama.' I oppose the current Republican Party."
Ellsberg even acknowledges that "It's true that the differences between the
major parties are not nearly as large as they and their candidates claim, let
alone what we would want. It's even fair to use Gore Vidal's metaphor that they
form two wings ("two right wings,' as some have put it) of a single party, the
Property or Plutocracy Party, or as Justin Raimondo says, the War Party."
Gallagher, too, understands this similarity, saying: "it might be a fair
assessment that a Romney administration's military policies would ultimately turn
out to be essentially the same as Obama's." As Gary
policy" debate: "No one could love Israel more, care less about the
Palestinians, put more pressure on Iran or be a greater fan of drone attacks or
invading Libya." Indeed, Gallagher
acknowledges the worst, when he asks: "So if we were to consider Obama
as he really is, that is, among other things, a war criminal, how can we even vote for him, much less
argue that it's important to do so?"
For both Ellsberg and Gallagher, of course, the answer to that question
is that Romney would be worse, at least on domestic policy. (Honest arguments
don't dwell too much on foreign policy, about which Obama himself says: "Governor,
you're saying the same things as us, but you'd say them louder"). For Ellsberg: "a Romney/Ryan
administration" would be much worse, even catastrophically worse, on
a number of other important issues: attacking Iran, Supreme Court appointments,
the economy, women's reproductive rights, health coverage, safety net, climate
change, green energy, the environment." [Ellsberg's italics]
And for Gallagher, with the
Republican president, "on domestic policies
there are clear opportunities for decline." Among other things, "Tax policy would almost
certainly skew even further in favor of the wealthy under Romney.
Privatization, at least partial, of Social Security and Medicare seem definite
possibilities. Appointments to the Supreme Court, the National Labor Relations
Board and a host of other agencies could only get worse. And while we might not
see much positive improvement in federal labor law during a second Obama
term, the Republican state
administrations in Wisconsin and Ohio have shown the way for how
things could get worse."
All fair enough concerns. There are going to be some important
differences on specific policies.
But let's take a little closer
look at the details invoked about the possibly "catastrophic" political future
in light of the known political past. Iran?
(Ellsberg did cite that "foreign policy" issue.) I, and not
, do not assume Obama would be any less likely than Romney to attack
Iran on behalf of Israel, propelling us into a truly criminal and catastrophic
aggression. Social Security and Medicare?
I doubt Romney will be able to privatize,
and I know Obama won't try to fully protect, Social Security and Medicare; the effective
cuts will begin under either. (Obama's already tried to do that.) We can speculate about how far this cutting
will go under one or the other. We can also be sure that the Democrats will put
up significantly less resistance to Obama initiating these cuts than to
Romney. As for labor's prospects, I've
already mentioned Obama's current secret planning for the global outsourcing
machine of the TPP. And, yes, the
Republican state administrations in Ohio and Wisconsin are terrible. I forget: Where was Obama on that? And how is the Democratic governor of New
York (the next Democratic presidential candidate?) doing? And,
oops, income inequality
under Obama than under Bush.
Abortion rights? Count the number
of Democratic anti-abortion-rights candidates around the county (e.g., Indiana),
who are making abortion only in the case of rape or incest the emerging
"moderate" Democratic position? The
Supreme Court? A horror show. Too bad
every single Democratic senator voted for Scalia.
Really, I am not saying there is
no difference between the candidates, or that there would not likely be
important differences between their policies. I am saying that once you start
with the honest assessment of these critical supporters of voting for Obama -- that
he is a "tool of Wall Street" and a "war criminal" -- and you then begin to look at the panoply of specific ways in which
those characterizations have been demonstrated to be true and are likely to be
confirmed as true in a second term; once, like Ellsberg, you've acknowledged all
this to "disillusioned liberals who are at this moment inclined not to vote at
all or to vote for a third-party candidate (because like me they've been not
just disappointed but disgusted and enraged by much of what Obama has done in
the last four years and will probably keep doing)," it starts to become
somewhat more difficult "to persuade
enough people in swing states to vote for Obama: not stay home, or vote for
someone else" [Ellsberg's italics] -- and that is the major objective of these
The admirable desire of folks like Gallagher and Ellsberg to be
intellectually honest with justifiably "disillusioned liberals" is in strong
tension with their intense desire to get out the vote for Obama, and they end
up walking a very fine tightrope. It's hard to gin up enthusiasm for the catastrophically, important! need to vote for Obama when you're
acknowledging that he has already helped put us in a catastrophic situation.
This is why there are few appeals
like this, and more of the Rebecca
, "O rancid sector of the far left,
please stop your grousing!" variety.
"Just Shut up
and Vote Obama
" is the favored line of those Obamicans who fear, rightly,
that, in a head-to-head political campaign like the American electoral Horse
Race, you have to put critical "grousing" aside, you have to be advertising
, or you're just going to lose. To the likes of Ellsberg and Gallagher, the
Solnits will say something like: "If you really think it's catastrophically
important to get the "disillusioned liberal" votes for Obama, then shut up
already with the talk about what a Wall-Street-tool/war-criminal he is." And they won't be wrong. Ellsberg and Gallagher have to recognize
that, insofar as they have adopted the immediate cause of getting out the vote
for Obama, the truth hurts their cause.
That is, of course, because they
have two, contradictory "causes." Let's acknowledge that such a tension is a
recurring element of real politics, which sometimes, maybe often, demands that
we make an immediate decision to embrace a cause or project that is in contradiction with what we absolutely
consider to be a more important cause or project, but that we also think is
necessary.to preserve the opportunity of ever realizing that important cause or
project. Gallagher explicitly embraces
this politics of contradiction, quoting with approval F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The
test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in
the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."
I fully agree with this, with the
caveat that, if you're repeating the same exact contradiction too often in your
political life -- like, always -- you should maybe rethink the relation between
the immediate cause and the more important one it contradicts. I'll also emphasize
that this has to be fully recognized as a matter of contradiction, and not a difference of degree on some linear scale. This honest, consequent, progressive position
recognizes that getting out the vote for "what Obama has done in the last four
years and will probably keep doing,"
is not going to advance us one inch toward the kind of equitable and peaceful
society we want; it is at best going to slow the unfolding of disaster.
I acknowledge the honesty and
consistency of such an argument for voting for Obama. It's an argument driven
by fear, but it incorporates an intellectually-honest portrayal of Obama, and
the fear of Romney and the Republicans is quite understandable. I disagree with nothing about the argument
except its conclusion. I do not think
that folks who have been persuaded by such an argument (or any other) to vote
for Obama are likely to change their minds. I did want to present what I think
is the best argument for voting for Obama before going on to explain why I won't.
Preliminarily, though, there is an
entrenched, difficult to avoid, trope in this context that I would like to
avoid as much as possible the language of "lesser evil"-ism. First of all, the important political stakes
we are dealing with are not reducible to a linear scale. Second, the quasi-theological word "evil" should,
I think, have no more than a very restricted -- I would prefer no -- place in secular
progressive politics. I cringe at casually
accepting it as the founding term of a debate. I know it's used as shorthand for "all those
policies I find terrible," but I prefer to be a little more precise and political.
Voting for Obama or Romney or neither will not make someone "evil." The choice we face as citizens and voters is
not between two people ranked on a linear scale of "evil." One could hardly find a less political
Certainly, ethical questions are
ultimately paramount -- not just embedded in, but the heart of, politics. But this heart is not worn on history's
sleeve. Persistent, socially-significant
ethically-desired outcomes are going to be results of a series of necessarily ambiguous
political judgements whose long-term effects we can only surmise with varying
degrees of confidence in the instant.
And "evil" doesn't help at all in that regard.
One of the signature rhetorical maneuvers of the "You must
vote for Obama" appeal (especially, perhaps, the honest, "even though we all
know he's a Wall Street tool/war criminal" variety) is a surreptitious elision
of what we might call political and moralizing discourses: "Me,
an Obama supporter? I'm not supporting him (or any of the terrible
things I acknowledge he has done and will continue to do), I'm just voting (and urging others to vote) for
him. But, you, if you don't vote for him, are complicit in and responsible
for all the horrible things the other
guy you didn't vote for hasn't done, but we just know he will." There is a perceptible shift in the language
-- from a "political" register when talking about for whom I am voting, to a "moralizing"
register when talking about for whom you are not voting. Somehow, the indirect, negative
responsibility becomes more moralistically tinged than the direct, positive
one. Those who are voting for Obama say that, r eally, they are not, and at the same
time tell those who are not voting for Romney that, really, they are.
Nice try, but the most direct line of complicity is from the
voter to the one s/he votes for. Voters for Obama can't, on the one hand, attenuate
that complicity by describing their positive act of voting for the known war
criminal within a discourse of political realism, only then to adopt a
moralizing discourse that tries to hang complicity with, and responsibility and
shame for, Romney's possible future actions on voters who did not actually vote
This kind of rhetoric works on liberals' unfortunate penchant
for turning political discussions into contests for shedding and assigning guilt.
Not interested. Sure,
in our zero-sum electoral system, if you don't vote for Obama, you're
indirectly responsible for electing Romney -- not for the policies that he
might try to pursue (which, guaranteed, are not going to be what he now says),
but for those he actually gets to pursue, given whatever opposition Democrats
and progressives would muster against them.
And if you do vote for Obama, you're going to be responsible for the
policies we know he is likely to continue pursuing, given the Democrats' and
liberals' known unwillingness to oppose him. Ethically, voting for Obama (and insisting
that others must do so) is exactly as "important" as being a war criminal and
tool of Wall Street isn't.
One thing someone is doing for certain in voting for Obama
is participating in and perpetuating the race to the right, because, you betcha, there will arise another
"catastrophically worse" Republican on the horizon to scare you off again, in "How
soon? Think about it: With an election
season of about 18 months, more than a third of a presidential term (because
the money and the media have an entrenched interest in keeping it that way),
for how long are we allowed to oppose the Democratic war criminals and tools of
Wall Street before we have to shut up, or at least work for their election,
because of the "catastrophically worse" Republican in the wings? Is this politics, or wishful thinking, or
fandom, or perpetual guilt-tripping?
And when will this stop? When will today's Obama/Democratic
presidential voter say "Enough!"? When,
after this Democratic candidate presents cutting rather than privatizing Social
Security as "saving" it, the next one presents rape-and-incest-only abortions
as "saving" the "right to choose"? When
there are scores of white American "militants" in indefinite detention rather
than hundreds of Muslims? When there are
ten thousand or forty thousand, rather than "just" a few thousand, deaths, foreign
and American, from drone strikes?
According to present logic, never,
because the Republican will always be worse.
But, of course, that is not the
case. I dare say that for almost every
"lesser-evil" voter, there is some issue that would stop them cold from voting for
a Democratic candidate who held it,
even if the Republican did also, and even if the Democratic candidate was
better on other issues. Conor
Friedersdorf, in his articles here
gives what I think is a devastating critique of the ostensible ethical logic of
the "lesser-evil" -- what I would prefer to call "tactical voting" -- appeals -- even those of the Ellsberg and
Tell certain liberals and
progressives that you can't bring yourself to vote for a candidate who opposes gay
rights, or who doesn't believe in Darwinian evolution, and they'll nod along.
Say that you'd never vote for a politician caught using the 'n'-word, even if
you agreed with him on more policy issues than his opponent, and the vast
majority of left-leaning Americans would understand. But these same people
cannot conceive of how anyone can discern Mitt Romney's flaws, which I've
chronicled in the course of the campaign, and still not vote for Obama.
Don't they see that Obama's transgressions are worse than any I've mentioned?
Read his articles to get the full
flavor. Friedersdorf is not making some
kind of perfectionist argument against the ethics of tactical voting in
principle. He is, in fact, forcing us
out of arguing about that, into considering the political ethics of this
particular case. He's changing the
question set, asking us to consider not only "Wouldn't you really prefer the
better to the worse?" but also "Are you really good with that?" -- a heart-core, "deal
breaking," ethico-political question we have to confront somewhere along the
line, and, he insists, right now, in this instance. Because for Friedersdorf, for myself, and for
many others Obama's transgressions are
One doesn't have to imagine too
far to see the point. I'm just making a
guess here, but I'll bet that, faced with Democratic candidate Harry and
Republican candidate Sally, both of whom had exactly the positions that Obama
and Romney hold today, except that both wanted to criminalize abortion in all
cases, Ms. Solnit would not be so cavalierly dismissive of the rancid far-left
grousers who refused to vote for either, and urged others to refuse as well.
Doesn't everyone have a deal-breaker? Let's say there are Ellsberg-Gallagher-type
voters (I do not believe that either Ellsberg or Gallagher is one of these) who
can truly say that they will always
embrace tactical voting on principle. As
Friedersdorf puts the extreme case, "If two candidates favored a return to
slavery, or wanted to stone adulterers" these voters would "cast [their] ballot
for the one with the better position on health care." Still, I'll bet even most
of them would admit that those who abstain from doing so have a legitimate argument.
For me, and many others, not just
a certain number of his policies, but the whole of Obama's policy paradigm, nicely
summed up in "Wall Street tool and war criminal," is a deal-breaker. For others, "Wall Street tool + begrudging
supporter of gay marriage," or "war criminal + half-assed healthcare plan" is a
deal maker. As I said, for them, voting
for Obama is as important as being a war criminal and tool of Wall Street
isn't. So be it. Let's just acknowledge what they are doing.
I love Friedersdorf "s undermining of the ethical logic of ("lesser
evil") tactical voting in this case
. But there's another argument against voting
for Obama that changes the question in another way, and is at least as
politically cogent. It's the argument of
Ford of Black Agenda Report
Barack Obama is not, in Ford's words, the "lesser," but the more effective
evil. Yes, there's that cringe-inducing word that always pops up in this
context, so let me reframe the question in a way that I think is more
politically specific: Is Barack Obama or
Mitt Romney going to be more effective
in advancing the imperialist and austerity agendas? Who will be able to push those agendas the
farthest in the US, with the least political opposition?
These are really the central questions, even in the Ellsberg-Gallagher
paradigm. These questions directly
address their key assertion that Mitt Romney will be "catastrophically worse."
In this regard, it may be worth noting the itsy-bitsy fact
that Obama was already once chosen as the more effective candidate from the
ruling class's (call it the plutocracy or the 1%, if you prefer) point of
view. Knowing what we know now about
everything that happened then and since, I think it requires a bizarre set of
mental gymnastics to deny that that is exactly what happened in 2008. No matter what his constituents imagined was
happening in the popular, public election, the evidence shows that, in the
parallel, Serious People's election, the plutocracy carefully vetted Obama, was
assured of his reliability, and poured their money into his campaign (here
They were genuinely apprehensive of the widespread disaffection with Bush's
military adventurism and with the disastrous economic crisis, and wanted a
figure who could hold the legitimacy of the teetering
late-capitalist-imperialist order, and provide some kind of attractive cover
while they figured out a way to keep the game going, pretty much as it always
And they got what they paid for. A
historic chance for significant domestic reform was lost in a tragic confidence
game. We are being herded into a
socially-devastating long-term austerity agenda. The country has become as dangerous and
arrogant a power as it ever has been -- engaged in unprecedented militarist
adventures and on the verge of embarking on worse. John McCain was not the guy for the job, and
the ruling class knew it. He would not
have been as effective in getting all this done without significant
In fact, Obama
has been so effective that, now, perhaps in shock at how thoroughly any serious
left opposition was anaesthetized, and how easily popular social discontent was
put down or channeled into right-wing rage, and knowing and not caring that
they are not likely to get the Benneton legitimacy boost again, a section of
the plutocracy is now willing to bet on Romney, a trusted confrere. They're figuring -- and in the actual economic
context, it's not a bad idea -- that they'll just grab as much as they can
before the whole thing collapses, and get out.
So there is a much closer race than in 2008. But there is still a large sector of the
ruling class, smarter and with a longer-term vision, which sees Obama as their
more effective agent. (And I agree with them.) With him, the con just might continue; with
Romney, it's more likely to be exposed. Obama
will, after all, much more easily than Romney, virtually eliminate liberal
Democratic opposition to austerity and militarism. (Although the Democrats
don't really have a gear of "opposition" anymore. Their political ethic now is: If we lose, we
capitulate because we must; if we win, we capitulate because it's the right,
bipartisan, thing to do.)
In other words, I
think that, while it's not quite as clear as in 2008, Glen Ford is
substantially correct that Obama is the more effective candidate for the
unfolding imperialist and austerity agendas than his Republican opponent. And, whether you agree with that or not, it is
a plausible argument, and there is no certain case to be made for the opposite. I think this substantially weakens the
Ellsberg-Gallagher " catastrophically
worse" argument, and I'll go right on, guilt-free, not voting for Obama,
and urging others not to as well.
So that's the way
I, and not just I, see this election. If
you don't, so be it. Make your alternate
case. We'll see which is more persuasive, as the Eagles say, in the long run.
Really. I've laid out the case
against voting for Obama, and I think it's politically and ethically cogent,
and I do want everyone in the world to accept it, but I kinda think they
won't. Most people will go and vote for
Obama because of their understandable fears, and I certainly won't accuse
anybody who does of some kind of moral turpitude. Just do not accuse me of any such "evil"
either, and do not tell me I have to shut up about it. Do consider the arguments, and see if you think
they speak to our fundamental ethical and political situation.
As I said, I'm not interested in
shedding and assigning guilt. Voting or not
voting for Obama is not going to give anyone cleaner hands. All our hands are dirty; we're all implicated
in the policies of our government. We're
making political judgement calls, none of which are going to yield "progressive"
results. The complete lack of any
serious organized left opposition -- the real problem -- makes fools of all of
us, and keeps any of these arguments, for now, on the level of discrete
personal statements whose major value is to help us prepare for future
political battles. Our current situation
is so bad that there is nothing we can do in this election that will make a serious
I am not interested in being pure
or perfect, and I reject such straw-man characterizations. A vote is not a badge of moral honor; it is a
political weapon. We need a fearless
discussion about how to use it better. Because
almost all progressive citizens know that, if not now, sometime soon, somehow, we
will have to get off the electoral merry-go-round that has us so dizzy and
unsure on our feet.
In an upcoming post, I'll have
something to say about what I think we should do with that weapon rather than
give it to Obama. You probably won't like that, either.
As I was about to post this, I became aware of Matt
as a riposte to Ellsberg. It is
particularly devastating on Obama's economic and social policies, and deserves
an attentive read by everyone. Consider
my voice added to his.
2008 Campaign contributions by sector (see FIRE)
David Saltonstall, "Barack Obama has collected nearly twice
as much money as John McCain,"
Greg Miller, "Plan
for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists,"