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.
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 Ellsberg.
As Ellsberg recounts his response, when asked why he was supporting Obama:
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 Younge summarized the “foreign 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 just I, 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 grew worse 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 appeals.
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 Solnit, “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 not analyzing, 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 language.
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 and 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 Gallagher variety:
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 worse.
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 Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report that 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?
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 opposition.
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.)
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 difference.
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.
Update: Breaking News: “Disposition Matrix.” Need I say more?