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Why I’m Not Troubled by my Decision Not to Vote for Obama this Time One Bit

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

About three weeks ago Conor Friedersdorf, a libertarianish blogger for The Atlantic, put up a post about how even those who support most of President Obama’s policies, even those who see him as a much better choice for president than Mitt Romney, should refuse to vote for him. His reasons were pretty simple and straightforward: that Obama, through his toleration of (and participation in!) the expansion of extra-constitutional executive powers, through the murderous drone war which he has promoted over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and through his willingness to fight terrorism through such explicit means as targeted assassination of targets (not excluding American citizens), ought to be beyond the pale for liberal and left-leaning voters. His actions, in short, are “dealbreakers.”

Friedersdorf’s post generated a storm of controversy. There were plenty of accusations that his version of the Obama administration’s actions were tendentious and misleading, and that his construction of “dealbreakers” when deciding who or what is worthy of a vote was highly simplistic; he acknowledged the point of some of these criticisms, and hedged his position (slightly) in a couple of subsequent posts. But if his aim was to get presumed Obama supporters to argue about whether his (in some ways disappointing, in a few ways arguably appalling) record legitimated their voting for someone else or else not voting at all, he succeeded. One of my favorite political blogs, Lawyers, Guns, and Money (though guys, a quick note: if you were getting a new masthead, couldn’t you have at least made use of a proper serial comma?), went ballistic, putting up post after post after post after post after post after post denouncing Friedersdorf’s position, sometimes taking on other, perhaps less partisanly united leftish blogs like Crooked Timber along the way. It was a busy week, to say the least.

I’m not going to vote to re-elect President Obama. I hope he wins the election, because if he doesn’t that will mean Mitt Romney will be president, and I like and agree with more of what Obama is likely to try to do in his second term than I with what a President Romney would do with his first. But right now I just don’t feel any personal inclination to support him with my vote, and I’m not troubled by that in the least. I laid out some of my reasons for this decision five months ago, and my thoughts haven’t changed much since then. But because I promised David Watkins, one of the LGM bloggers, that I’d reply to at least some of their furious assault on the leftists-not-supporting-Obama camp, let me see if I can restate some of my thoughts differently. I’ll start with David’s central contention, in my (and many others’) favorite post in the whole LGM blizzard, and see where that leads.

David wrote:

The moral purpose of democracy is not to keep my hands clean and feel good about myself, no matter how much politicians and other demagogues claim otherwise. The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world….If he is “beyond the pale” for the purposes of whatever endorsement you believe a vote implies, so to is pretty much all of American politics at the federal level. Identifying yourself as “better” than the American federal state in some important moral way is just fine; you probably are. So am I! I don’t kill people, either. But to move from that banal observation to abdicating the duty to use the primary tool we’ve got to constrain its abusive power is to badly miss democracy’s point.

His conclusion being, of course, that to present any singular (or cluster of) moral issue(s) as a dealbreaker which must necessitate voting outside of the politically relevant dynamics present in this presidential election–which for left-leaning voters presumably must mean either not voting for anyone for president, or voting for a third-party candidate, rather than Obama–misunderstands what democracy is about.

Two points in response. First, I disagree that the “moral purpose of democracy” can be contained within the narrow definition which David proposes. I see a number of diverse purposes to democracy, any number of which could be simultaneously described as “moral” depending on which conceptual plane (individual? civic? materialist? idealist?) one was operating upon. Personal expressive purposes have their moral content, as do collective identification purposes. To say that controlling the abusive power of the state is democracy’s “primary” point is to cast politics into a utilitarian calculus (David betrays this move of his when he describes democracy as a “technology”). To employ that kind of calculus–probably slightly more people with health insurance! probably a slightly greater chance of preserving the social safety net! probably a slightly smaller likelihood of undeclared, murderous, and financially ruinous wars!–is obviously a completely defensible decision to make (I may ultimately be on Friedersdorf’s “side” here, but I would never agree with him that it is somehow “immoral” to vote for Obama–but then, I don’t think it’s necessarily a sign of immorality to vote for Romney either), but it is nonetheless a prior decision about one’s preferred moral calculus, and in no sense an obvious ethical imperative contained within the history of democracy.

Second, I would note that David makes it clear that he’s talking about the presidential election; his point of reference is the “federal level,” or in other words the national government. So, then, does he think that the “moral purpose” of democracy is different when you’re voting for Congressional candidates, or for governors, or state legislative candidates–or, as I just suggested, local fluoridation? Perhaps he does; again, employing a legitimate utilitarian calculus, he might argue that there is a sliding scale present in how we balance concerns with abusive power versus other, less state-centered and more aesthetic, personal, or communitarian concerns. I’d in fact probably agree with his defense of such a scale; I’m much more comfortable with identitarian political decisions when I’m thinking about who I’d like on city council or what values I’d like my state to exhibit than I am with similar moves on the national level (as evidence, consider my confession that I’m a Mormon who has no interest in voting for the first member of my tribe to make it to such a prominent political level!). Nonetheless, should David admit to such a scale, then he’s admitted that “democracy against domination” logic that he wants to invest the presidential election with is, at best, a contextual logic, one which operates not as a general rule, but in light of other variables, possibly objective (the office being voted upon, the level of government which that office inhabits), and possibly subjective (judgment calls about the relative benefits and harms which are presumed to be within the scope of the powers of the office or level of government in question).

All of this is relevant to a theme which (upon my reading anyway) recurs regularly throughout the above LGM posts and the long threads which followed them: the deep conviction that, in the struggle on behalf of liberal, progressive, and/or leftish causes, there are no battleground states, there are no caveats or qualifications particular to certain contexts or jurisdictions–there is only the general ideological battle, and you are either committed to it (meaning that you are, for better or worse, locked in by your own beliefs to the dominant political dynamics–the party structures, the available candidates, the campaign finance rules, etc.–which are available to this particular group of voters, which for the LGM bloggers obviously means President Obama and the Democratic party), or you’re on the wrong side. There seems to me to be some deep Ralph Nader regret motivating this theme; at least a couple of the LGM bloggers, David included, cast votes for Nader in 2000, and have taken that lesson horribly to heart. Suffice to say, I’ve never felt that kind of guilt for my Nader votes. I knew what I knew then, believed what I believed then, and voted where I did then; if everything had been different, my votes in 1996 and 2000 probably would have been different, but it isn’t, and so they aren’t. To take the fact that the system allowed someone who I and many other leftists allowed–both intellectually and with our votes–to pursue policies that were stupid, immoral, and unwise for so long, and use it as an argument that somehow every vote and every democratic action, at all times and all places, needs to be weighted primarily against a particular kind of morally and ideologically constructed scheme of defense against state domination, is to completely ignore that obvious problem of aggregation, which Jacob Levy succinctly spelled out against David in a comment to his post. Very simply, you can’t simultaneously affirm that every vote equals total responsibility for the ultimate results (that is, hold you nose and vote for the lesser evil, since one should imagine that every vote is the decisive, wherever you are and whatever the issue!) while also insisting that the only results which matter are those which are pertinent are those which involve what the two dominant candidates and parties end up doing or not doing (that is, forget about party or movement-building, or registering dissent, or anything else that won’t in the short term have direct relevance to who wields power in which cause).

Both David and Scott Lemieux have responses to Jacob’s point above, and while they both make some good points about the practical realities of nation-wide contests in today’s America, with the general ineffectiveness of popular political signaling to larger parties and interest groups, they both seem to me to come down to a kind of in-group response: that their logic ultimately really only applies to “a group of like-minded about politics people,” and that for voters with other sets of beliefs “the calculus is different.” Scott is of the mind the democratic socialists are obviously included in his own left-liberal/progressive Democrati partisan group, but I’m not sure that’s the case–again, depending on where you live, and what you’re voting on. I can say, at the least, that it’s not the case for a Kansas-dwelling populist/localist/Christian democrat/anarcho-socialist like myself.

So I will approach the election three weeks from today with every intention of supporting whatever Democrats I can locally and state-wide, since given the way Governor Brownback and his Koch-backed supporters have almost entirely cleansed the local Republican party of moderates, I have to support whatever practical resistance I can find. But nationally? Knowing that Romney has essentially a 100% chance of winning all six of Kansas’s electoral college votes? In that case I look at Obama and the national Democratic party, and I see Bradley Manning still in jail, I see a president still dissembling when it comes to the horror of drone warfare, I see a refusal (in the face of mounting pressure) to rethink an invasive HHS mandate, I see no indication that there will be any grand social democratic economic push (just more neoliberal fine-tuning) in response to the continuing economic struggles of the poor and the lower middle class, and I don’t see any interest in saying anything new about the war on drugs. Is that enough reason to not support the president? In a state where my vote won’t help him do the many good things he might still be able to help make happen? When there is a candidate that represents, if not the correct response to all that I mention above, than at least a more correct response to most of them: namely Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president? I have to say, David, that I’m sorry, but you and your LGM colleagues just haven’t changed my mind. (But please, keep fighting the good fight in Ohio–Obama needs your Democratic vote there far more than he needs my socialist vote here.)

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About Russell Arben Fox

Russell is a resident of Wichita, KS, an associate professor of political science at Friends University, a liberal communitarian and a Christian socialist, and a person who has long had, and who continue to have, a loving, occasionally oppositional, and all-around complicated relationship with one of the founders of this fine website.