UPDATE: I agree with Matt Stoller’s case against Obama.
I voted for Barack Obama four years ago. I don’t plan to do it again. And I live in Colorado, a swing state. So I’ve had to think through my decision thoroughly, because presumably my vote may actually matter in this election.
Most of the advice I’ve read comes down to: “Obama hasn’t done what he’s promised, but he’s the least bad of two alternatives, so it would be irresponsible of you not to vote for him again, because OMG, Mitt Romney would be so much worse; he’s not even human.”
I’ve heard this argument before. In fact, we seem to hear it every four years, even as the actual policies of the democratic and republican candidates draw closer together. We are constantly told, in spite of enormous evidence to the contrary, that the worst of the two major candidates is SO HORRIBLE (in comparison to the other horrible major-party candidate) that we have no choice but to hold our nose and pull the lever for the lesser of two horrible candidates.
I’m sick of it. I call bullshit.
Put sharply, the question is this: is there ever a time when it is proper to withhold one’s vote from the least-bad of two horrible presidential candidates, when doing so may incrementally increase the chances that the worse candidate will win the election?
I think the answer is yes, there is such a time, and that now is that time. Voting for Obama in the face of his record will, at best, delay the necessary reform that we need domestically and legally, and will likely increase the likelihood that future administrations will be even less responsive to those who think it’s important that we live under the rule of law. A vote for Mitt Romney would be a worse choice, yes. But we have other alternatives than just these two, including a vote for one of the third-party candidates or voting for a write-in candidate.
Obama, let’s be clear, is a thoroughly unattractive candidate. It’s not just that Obama has proven that he is not committed to resisting the ever-rightward policy drift that has plagued us for the past forty years. It’s because Obama has actively assented to the increasing government and private-sector lawlessness that was pursued with such zeal by the administration of George W. Bush. Obama supports executive assassinations, warrantless wiretapping, and indefinite detentions. Obama, not George W. Bush, is responsible for institutionalizing and mainstreaming these policies that were under Bush, at least, controversial. That Obama is insufficiently committed to preserving the eroding domestic economic safety net and far too enthralled by a Tim Geithneresque deference to an unfettered financial industry only adds to my reluctance to actively assent to a second Obama term.
I agree that these problems will probably get marginally worse under a Mitt Romney administration. But we cannot reverse this trend by voting for the marginally better Obama. A vote for Obama simply makes it more likely that four years from now we’ll be faced yet again with a choice between two evils that are marginally worse than the two evils we’ve been told to choose between this year. We should not wait any longer to demonstrate to the major parties that our votes cannot be taken for granted.
To start with, one counterargument should be easily dispensed with. The argument goes like this: “Obama isn’t perfect, but it’s naive to think that any candidate ever really is. Withholding your vote from the least-imperfect candidate is foolish.” I fully realize that there has never been a perfect candidate, and that it is absurd not to expect certain disappointments from whichever candidate assumes office. The argument that Obama isn’t perfect, however, was never the reason why this question about whom one should vote for this time was interesting. The argument is that Obama is actively bad. All versions of the “inevitable disappointment” or “no one is ever perfect” arguments are not helpful.
A stronger argument is made by people like Erik Loomis. Let’s call it the “white privilege” argument, which in its several variations states that only privileged white men can afford the luxury of ignoring how much more horrible Mitt Romney is on issues that concern labor, women, gays, and poor people.
A similar serious argument is the one made by Robert Wright. It boils down to pointing out that Mitt Romney is worse than Obama, and asking us to consider the real consequences of electing a President who might be worse than Obama has been:
Suppose that President Obama was what he in fact is: a drone-striking, civil-liberties disregarding president. Suppose you could be pretty sure (as I think you can, though Friedersdorf disagrees) that Mitt Romney’s policies on drones and civil liberties wouldn’t be any better. And suppose that — through the magical powers that are permitted in thought experiments — you knew that if Romney were elected he would start a needless war that would kill 100,000 people, and would also inflame the international arena in ways that led America (through the irrationality that has become its hallmark) to deploy more drone strikes, and disregard civil liberties on an even larger scale. . . . Is there any point at which you’d concede that casting a vote that increases the chances of a Romney victory is the wrong thing to do?
Jedediah Purdy, somewhat incoherently, praises the audacity of the Obama 2008 campaign that overcame the “anointed” Hillary Clinton, but then argues for a resigned, defensive fight against the worst of two bad choices in 2012:
It’s time to fight like hell for the party of the center-right, represented by Barack Obama, against the party of the far right. There is no alternative. . . . If he[Obama] doesn’t win, things will get worse, quite possibly much worse. The White House will spend four years eroding implementation of the Affordable Care Act, even if Congress can’t repeal it. Environmental protection will be history. The next Supreme Court will be staffed with people who would have invalidated the health-care law outright, and, by the way, love Citizens United and money in politics generally. People who think we aren’t fighting enough wars in the Middle East will have President Romney’s ear.
All these arguments are variations of one theme: Mitt Romney is so much worse than Obama that to withholding your vote for Obama now is simply a short-sighted and self-indulgent vote for a much more repellent future under a Mitt Romney administration. I don’t buy it.
First, Mitt Romney has always just been a pandering, centrist politician. He’s not actually been the kind of whack job that Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum have been. The case that he is an inhuman monster is based on his unsurprising pandering to the right wing base during the primaries, and on the traditional media-driven hype following the conventions.
But for the sake of argument, I grant that Romney will be significantly worse than Obama. But to indulge one’s fear of a Romney administration by casting a vote for Obama is a short-sighted vote for continuing passivity in the face of a dangerous and and worsening destruction of crucial rights and practices necessary to our existence as a democratic nation. A vote for Obama is to acquiesce to our continued march towards authoritarianism, oligarchy, and plutocracy. It does nothing to change this dynamic; it gives us no attractive endgame in which this slide toward despotism might be stopped. It simply reinforces the idea that the American people will not resist authoritarianism. And so the authoritarianism will continue to get worse. This is an argument about strategy. On one side is the strategy of delaying tactics that leads to no hope of victory; on the other side is the strategy of playing to win, even at the expense of some marginal short-term pain.
We have plenty of evidence that the delaying option — voting for the least-bad candidate — has repeatedly failed. For the past thirty years, the two major parties have been tacking ever further to the authoritarian right. Every four years, the democrat has been preferable to the republican, but over the course of these past forty years, the trend has been that the democratic candidate has been less preferable to the democrat from the previous election cycle. As we have moved from Carter to Clinton to Obama, we have seen the Democratic party and sitting president withdraw support from the domestic safety net, erode civil liberties, pursue a more aggressive and militaristic foreign policy, and show less respect for the rule of law. True, the sharpest rightward lurches over this period have occurred under Republican administrations (chiefly those of Reagan and George W. Bush), but in each case, when a Republican president has been succeeded by a Democrat, that administration has failed to fight for a return to the policies that were in place before the prior Republican administration shifted them to the right. Whether one examines the overall course of tax rates favoring the elite, the erosion of welfare benefits for citizens who face misfortune in their lives, the war on drugs leading to increasingly harsh and inequitable criminal justice policies, the erosion of corporate and consumer safety regulations, lax antitrust enforcement, free-trade policies that erode our democratic control of economic and environmental rules, expensive foreign interventions and ruinous war-fighting, the trends are all inexorably rightward, and inexorably more authoritarian
The one exception is the improving cultural and legal environment for gay people and other historically mistreated minorities. But the exception here proves the rule. Except for the improving legal environment for gays, much of the improvement for historically mistreated segments of the population has been cultural, and not legal. Racism is less and less tolerable culturally, but the continuing war on drugs and “small government” fetishism of the two major parties has meant that being black in this country is still an obstacle to the free pursuit of happiness. And gays, remember, are subjected to the same authoritarian erosions of due process as everyone else.
Like Robert Wright, I’m a consequentialist when it comes to voting strategy. I simply disagree with Wright about the assessment of the consequences of voting for Obama. My experience convinces me that we are more likely in the future to pursue ruinous wars, such as the war with Iran that Wright finds so horrifying (rightly so in my opinion), by continuing to play the game we’ve been playing, voting for the marginally less war-mongering candidate in the democrat/republican horse-race that we are presented with every four years. Meanwhile, war-mongering gets more uncontroversial with each election cycle.
I think we should think about the concept of local vs global minima and maxima. We should think about the concept of path dependence. The question should be, “can we see a path to our desired outcome — respect for the rule of law and a domestic economic safety net that allows all of us to participate in the market economy fairly — by continuing on the path of voting for the marginally better of the two major-party candidates? Over the long term, I don’t think we can get to where we want to go without decisively abandoning this path. Neither party will take anyone seriously who can’t credibly demonstrate that unless their policies change, the votes won’t be forthcoming in the next election. The lesser of two evils strategy leaves us unable to issue our parties these ultimatums that they so sorely need to face.