Tuesday, March 12, 2013

No Moral Imperative for Progressives to Vote for Obama

(Originally published September 20, 2012)

It is that time again, which occurs reliably every four years, during which large swaths of the population succumb to magical thinking and partisan delusion in their brief time contemplating formal politics.  I’m talking, of course, about the American presidential election.
Each political camp exhibits their own particular brands of superstition.  For many progressives, the default ritual is to close ranks behind the Democratic nominee, regardless of his record.  This year is no exception, with demands from liberals far and wide to unite in voting for Obama, despite the ruinous legacy he has left the country over the past four years.  Most of these pleas come from pure unthinking allegiance to the Democratic party; others are more sophisticated.  It is the latter type of argument that I wish to address in this article.  Put simply, there is no convincing reason for a progressive to cast his or her vote in 2012 for Barack Obama.
Part 1: The Liberal Argument
“I don’t usually admire Sarah Palin, but when she was making fun of this hope-y, change-y stuff, she was right.“ -- Noam Chomsky

In the following section, I adopt all of the standard assumptions of most discussion surrounding the presidential election.  Namely, that voting is an important, consequential activity for American democracy in which all citizens should participate, and that educated people should cast their ballot only after a careful evaluation of each candidate’s merits and policies.
Obama’s shameful record
First I will engage in a trivial exercise to prove that Obama’s principles and policies are not worth a progressive’s support, to put it mildly.
Obama has continued a tradition of American presidential power of economic neoliberalism and austerity that goes back to at least Ronald Reagan.  In social policy, environmental policy, energy policy, labor policy, urban policy, and financial policy, he has been but a mundane perpetuation of a preexisting presidential lineage.
What truly distinguishes Obama’s presidency from others is two things: 1) the refusal to address the rampant illegality of the previous Bush administration, essentially codifying it as bipartisan consensus 2) the new, tyrannical innovations in executive power.
As even the most timid progressive is well aware, the George W. Bush regime was one completely unrestrained by the rule of law.  Bush and company committed what is probably the greatest crime in a generation, the aggressive invasion of Iraq.  The war, based on false premises of Saddam Hussein harboring “weapons of mass destruction” and having links to Al-Qaeda, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and the maiming and displacement of many more.  The Bush regime expanded a global rendition and torture network, its crown jewel at Guantanamo Bay, while it argued the rationale for detaining suspects of its global war on terror indefinitely.  It oversaw a vast domestic surveillance dragnet, illegally wiretapping millions of Americans.
What was Obama’s response to this malfeasance at the highest levels of the American political establishment?  To quote the president himself: “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”  To date, Obama has not brought high-level prosecutions for any of the aforementioned crimes.
Worse still, Obama embraced and extended the oppressive practices of the Bush administration.  He expanded the use of drones, and increased the number of countries in which US special forces are operating.  He continues to run an international network of torture chambers, despite superficial changes at the beginning of his administration.  He wholeheartedly supports increasing surveillance of Americans and other such measures outlined in the Patriot Act, which he renewed.
But Obama was not content to merely follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.  He apparently thought it necessary to one-up Bush, asserting powers that even W never dared touch.  Most notoriously, Obama gave the order to assassinate an American citizen, which was carried out successfully, with no due process whatsoever (Anwar al-Awlaki was the first of several he has killed so far, after which he proceeded to assassinate al-Awlaki’s sixteen year old son).  This is certainly the most tyrannical authority Obama has asserted; indeed, it is the most tyrannical power that any state leader could assume -- the right to kill even the people that one is supposed to represent, no questions asked.
Obama can claim a number of lesser policy innovations.  He has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined.  He went to war with Libya without any congressional approval.  He signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which gave the military permission to indefinitely detain any American citizen.  It is no exaggeration to say that Obama has, in cooperation with his presidential predecessors, laid the groundwork for what a former senior National Security Agency employee called a “turnkey totalitarian state.”
Obama’s supporters, attempting to defend him in the face of all the negatives, usually cite health care reform as his major achievement in office (or LGBT issues, on which his record is somewhat more positive than other areas).  This initiative fell well short of a comprehensive national health care system that most Americans favor and that virtually every industrialized country possesses.  So-called Obamacare, in addition to his other piddling achievements, are little compensation for a “turnkey totalitarian state.”
In a last desperate attempt to exonerate Obama, his boosters will claim that he was unable to pursue his agenda because of opposition from a Republican-controlled Congress.  First of all, there are a long list of progressive initiatives that Obama as president could carry out without Congressional hinderance.  But more importantly, if he is so impotent in the face of political opposition (and all presidents will face some degree of it), why vote for him?  This genre of Obama supporter maintains two contradictory positions: that voting for Obama is tremendously important, and that he is powerless to do anything.
There is surely a great deal more to say about Obama’s shortcomings, but enumerating all of his skullduggery is quite beyond the scope of this article.  For a more exhaustive treatment, see Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank.
Romney is probably worse, but the differences are tiny
On a certain level, I believe that most Democrats recognize that Obama has been a disastrous president.  One can infer that from the way that the majority of them argue for voting for Obama: Democrats don’t tout Obama’s merits but rather insist that, whatever Obama’s shortcomings, Romney’s are far worse.  (Often this claim gets exaggerated well beyond the point of absurdity, carrying the implication that a Republican presidency would be nothing short of something resembling the apocalypse.)  There’s a well-known name for this brand of argument: “The Lesser of Two Evils.”
I don’t object to the assertion that Romney would be a poor president, or that he would be even worse of a president than Obama.  However, many overestimate how much worse Romney would be by focusing on his few differences from Obama and ignoring his plentiful similarities.  The two parties mainly differ on what are commonly referred to as “social issues” or “culture war issues,”  but the differences are largely ones of degree and not ones of principle.  That leaves the large majority of political issues subject to a silent consensus.
The majority of Americans are so accustomed to thinking about politics in terms of the culture war and partisan sloganeering that they have forgotten what the other political issues actually are.  Alexander Cockburn, in his essay Presidential Elections: Not as Big a Deal as They Say provides a sample:
[T]he role of the Federal Reserve, trade policy, economic redistribution, the role and budget of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, nuclear disarmament, allocation of military procurement, reduction of the military budget, the roles and policies of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and kindred multilateral agencies, crime, punishment and the prison explosion, the war on drugs, corporate welfare, energy policy, forest policy, the destruction of small farmers and ranchers, Israel, the corruption of the political system.

On these issues, and plenty of others, Obama and Romney are in complete agreement.  
The tactical case for voting for Obama is not convincing
A more sophisticated version of the “Lesser of Two Evils” argument, which I will refer to as the tactical argument, accepts the above critiques of Obama and Romney.  It posits that the political differences between the two candidates are small, but that even small differences are meaningful when magnified across millions of Americans.  It shuns the philosophy of viewing voting as a means of expressing moral outrage at the political system, instead opting for hard-nosed, unromantic assessments of what will advance a progressive agenda to the greatest extent possible.
In an article entitled The 2012 Elections Have Little To Do With Obama’s Record... Which Is Why We Are Voting For Him, coauthors Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Carl Davidson argue the tactical case by endorsing the utility of “The Lesser of Two Evils” politics:
Regularly in election cycles some progressives will dismiss supporting any Democratic Party candidate because of a perceived need to reject "lesser evil-ism", meaning that Democrats will always strike a pose as somewhat better than the GOP, but remain no different in substance. In using the anti-‘lesser evil-ism’ phraseology, the suggestion is that it really does not matter who wins because they are both bad.  Eugene Debs is often quoted—better to vote for what you want and not get it, than to vote for what you oppose and get it. While this may make for strong and compelling rhetoric and assertions, it makes for a bad argument and bad politics... the matter of a lesser of two evils is a tactical question of simply voting for one candidate to defeat another, rather than a matter of principle.

I am less convinced of the need for viewing elections in purely pragmatic terms (there is non-negligible moral value in refusing to cooperate with an evil system by endorsing it with a vote), but I still think this argument is flawed, even on its own terms.
The weakness is this: by openly declaring that, no matter what, you will vote for a candidate in an election ensures that the candidate will ignore your political opinion.  Presidential candidates, in seeking to best their competitors, will only go after votes that they have a chance of winning.  This excludes anyone whose voting decision has already been made, such as Fletcher and Davidson, since candidates are focusing on the votes that are disputed -- these people are often referred to as swing voters or independents.  The Left announcing that all its votes are allocated to the Democratic party is a terrible strategy for promoting progressive policies in a presidential administration, since it will only move the campaigners to where there are more votes to win -- that is, further right.
Part 2: The Value of Voting, or Lack Thereof
“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” -- Emma Goldman

The case for not voting for Obama in light of his poor record is clear.  Now I turn to why voting for anyone, not just Obama, is of questionable value.  This section begins to eat away at some of the assumptions set forth in Part 1.
In actuality, elections are usually decided by money
It is no surprise to anyone with even a passing familiarity with American politics that money is flush, and usually determinative, in presidential elections.  Political scientist Thomas Furguson, using the “Investment Theory of Politics” describes elections as an event where business interests coalesce to control the state.  That is, various wealthy individuals and corporations contribute to forward a candidate’s campaign, with the unspoken agreement that the candidate will repay the favor once in office.  Money buys all kinds of propaganda: advertisements, political rallies and all kinds of subterfuge.  
The awareness of the impact of money affecting the presidential election is fortunately quite high nowadays, especially among progressives.  Corporate control of the political system has reached such an obscene and ostentatious level that even mainstream presidential candidates are complaining about it.
The mistake that many make, however, is to presume that money swaying presidential elections is a recent phenomenon introduced by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  This decision did not allow money into politics for the first time, but merely increased the allowable money that could be poured into an election from an enormous amount to a virtually unlimited amount.  In either case, the capture of the political system by influential business interests was and is a fact.
Presidents often reverse policy positions after being elected to office
Voting for a candidate presumes that the candidate will pursue policies similar to (and hopefully identical to) the policies on which he or she campaigned.  Unfortunately, history is rife with incidences of “flip-flopping” -- that is, a candidate carrying out the exact opposite policies in office of his or her campaign promises.
Some of the more famous examples include Republican president Richard Nixon and Democratic president Wildrow Wison campaigning on a peace platform, only to continue or start a war, respectively, when they came into office.  Or president George H.W. Bush’s famous betrayed pledge, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”  Barack Obama, in particular, has reversed course on acollection of issues, including SuperPAC donations and whistleblowing prosecutions.  
Perhaps most revealing of the pattern was political commentator/comedian Jon Stewart’s video montage An Energy-Independent Future, which showed every president going back to Nixon giving a speech promising ridding America of dependence on foreign oil sources.  Of course, none ever followed through on that project.  There is no reason to believe that such presidential 180s, on energy policy or otherwise, will soon cease.

The Electoral College system can make casting a vote a statistically meaningless activity
The population of America makes the likelihood that one’s vote alone will change the result of an election statistically negligible.  Furthermore, if one is voting in a state that votes predictably Republican or Democratic, the electoral college system, in which most states pledge all of their electoral college votes to the candidate who garners fifty-one percent of the state vote, ensures that a vote amounts to nothing.  
For example, California has cast its electoral college votes for Democratic presidents for the past twenty years.  In the most recent presidential election, millions more voters preferred Obama to McCain.
One can really only make a difference in voting if one is in a so-called swing state which has a good chance of going to either candidate.  Another way to influence an election is if one amplifies the importance of his or her vote by convincing many others to vote along his or her preferences.  Of course, this strategy is more consequential in small, swing states than large, partisan ones.
Elections can be outright stolen
There are a number of ways that procedure, deceit and/or fraud can conspire to change the outcome of an election.  The most obvious way, which occurred most recently in the 2000 presidential election, is when the Electoral College awards the presidency to a candidate that did not win the popular vote.  That is, the person with fewer votes than another candidate wins, a clear violation of the popular will of the American people.
The 2000 election also saw a more ostentatious form of thievery: a partisan judicial ruling on dubious grounds to deprive Al Gore of the presidency.  The Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. Gore to prevent a recount of certain Florida votes, a exercise that post-electoral analyses showed may well have given Gore victory.  The decision came in the wake of a number of other highly questionable events which had Republican-connected officials -- notably George W. Bush’s brother Jeb Bush who was the Florida governor at the time and Florida Secretary of State Kathleen Harris -- coordinating intimidation and disenfranchisement actions.
Another worry is that the technology that is often used to tally and store election results can often be hacked to alter the outcome.  In one famous demonstration, the documentary film Hacking Democracy shows an example of researchers modifying the contents of a memory card to swing the election result on a Diebold machine.
Large portions of the American citizenry are disenfranchised
Beyond the high-profile disenfranchisement via Supreme Court rulings and technological chicanery, there are numerous more pedestrian ways of influencing an election by disenfranchising voters.  Some are legal, some are not.
In the current election cycle, much news is being made by the various “Voter ID” initiatives which require certain voters to present certain forms of identification in order to vote in certain places (the exact laws vary over different precincts).  Such laws purport to address the issue of non-citizens voting, which is, for all intents and purposes, a non-problem.  The new laws are motivated, rather, by a Republican desire to exclude Democratic voters, especially ones that find it difficult for various reasons to obtain the requisite identification.
But disenfranchisement was a fact of life before the current election cycle.  In particular, felons and other convicted criminals, depending on the particular state law, may be disqualified from voting either while in prison or for life.  With the exploding prison population, this ban is increasing in electoral significance.
Another long-standing category of disenfranchised voters are people that, for one reason or another, are simply incapable of voting by the current means provided -- for instance, wheelchair-bound individuals at election stations without wheelchair access.  Actually getting to a polling station presents a non-trivial difficulty for many citizens, who either lack necessary transport to get to one or are prevented from doing so from the absence of a voting holiday.
Part 3: The Radical Argument
Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.” -- Howard Zinn

Part 2 showed that even if one were to make an informed choice in a presidential election through his or her vote, it might very well amount to little.  Now I turn to a more fundamental critique of so-called American democracy, completely obliterating the assumptions outlined in Part 1, which raises the question of why anyone would consider voting for a presidential candidate an important activity in the first place.
America is not, and was never intended to be, a democracy
Democracy is the philosophy that people should have a voice in the forces that control their lives; that people should have input in decisions proportional to the amount that they are affected by them.  Democracy requires a well-informed and engaged citizenry to function.
By this standard, America plainly is not a democracy.  Most people are not even aware of the policies of the candidates for whom they are voting, an intended result of the election propaganda which focuses on personalities, not policies.  Vast swaths of the population, notably the poor, are dramatically affected by policies that they have almost no opportunity to participate in shaping.  Even an educated and reasonably well-off individual can not hope to influence the direction of the American government when pitted against the corporate, vested forces that dominate the system.
What the United States is, technically, is a republic.  The people elect leaders every several years (differing in the amount of years according to office) to represent them in government.  The direct control of the country by the people that a democracy (whatever form that might take) would offer is limited to nonexistent in America.
This preference of a republic to a democracy goes back to the very founding of the country; exclusion of the majority from meaningful decision-making power is not a recent dynamic.  President of the Continental Congress and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay's maxim was "The people that own the country ought to govern it" -- certainly not the general population. Inaugural Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton saw the public as a "great beast" that needed to be tamed. James Madison declared that the government ought to be so constituted as to "protect the minority of the opulent against the majority."  One can find quotes from a litany of Founding Fathers along these lines -- the founders of the American government were terrified of the country devolving into democracy, and constructed the political system to ensure that it would never happen.
This two-tiered system of elites and commoners persists even though the formal discrimination written into the immediate post-colonial American system (no voting for women, slaves, non-property owners, etc.) has since been legally dismantled.  In the modern era, these elites assume the form of those with access to corporate power who are in a position to dictate politicians’ agendas -- Fortune 500 executives, hedge fund managers and casino magnates.  The modern corporation may be a relatively recent invention, but it merely makes grotesque a fundamental inequality in the American political apparatus extant since the country’s founding.
Thus is revealed the truth in conservative political commentator George Will’s observation (as well as that of Karl Marx and surely many other radicals) that an election is not about determining if elites will govern, but rather which elites will govern.  The next presidential vote may unseat Obama, but it has absolutely no chance of removing the transnational corporate class from power.
There are better ways to affect political change than voting
Given that elections are, in the worst case, a meaningless exercise in shuffling the personalities that occupy governmental leadership positions, and not much better in the best case, what actions can ordinary people take to precipitate progressive social change?
A good way to answer this question is to look at how the kind of hope and change -- the real kind, not the kind that Obama falsely promised America -- actually takes place.  The successful progressive social changes that have taken place over the past century -- civil rights, feminist and labor, for instance -- have all had one thing in common: social movements.
One can turn to Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States for a chronicling of these forces.  Zinn reveals in the book how mass movements of people can and did unite to change policies and win a better future.  The positive changes in society have never come through the benevolent decree of an enlightened leader.  The political establishment only bends to the will of the people when the people get angry and organized.  The truth of the matter is that, to quote Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”  Organized political efforts may include voting as a tactic, but only one tactic of many in the route to achieve a strategic goal.
Even in contemporary America, we can witness the validity of the claim that pressure from below is the best chance for pursuing progressive social change.  The Occupy movement, for instance, has enabled America to talk in terms of economic class politics unlike any time in the past few decades.  The Wisconsin campaign against governor Scott Walker reinvigorated working people and plainly revealed the insidious nature of money in politics.  The Chicago Teacher’s Union strike looks to reverse from the constant neoliberal attack on education, and seems to have won some minor concessions.  All of these efforts had their flaws, to be sure.  But any serious social movement will be a complicated affair, and must be open to critique and improvement.  The alternative route -- merely casting a vote and wondering why economic and social conditions continue to deteriorate -- is not an advisable strategy.
"Every four years liberals unhitch the cart and put it in front of the horse, arguing that the only way to a safer, better tomorrow will be if everyone votes for the Democratic nominee.  But unless the nominee and Congress are shoved forward by social currents too strong for them to defy or ignore, then nothing except the usual bad things will transpire.  In the American Empire of today, the default path chosen by the country’s supreme commanders and their respective parties is never toward the good.  Our task is not to dither in distraction over the lesser of two evil prospects, which turns out to be only a detour along the same highway." -- Alexander Cockburn
Obama is a president who over the past four years has accelerated the United States on its trajectory towards a “turnkey totalitarian state.”  His meager accomplishments provide absolutely no reason for voting for him, and his major party competitor, Romney, has a very similar platform.  Neither man deserves a progressive’s vote.
In any event, voting in a presidential election is a deeply problematic affair, with all kinds of obstacles in the way of the people to prevent them from exercising their will.  The corporate control of politics and political disenfranchisement top the list of concerns.
In a way, this is not terribly surprising because the political system of the United States was designed to explicitly prevent democracy.  Progressives serious about political change should consider social movements as an alternative to voting, and abandon delusions about voting as a sole means of comprehensive political transformation.
So, wait, who are you voting for, actually?
If I vote in presidential election, and given the above discussion I hope it is not a surprise that I consider voting in the election a rather inconsequential choice, it will be for a candidate who has some policies that I actually like.  The Green Party is an attractive option (and there are a whole host of other minor parties worth consideration).  Refusing to vote, on the other hand, is also a political statement in and of itself since there are organizations that use voting rates as a barometer of political dissatisfaction.  
One thing I certainly will not be doing, however, is voting for president Obama.
Some other interesting opinions on the election:
David Swanson's The Case for Irrational Voting argues that people do not coolly cast a ballot for the candidate who brings the most utilitarian value to society.  Instead, he says, people come to emotionally identify with the candidate for which they vote.  Even though pulling votes away from the "Lesser of Two Evils" might trigger his or her loss, it is a necessary price to pay, since otherwise those people will feel an obligation to defend the LoTE candidate at dinner parties with their friends, etc.  So the sooner people identify with more progressive candidates, the better.
Glenn Greenwald argued in an appearance on Democracy Now that Obama might actually be the greater of two evils since resistance to his assaults on freedoms is lessened because he is a Democrat -- the party which self-proclaimed liberals support -- not a Republican.  That may be true, but it is extremely difficult to weigh malevolence vs predicted popular pushback to determine “greater-evilness” when evaluating a candidate in advance of him or her attempting to implement policies, so this standard is not very useful in determining for whom to vote.

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