Monday, October 15, 2012

Conor Friedersdorf: "Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama"

In The Atlantic; here's the whole thing:
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?

I don't see how anyone who confronts Obama's record with clear eyes can enthusiastically support him. I do understand how they might concluded that he is the lesser of two evils, and back him reluctantly, but I'd have thought more people on the left would regard a sustained assault on civil liberties and the ongoing, needless killing of innocent kids as deal-breakers. 


There are folks on the left who feel that way, of course. Some of them were protesting with the Occupy movement at the DNC. But the vast majority don't just continue supporting Obama. They can't even comprehend how anyone would decide differently. In a recent post, I excoriated the GOP and its conservative base for operating in a fantasy land with insufficient respect for empiricism or honest argument.

I ended the post with a one-line dig at the Democratic Party. "To hell with them both," I fumed.

Said a commenter, echoing an argument I hear all the time:
I mean, how can someone who just finished writing an article on how the Republican Party is too deluded, in the literal sense, to make good decisions about anything not prefer the other party?
Let me explain how.

I am not a purist. There is no such thing as a perfect political party, or a president who governs in accordance with one's every ethical judgment. But some actions are so ruinous to human rights, so destructive of the Constitution, and so contrary to basic morals that they are disqualifying. Most of you will go that far with me. If two candidates favored a return to slavery, or wanted to stone adulterers, you wouldn't cast your ballot for the one with the better position on health care. I am not equating President Obama with a slavery apologist or an Islamic fundamentalist. On one issue, torture, he issued an executive order against an immoral policy undertaken by his predecessor, and while torture opponents hoped for more, that is no small thing.    

What I am saying is that Obama has done things that, while not comparable to a historic evil like chattel slavery, go far beyond my moral comfort zone. Everyone must define their own deal-breakers. Doing so is no easy task in this broken world. But this year isn't a close call for me.

I find Obama likable when I see him on TV. He is a caring husband and father, a thoughtful speaker, and possessed of an inspirational biography. On stage, as he smiles into the camera, using words to evoke some of the best sentiments within us, it's hard to believe certain facts about him:    
  1. Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn't "precise" or "surgical" as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment. At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy. And Democrats who believe that it is the most moral of all responsible policy alternatives are as misinformed and blinded by partisanship as any conservative ideologue. 
  2. Obama established one of the most reckless precedents imaginable: that any president can secretly order and oversee the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Obama's kill list transgresses against the Constitution as egregiously as anything George W. Bush ever did. It is as radical an invocation of executive power as anything Dick Cheney championed. The fact that the Democrats rebelled against those men before enthusiastically supporting Obama is hackery every bit as blatant and shameful as anything any talk radio host has done.  
  3. Contrary to his own previously stated understanding of what the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution demand, President Obama committed U.S. forces to war in Libya without Congressional approval, despite the lack of anything like an imminent threat to national security. 
In different ways, each of these transgressions run contrary to candidate Obama's 2008 campaign. (To cite just one more example among many, Obama has done more than any modern executive to wage war on whistleblowers. In fact, under Obama, Bush-era lawbreakers, including literal torturers, have been subject to fewer and less draconian attempts at punishment them than some of the people who conscientiously came forward to report on their misdeeds.) Obama ran in the proud American tradition of reformers taking office when wartime excesses threatened to permanently change the nature of the country. But instead of ending those excesses, protecting civil liberties, rolling back executive power, and reasserting core American values, Obama acted contrary to his mandate. The particulars of his actions are disqualifying in themselves. But taken together, they put us on a course where policies Democrats once viewed as radical post-9/11 excesses are made permanent parts of American life.

There is a candidate on the ballot in at least 47 states, and probably in all 50, who regularly speaks out against that post-9/11 trend, and all the individual policies that compose it. His name is Gary Johnson, and he won't win. I am supporting him because he ought to. Liberals and progressives care so little about having critiques of the aforementioned policies aired that vanishingly few will even urge that he be included in the upcoming presidential debates. If I vote, it will be for Johnson. What about the assertion that Romney will be even worse than Obama has been on these issues? It is quite possible, though not nearly as inevitable as Democrats seem to think. It isn't as though they accurately predicted the abysmal behavior of Obama during his first term, after all. And how do you get worse than having set a precedent for the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens? By actually carrying out such a killing? Obama did that too. Would Romney? I honestly don't know. I can imagine he'd kill more Americans without trial and in secret, or that he wouldn't kill any. I can imagine that he'd kill more innocent Pakistani kids or fewer. His rhetoric suggests he would be worse. I agree with that. Then again, Romney revels in bellicosity; Obama soothes with rhetoric and kills people in secret.

To hell with them both.

Sometimes a policy is so reckless or immoral that supporting its backer as "the lesser of two evils" is unacceptable. If enough people start refusing to support any candidate who needlessly terrorizes innocents, perpetrates radical assaults on civil liberties, goes to war without Congress, or persecutes whistleblowers, among other misdeeds, post-9/11 excesses will be reined in.

If not?

So long as voters let the bipartisan consensus on these questions stand, we keep going farther down this road, America having been successfully provoked by Osama bin Laden into abandoning our values.

We tortured.

We started spying without warrants on our own citizens.

We detain indefinitely without trial or public presentation of evidence.

We continue drone strikes knowing they'll kill innocents, and without knowing that they'll make us safer.

Is anyone looking beyond 2012?

The future I hope for, where these actions are deal-breakers in at least one party (I don't care which), requires some beginning, some small number of voters to say, "These things I cannot support." 

Are these issues important enough to justify a stand like that?

I think so.

I can respect the position that the tactical calculus I've laid out is somehow mistaken, though I tire of it being dismissed as if so obviously wrong that no argument need be marshaled against it. I am hardly the first to think that humans should sometimes "act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." I am hardly the first to recommend being the change you want to see. I can respect counterarguments, especially when advanced by utilitarians who have no deal-breakers of their own. But if you're a Democrat who has affirmed that you'd never vote for an opponent of gay equality, or a torturer, or someone caught using racial slurs, how can you vote for the guy who orders drone strikes that kill hundreds of innocents and terrorizes thousands more -- and who constantly hides the ugliest realities of his policy (while bragging about the terrorists it kills) so that Americans won't even have all the information sufficient to debate the matter for themselves?

How can you vilify Romney as a heartless plutocrat unfit for the presidency, and then enthusiastically recommend a guy who held Bradley Manning in solitary and killed a 16-year-old American kid? If you're a utilitarian who plans to vote for Obama, better to mournfully acknowledge that you regard him as the lesser of two evils, with all that phrase denotes.

But I don't see many Obama supporters feeling as reluctant as the circumstances warrant.

The whole liberal conceit that Obama is a good, enlightened man, while his opponent is a malign, hard-hearted cretin, depends on constructing a reality where the lives of non-Americans -- along with the lives of some American Muslims and whistleblowers -- just aren't valued. Alternatively, the less savory parts of Obama's tenure can just be repeatedly disappeared from the narrative of his first term, as so many left-leaning journalists, uncomfortable confronting the depths of the man's transgressions, have done over and over again.  

Keen on Obama's civil-libertarian message and reassertion of basic American values, I supported him in 2008. Today I would feel ashamed to associate myself with his first term or the likely course of his second. I refuse to vote for Barack Obama. Have you any deal-breakers?

How is this not among them?


rick allen said...

"Sometimes a policy is so reckless or immoral that supporting its backer as "the lesser of two evils" is unacceptable."

But then, because politics is a matter of the practical rather than the theoretical, not supporting the lesser of two evils will usually result, practically, in supporting the greater of two evils, which is hardly the morally superior position, I think.

To me, the "pox on both Democratic and Republican houses" has some attraction, for all the reasons given. But when I look on how that played out in the 2000 election, when the votes for Ralph Nadar probably played a hand in the election of Bush Junior, I believe a lot of the most severe of our currently reigning evils could well have been avoided has the "better" third party candidate been ignored.

I continue to be a supporter of President Obama. I don't support him on every issue. I agree that his conduct of the Afghan war is a huge problem that stems from the whole bipartisan American committment to empire. And on social questions I tend to what is conventionally labeled the conservative side, being one of the Democratic minority pro-lifers.

So it's not like I see the election as angels vs. devils. Still, I consider it primarily important to look at outcomes, better and worse, and I think it can be irresponsible to conclude, if I don't agree 100%, or 90%, with one candidate, that that allows me to sit it our or cast a symbolic vote.

Many years ago I remember a Louisiana governor's race in which a corrupt Democratic incumbant ran against the Republican nominee, a Ku Klux Klan leader. The bumpersticker said it all: "Vote for the crook. It's important." It was, and it continues to be.

bls said...

I know what you mean, but I'm not sure I agree. "The lesser of two evils" really is taking us down a road that we shouldn't be on, IMO. I mean, there isn't a Ku Kluxer in this election, either.

My mother, BTW, voted for Margaret Chase Smith in the '64 election....


bls said...

(I mean, I kind of buy his idea that continuing to vote for the people who promote these policies indicates approval - and that nothing will change until they are penalized for it.)

rick allen said...

I understand how people can get fed up--the first time I ever voted, back in 1974, I voted for the Socialist Labor candidate for governor of Texas, to no appreciable effect.

I think the culprit is more the two-party system than anything. Morality, even political morality, is much more complex than a left/right categorization.

For what it's worth, I set out my solution to the problem here:

But so far there has been no groundswell of support. Hard to understand.

I actually voted for Gary Johnson once, for governor of New Mexico. I think a little less of the guy now than then--a product of his actually governing, I'm afraid. (And the way he treated his late ex-wife.) But I don't see even a protest vote for him as any sort of real solution. I doubt that the winning candidate is going to feel that he's been penalized at all. Merely winning will make him think he's doing everything right. And his party.

bls said...

Maybe I'm just being lazy, and avoiding the real solution: vocal and sustained protest of the policies themselves. That, of course, takes work and effort - while throwing the switch for some 3rd-party candidate just takes about a second in November.

Probably I'll vote for Obama anyway - but I sure do understand what this guy is saying. I think you're right about the two-party system, too.

But I do think, now that I'm considering it more deeply, that the solution really does lie in protest, though. Unfortunately that means I'll have to do something about it myself. Damn it all....

bls said...

I liked your electoral college post, BTW! But we still need to vote.

So I propose a different solution: the electoral college - or some other group that has the confidence of the electorate - would do exactly as you suggest. It would work to find qualified and temperamentally-suited men and women who could be elected President. It could talk to local leaders to gather ideas. It would interview candidates, just as you say - and make those interviews public. It should, I agree, pick out possible Vice-Presidential candidates as well.

And then it would present a slate of these possible candidates to the electorate to choose on election day, after all this had been well-publicized. Because we should still vote; members of the electoral college are not elected, after all.

I like the idea of voting regardless of party affiliation, too - and that we could vote for people of different affiliations for Pres. and VP.

This is no worse than the situation we have now, as far as I can see - and could be a whole lot better, I think....

bls said...

Or, perhaps: both things could happen. The parties could put forward their candidates, and the EC could put forward its own slate of possibilities, assisted by the suggestions of local leaders and ordinary people.

That way, we'd have a bit of a choice. But I guess there would be a problem with getting a majority.

Well, we need to think it through. But I'm up for anything that would make things better....

rick allen said...

I'm glad you enjoyed my re-write. Castles in the air, of course, but I think it's good to occasionally wonder about starting from scratch.

The vote, in my scheme, is pretty much lost...but I wonder about it's value in a republic as large as this one. There was much speculation, if I remember right, in the Federalist, about whether a republic the size of the thirteen colonies could even exist. And after all, what do I know of any candidate, who is to me mostly an image on a television screen?

And any system has its weaknesses. I have been lately reading a biography of Lorenzo de Medici, and learning how, even in a republic whose magistrates were chosen entirely by lot, with terms of only two months in office, the wealthy were able nevertheless to subvert and control it.

Not that we don't have a lot to be grateful for from quatrocento Florence. But a functioning democracy it certainly was not.....