a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Dear Jim: why I still won’t vote for Obama

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 14th, 2012

“Peace, fellow Obama voters, I support the same war criminal you do for president, but just like the title.”
— Jim Henley, Rock-’Em, Sock-’Em Obots

As Obama’s poll numbers continue to swirl down the drain following his first debate with Romney, this whole post may be another example of what my brother once called my “comically bad timing.”  Nevertheless, I want to respond to a number of excellent posts by Jim Henley that have (as usual) challenged me to think again about my own positions.  The quote above is an appetizer; here’s more of a main course, with a memorable title — Justice Will Take Us Millions of Intricate Moves, Some of Them Annoying and Even Dispiriting — borrowed from the poet William Stafford:

I personally don’t think anything we do re this November’s ballot, including voting Libertarian or Green, will fix the country’s bipartisan commitment to militarism and panopticon. So I favor deciding what to do with November’s ballot for other reasons. That does unfortunately mean choosing which slate of war criminals should occupy the White House starting in January, as opposed to whether a slate of war criminals should do so. That hurts! I mean, I’m not putting you on here. It’s a shitty choice. In my case it compounds the stupidity I feel over thinking I was voting for something else entirely in 2008, and I hate feeling stupid. The reasons why I think it’s worth doing anyway are:

1. This (making the country more humane) is going to take more than one night.
2. On issues from health care to women’s rights, a Democratic victory will make many people’s lives better than a Republican one.
3. The actual voting will be over quickly.
4. Because voting will be over quickly, it will not stop us from doing all the other things we might choose to do to make the country genuinely better over time.

C’mon, it’s funny.

He even proposes a way out for “wavering progressives,” especially in swing states, proposing they make deals to vote for Obama if Obama supporters make it worth their while with the right action pledges.  And he hits uncomfortably close to my own mark in suggesting (to Obama supporters, actually), that “You’re not going to shame somebody onto your side. And at some point, if you’re honest with yourself, you’re no longer even trying to convert them. You just want to hurt their feelings.”  I suspect there’s going to be much more of that coming the other way, but I’ve done some of it myself, and I’ll try to stop.  Soon.

It’s interesting that Jim brings up the “what’s your vote worth to you” approach.  In “Why vote? When your vote counts for nothing“, Kevin Baker of Harper’s sees the elimination of votes for liquor/cash/connections as the key but temporary triumph of American democracy in the early 20th century.  To be sure, Jim doesn’t advocate trading votes for material gain — but the idea still essentially concedes that the alleged connection between voter and candidate is only a fiction in the early 21st century: we’re more sure of value in our vote if we trade it for something else than if we merely vote for a major party candidate based on his/her statements to us.

To be clear: that’s not Jim’s fault.  He’s got a point, though he doesn’t quite put it the way Baker does:

Try to imagine, if you can, candidate Barack Obama in 2008 running on a platform of balancing the budget and appeasing Wall Street by reducing Social Security benefits, restricting Medicare and Medicaid entitlements, increasing the retirement age, and never challenging the established hierarchy of the Democratic Party but rather returning members of the old Clinton regime to positions of power in his administration, especially those advocates of unregulated capitalism who did so much to bring on the economic crisis in the first place.  This candidate Obama would not have been elected, which is of course why you did not see him.  Yet President Obama has pursued these policies throughout his administration — and they appear to be exactly what he had in mind all along.  […]

On the eve of what both major parties are telling us is (yet another) critical election here in America, we are forced to question whether it is worth our while to vote at all — whether if, by voting for Barack Obama or for Mitt Romney, we will once again get almost the complete opposite of what we have been promised.

For more than a generation, this has been the central truth of American politics: How you cast your vote has almost no relation to what any candidate actually intends to do. […]

…In almost every case, taking part in our democracy proved to be not only disappointing but disastrous. Vote to save your house, bail out a bank.  Vote for smaller government, get an empire. Vote to balance the budget, lose your retirement.  It’s all good.  Or bad.  And it has nothing to do with you or the choices you made at the voting booth.

For Henley’s deal to work for me — and, I think, for most people — I’d need to be able to identify some action or set of actions that spoke to my misgivings about Future Obama, and identify how much value to extract from die-hard Obama supporter for the expected costs associated with those misgivings.  For example, drone missile attacks on rescuers could conceivably be “answered” with pledges to support a petition against such activity; indeed, Henley’s proposal was basically prompted by just such a proposed deal in comments to a prior post.   Similarly, Obama’s likely sellout of Social Security, his not unlikely capitulation to Israeli military action against Iran on re-election, his probable approval of the Keystone Pipeline, his all but certain continued evisceration of civil liberties, his continued preference for financial oligarchs over the 99%, let alone the 47%  and so forth could all conceivably be offset by pledges to somehow oppose those things: bring 20 people to an appropriate demonstration, give $500 to a well-chosen campaign, write 5 excellent letters to the editor, etc. etc.

For one thing, there are just too many.  But as Baker suggests, there’s a deeper problem.   I’ll stipulate setting aside the “gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today” problem for any of dozens of Obama supporters I know personally.  They’re good for any deals they’d make.  My problem — and theirs — is simple: Obama himself is not.  He’s a narcissistic fraud, far more interested in looking good and sounding good than in doing any appreciable good. Their vote for him is merely misguided; mine would be a betrayal of myself, and of my friends if I did it for a fee of my choosing.

I think I’ve earned the right to say these things, rather than join, say, Josh Marshall and many of his TPM email correspondents these days in clapping my hands and wishing real hard that Obama weren’t such a washout.*  I blush to admit that I actually worked pretty hard for the guy in 2008, despite serious misgivings.  I gave in after the euphoric election night, dared to sip the Kool-Aid, and proclaimed myself hopeful about the next four years.

No one can know the future.  But it won’t do to ignore the past.  It turned out my vote was — to use Jim’s word — stupid: from a useless surge in Afghanistan to a reign of terror over Pakistan to abuse of prosecutorial powers against American Muslims and activists to sellouts to the financial sector and pharma sectors, to accelerating economic inequality for the 99%, Obama has been the opposite of anything I wanted and the opposite of what he implied he’d be. Maybe the signs were there — see my misgivings –but overall, Obama was running a “break with the Bush years” campaign, you know it, and if you supported him that’s why.  And it didn’t happen.

So to Obama supporters: you’re welcome for my help in 2008. It was worth a shot. I now ask that you please refrain from requiring I throw yet more good money, effort, and voting decisions after bad.  Like Henley, I thought I was voting for something else entirely in 2008.  Unlike him, that’s reason enough for me not to a second time.**  I respect my vote and my hopes in 2008 enough to reject rewarding their betrayal in 2012.

The alert reader will object that I haven’t responded in detail to Henley’s central argument.  In his 4-point rationale, I agree completely with 1, 3, and 4.  I know I’m supposed to on #2 (“a Democratic victory will make many people’s lives better”), but the question is: over what time frame?  In the short run — say, up to the next mid-term election — well, maybe.  But even in the middle run, I’m not sure at all with this guy. How’s it worked out so far?  We had the House, the Senate, and the White House, and all we’ve got to show for it is one politically fragile, Rube Goldberg health insurance apparatus to show for the past four years, one economically fragile, robber-barons-still-in-charge half-assed economic recovery, one confirmed Cheney-era military empire/homeland panopticon, and a President all but desperate to deal away the family inheritance for some attaboys from the Washington Post.

If this is best the leader of the Democratic Party can do with overwhelming advantages, long since frittered away, I have far more confidence in President Obama’s supporters than in Obama himself in the four years ahead.  If Romney wins, sure, I’ll be worried — but at least we’ll have a clear sense of who the enemy is and what to do about it.  And we won’t be making excuses for their collaborator in the White House.

* This is my best guess about the alleged assist Henley hints Obama’s opponents on the left have given Obama supporters: a kind of beleaguered esprit de corps that may get a few more of them out and about knocking on doors and such for the guy.
** For his part, Kevin Baker’s prescriptions seem to me an increasing mismatch to his analysis; he closes his “Why vote?” essay with “So yes, go out and vote.  Go vote for Barack Obama… To vote for a Mitt Romney … is an act of national suicide”; in a subsequent blog post titled “Yes. We. Can.” he pushes the red-alert button following the debate, writing “we liberals are going to have to pull [Obama] through. We’re going to have to do it because the only alternative is too awful to contemplate, and there’s no time to replace him.”  So, obviously, if the main guy I cite isn’t really with me (or himself) on this, you’re quite justified to conclude you needn’t be either.
EDITS, 10/14: all minor: added “best” to “if this is the best”, deleted “that’s” from “and if you supported,”and one “and” from the last sentence of the next-to-last paragraph.

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