I won’t be voting for Barack Obama on Election Day. In writing this I don’t expect to persuade anyone to do the same, but I do want to talk about my reasons. There have been a few good pieces written along these lines, and I won’t add much that hasn’t been said already. But I think it’s important for this piece to get written as many times as possible.
First off: I was a huge Obama supporter in 2008. Probably as enthusiastic as you can be without being a major donor or actually working for the campaign. I read both The Audacity Of Hope and Dreams From My Father, and was deeply moved by the latter (which I still hold to be a beautifully written and candid account of an individual’s search for their heritage—notably, an individual who had yet to run for any political office). There were a number of his campaign promises that sounded good on their face to me, and a number of troubling positions and aspects of his record that I mostly turned a blind eye towards; ultimately, I did what many people do, and decided whom to support based on how much I felt like I related to the candidate. I had Obama stickers on my car, mentioned him in a song, and traveled to Nevada for three weekends in September and October to canvass for the Democratic ticket in the Reno metro area. When he won, I shared in the revelry.
Though I’m slightly embarrassed now by the uncritical loyalty I exhibited at that time, I can’t say I regret it, any more than I regret the romance I began with a fellow Obama campaign volunteer—and that for months I tried to save, before finally accepting the irreconcilable differences. As with that relationship, there was disillusionment by degrees, and though I’ll never go back, I can still relate to the person I was at the beginning, with my wishful thinking, good faith and best intentions. I think people like that are the folks that we radicals need to be talking to and making our case.
So I am limiting my intended audience for this piece to those people. Folks who may have supported Obama in the past, who are disappointed and disgusted with this administration, but feel like they have to pull the lever for him anyway. Folks who genuinely believe that choosing the Lesser of Two Evils is their only option. I’ve come to believe that not only do we have other options, but that lesser-evil thinking is an insidious trap that ties our hands against building towards real change.
Before we begin, there are two defenses of Obama that I reject outright and refuse to debate. The first is that there’s a meaningful difference between what he and his administration do and what he “wants to do”. There is no way to know with any accuracy what distance might lie between the man’s private values and his marching orders, but it’s irrelevant anyhow: when we are talking about policy choices that have the power to save or end lives, there is only the deed. The other is the trope that Obama has done “the best he can do” with a hostile Republican Congress. Only a person ignorant of Obama’s actual record could credulously assert this; these people need to educate themselves, but that’s not my goal here today.
My disillusionment with Obama began with his extension of the Bush tax cuts, deepened when he put Social Security and Medicare on the bargaining table; but the assassination of Anwar and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was the final straw for me. I remember I was at the first day of Occupy Austin when another protester told me about this; jaded though I already was, it sounded so insane to me that I assumed he was paranoid and delusional. But the timing was serendipitous; at just the moment when my willingness to uneasily fall in line broke, the Occupy movement erupted and created the space for me to break from the Democratic Party and know I was not alone in my conscientious objection. Once I had accepted and grieved my long-misplaced faith, I found there were many facts about Obama that I could face with much less cognitive and moral dissonance.
Most of my liberal and progressive friends will agree Obama has done some terrible things, but maintain that however bad Obama has been or might become, his opponent will be significantly worse. A corollary of this is that there is a way to ‘strategically’ support Obama’s reelection, ostensibly to create conditions within the system that will respond more favorably to agitation from without.
The first idea, that a Republican administration will always be so much more odious than a Democratic one that the latter must be supported, has an apparently simple proof in contrasting the campaign rhetoric of the candidates. But there’s actually no way to assert this with honest certainty. Besides the fact that campaigns by design highlight difference and erase agreement, there’s the simple matter that we don’t actually have a time machine, dimensional jumper or any other device that would let us see just how abysmal the alternate reality would have been. We don’t and can’t know, for instance, whether President John McCain would have dramatically increased the number of drone strikes and deportations of undocumented folks. It’s possible, but it’s also possible—if we believe Obama’s own line of criticism from 2008—that McCain would have been exactly the same on these two issues as his predecessor: a pitiful standard to hold, but one of which Obama still falls objectively and significantly short.
The second part, the notion that we can support Obama at the ballot box and then resist him in the streets—that we can choose an easier opponent, in other words—undermines itself. When you disapprove of someone’s positions, but ‘strategically’ support them anyway, you have just incentivized their impunity. This is even truer when we fail to hold someone to account for their actual record, which in Obama’s case includes a zeal for popular repression that cannot be blamed on external pressures. In this instance at least, we cannot choose a less powerful opponent, because they are empowered by the choosing itself.
Whether you believe that meaningful social or political change can come from the Democrats, from an Independent of some stripe, or from the State not at all: why would any politician do right if they don’t believe they have anything to lose? Right now the Democratic Party is like the smug merchant whose price is firm because nobody is walking away.
The most compelling argument I’ve heard to continue to support Obama in spite of his transgressions has come from friends who have experienced some direct personal benefit as a result of his policies. Namely, I know a number of folks whose own or loved one’s medical care has been provided or preserved by some aspect of the Affordable Care Act. These cases are not insignificant, and I’m not indifferent to them. Whether right or wrong, I feel somewhat bound by decency not to challenge too forcefully these folks’ decision to support Obama.
But I also won’t be bullied into allowing their experience to trump any other consideration or misgiving. As one such person wrote on Facebook: “[If] you plan to vote for anyone other than the incumbent presidential candidate in November, you are pissing me right the fuck off, and here’s why. If your fuckery gets the Republican candidate elected in November, this is what it will cost me, personally.” Here’s the problem with that. Your life may have been positively affected by this administration, but there are also other folks whose lives have been ruined by it. Would you make the same zealous demand of someone whose spouse or parent had been deported? In fact, why limit it to people residing in the United States: why should I value your prosperity or suffering more than the thousands of Afghans, Pakistanis and other peoples who are terrorized and murdered by U.S. drones every day? And if I’m responsible for your and your family’s hardship if Obama loses, how are you not responsible for all of their woe if he wins? I’m sorry, but you don’t get to shame me about the blood that will be on my hands if Romney is elected, then shrug off your complicity in Obama’s warmongering as tragic but unavoidable.
Then there’s the argument from urgency: that the stakes are too high in this election to embark on a long-term project of changing the political playing field. That this claim has been made in every presidential election I’ve participated in (and for a long time before then) is telling, but I was still given pause to consider it anew in light of the threat of global ecological catastrophe. Still, it only takes Googling the words “Keystone XL” to disabuse yourself of any notion that voting for Obama is any sort of serious approach to averting that disaster.
Ultimately, I’ll concede that Obama and other Democrats are, on a number of issues, slightly less evil than Republicans. But just because they aren’t exactly the same doesn’t mean they’re not a part of the same rotten system. If the Dems weren’t noticeably more palatable to certain conscientious voters, they wouldn’t be an effective pressure release valve for public outrage. At my previous tutoring job (and, I’m sure, at virtually all jobs working with children), we had a trick-bag of “behavior modifications” to keep the student engaged in the task. One of the simplest and most effective of these was to give them a “forced choice”, where either option was suitable to me. “Would you rather spell five words, or ten?” Either way, I achieved my goal. In fact, sometimes five words was all I wanted them to do anyway. So when the same person as above angrily charged that I was “playing right into the GOP electoral strategy”, I have to counter that they might be playing into the ruling class’ governance strategy.
It’s often claimed that voting Independent, or refusing to vote for any of the candidates in the field, is a purely symbolic act. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we have any ability to influence our elected officials (a premise well worth debating, but most defenses of Obama presume this as well), that power must stem from a credible threat of withholding material support. And so I must be honest with you and say that even if I lived in swing state, I would not vote for Obama: not just in spite of the fact that it could hurt his reelection chances, but because of it. The better to transmit my message: I’m not fucking around.
Being as I am still relatively new to radical left politics, I’ll decline to opine at this time what role electoral politics should play in the struggle for justice and liberation, if any. I don’t expect that everyone will reach the same ideological conclusions I have, but I do have hope that we can see this rigged game for what it is. As long as we continue to support agents of this system who perpetrate the very oppression we struggle against, we’ll keep playing ourselves.
Because when it comes to who we pull the lever for, it doesn’t matter what’s in our hearts, any more than it matters whether Obama really wants deep down when he bargains with Social Security or authorizes a drone strike. As with him, so with us: there is only the deed.