Should liberals vote for Obama?

We need a liberalism that engages as well as spectates - without power, there is no change.

With the effect of Mitt Romney's comment about 47 per cent of Americans now being felt in the national polls (it doesn't look good), with the economy adding 386,000 more jobs than originally thought between March 2011 and March 2012, and with early voting beginning into battleground states, things are looking very good for President Barack Obama's chances at a second term in office.

The Associated Press based its analysis of how things stand on polls, TV ads, and interviews with campaign officials and concluded that: "If the election were held today, an Associated Press analysis shows Obama would win at least 271 electoral votes, with likely victories in crucial Ohio and Iowa along with 19 other states and the District of Columbia. Romney would win 23 states for a total of 206."

In other words, you need 270 electoral votes to win, and Obama seems poised to make that impossible for Romney. Even if Romney took Florida, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Virginia -- all of which are up for grabs - he'd still have just 267 votes, according to the AP. Close but not close enough.

Perhaps this is why we are seeing a fresh debate on the political left over the president's first term. Now that the chances of a Republican taking the White House appear to be diminishing, the coast is clear for dissent over the president's record on civil liberties: drones, extra-judicial killings and suspension of habeas corpus. In other words, on a record that's abysmal and maddening to some of Obama's 2008 supporters. The debate began when Conor Friedersdorf, of The Atlantic, said that he won't vote for Romney but he won't vote for Obama either.

I don't see how anyone who confronts Obama's record with clear eyes can enthusiastically support him. I do understand how they might conclude 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.  
 

He continues:

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. 
 

In protest, Friedersdorf says he plans to cast a vote for Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico and current candidate for the Libertarian Party who, he says, "won't win". Like former GOP candidate Ron Paul, who sat at the top of the Libertarian ticket back in the late 1980s, Johnson has been virtually alone in denouncing such constitutional violations while conservatives and liberals have been silent. Of course, liberals were anything but mute when George W. Bush was president. During the 2000s, they rallied against torture. But while Obama has banned torture, he has "indefinitely detained" Bradley Manning, personally overseen the killing of an American citizen in Yemen and escalated a drone war in Pakistan, terrorizing the locals there while fearing little political fallout at home.

As Friedersdorf says: "Obama soothes with rhetoric and kills people in secret."

Jamelle Bouie, of The American Prospect, appreciates Friedersdorf's frustration but demurs. "For as much as they have a huge effect on the direction of the country, presidential elections are not the place where meaningful change occurs."

Health care reform, Bouie says, didn't begin with Obama but ended with him. The new law was the culmination of years of grassroots effort. Voting for Johnson, moreover, won't force the two major parties to change, he says. They are too entrenched and too self-interested to fall apart. Besides, he adds, Johnson's position is hardly the lesser of two evils. He wants to slash the US budget to the bone, decimate social programs and reverse Roe v. Wade. Bouie says:

A world where Johnson could be elected president — which, Conor says, would be a good outcome — is a world where these things are possible. His domestic policies would throw millions into hardship, and his hugely contractionary economic policies would plunge the country — and the globe — into a recession.
 

I, too, sympathize with Friedersdorf. I also think he confuses ideology with partisanship. He claims to have come to his conclusion about Obama because he is "not a purist," by which he seems to mean he doesn't divide the world between friend and enemy. Ideas matter to him, as do ethics, and if these contravene partisan allegiance, then so be it. He is, however, an ideological purist, which is why he's on firm ground lambasting the incumbent for violating human rights. 

Yet, like many American liberals, Friedersdorf overestimates the importance of ethics in presidential elections and underestimates the importance of raw politics. Politics means power, and without power, the liberal agenda, no matter how righteous, cannot effect change in any transformative and majoritarian sense. Indeed, if I were to take a wild guess, Friedersdorf's ideal might be voting for the presidential candidate who actually does the right thing, no matter what, even if that right-thing is politically dicey. That's nice but solipsistic and impractical. 

And perhaps selfish. As it happens, Rebecca Solnit, writing for tomdispatch.com, provides a counterpoint to Friedersdorf a day after his article ran (though not in response as far as I can tell): "When you choose not to participate [in the political system], it better be for reasons more interesting than the cultivation of your own moral superiority, which is so often also the cultivation of recreational bitterness."



Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting a politics focused on power only. What I'm suggesting is a liberalism that engages rather than spectates. A vote for an outlier with no chance of winning is a spectatorial politics in its most basic form. 

 
American conservatism has tended to view liberalism as illegitimate. The Republican Party doesn't listen to its own social libertarians. Why would a President Romney listen to liberals? Better to vote for a president who will listen, then hold his feet to the fire. To do that, activists need to radicalize the Democratic Party's base.
 
As Solnit says, electoral politics are nominally important but important all the same. If Friedersdorf wants Obama to stop terrorizing Pakistani families, imprisoning Americans without trial, and killing with impunity, he's not going to do it by voting for Gary Johnson. Yes, if enough Americans voted for an alternative party, then the major parties might change. But that's a liberal canard more in keeping with one's sense of self-importance than one's concern with majoritarian progress.

 

Barack Obama. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.