Should liberals vote for Obama?

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

Barack Obama. Photograph: Getty Images
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.