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, 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.


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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.