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.

 

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear