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.

 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.