Hold Your Nose and Vote

Obama election satire. Australia, 2008.

During every presidential election in the United States, the same argument is made, mostly on the left, but also on the extreme right. The candidates don’t represent your views, so you vote for a third party candidate, or don’t vote at all. After all, the argument goes, how are we ever going to get candidates who do what we want them to do if we keep sending the same mainstream politicians to Washington?

There was a time that argument held appeal for me. Now, I recognize it for what it is: a facile line of reasoning that brings enormous consequences upon the heads of less privileged US citizens and people all over the world. They pay the price for the political games and laziness of America’s liberal-left continuum.

Yes, laziness. It is easy to play these games at the ballot box, or to write articles like this one about why a person of conscience shouldn’t vote for Obama. It’s much harder to create the meaningful political movement that would serve as an alternative to Obama. That’s work. Too many progressive Americans don’t like that much.

The extreme right has no similar dilemmas. But the very same despair the left experiences afflicts it as well. That’s where the Tea Party came from. For all its fanaticism, and its inability to reach people outsiders (the Tea Party, as much as any factor, has hamstrung Mitt Romney, as they have made themselves his base which he dare not alienate, but because of that, he has lost the center) they have managed to transform the GOP in its own image. That’s an accomplishment.

On our side, we have the Occupy movement, but that group has shown little interest in an agenda of any kind, let alone one that would reach inside the Beltway. Indeed, the entire spectrum of the center-left has shown no inclination toward real political organization for an alternative to a Democratic Party that has consistently turned its back on its constituents and its professed ideological beliefs. Until that reality changes, progressives have no moral justification for allowing the greater of two evils to win power.

In 2000, I found the protest vote argument persuasive to a degree. Living in California at the time, a state whose polls almost always close after a winner is declared and which was certain to go for Democratic candidate Al Gore, I felt I was risking little by voting for a third party candidate. I don’t think I would have done so under different circumstances. In the event, it didn’t matter in California, but since Gore won the popular vote by some half a million, who can say if he wouldn’t have gotten enough to prevent George W. Bush from ascending to the White House?

And that election had profound consequences, both domestically and globally. We cannot, of course, know what Gore would have done had he been President during and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But we do know that Bush stacked his government with neoconservatives who were just waiting for an opportunity to carry out their massive interventionist policies, and they got just that. The Iraq War seems unlikely to have come about absent the neocons’ influence and Bush’s own deep hatred for Saddam Hussein over a plot to assassinate his father years before, as well as other interests held by him and his Vice President, Richard Cheney.

Bush also broke with decades of US policy when he officially notified Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in 2004, outside the framework of negotiations with the Palestinians, that Israel would not have to withdraw from all of the territories it captured in 1967. There was no quid pro quo for this largesse. I will never forget seeing Colin Powell’s jaw clench during Bush’s announcement of this gift so tightly I thought his teeth were going to shatter. He understood that Bush was fatally undermining any hopes for diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict by determining outcomes unilaterally, but Powell was helpless to prevent it. The neocons, who never got along with him, had won that battle.

The President’s invasion of Iraq greatly increased Iran’s reach in the Middle East. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine Iranian power being the issue that it is today, for the Americans, without it. Bush backed the US out of the Kyoto Protocols and increased our greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, he campaigned against the idea that global warming was a political issue, leaving millions of Americans in ignorance of the deep threat to the planet that this phenomenon represents.

Domestically, Bush appointed three of the four arch-conservative justices to the US Supreme Court. This had a profound effect on American law. For the first time since abortion was made legal in the US, women’s rights to control their bodies were rolled back. Campaign finance regulations were loosened, particularly in the so-called Citizens United case, allowing the super-rich to contribute to candidates much more freely and thereby giving them far more influence over elections. And, of course, the finance industries were de-regulated, the results of which were devastating economically in ways we continue to feel. Much of this clearly would not have happened under Gore. Many other things that I did not mention above probably would have. This is the heart of the matter.

There is no doubt we are being asked to choose between the lesser of two evils. Barack Obama’s record is poor on many important issues. The President has maintained the illegal prison camp at Guantanamo Bay; his program of drone strikes kills civilians on a near-daily basis; he and his Democratic cohorts, led by Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, ensured that virtually all government assistance in the financial crisis went to the very same rich folks who caused the meltdown, instead of going to the masses who desperately needed it. I could go on.

So, yes, I get it. The Democrats are awful. Obama certainly is a long way from reflecting my values, priorities and political beliefs. But our task is to build a viable political alternative to the Democrats, whether from within that party like the Tea Party did inside the GOP, or from outside via a new, third party. Not voting for Obama will only allow the liberal-left to sit on a high horse and admire their own moral excellence, while others pay the price.

If withholding the vote from Obama is only symbolic, then it accomplishes nothing. If it is meaningful, then anyone choosing that path needs to consider the ramifications of that choice. Mitt Romney makes no secret of his priorities: they lie with people like him, the mega-rich, to an even greater extent than Bush. He will cut services to the poor and, whether through taxes or other methods of raising prices and fees, he will have the middle class pay for his friends’ tax breaks.

The next four years could see as many as four seats on the Supreme Court open up, two currently held by liberals and one by the most centrist member of the Court. A more conservative bench could well act to roll back not only abortion rights, but also much of the progress we have made toward marriage equality in this country. Such a Court would also be sympathetic to attacks on the meager steps Obama has taken toward ensuring universal healthcare, while it would be even deafer to pleas regarding executions in the United States.

And on foreign policy? Mitt Romney has surrounded himself with neoconservatives, many of them refugees from the Bush Administration. Imagine what their return to office might portend. The neocons charged with running US policy toward Arab countries more responsive to their own populations—populations who are already mistrustful, at best, of the United States after years of western support for dictatorships, the Israeli dispossession and occupation of the Palestinians, and exploitation of local resources. The same neocons that were calling for an attack on Iran long before the debilitating sanctions were put in place. Opposition to progress on climate change would increase greatly as well.

So, this is what we would look forward to if we go ahead with any sort of meaningful “protest vote” or non-vote. Perhaps the leftists in the US who pursue such a course think they can sleep better at night and hold their heads higher during the day. I wonder if they will still be able to do so if they visit a destroyed village resulting from the latest US attempt at hegemony disguised as an attempt to deliver democracy with the barrel of a gun. I wonder if they will be able to do so looking at the single mother caring for a baby she didn’t want. Or for the man or woman who loses everything they had because their same-gender life partner died, and their family took it all from a spouse in practice who had no legal rights.

It’s easy to withhold the vote, and for the most part, it won’t matter much. But at best it does nothing. At worst, we could end up with eight years that make Bush’s policies look liberal. But watch the Democratic Convention again, There are plenty of people in that hall who would welcome a real change and a party that would represents progressive values. Making that happen is a lot of work. If we’re not trying to do that, what right do we have to risk electing someone as obviously deplorable as Mitt Romney? The results would be far worse than a continuation of an Obama-led status quo.

Photograph courtesy of MissMandaPublished under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Why I plan to vote for the Green candidate for President, Jill Stein:

    a) Despite all the Democratic fundraising spam, the truth is: Obama is almost certain to win.

    b) The Dems seem to believe that things like the US Constitution, equality under the law, and living oceans don’t matter to Americans. I think they need to be told they are wrong.

    c) My vote for the Green party presidential candidate will help keep federal election funds flowing to people who put together social arguments that connect with my beliefs.

    Maybe someday Democrats will get a clue. Or maybe something better will come along.

    In the meantime, I support opening the presidential debates to all candidates that appear on the ballot in enough states to theoretically win the electoral college vote. Stein has achieved this threshold by organizing to appear on the ballot in 38 states. Her constituency and their policy arguments deserve a seat in the debate.

  2. What we should all do (except those who favor privilege for the VERY RICH) is make all candidates PLEDGE to support a constitutional amendment to limit political spending by citizens (human beings) to an annual cumulative maximum and to make political spending by anyone else (non-human-citizens) illegal inside the USA.

    Getting money out of politics is necessary if we are to deal with overpopulation, hunger, water shortages, global warming, too-large-military-spending, bad-banking, and so many more. Our media are, generally, tools of big-money, so they are also little help. (Hint: political spending includes spending on media, and getting corporations out of the propaganda business and the “news” business should be a high priority — [freedom of press does not mean freedom for corporations to own and commission those presses!].

  3. Peter: That would certainly be a good start.

    Rich: I do agree that Obama is going to win, though the biggest danger is how many people either don’t vote at all (he obviously generates nothing like the enthusiasm he did four years ago) or cast third party votes.

    But I think you make my point for me when you say: “Maybe someday Democrats will get a clue. Or maybe something better will come along.” No, neither of these things will just happen. It needs to be made to happen, and the left here, collectively, is not doing it. As I said in the piece, if we were making that effort, we would have some justification for third party votes (and I agree with you that the freezing out of the Green Party is pure Orwellian criminality). But we’re not, and until then, we have no right, in my view, to risk increasing the damage done by Washington.

  4. Mitchell, can you elaborate on this?

    ” It’s much harder to create the meaningful political movement that would serve as an alternative to Obama. That’s work. Too many progressive Americans don’t like that much.”

    And from your comment:

    “It needs to be made to happen, and the left here, is collectively not doing it.”

    What is this work that needs to be done?
    What does it look like?
    Why does the organization around a third-party candidate like Jill Stein not count as that work?

  5. Garrett:
    A full answer would require another column, which I might do. But for now, I’ll say this:
    The Green Party does count, but it has proven insufficient. And part of its shortcoming is its premature pursuit of Presidential campaigns. That was putting the cart before the horse–such campaigning results from building popular support, the support is not created by it. I have seen precious little benefit in the presidential campaigns of Nader/McKinney/Stein et al.
    And that leads to the work that needs to be done. I don’t place the blame on the Greens–it is precisely for that reason, to avoid singling out one part of the left, that I spoke of the left collectively.
    The work that needs to be done is activism geared toward unifying the diffuse and diverse elements that include Greens, leftist-libertarians, anarchists, and, perhaps most importantly, the large numbers of disaffected Democrats into a political force. That’s hard, and the left has certain built-in obstacles the right does not share, such as our respect for diverse opinions and general distaste for strong individual or small group leadership. Those obstacles are not going away and probably shouldn’t.
    But there should be a way to take the Occupy movement and turn it from a general protest to something with a political agenda.
    In part, my post was spawned by two things: one, the Atlantic article I linked to, which may not be written by a leftist since the candidate he supports is a free-market lunatic who also believes there should be no restrictions at all on personal ownership of firearms; and two my repeated and repeatedly frustrated efforts to try to organize disaffected Democrats to work for change within their party to reflect its constituency (I do that not because I think it is wiser than a third party strategy, but precisely because, as you seem to imply, the Greens and Peace&Freedom parties have that covered for now). Largely, I have found that people are really not willing to put in the work to back their complaints, and it’s frustrating, but they will take a simple route like this one at the ballot box which, as I said, is at best ineffectual and at least carries a real threat of making things worse (and eight years of Bush proved that making things worse does not lead the angry masses to embrace leftist ideas, but rather populist rightist ones, at least in the USA).

  6. “No, neither of these things will just happen. It needs to be made to happen, and the left here, collectively, is not doing it.”

    I’m sorry Mitchell, I don’t see how your position changes that pattern.

    What the Greens have accomplished over the years has been to get a progressive alternative on the Presidential ballot in 38 states and to meet the minimum targets for access to Federal Election funding. No small feat!

    My analysis shows that my vote can contribute to building a progressive policy alternative in the US without throwing the election to the Romney implosion.

    Would I like to see an “electoral Occupy”? Absolutely. And if the Democratic party felt like taking that work on, I’d be delighted. But since they aren’t, I have to look for other venues.

  7. Rich, I think I lay it out pretty clearly in my response to Garrett. I may well expand on it in coming columns…
    And as i said, I think the evidence is clear that the Green Party, which has potential to be a big part of the answer, has gone about this precisely backward and its results, especially as compared to libertarian and Tea Party movements bear this out.
    It may well be that your vote won’t matter, I don’t know what state you’re in. But I fail to see how that makes any progress absent more direct organizing. Which is precisely my point. A better alternative is not going to just “come along” as you put it, it must be created. And my direct experience of such attempts is that it isn’t happening in key places at all, and where it is, there is a lot of pulling in different directions.

  8. If Progressives could find themselves a sugar daddy like the Koch Brothers or Karl Rove, perhaps they could magically take over the Democratic Party like the Tea Party appears to have done with the Republicans. That isn’t going to happen because there simply are no billionaires willing to throw millions of dollars into progressive causes because most of those carry a price tag of higher taxes for the rich.

    There is no electoral solution to the nation’s problems and there never will be. Ultimately there simply aren’t enough Americans who both care about the future of the country and have the good sense to see what is going on. Perhaps things will get so bad that people will begin to revolt, like the Spanish are doing, but by that point it will be too late to save anything of value.

    I will vote for Stein because I refuse to vote for warmongers, torturers, and those who violate their oath of office or would if they had the chance. However, I do not delude myself into thinking Dr. Stein will win, or that a big turnout for the Greens would make any difference whatever.

  9. Mitchell,

    Before I type another character, I want thank you for your comments and for entertaining this opportunity to engage. I’d like to think openness to this kind of discussion is at the heart of the Souciant project. Your contribution to the collective discourse here is visionary and foundational. Respect and adulation are due. Thank you.

    Now, given your last note, perhaps I need to make clear that when I said “come along” I was not arguing for a strategy of apathy or fatalism or laziness. To me, Occupy and new internet organizing strategies are examples of the kinds of developments that have “come along” to shift the opportunities for progressive politics. I see no reason to believe there will not be other such developments down the line. Obviously, nothing comes for free. Everything, including the Occupy movement and internet software, is the product of work and determination.

    Likewise, Tea Party effectiveness is largely a product of their patrons’ pocketbooks and social position, not an inherent superiority in their arguments. Give Jill Stein a fraction of Karl Rove’s cashflow and I think we’d see a very different policy discussion both within and outside the Democratic party. On the other hand, Democrats, with their comparable cashflow to the Republicans, are marshaling all their available resources to defend a disastrous fossil-fuled, neoliberal, security state status quo.

    For the last 40 years, the Democratic party has been run and financed by people who have actively co-opted, disrupted, and suppressed criticism from labor and anti-war progressives. Obama was successfully elected by seeming to offer a break from that legacy. His national career was launched by speaking out against the second invasion of Iraq in 2002. His primary campaign victory over Hillary and his connection to culturally diverse younger voters, effective small-donor fund-raising through social media, not to mention the fact of his racial experience, all seemed to show signs of a potential transformation within the party.

    Instead he and his party have doubled-down on a corporatist agenda notable for its many continuities with his predecessor. Not surprisingly, support for his candidacy among progressives has been less enthusiastic than 4 years ago.

    Fortunately for Obama’s campaign, and for the US public, Mitt Romney seems determined to winnow the Republican constituency down to older, religious, anti-feminist millionaires. This is not proving to be a winning strategy.

    So in this moment of new political mobilization and disaffection, should progressives ‘hold their nose’ as you say and support well-funded Democratic Party institutions that are determined to ignore, marginalize and suppress their discourse? Or should they be working to connect the new energy to an expansion of a hard-won national progressive electoral infrastructure already in place?

    Being a progressive activist in the context of the Democratic party is rather like being a battered spouse and just waiting for your partner to change. After forty years of abuse, maybe it’s time to do something affirmative, like move out and make some new friends.

  10. Rich, first off, I thank you and fully agree with your opening paragraph.

    But I think you’re misreading me. My contention is not that Democrats should be supported, nor that change should come from within that party or by working through it, though I also would not dismiss that as a component of a broader strategy.

    Rather, it is that until we provide a viable alternative, it does in fact make a difference, and affects a great many lives in serious and severe ways, whether an Obama or a Romney is in office.

    Now, I speak this from the perspective of someone who is not a Democrat and never have been (though I did occasionally register as one in order to vote in certain primaries). I also did not ever buy into Obama as anything other than the centrist, in terms of current US Beltway politics, that he has proven himself to be. That means I thought him a corporate shill and someone who would continue the US legacy of crimes around the world. But, as I expected, he also brought the US into line with the international community, which is better than having the world’s sole superpower acting so badly that even its European allies are uncomfortable, as was the case under W. On domestic social issues, he has made obvious differences, and in the worst cases he has only maintained the same trends as his predecessor.

    These things matter. They affect lives. In no way, however, does voting Obama bring about change, believable or not. But until a third party vote on the national level has the potential to impact change in a positive way, it is risking, even if only in a few isolated cases, bringing in the worse of two evils, and that means even more people will die, go hungry, face torture, lose their homes, etc.

    The argument about the money on the right is one we on the left need to stop making. The Tea Party was not created by Karl Rove’s money, but rather was a populist movement that Rove took control of with his money and geared it toward pulling the Republicans even farther to the right than it was before. The left does not have the billionaires, it’s true, but it could have numbers it does not have now. And those individuals can come up with money. And the left has always NEEDED far less money than the right, since we bring facts and work for the betterment of the vast majority of people, while the right has to pump out billions in propaganda, as their agenda serves very few people and therefore must obfuscate and lie to win enough support in Western systems.

    That’s precisely why I object to the national strategy, when there is so much work that has not yet been done on the local levels. I have no problem with a multi-track strategy, but this track offers no current potential for gain but only risk of harm. And, yes, I know for a an absolute fact that there are many Democrats who would abandon that party if they thought Green or any other party could offer a credible alternative. That track ought not be abandoned.

    But in any case, it comes down to this: a vote for Stein will not alter the political landscape one iota in 2012, whereas there remains the possibility that voter apathy, loss of enthusiasm that Obama generated in ’08 and GOP chicanery could still bring Romney to the White House (and I’ll note that I have been predicting an Obama since before the GOP primaries, and stand by that, perhaps even more staunchly than ever. But one should never be too sure of such things). I see no gain here, but only potential harm. By working at a more local level, through municipal and state legislatures (where Green has won hundreds of victories) as Green has done, and then in Congressional races, Green can change this state of affairs, or some other party may. But until then, it is irresponsible to take this risk with so much harm in the balance when there is no chance for any significant gain.

    And with that, I will offer you the last word, since I just don’t have the time to continue this, though I do hope to revisit the issue again in future, and my hope is that it is with some reason to change my view on this point because a party that comes at least reasonably close to the values we share is in a position to have an impact.

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