The Quadrennial Conundrum
Last week, I did the dirty deed. I voted for Barack Obama.
Begrudgingly wouldn’t begin to describe the manner in which I exercised the franchise. A recent Iowa transplant, I’d received my absentee ballot in the mail several weeks earlier, only to cast it aside as flotsam. After a couple weeks, I took the ballot off my dresser and blackened the bubbles next to my preferred ballot initiatives, judges, and candidates. Except for one race: All eight presidential ticket ovals remained devoid of darkening.
I didn’t intend to opt out of the presidential election. But vote for a president who never wanted to break up the big banks, who possesses a secret “kill list,” who champions anti-union education reform? I couldn’t countenance it.
The major party alternative, Mitt Romney, was even worse. Obama’s Wall Street boosterism was at least tempered by the tepid Dodd-Frank financial reform law; Romney viewed even that measly piece of legislation as onerous. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, was good on civil liberties, the drug war, and foreign policy. But if I chose Green Party presidential aspirant Jill Stein, I could have all of that without Johnson’s austerity, privatization, and welfare state strangling.
The obvious downside was Stein’s third-party status. If I’d learned anything as a political science major, it was this: institutions matter. The United States, with its first-past-the-post system, effectively prevents third parties from accruing power. Their candidates are relegated to the role of spoilers; at best, a major party will appropriate their pet position. I was also voting in a swing state, those hotly contested, consequential territories.
I understood the institutional realities, but it didn’t send me rushing to Obama, the less-bad major party candidate.
Casting one’s vote is both a moral and strategic act, an expression of one’s values and a pragmatic weighing of the attendant consequences. In my case: Should I withhold my vote from Obama because he reneged on his vow to scale back the executive presidency and because many of his policies enrich the rich and powerful? And if I did, would there be enough like-minded, discontented lefties to chasten Obama? How close would the race in Iowa have to be for me to fill in the oval next to his name?
I continued to oscillate between Stein and Obama, between the moral and the strategic.
Cut from the same cloth as Bill Clinton, Obama was a corporatist, a civil liberties-abridging militarist. I abhorred his disregard for due process; his flouting of the War Powers Act during the Libyan intervention; his expansion of the war in Afghanistan; his expansion of drone attacks and killing of innocent civilians; his willingness to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; and his unwillingness to fundamentally restructure Wall Street. In short, for this leftist, his general inability to stake out even liberal positions was disqualifying.
I granted Obama a few things: The much-derided stimulus weakened the severity of a recession that, unalleviated, would have caused even more human misery. The death of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was heinous. But what of the billions who will suffer from a warmer planet? If there is to be any meaningful action on climate change over the next four years, Obama’s reelection is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition. Obamacare was a giveaway to pharmaceutical companies and provided private insurance companies with millions of new customers. I’m convinced it also established a state-guaranteed right to health insurance, an enormous victory that lefty critics often overlook. His high-profile support for gay marriage and opposition to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been matched by an admirable record on other, less ballyhooed LGBT issues. Finally, the welfare state would be in marginally safer hands under Obama than Romney, Paul Ryan at his side.
That’s the most I could muster in the way of an endorsement. But it was enough. As I filled in the bubble next to the Obama-Biden ticket, I was disturbed by some of the policies I was implicitly endorsing. Still, I sealed the envelope and deposited it in the faded blue mailbox outside the corner liquor store, at once relieved and perturbed.
I recount my own conundrum because I’m not an aberration: Every four years, American leftists find themselves in the same terrible spot. The state—their state— dispenses indispensable social services at the same time it kills innocent civilians abroad and surveils at home. It simultaneously expands freedom and stymies, squashes, and suppresses it.
The two political parties have, for reasons both pecuniary and public opinion-related, adopted views that put them on the side of plutocratic bankers and jingoistic fear-mongers. This is the institutional framework and political environment in which Obama is operating. Politicians aren’t all craven opportunists, but contrarianism doesn’t generally engender longevity. So they calculate. They assess risk. They equivocate or stand firm, depending on the situation and incentives. Obama is no different.
This is the central point, then: The president in office is only as good as the social movement(s) in the streets. It’s what we on the left do after Election Day, in between the campaigns, that really matters.