Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Why I'm Not Troubled by My Decision Not to Vote to Re-Elect Obama, Round II

This morning I dropped my oldest daughter off at an early-morning church class, then drove to another church, which happens to be our local polling station. I was in line by 6am, when the doors opened. A half-hour later I was filling out my paper ballot, voting in support of putting fluoride in our city water system (the most important vote I was personally able to make, I think), after which I voted a straight Democratic ticket on all the local and state contests that were available to me  (have to do my part, however small, to support whatever limited local opposition exists to the way Governor Brownback and his Republican devotees are turning Kansas into a Tea Party testing ground). But for President of the United States, I wrote in Jill Stein of the Green Party, and I'm proud of that.

I voted that way for reasons that I've laid out before. No, I am not suffering from any kind of delusion about the immediate value wasting a single vote on "throwing the election" or getting us to some fantastical "tipping point," after which we will enter a new paradise of different party options. Instead, like Timothy Burke, I've come to recognize (as my despair has grown ever since last summer), that rooting out the pathologies driving our current deadlocks and divisions isn't something that one can reasonably expect any election to do--that, unless somehow some new civil covenant can be articulated that enough Americans buy into beyond superficial patriotic sloganeering, what we face is just more of the same: "two or three or four factions that have strong political and social bases hunkering down and holding on fiercely to what is theirs, defending their perceived rights and the character of their communities, blocking and sabotaging whatever they can of their opponents’ political desires, with legislatures largely being used as battlegrounds or as weapons of war." Not a pleasant thought, but I suspect a true one.

Given that I don't hold to any kind of utopian illusions about what a presidential election--much less a single vote in guaranteed-Romney state in a presidential election!--can do, why go for a third-party candidate? Why not, instead, employ the same logic I used in voting against Brownback's Republican takeover, and contribute in some almost-insignificant way to pushing the least-bad party some infinitesimal distance further towards articulating the kind of common purpose which I think this country's political system desperately needs? Wouldn't that be the responsible, civic-minded, even  (dare I say it?) communitarian thing to do?

That's how I read Erik Loomis's argument (to pick up once again gauntlets thrown down by the LGM guys!). He's looking at the way those on the left have acted in this election, and he sees narcissism and consumer-minded individualism:

There’s...a leftier than thou aspect to this, which again is a spawn of our individualistic fetish. Politics have become like a tattoo for many on the left--how you mark yourself means how cool you are....This is all just silly. There’s a reason socialists and communists worked to reelect FDR in 1936 and 1940, even though they thought he was a sell-out to the capitalists. They knew he was the best hope they had to build the kind of society they wanted and that by running some kind of 3rd party, they would completely alienate the base of people they wanted to organize....

We need to think less about our own personal moral position in voting. It’s not about you. It’s about the community where you live. Even if you vote for Jill Stein, the blood of Pakistani babies killed in drone strikes is on your hands. You cannot wash off that blood without changing the system–something that 3rd parties have never done. You want clean hands–organize the American public around the issues you care about. It will take the rest of your life. That is the timeline of real change....The real story of the left this year is smart and tough--the Chicago Teachers Union. That’s how you demand and make change. Writing editorials obscuring the differences between Obama and Romney and encouraging well-meaning people to protest vote is worse than worthless–it’s mendacious and serves as a tool for conservatives to continue pushing this nation back to the Gilded Age.

Scott Lemieux piles on as well:

Voters, based on this line of reasoning, should see voting not as part of a collective project to choose the best available majority coalition for the country, but as an act of self-absorbed individual expression, like choosing a favorite brand of designer jeans. These arguments are self-refuting. In actual politics, walking away "empowers" the left about as much as being able to choose between Coke and Pepsi "empowers" a worker negotiating with Wal-Mart. Conservatives didn't take over the Republican Party by running third-party vanity campaigns. The legislative victories of the Great Society happened because civil rights and labor groups stayed in the Democratic coalition after decades of frustration (it was the segregationists who were repeatedly threatening to take their ball and go home by running third-party candidates.)

Well, the last thing I want to be accused of being is an individualistic consumer-oriented voter, one who sees politics solely as a mark of personal virtue separate from the practical, collective demands of government. So how do I respond to all this?

Part of my response here has to be pointing out that my original response still doesn't find any direct refutation in these observations: namely, these accusations of third party individualism and civic irresponsibility continue to operate on a conceptual plane which elides the fact that elections take place in multiple contexts--and that this is especially the case in regards to presidential elections, where the electoral college (which Scott rightly decries!) to a great extent makes a mockery of the ability of individuals to join with larger movements to influence the ultimate election of our chief executive. I recognize that I'm hardly the stereotypical member of the progressive left that the LGM bloggers are speaking to, but still, it genuinely mystifies me a little that a bunch of very intelligent, very savvy political and historical writers and thinkers can look at the present moment and see a national struggle with stakes and dynamics as clear and as obvious as those of the Great Depression or the 1960s appear to be in retrospect--because where I stand, they aren't, at least not such that it becomes necessarily obvious that anyone primarily motivated by anger over our emerging national security state, or the arrogance of Wall Street bankers, or our inaction in the face of climate change, or the ruinous costs of the drug war, or any number of other "left" issues, cannot help but fall behind the existing Democratic party, in every state and in every election! Really? The collective, responsible work of building up majorities in support of those issues which most concern you can only be legitimate--no matter what the state, no matter what the issue--if they take place in the restricted context of those choices provided by the dominant parties? Anything else is reducing the election to a consumer choice? I think we are misunderstanding who is actually doing the reducing here! I don't deny that much ignorant reductive thinking takes place on "my" side, the side of the radical or socialist or decentralist left; the Matt Stoller article which they rail against was paranoid and politically silly (though the heart of its criticism of the insurance-industry-friendly ACA was dead-on). But to agree, as Erik did in the midst of the earlier rounds on this topic, that there are no battle-ground states and no safe states, and that the only coalitions available to voters wishing to act conscientiously are those coalitions which have been already constituted, not those which may be constituted by their own actions (such as, for example...voting for Jill Stein!), seems to partake of the same sort of all-of-nothing mindset.

Another point about coalition and majority building--Erik, in that same post, argued that refusing to vote for Obama because he has licensed actions in our misbegotten War on Terror which one might consider beyond the pale (as I did; it was one of my primary reasons for feeling that I could responsibly refuse to show support for his administration) is an unrealistic, head-in-the-sand denial of the unfortunate truth that "AMERICANS LIKE KILLING BROWN PEOPLE OVERSEAS IF THERE’S NO COST TO THEM." He goes on with this point:

The problem of drones and civil liberties and human rights is that Americans don’t care about these issues. It’s not about Obama or Romney, not about the Democratic or Republican parties. It’s that there is a bipartisan consensus in this country, supported by a majority of voters in both parties, that using drones to bomb Afghani wedding parties is completely OK.That’s completely messed up. But there’s nothing I can do about that with my vote. There are other issues where I wish greater differences separated the parties. Agricultural policy, defense spending, etc. But on these issues, I have to accept that I sit in a deep minority here. I could file a protest vote but that’s pure narcissism unless one is truly committed to building party structures that would transform American politics.

Exactly! And, how does one demonstrate commitment to building party structures that would transform American politics? By contributing one's time and energy and money to such, of course; by reaching out, recruiting, spreading the word. And also...oh yeah, by voting for such candidates. Like Jill Stein, in other words. (Always voting for such candidates? In every context? Not at all--that would partake of the idea that self-government-by-elections constitutes a one-size-fits-all, contextless series of identical voting calculations. Which is what I've been denying all along.)

In the end, I'm confident that my voted didn't matter when it comes to helping to get the least-bad of two bad candidates elected to the presidency. But though my vote, thanks to the electoral college, doesn't matter, it was counted. And in being counted, I wasn't just doing something for myself; I was, on the contrary, doing what every act of democratic expression does: sending a message, registering a voice, showing myself beside like-minded others (hey, maybe Stein will win 1%  of the electorate!). The central issue for all communitarian thought--at least for those who take the very notion of granting some legitimacy to collective aligning and identifying oneself--has always been which community. Because we are plural people; we belong to different groups, embrace different causes, live in different states, feel solidarity in different contexts. When I voted this morning, I enjoyed the small thrill that political dorks like me always do: I had, as Chris Stevens famously put it about his uncle Roy Bower's vote in 1972, just "showed them." A reductive view of voting cannot fully give place to that feeling of collective expression, the romance and ritual of self-government; it must instead always be about winning and losing, about moving the legislative needle some tiny distance one way or another. I don't deny that voting really is, as David Watkins rightly observed, a way of exercising "democracy against domination," and thus is to be calculated in terms of majorities built and coalitions secured. But it is not only that--there is so much more going on than what is on my ballot on this, or any particular, Election Day. And to forget all the other stuff going on only serves to make those of us who actually do agree with the LGM guys, or the Democratic party, 50% or 70% or 90% of the time, feel like staying home. And surely they don't want that, do they?


Ricketson said...

Thanks for providing these thoughts. I have a question that is a little bit tangential, but I think you might have some interest and knowledge about it.

In the previous post, you mentioned the "dealbreaker" argument. One of the things I like about this approach is that it is a simple heuristic for reaching a decision (similar to single issue voting). I think that simple heuristics can protect voters from misinformation and appeals to emotion (i.e. advertisements). Do you have any opinion on the use of such heuristics, or do you know much about how they impact actual voting?


Anonymous said...

I suppose my big thing on this proposition is this: that the first problem with voting Nader in 2000 was not splitting the vote or any of that. It's that Ralph Nader would have made a catastrophically bad President under any imaginable circumstances. Stein seems like a more capable (and less narcissistic) person than Nader by a long shot, but let's imagine a miracle where Stein and a bunch of the most active Green Party members were elected to office tomorrow. I feel at the least uncertain that they'd be any better even leaving aside the structural constraints under which they'd govern. To vote third party, I have to feel that I'm voting for a genuinely better candidate both in terms of positions AND ability to lead.

Anonymous said...

I voted for Stein as well, and I also had that dangerously smug feeling of "showing them.". Living in a state whose electoral votes are a foregone conclusion gives us that freedom to give the finger to the dominant parties. If I was in a swing state, I don't know what I would have done. Thank you for arguments that force me to use sections of my brain that have begun to atrophy after ten years of full-time motherhood.