The left-leaning blogosphere has been discussing lately whether Obama is, essentially, sufficiently non-awful to be worthy of a lefty-in-good-standing’s vote. Who could have predicted? Freddie deBoer may have written the quintessential bit about this:
As a way of exploring the logical consequences of lesser evilism, I asked the other day whether people would vote for Zell Miller if he was the Democratic presidential candidate. Some people complained that this is an illegitimate reductio. That actually isn’t the reductio at all; taking this thinking to its logical conclusion gets you the kind of society where the candidates are all chosen by the ruling military junta. But okay, you want a more plausible candidate: Joe Lieberman. If you think that’s absurd, remember that 8 years ago he was a major primary candidate for one of our two political parties. You don’t have to imagine, like, Earth Prime to envision a Lieberman candidacy.
So the question is not merely whether I’d be obligatedto support Lieberman, as I supposedly am obligated to support Obama. The question is whether criticism of Presidential Candidate Lieberman would be as insistently marginalized as it is now with President Obama. I think the answer has to be yes, according to the lesser evil binarism that is so popular right now. As long as you’ve identified the better choice, even if it’s only marginally closer to your values than the partisan alternative, you’re stuck. You’ve got to suck it up and shut up. Even if it’s a betrayal of things that you deeply believe in.
And, god, how bleak. What a terrible depressing vision of human political organization.
What I am looking for from people who take a hard, pro-Obama line, I guess, is a coherent theory of democracy. Because when I hear people insisting that everyone has got to get on board and let go of their unpopular criticisms, I wonder how they think long term change happens, how political evolution happens. Part of what’s frustrating is that people are so inconsistent in how they say we should proceed. Some say that the important thing is to engage in the process, so you should vote for a third party candidate. But many say that voting for a third party is to throw your vote away. Some say that the place to challenge Democrats to be more liberal (and less militaristic) is through the primary process, but again, during primary season, I read in many places that primarying Obama would be the height of left-wing absurdity. Many just speak vaguely of organizing and agitating, never being exactly clear what kinds of agitating are permitted, or why this theoretical kind is allowed but the kind undertaken by prominent critics Obama is not.
I am starting to find this a little exhausting (and I’m only 26!) but I’m just going to lay it all out right here and hope that maybe, over time, we get a little better at this.
1. Freddie is not "obligated" to do anything. He’s a free human, he does what he likes. Unless he is referring to moral obligation, which I suppose he is.
2. Define "support." In the context of the election, I can think of a couple meaningful definitions:
Casting a ballot for a candidate
Announcing an intention to cast a ballot
Making arguments publicly in favor of a candidate
Spending time or money supporting activities increasing the likelihood of a candidate’s election
I’m not sure what Freddie’s talking about here, but this is where the understanding gap lies. Freddie, if you’re listening – you really don’t ever have to do bullets 2-4. Really. Don’t discuss the election. Don’t endorse anyone. Don’t phone bank, donate money, canvass, whatever. Pretend it’s not happening. But if you intend to vote – which you really should – you should always vote for the least-awful candidate with a chance of being elected. Full stop.
Look – I loathe Joe Lieberman. I think his effect on our nation’s politics has been largely pernicious. But if, somehow, he had been the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2004, would I have voted for him? In a heartbeat. Would I have given him money? Canvassed? Phone banked? Probably not. I did some of those things for John Kerry, would’ve done more of those for Howard Dean, and did do more of those for Barack Obama, because I was more enthused about all of those candidacies than I would have been with Lieberman as the Democratic nominee. But given that the sole alternative was a second term of George W. Bush I would not have thought twice about casting my ballot for Holy Joe. As long as the difference is non-zero and net positive, that’s where you cast your vote.
3. Zell Miller and Joe Lieberman were not the Democratic nominee in 2004. This is important! For all of Freddie’s castigation of the Democratic Party they never even came close to nominating a candidate that far to the right. That’s great! Barack Obama is far from the left’s ideal candidate from almost any left-of-center perspective. But the Democratic Party is sufficiently progressive that, while it might nominate a Clinton or an Obama, it will reject a Lieberman or a Miller.
4. Politics is a lot more than voting. As I paraphrased in a comment on an earlier post from Freddie, you work your tuchus off 364 days a year fighting like mad to make the world better, then you spend one day a year holding your nose and voting for the least-worst option. As a citizen, you have many powers, and should fight more many more. You should use those powers in the context of limited resources wisely. You should advocate, organize, cajole, pressure, protest, write, call, canvass, boycott, strike, and so on and so on; but you should also vote. And you should use your vote in such a manner that makes the world better. Will voting for Jill Stein, to pluck a name from a hat, make the world better or just make you feel better? This also, in the context of the American system of elections, depends on where you live; Virginians like me face a different weight on their vote than New Yorkers or Texans, and should vote accordingly. In fact, I think expending all this energy discussing how to vote wisely is bizarre; of all the innumerable ways to involve oneself in political life in a quest to improve the human condition and the world in which we live, voting is one of the easiest to puzzle out. It’s the real meat – how to organize, how to sustain movements, etc – that’s really hard. Voting is easy.