The Responses to 'Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama'

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Some advocates of backing "the lesser evil" actually prioritize civil liberties and human rights even less than they themselves imagined.

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My recent article, "Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama," is one of dozens I've written in the last several years criticizing President Obama for violating civil liberties, expanding executive power, and waging a secretive drone war that presumes all unidentified males killed are "militants." Why did it receive more attention, by many orders of magnitude, than any of those articles? One significant reason is that partisan Democrats reliably pay attention to every issue that might impact Obama's chances at the ballot box -- and frequently ignore many important issues that won't. Write that the president is killing hundreds of innocent foreigners, or routinely spying without warrants on millions of innocent Americans, or setting the reckless precedent that one man can secretly order extrajudicial killings on his word alone, and relatively few people pay attention. Add the notion that those failures should cost Obama votes and perhaps a million people will read it! Scores of partisan Democrats responded using language much angrier than any they've ever marshaled against the problematic policies under discussion. The experience reinforced my belief that causes are best advanced by signalling to politicians and their partisans that specific behavior will end up costing them winnable votes

That strategy can backfire for some. In 1992, George H.W. Bush lost his reelection attempt in part because he broke his "no-new-taxes pledge," causing parts of his own coalition to turn against him. Some suggested that he should face a primary challenger, others that Ross Perot might be preferable. These voters were among the reasons that Bill Clinton, a politician even worse on taxes by their lights, was able to win. 

Then again, Clinton begot Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolution of 1994, and the uncompromising conservative position on taxes spurred a generation of Republican politicians to embrace right-wing orthodoxy on the issue. Tax cuts were George W. Bush's first priority. GOP congressional candidates submit en masse to Grover Norquist's pledge. In this year's GOP primary, supposed fiscal conservatives gathered on a debate stage all declared that they'd reject a deficit-reduction plan with 10 times as much in spending cuts as tax hikes. Electoral strategy played a secondary role in my piece; but since many of the negative responses have insisted that civil libertarians withholding votes from the party they prefer is naive, I'd just point out that every issue group is sometimes forced to play hardball with the party that more naturally represents it, despite the risks, or else they're perpetually taken for granted; and that any sophisticated assessment of political strategy must look farther out than one election.  

That said, I don't really care if you vote for Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein. I didn't explain my theory of dealbreakers in hopes of changing the outcome on November 6. My goal is to spur readers to confront the problematic policies and attitudes that have taken hold here since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and that will persist in 2013 regardless of who occupies the White House. Americans have always reacted to foreign threats in ways that they later regarded to be reckless or overzealous infringements on civil liberties. Our history includes the Alien and Sedition Acts, Woodrow Wilson's World War I-era abominations, FDR's execrable treatment of Japanese Americans, and Joseph McCarthy's Cold War witch-hunt. In the past, there's always been a reaction against wartime excesses. Barack Obama, who campaigned on restoring core American values, looked to preside over the latest. Having won, he continued nearly every problematic Bush-era abuse of liberty, save direct torture of prisoners, which he ended but declined to prosecute. A bipartisan consensus is forming around these radical policies. Challenging that consensus is urgent, for if they persist as long as terrorism remains a threat, they'll persist forever. This is far more consequential than the outcome of one election. 

Contrary to the assumptions of my critics, I've written extensively about this fight among Republicans, chronicling the primary efforts of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson and following Senator Rand Paul's effort to build a GOP constituency around the Bill of Rights, anti-interventionism, and fiscal conservatism. I have no use for politicians at the opposite pole of the Republican Party. Anyone with a principled commitment to natural rights and limited government should shun them. And I hope I can one day persuade many Republicans to adjust their behavior accordingly. To do so is certainly consistent with the values that many of them claim to hold dear.

To vote Romney is not.

In the Age of Obama, I find that Democrats -- especially self-described liberals and progressives -- are acting in ways that don't accord with the core values they previously espoused.

My piece spurred a lot of discussion about theories of voting. I explained that, for me, "some actions are so ruinous to human rights, so destructive of the Constitution, and so contrary to basic morals that they are disqualifying .... If two candidates favored a return to slavery, or wanted to stone adulterers, you wouldn't cast your ballot for the one with the better position on health care."

In other words, certain things are just dealbreakers.

A lot of people wrote in agreement. Some thought it incumbent on them to vote their conscience. Others saw dealbreakers as an exercise in shaping norms. If Mitt Romney took the debate stage and used the 'n'-word to describe his opponent he would lose a substantial portion of his supporters, and in abandoning him, they'd be reinforcing the norm that virulent racism is beyond the pale in American politics -- a norm whose existence is far more important, in the long term, than the result of any single presidential election, especially given the narrow U.S. political spectrum.

Many more correspondents disagreed with the notion of dealbreakers. They insisted that it's irrational to have them in a two-party system, where the proper way to vote is to choose the least bad option. 

Although that isn't my theory of voting, it is a perfectly defensible one. My problem is that I just don't believe very many Democrats actually hold it. As I noted at the beginning of my piece, "Tell certain liberals and progressives that you can't bring yourself to vote for a candidate who opposes gay rights, or who doesn't believe in Darwinian evolution, and they'll nod along. Say that you'd never vote for a politician caught using the 'n'-word, even if you agreed with him on more policy issues than his opponent, and the vast majority of left-leaning Americans would understand."

On email and Twitter, I tried to press respondents on this point with a hypothetical. Say that President Obama (who they regard to be the superior candidate on a wide array of crucial issues) was caught on a series of videotapes (surreptitiously recorded in the Oval Office) repeatedly using anti-Hispanic slurs to refer to Mexican Americans, musing that his personal dislike of Mexicans motivated the record number that he deported, and noting that while he'd never transgress against the law by unlawfully targeting Mexican Americans, he sure does hate them. 

It proved a clarifying hypothetical.

A few people stuck to their utilitarian theory of voting. For example, faced with a Twitter length version of the hypothetical, Chris Hayes avowed that he would still vote for the lesser of two evils, noting he was proud that The Nation condemned FDR's WWII-era treatment of Japanese Americans, but that its editors probably still voted for the man, and in hindsight were right to do so. It should be noted that doing so did not result in a subsequent internment of an ethnic minority in wartime, and from a liberal perspective, FDR's other achievements made life better for millions.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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