I respect Hayes' position, even though I don't share it.
But he was very much an exception. When pressed, most people who responded to my piece by touting a utilitarian model of voting couldn't bring themselves to apply it if it benefited an anti-Mexican racist who took pleasure in deporting illegal immigrants. Take the talented Jamelle Bouie of The American Prospect, who wrote one of the most thoughtful critiques of my piece. He responded to my hypothetical by saying that he'd stay home rather than vote for Pretend Racist Obama or his opponent, acknowledging that his answer was "in tension" with his critique of my article. I pressed Brad DeLong, another critic, to answer the hypothetical. He proved understandably evasive.
I don't blame anyone for being uncertain about these very difficult questions -- I am not sure about the dealbreaker model myself -- and I don't presume anything more specific about the beliefs of the aforementioned individuals than what is explicitly reflected in their words. Taken in sum, however, the number of people who argued for utilitarian voting, only to reverse themselves when faced with Pretend Racist Obama, suggests at least some of them hold what I think is an indefensible set of beliefs. I can respect consistent utilitarian voting, especially from people like Hayes, who are reliable critics of all the transgressions that I spend my time railing against.
But if you tell me that uttering anti-Hispanic slurs while deporting illegal aliens is a dealbreaker (as it would be for me), while the combination of extrajudicial assassinations, indefinite detention, warrantless spying, dead Pakistani innocents, and waging war without Congressional approval isn't a dealbreaker ... well, I'd suggest that no one can defend holding both of those views at once.
As yet, no one has tried.
You see, theories of voting aren't the point here.
They never were.
The point is that without quite realizing it, a lot of progressives and liberals are undervaluing the importance of these issues. With regard to my hypothetical, this is partly because there is a bigger taboo against using racial slurs than there is against killing innocent foreigners. I think a lot of my interlocutors were loath to say that they'd vote for Pretend Racist Obama, despite his racial slurs, even if his policies were better overall because they could imagine the outraged reaction from Latino friends, colleagues, and activists. How would they defend a vote for Pretend Racist Obama to an offended Mexican American, or to an apology demand from the National Council of La Raza?
Neither the left-of-center coalition nor the social circles of its various members include many Pakistani families from North Warzistan. Saying the deaths of innocent children there is wrong and regrettable, but not a dealbreaker, is a much more comfortable thing to do on a typical left-leaning blog than saying you'd vote for a president despite the fact that he uses vile anti-Mexican slurs.
But our hypothetical needn't concern racial slurs.
If Obama was caught cutting a deficit-reduction deal with Republicans that involved a promise to appoint a pro-life Democrat to the Supreme Court, or if he proposed a law banning gays from adopting kids, liberals and progressives would abandon him in droves (which is exactly why he'd never do either of those things, nor would any Democrat). Certainly the left would object much more loudly and strenuously than they have to his War on Terror excesses. Judging once again from recent conversations, progressives can't deny that the blowback from a pro-life-judge deal or an anti-gay-adoption bill would far surpass the pushback Obama has gotten on civil liberties. They can't deny that either act would cause many on the left to withhold their votes in protest. And yet they're uncomfortable arguing that those transgressions against their beliefs would be more problematic than racially profiling, indefinitely detaining and even killing Muslim Americans without trial, all of which go on now under Obama.
Numerous Muslim American emailers shared their discomfort with the apparent priorities of many liberals and progressives.
As a Muslim, when I hear my largely liberal co-workers talk about the election and the various reasons why Romney is no good, I wonder why they harp on such pointless stuff but don't spare even a moment for the innocent people Obama is killing and terrorizing. And I try not to dwell on what that says about their subconscious view of the worth of Muslim lives.
On the subject of Muslim Americans, let me be the first to acknowledge that Democrats, as bad as they are, clearly edge out Republicans, given that the latter party contains a faction that is persuaded the U.S. is under threat of sharia law and that Muslims should be constrained in where they can build mosques. Independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg at least stood up for their right to build the so-called Ground Zero mosque in New York, even as he sent secret squads of municipal police to spy on innocent Muslim Americans far outside the boundaries of his jurisdiction.
He should still be criticized mercilessly for the latter act.
Unfortunately, as I've documented, mainstream media publications routinely write narratives of Obama's first term as if the numerous, radical transgressions don't even exist. And as Freddie de Boer notes, recounting his numerous efforts to raise these issues on left-wing blogs (emphasis added), "Try and insert some anti-drone sentiment into the comments. Believe me, I've tried. The result is total, immediate, and angry dismissal. Always. These ideas are not permitted. For all the talk of 'lesser evils,' you are far more likely to find conventional liberals defending the drone program than speaking of it as evil at all. This is the most elementary, most important point of all: there is no internal pressure for Democrats to reform ..." For the blogs he discusses, this is only slight hyperbole.
It's worth noting some of the exceptions. Chris Hayes, Glenn Greenwald, Adam Serwer, Jane Mayer, Marcy Wheeler, and Jeremy Scahill (among other journalists), numerous academics, the ACLU, and the Center of Constitutional Rights are just some of the left-leaning voices who discern the importance of these issues and act accordingly. The fact that there is more institutional support for reform on the left is one reason the turn the Democratic Party has taken is so alarming.
A final observation about that turn: A surprising number of partisan Democrats reacted to my piece by speculating that I must be a secret Republican operative, doing the bidding of Mitt Romney and the far right wing. Others insisted that my motive was Web traffic or flaunting my moral rectitude. It is one thing to argue that Obama is worth supporting despite his shortcomings. Given the gravity of those shortcomings, it is quite another to presume that anyone who disagrees must have clandestine motives. The inability to imagine non-cynical reasons for opposing Obama is itself a sad commentary on how little these issues mean to some of the president's most zealous partisan supporters.