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

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.

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.

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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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