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