Prudence or Principle? Why I will Vote for Obama and Why I Won’t Blame You This Year If You Don’t

In 1968, although I had been elected a delegate for Gene McCarthy from Pennsylvania, I eventually  voted for Hubert Humphrey despite my deep opposition to the War in Vietnam and Humphrey’s refusal to condemn it. Anything to stop Richard Nixon from taking the White House. (He took it.) In 2000 I was vociferous in opposing Ralph Nader’s third party campaign against Al Gore. I know Nader, admire him, but understood that a vote for him was a vote against Gore, effectively reducing his count vis-a-vis Bush. Nader helped cost Gore the election. As a political scientist, I am wedded to the notion that politics is the art of compromise and requires political decisions along the lines of “as compared to what?” and “what’s the alternative?” rather than “does this candidate match up with one’s highest ideals?” In winner-take-all systems like ours with no proportional representation, third party votes hurt candidates on their side of the aisle, because those votes are stolen from weak versions of the extreme candidates rather than from the others side.

(c) 2012 Ralph Bakshi

That’s why this year I will again heed Hegel’s warning that our political (and sometimes even moral) choices will generally need to be made among competing evils rather than between an unvarnished evil and a palpable good. So I will vote for Obama, despite the President’s lame performance at the first debate (and some might say the first term), when he looked no more like a liberal Democrat willing to fight for progressive causes (he even ran away from a chance to defend alternative energy) than Romney looked like the conservative Republican he had campaigned as). Yes, there will be an asterisk on my ballot: *this is a stop Romney vote.

The President has done much I applaud, including health care, the bail-out, the stimulus, bank regulation, promising to close Guantanamo and exit Iraq, slowing the pace of off-shore drilling and the digging of tar sands pipelines, and of course making progressive Supreme Court appointments. He has also done much I deplore: failing even to try to get a public option into his health care plan;  bailing out the banks but leaving the money with them rather than helping defaulting mortgage holders (four million strong) and small business owners — to whom the money he gave to the banks never went; offering a stimulus about one half of what it should have been; under-regulating the banks and giving them too much say in the decision-making because his economic team is drawn from the bankers; and not closing Guantanamo but getting into Libya even as he was getting out of Iraq, with consequences we are still reckoning with; and not slowing the pace of drilling and the building of pipe lines enough even as he opened the seas and the Arctic to drilling – and hence failing to embrace the Green label his opponent threw at him like so much tar-sand mud. On the Supreme Court, he did well enough, though his pace of appointment of other Federal Judges has been inexplicably laggard.

Yet still, compared to the opportunistic, plutocrat-inclined rightist who is his opponent and the Ayn Rand zealot who is the VP choice, I will – no and’s, if’s or but’s – vote enthusiastically to reelect the President.  Even Noam Chomsky, far more radical than I am, has said he will hold his nose and vote to reelect – or at least that he would do so IF he were voting in a battleground state. (In fact, he will vote Third Party in Massachusetts). But – and this is the point of this essay – though I will argue with them in the name of consequentialism, and suggest (below) why a third party vote or an abstention probably hurts those least able to bear the costs, I will not this year condemn those at OWS and others like them who refuse to yield their principles in order to practice the politics of prudence. Year after year, one election after another, people like me urge them to put aside high ideals, compromise their commitment to real democracy, and choose the lesser of two evils. And when they do, they gain Pyrrhic victories of limited impact, and watch the system grow more corrupt. They vote for Democrats who in theory oppose money and politics, but who end up opting for expedience to “level the playing field.” They watch the carbon energy industry roll the Congress and the White House by changing its mantra from “drill baby drill!” to “frack dummie frack!” and promising an age of cheap natural gas that takes climate change off the table. (Anyone think it’s on the table for this election?)

It is not just about Tim Geithner or Austan Goolbee. It is about the President himself. Back in his first campaign for the Presidency, Barack Obama made clear in a 2008 CNBC interview he was (in his own words) “a pro-growth, free market guy.”  He told Bloomberg media in his first year in the White House that he was “fundamentally business-friendly.” His Administration’s economic team overflows with “fierce advocates for a thriving, dynamic free market.” Indeed, he boasted in that interview, “you would be hard-pressed to identify a piece of legislation that we have proposed out there that, net, is not good for businesses.” He predicted he would sign corporate tax cuts “worth over $70 billion. ”

So when Occupy Wall Street continues to insist there’s little to choose between the candidates, that the system really is broken, maybe they are right. To be sure, it’s the only system we have, it beats outright tyranny by a long shot, and it is still subject to reform (isn’t it?). Big money advancing the interests of market monopolies may control politics but it still has to go through the voters; it can’t buy the White House outright or the Congress directly. But the more we comply with system imperatives, the more we leave the system unreformed; the more we leave power to the mercy of money, the more we legitimate all the alarming deformities of today’s democracy. When progressives decide the only way to combat money in politics is more money – “our” money which is purer than theirs – they submit to big money blackmail. The more we allow the wall between democratic politics and the marketplace to break down, the more we turn democracy into oligarchy. If the only difference between our bought Democratic pols and theirs is that ours hold their noses while benefiting from the corruption, how much of a choice is there really?

To be sure, there are still reasons to try to persuade idealists to enter the realm of . . . let’s call it stinking realism. There ARE differences between candidates and parties. Democrats are susceptible to the influence of plutocrats, but they are in theory committed to redistribution and fairness. They refuse to be beguiled by Howard Roark’s astonishing speech in Rand’s The Fountainhead – must be a Paul Ryan favorite – in which he announces: “I come here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need. I wished to come here and say I am a man who does not exist for others.” President Obama exists for others, and his approach to government rests on the premise that community and the individual are not antonyms.

Even more crucial – and this is always the closer for me – the consequences of the small differences between the Parties have a large and disproportional impact on those who can least afford to bear the burdens. Children, single mothers, the unemployed, the old and indigenous are least prepared to deal with the application of radical Randian principles to their lives, but the most likely to have to suffer their outcomes. At least some of the people who Occupied Wall Street can safely ignore the differences between the Parties because they are white, male, economically secure or employed – or some combination of the above – and are likely to be immune to the effects of a Romney victory. People like me may even benefit economically. But many others, most of them not empowered enough to join a protest, will pay the price of a Democratic idealist’s noble commitment to principle. To turn your back on Obama for the best of reasons is also to turn your back on them with consequences hard to justify.

So I will vote Obama and ask others to do the same. But this year my message to to my friends at OWS and to devotees of strong democracy who know that the current national system is at best only marginally democratic will be less astringent. To young people who try to exemplify fairness and democracy in the neighborhood – saying “this is what democracy looks like” – whether they are occupying Zucotti Park, a workplace or a schoolyard, I say only before you vote please think carefully about the consequences! But if you choose to sit this one out, or vote Green or Third Party, I will not blame you if Romney wins, I will blame the President and the rest of us who did too little to make him OUR president and insist he serve not just the “middle class” but also the poor. the marginalized, those with neither audacity nor hope.  And let us hope your principled action (inaction) will remind Americans that voting is not the same thing as democracy, that there must be real choices. I hope, if you follow principle, you don’t live in a battleground state; but battleground states are battlegrounds in part because the Democratic Party has failed to live up to its own ideals.

If the Romney who shows up for the rest of the campaign is the Rockefeller liberal Republican from Massachusetts – David Brooks says that’s who he really is! – and the Obama who shows up as his rival is the feeble professor who can’t or won’t take on plutocracy, big oil and the Tea Party , then maybe there isn’t that much to choose between them.  Maybe this is a year when the only way to vote for democracy is not to vote for either major Party. As the fabled “little old lady” is reputed to have said when asked who she planned to vote for, “oh I won’t for either, it only encourages them.”  I am not yet ready to concede that this is true. If only for the sake of the Supreme Court. But I can no longer condemn those who think it is.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Jeff Madrick: The Reluctant Vote

By Benjamin Barber: Prudence or Principle? Why I will Vote for Obama and Why I Won’t Blame You This Year If You Don’t

By Stephen Eric Bronner: The Right, The Left, The Election: The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and The Presidential Campaign of 2012

By Judith Stein: The Day After Election Day

By Rogers M. Smith: Progressivism, Polarization, and the 2012 Election

By Lauren Langman: Why Obama Will Win the Election . . . and the Left Should Hope So

By John Ehrenberg: How to Kill a Vampire

By Claire Snyder-Hall: The King of the 1% v. The American Republic

By Steve Early: Labor’s Quadrennial Condition: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

By Chip Berlet: Vote for Democrats—Then Organize to Kick Their Butts

By Richard Meagher: Founding Principles

By Alyson Cole: What’s Wrong with Victims?