The Unhappy Leftist

I really like sparkjameson’s posts on deciding who to vote for, but they don’t speak to my concerns as immediately as I would like. They come from a particular perspective, that of the rarest and most respected of beings in America: the True Independent. Centrist, ideologically and politically unaffiliated, willing to deeply weigh the issues and open to having their mind changed, you know the type. But this isn’t where I’m coming from. So I thought it might be interesting to consider the decision of whom to vote for from my own perspective, one almost as rare in America, though maybe not so rare in Portland or LC, and not nearly so respected: that of the leftist (or socialist, or progressive, or radical democrat, or whatever).

My first instinct is to do what we are always told to do: follow my heart and stick to my principles. Take your sacred civic duty seriously, and vote for the candidate you most agree with. In that case, it’s a no-brainer: Jill Stein of the Green Party is by far the best candidate for me. Her vision of an America humble abroad and just at home, an America that respects the fragile institutions of international law, the autonomy and dignity of workers, and the grandeur of the natural world is simpatico with my own beliefs. There is only one issue that sticks in my craw: there isn’t a chance in hell she’s going to win. A vote for her (or really any third party candidate, given our archaic electoral system) must be considered purely performative—“I wish these policies were in place, world!”

Furthermore, there is a specter haunting Green Party candidates—Ralph Nader in 2000. Though I very strongly doubt Nader’s responsibility for Al Gore’s loss, the idea of the spoiler is a powerful one. A vote for Jill Stein has a 99.9% chance of being an ineffectual declaration to the world, and a 0.1% chance of throwing the election to Romney. I find this possibility unacceptable. Like a Gore presidency would have been, Obama has been a routine tragedy and a crime. Like Bush’s presidency actually was, Romney would be a catastrophe and an existential threat to the republic and the world.

Why vote at all then? Why participate in, and implicitly legitimate, a state and a state of affairs which one finds evil? This argument falls prey to the same critique as the third-party argument: it is at best ineffectual signaling, and at worst a real harm. The right way to think about voting, to me, is harm reduction. Leave morals aside—what will actually lead to the minimum amount of suffering?

So, Obama. From a left perspective, he has been a mixed bag (excluding one area where he has been a disaster, which I will get to in a moment). He seems to genuinely care about the well-being of common people, if the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and a myriad of other reforms is any indication; the technocrat in him is devoted to running the government effectively and efficiently. On the other hand, he is unwilling to radically alter the status quo (as his refusal to pursue single-payer healthcare or nationalize the financial sector aptly demonstrate) even if it is the best (or only) way to help those common people he cares about; he also makes the typical liberal mistake of thinking that politics is a contest between ideas, rather than a conflict between interests. Given this record, I think any radical could vote for him with a relatively clear conscience.


There is one area of policy that deserves special mention because Obama has been particularly awful on it: the national security state. The surge in Afghanistan, the (thankfully) unsuccessful attempt to extend American presence in Iraq, the unconstitutional intervention in Libya, the gross violation of domestic and international law that is the drone program, the unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers and leakers, the failure to close the Guantanamo Bay and Bagram Airfield detention facilities, his consolidation of Bush-era domestic espionage programs, the decision not the prosecute Bush-era war criminals—the list is long and ignoble. This is probably the bitterest pill for any radical to swallow. About the only good thing one can say for Obama in this department is that he has been unwilling to invade other countries—which, given the bellicose nature of Romney’s own rhetoric and the recent history of the Republican Party, still somehow makes him the better option.

The arithmetic is grim but compelling: most radicals that I know of and I are probably going to be voting for Obama in November. He is the lesser evil, for sure: but that doesn’t mean he isn’t evil.


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