What does a vote for Obama mean?

Given the president's track record of civil rights abuses, it's worth re-examining the "lesser of two evils" debate

Published September 28, 2012 4:20PM (EDT)

  (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

The American Prospect If you were to judge them against the records of previous Democratic presidents, it’s clear that President Obama is the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act prevented a second Great Depression and invested billions in education, clean energy, and future technologies. The Affordable Care Act has put the United States on the path toward universal health coverage, and a more sustainable health care system. Dodd-Frank is the most important piece of financial regulation in a generation. It’s not perfect, but—all things considered—it’s pretty good.

National security is a different story. Obama campaigned as someone who push back against the civil liberties abuses of the Bush era. As president, he has doubled-down on them. The drone war in Pakistan, expanded by the Obama administration, has claimed hundreds of innocent lives, and is conducted under a veil of secrecy. The “militants” targeted by the United States are often just military-aged men who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obama’s kill list–his program of extrajudicial killings, directed at American citizens suspected of terrorism—is an affront to the values of the Constitution, and a huge blemish on his record. The same goes for his failure to prosecute Bush-era tortue abuses, as well as his zeal for whistleblower prosecutions.

For the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, Obama’s terrible record on national security is a deal-breaker; absent a promise to completely reverse course, Friedersdorf cannot vote to give Obama a second term. But, because the Republican Party has gone even further down the road of belligerence, supporting Romney isn’t an option either. Instead, Friedersdorf will give his vote to Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico turned Libertarian candidate who opposes the bipartisan consensus on national security. Conor knows Johnson can’t win, but he supports him anyway because he “ought to.”

Why make a protest vote? He explains:

Sometimes a policy is so reckless or immoral that supporting its backer as “the lesser of two evils” is unacceptable. If enough people start refusing to support any candidate who needlessly terrorizes innocents, perpetrates radical assaults on civil liberties, goes to war without Congress, or persecutes whistleblowers, among other misdeeds, post–9/11 excesses will be reined in.

I admire Conor’s desire for change, and I have a lot of sympathy for his refusal to set his moral values aside when making an electoral choice. But, I have a few quibbles.

For as much as they have a huge effect on the direction of the country, presidential elections are not the place where meaningful change occurs.

Take President Obama. He was the catalyst for health care reform—in the sense that it was part of his agenda—but it didn’t happen because Obama was elected. The push for universal health care was a decades-long process that involved efforts at the elite and grassroots levels. Experts had to be trained, politicians had to be elected, and liberals who supported reform had to reach key positions within the Democratic Party. Obama’s decision to run with health care reform was the culmination of that effort, not the beginning.

By itself, voting for Gary Johnson won’t move the parties away from their consensus on national security. Indeed, Conor’s scenario—where the two parties change in response to a third—requires the outright collapse of the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as an incredibly successful third-party candidacy. This isn’t likely. The most successful third-party candidacy in American history happened before the age of strong parties, and was run by a popular former president—Theodore Roosevelt—who led a major faction of the GOP. It’s hard to imagine any similar scenario repeating itself.

If you want the American political system to become more responsive to the concerns of civil libertarians, you have to make it more responsive. And you do that by utilizing the tremendous influence available to dedicated interests within the system. The two parties aren’t particularly centralized—they draw their talent and resources from smaller state parties, who in turn draw from local and county parties. It’s possible for a dedicated group of people to take control of a local party, field a candidate, win, and expand outwards.

It’s hard work—and a lot of time and persuasion—but it can happen. Moreover, it can be translated to influence on a presidential scale. In five years, opposition to the Iraq War went from a minority position in the Democratic Party, to a litmus test for the party’s nomination. It’s when you’ve built a strong constituency for your interests, and shaped the contours of the debate, that you can shape the conduct of a presidency.

Which gets to my second quibble with Conor’s piece: This idea that President Obama—or any executive—is acting with complete autonomy when it comes to national security. In a literal sense, this is true. There are few—if any—constraints on Obama’s ability to conduct war. But, if this were offensive to the public, we would have heard something. American voters don’t care about the drone war. And insofar that they care, it’s because the government has seemingly developed a way to kill “terrorists” without risking American lives. Put another way, if there is a bipartisan consensus around national security, it’s at least partly because the voters have pushed the parties in that direction, by rewarding the belligerent and punishing the reticient. Civil libertarians have to shift public opinion in their direction before they can expect to see politicians respond to their concerns. This is hard work, but it’s possible (see: the push for same-sex marriage).

One last thing. Friedersdorf refuses to vote for a “lesser evil,” but the fact of the matter is that Gary Johnson is also a “lesser evil.” Johnson supports immediate austerity and a move to balanced budgets for the 2013 fiscal year. He would cut 43 percent from the federal budget in all areas, and call for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. He supports “sound money”—which is code for tight monetary policy—and opposes entitlement spending, and most functions of the welfare state. He opposes Roe v. Wade—thus making him an effective opponent of abortion rights—and does not believe that health care is a right.

A world where Johnson could be elected president—which, Conor says, would be a good outcome—is a world where these things are possible. His domestic policies would throw millions into hardship, and his hugely contractionary economic policies would plunge the country—and the globe—into a recession.

Whether he sees it or not, Friedersdorf is making a moral calculus by supporting Johnson. For him, the terrible effects of Johnsons’ policies on ordinary people—recession, increased joblessness, increased homelessness—is worth a world where the United States does not conduct drone strikes. I disagree, but unlike Friedersdorf—who sees the similar calculus among liberals as evidence of willful blindness to the consequences of drone strikes—I don’t think this makes him indifferent to the concern of poor people.

By Jamelle Bouie

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