Conor Friedersdorf’s “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama” spawned a new wave of hand-wringing from bloggers arguing for their reason to vote for Obama, even though they Totally Get It.
Responses range from the well-considered to the flippant. So while the division between the sides is sharp and voting/not-voting for Obama is a binary, I don’t mean to suggest that there’s not nuance amongst those planning on voting Democratic. That caveat stated, here’s a sample of some of their reasoning:
“That all said, after calling Democrats hypocrites, withholding a precious single vote for Obama, and writing daily thousand word essays about the latest awful thing, what’s next?”
“Connor Friedersdorf writers the kind of political essay I can’t see anyone but a privileged white person writing. Going as far as to nearly (but not quite he says!) compare President Obama to an apologist for slavery, he can’t stomach voting for Obama because of his policies in Pakistan, drones, etc.”
I think Conor and Glenn Greenwald (another central figure in this debate) made an effective case and are actively engaging their critics, so that’s not really my aim.
But there’s one major point that I haven’t seen enter this discussion. Your vote matters, but not to the outcome. I’m not saying you shouldn’t vote. You absolutely should. But you are not exercising a right that provides a determinative outcome, at least individually.
I’m not just being a dick here. It’s simple fact. That study determined your likelihood of affecting the 2008 election outcome at 60 million to 1. And one of the people conducting the study was Nate Silver, one of the few people (along with Krugman) that us fractious leftists can usually agree is pretty amazing (unless there’s been some recent backlash I missed).
So, when liberal bloggers and columnists say, “yes, yes, I get it, Obama has done bad things, but we need to ensure that Romney doesn’t become president, therefore it’s irresponsible not to vote for Obama,” there are actually two different things going on:
1. A declaration of their vote.
2. A call to action for your vote.
In the second point they’re discussing strategy and mass movements and are essentially acting as pundits. I’ll get to that in a bit. But in the first part, their declaration of individual intention, they are committing to an action that is ultimately non-determinative to the outcome of the presidential election.
So what good is your vote then?
It’s an expression of your social morality. Even though we get caught up in the horse race and trappings of our specific political system, any chance to exercise political will comes down to your interests and your morals (and even if you vote entirely from self-interest, that is itself a moral statement).
Setting aside your moral qualms in the voting booth is abandoning the one area where your vote actually does matter: as a societal expression of your individual morality. Is this argument easily shrugged off as oh-so-contemptible idealism? Yes. But is it a more unrealistic position than imagining that your “precious single vote” will carry the day for Barack Obama?
If you believe that Barack Obama has grossly overstepped his bounds, both from a Constitutional and humanist perspective, then don’t vote for him. By “strategically” voting for him, you’re denying your morals and getting nothing in return. It is scheming in a vacuum, conducted on a level where your strategy can’t and won’t matter to the outcome of the presidential election. And then your vote actually is meaningless.
As for the second effect of these columns, calling for others to vote for Barack Obama, that can get a little trickier. We have become used to thinking in aggregate strategy and it is the dragging of that mentality into the voting booth that is my primary target. For bloggers and columnists the conflation of 1 and 2, whether intentional or unintentional, makes sense on the level of their advocacy. I would tentatively say that hewing first to your individual morality is more important than the strategic punditry that leads people to defend the indefensible and argue against voting for politicians that may better match their beliefs. But on this larger point there’s still a lot of room for debate.
So what should you do as an individual?
Read the platforms of the other candidates. Even though they’re not viable candidates to win, chances are that if you’re part of this discussion then Jill Stein, Stewart Alexander, and yes, sigh, maybe even Gary Johnson are probably more closely aligned with many of your stances than Obama.
Vote because what you vote for matters to you. I believe that Barack Obama has conducted policies that are both morally repugnant and constitutionally corrupt. Conor Friedersdorf’s first two reasons, the drone program and extrajudicial killings, are both reason enough for me to not vote for Obama. I can also honestly say that I hope Barack Obama wins the election over Mitt Romney. These are not contradictory positions on the level of my individual initiative as a single voter.
And that’s what I’d say to other voting individuals: don’t vote with the mindset of a talking head prognosticating and strategizing. Because your vote is not important in that specific narrow way, and in doing so you’d be denying the way in which your vote really does matter.
- Andrew Whalen