Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Voting and Political Activism

This being a presidential election year, it's time for the left-leaning blogosphere to have another fierce debate over whether to support Obama and the Democrats or vote for a third party. Self-described liberals, progressives, Democrats, independents, Greens, libertarians and others have weighed in (including actual socialists, not the people denounced as such on Fox News). Most blog readers have probably caught some of the scrum, and have their own opinion (LGM has featured multiple posts on the subject). Regardless of your choice, it's probably not hard to find someone who will praise it and someone who will sneer at it. Agonizing over Obama versus Romney is much rarer, at least in the left-leaning sector of the blogosphere, and most right-wing bloggers, despite their dislike of Romney, are fully planning to vote for him versus a third party or abstaining.

A blogger backing Obama and one backing a (non-conservative) third party typically share a very similar critique of the problems in America and its political system. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the blog denizens in this crowd agree anywhere from 70% to 90% when it comes to diagnosis, and their biggest disagreements are over solutions. They share some sort of belief in Enlightenment values, including some version of the social contract and representative government, and they value sensible policies and responsible governance. They tend to be highly informed on an issue or two and reasonably conversant on many more. Typically, they're more politically engaged than the average American. Will Rogers famously said that "I am not a member of any organized party – I am a Democrat." Some members of this blogosphere crowd do not identify as liberal, or certainly not as Democrats (and some save special ire for the Democratic Party beyond any dislike of the Republicans), but the same general dynamics of infighting roughly apply. (Throughout this post, I'll mainly use "liberal" as a catchall for this group for simplicity's sake, but please apply the caveats and distinctions above as necessary.)

If you're sick of conversations on this subject, feel free to skip this post, one of my characteristically long ones. I'm writing it (occasionally in personal terms) because I'm sick of having to repeat myself, and I see a great deal of cross-talking on blogs I read. If someone finds this piece at all helpful, great. At this late date, I doubt many people are still undecided (and the delay in posting this hasn't helped). The bottom line for me is that I believe in voting one's conscience. However, that entails different considerations for different people, and I know thoughtful people who will be voting contrary to me.

Preliminary Thoughts

1. Voting should be the capstone – not the extent – of one's political activism. This point really can't be emphasized enough. When voting is the capstone, a single vote becomes less of a life-or-death decision, and the emphasis shifts to creating sustained political pressure for positive outcomes. (Win or lose, sustained political pressure is really always a plus – in fact, it's generally necessary.)

2. After you've voted in several elections, the chances are pretty high that you'll be disappointed in a politician and that you'll regret a vote. The chances grow much higher if, as a citizen, you approach your relationship to a politician as a personal relationship, with the potential for emotional triumphs but also betrayal. Voting is hiring someone to do a job. Citizenship entails communicating with them, giving them feedback (positive or negative), and holding them accountable. It's fine to like a few politicians, but if you feel a need to like them, you're bound for trouble. (Certain pundits have serious daddy issues, and while average voters tend to be more sensible, there's no doubt that some voters invest the presidency especially with great emotional weight.)

3. Regardless of your voting decision on the presidential race, down-ticket races and ballot measures may warrant action (and different calculations).

4. Similarly, voting in a battleground state or any close election will change the calculations for some voters.

It bears mentioning that a minority of Americans identify themselves as liberals, normally somewhere around 20%. It's also true that when it comes to actual policies, a majority favor liberal policies (hence the line that Americans tend to be philosophical conservatives and operational liberals). As we discussed recently, many voters:

mistakenly believe that deficit is mainly due to wasteful spending, and accordingly favor spending cuts over revenue increases, even while supporting spending on the core government programs that cost the most

It's not as if most voters have a good understanding of income and wealth inequality, where the deficit and debt come from, and who caused it all.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of self-described independents actually have strong party preferences.

Furthermore, most voters do not do extensive policy analysis. They do not follow the details of politics, or how often the Senate filibuster has been abused (by the Republicans). They may pay some attention to "issues," which involve policy at a more general and aspirational level. Some don't even really do that; many citizens vote according to broad values, gut instincts and their overall impressions of the candidates. (Some would delve deeper if they had the time, but let's be honest, many voters are as shallow as certain politicians on the ballot and the TV gasbags covering them. Some sincerely struggling undecided voters do exist, but late in the election cycle, most "undecided" voters are liars, anxious bandwagoners, attention whores or morons.)

All of this is to say, if you tend to criticize Obama "from the left" and have followed the third party discussion at all (regardless of how you're planning to vote), you're in a pretty small group. And it's also to say, if you want to effect significant political change, it's an uphill task, and not something that will be accomplished in a single election.

Related to all this (especially #1 above), some people invest a ridiculous amount of sturm und drang into their vote, as if it has cosmic consequences, when the more meaningful measure is political engagement for the other roughly 1,460 days between presidential elections.

On the other hand, our votes do tend to matter to many of us on a personal level, if nothing else. An individual vote may have little effect statistically, but the aggregate obviously can have great power. Collective action and Get Out The Vote efforts can accomplish more than a single vote. Studies have shown that people are more likely to vote if they know their friends and neighbors have voted. Personally, although it may sound hokey, I do consider voting a civic duty, and feel that the process of voting (and more importantly, researching my votes – California always has ballot initiatives) makes me a more engaged citizen. Even if I'm pretty sure of how I'm going to vote, I check out both major political conventions every presidential cycle, and try to check out the third party candidates as well. Hearing out someone's pitch doesn't entail turning off one's bullshit detector. (Nor should it entail masochism – I had to turn off Zell Miller's noxious 2004 RNC speech, but I normally listen all the way through.) In the past, I've put together voting guides for friends at their request to help them research issues (one was a non-partisan guide for a liberal friend and a conservative one). In turn, friends have passed on links to me on issues where they had more expertise. (I'll add that while I take voting seriously and do donate to some causes, I am not a paragon of political activism.) Some people don't care about politics much, and others do care but are too busy to keep up on everything. For some people, being a political junkie is a necessity; others view it as a luxury. (It'd be nice if politicians were all sensible and responsible, and would behave properly without constant scrutiny, but alas, that's not the case.)

Voting ultimately is a matter of conscience. It may be shaped by moral concerns, and the prospect of living with one's self and one's vote. It may be a practical matter of voting for the best of the viable contenders, and moving things in the right direction (or preventing a move in a bad direction by the other guys). It may be an act of protest. It may be shaped by one's social circles, in a good way or bad (some circles value research, some value ideology, and others prize the approved "fashionable" choice). Or voting can be a mix of these. Votes will be cast with varying degrees of enthusiasm and certainty. I'd say voting one's conscience entails considering the probable consequences of one's vote – but not everyone will agree on what that means.


Several of these can overlap somewhat, but I'd say there are roughly five general pathways for political activism.

1. Local: Act locally. Perhaps you can’t stand national politics, or your members of Congress are horrible and immune to appeals. There's still state activism, or city/county/neighborhood activism. There's the local school board and PTA, the local food bank or soup kitchen, and other local charities or similar organizations. Some areas don't have safe parks, after-school programs or recycling. There's supporting the arts, or fostering cultural exchanges. There's starting a community garden or food co-op. There's teaching and volunteering. Or there's simply being a good parent (or citizen) and supporting others trying to do the same. Many possibilities exist.

2. Reform of the Existing Two Party System: Make one of the major political parties better, or work to improve some other aspect of the existing system.

First up, how about reforming the Republican Party?

If you're laughing at that (and chances are that's the case), think about what that says. Republicans/conservatives are often given a pass ('that's just their nature') for screwing over their own constituents. Why is this remotely acceptable? While decent people who self-identify as conservatives or Republicans certainly exist, unfortunately, those people are not running the Party, and do not even represent a significant coalition anymore. The Republican Party has purged almost all of the moderates and pragmatists, such as Bruce Bartlett, or Susan Eisenhower (who addressed the DNC in 2008 as an independent). The Republican platform of 1956 would be denounced by Republicans today as socialist. Conservative/Republican policies have been horrible for the vast majority of Americans, but still, they often get a pass.

Why bother with the Republicans at all? Wouldn't it be better to just destroy or marginalize the Party completely? Quite possibly – that may even be a necessary step for rebuilding it. (Banishing it to the political wilderness for a generation or two might be required.) The problem is that, no matter how stupid, evil or crazy conservatives and the Republican Party get, the media keeps on validating them. It's maddening, but given those dynamics, one way to move the Overton window of acceptable discourse to the left might be from within the Republican Party itself, making it more sane. (The prospects might not seem great, but hey, if noble, hopeless causes are your thing, this would be a pretty wild, unexpected one, right?)

What about the Democrats? For liberals, there's no doubt the Democratic leadership has often been disappointing. Both Clinton and Obama, through perceived political necessity or personal inclination, have tended to back the "centrist" establishmentarian approaches of the DLC and Third Way (and curse them for ruining the term "third way," with echoes of the Buddhist "middle path"). This faction, sort of the 'kinder, gentler' Republicans or the 'compassionate conservatives' promised by the two Bush presidents, tend to be embarrassed by the New Deal and want to dismantle some or all of it. They pursue corporate profits and are plutocrat-friendly (they tend to be imperialist-friendly as well), but they do believe in some sort of safety net (unlike their conservative brethren). They're typically viewed as Very Serious People by Beltway pundits.

The Democratic Party has long been a big tent party of different groups, however, and while the corporatist faction is significant, it's far from unchallenged. The Congressional Progressive Caucus (which champions some great policies), the labor movement, women's groups, racial minority groups, and LGBT groups all have voices (if not as dominating as liberals would like). Activists seeking to reform the Democratic Party have tried to support more liberal candidates, and are working to build a long-term infrastructure to do so. Rather than donating money to the DCCC, which sometimes backs conservative Democrats, organizations such as Blue America and MoveOn have supported liberal candidates, including primary challengers to conservative incumbent Democrats. The benefit of donating through a liberal organization is that it sends a message and contributes to a power base. (LGBT activists have progressed because of a convincing moral argument and winning over the mildly paranoid by simply being decent people, but high-profile, affluent members and allies have also helped immensely.) Activists shouldn't ignore the corrupt factions in the Democratic Party, but if right-wingers can take over the Republican Party, why can't the liberals (and left-leaning "moderates") reclaim the party of FDR, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society? If the Democrats could throw off racism in the 60s, why not corporatism and other ills now? Why cede the field to the scumbags?

(Here's another thing – if the prospect of reforming the Democratic Party looks much more plausible than reforming the Republican Party [and it is], it's further exposure of the lazy lie that 'both sides are equally bad.')

Other reforms are needed beyond the parties themselves. Whether one's inclined to back the Democrats or a third party, there's eliminating the electoral college in favor of a popular vote, campaign finance reform, publically-funded elections, overturning Citizens United (and similar bad measures) and establishing disclosure laws, instituting instant run-off voting in primaries, establishing rotating regional primaries, and passing some sort of filibuster reform. (Returning the debates to the League of Women Voters would also be great.) Not everyone may agree with all of those measures, but the point is that the overall system has built-in roadblocks that will continue to stymie progressive change and liberal activists, whether they're in the Democratic Party, the Green Party or some other entity.

3. Build a Third Party: Build a third party to challenge the status quo, especially bad bipartisan agreement on important issues. Most liberal-leaning types will find the Green Party the most attractive. The main thought is that the two major parties have become too corrupt, and the Democrats do not represent a sufficient alternative to the Republicans, at least on a few (or several) important issues. Liberal third parties, less beholden to corporate interests and the status quo, can voice opinions not frequently heard in the current political discourse.

Even for liberals inclined to support the Democratic Party, there's an argument to made for building more robust third and fourth parties in America. Human beings tend to think in terms of binary oppositions, and the presence of a third (or fourth, or fifth) party might be helpful in breaking out of not only black-and-white thinking, but some of the imbecilic, shallow faux centrism that plagues so much Beltway commentary. Countries with multiple parties arguably have broader discussions, and the need for coalition-building necessitates compromise and more sensible policies (in theory, that is – the coalition government in the U.K. decided to push harmful austerity measures). In some left-leaning areas of the country, a good Green candidate might actually get elected, or at the very least force the local Democrat to the left.

The big question is whether a third party is meant to play a gadfly role (keeping the major parties, or at least the Democrats, honest) or actually attain power, with all its inherent challenges and compromises. As of this writing, there are 135 Green officeholders in the United States. That's a start, but a far cry from being a significant force. Citizens inclined to favor the Green Party need to do more than just vote for it every presidential election. That means running for local office, winning, and building upward. It's not glamorous work.

Members of the Green Party (or any other small party) also need to consider the causes mentioned above, such as dissolving the electoral college and campaign finance reform (common ground causes with liberals favoring the Democrats). In 1992, Ross Perot won 18.9% of the popular vote, but not a single electoral vote. If the Greens become a force in cities and states, that could change, but there are inherent roadblocks that require attention regardless.

There's also the question of corruption and infighting. If the narrative is that the Democratic Party is a lost cause, gradually becoming more conservative and corporatist, that it's irredeemable, why wouldn't the same thing happen to the Green Party if and when it achieves power? Presumably the anti-corporate ethic is more central and stronger with the Greens, and that would help. A Green Party that achieved significant electoral power but then suffered some corruption or infighting might nonetheless be a net good, or new alternatives would spring up. And such a party could be a sustained good. Still, at some point it needs to be possible to reform an existing institution. However, in the third party activist's view, this is one of those times it's better to build something new.

4. Issue Advocacy: Directly advocate for an issue or two rather than going through a party. For instance, donate money or time to the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, arts councils, or other good organizations. (Some might have a more international focus.) If necessary, create a new one, but the point is to exert political pressure on the existing system through it. Some people may even want to go work for one of these organizations. For activists frustrated with the political parties, particularly if they feel the parties make bad compromises or are corrupt, dedicated issue advocacy may be the best route. It can allow a certain 'purity' and clarity that might be elusive elsewhere. (All that said, some organizations endorse candidates, and some will endorse flawed ones. Meanwhile, most people who have worked for a not-for-profit know that even if the cause is noble, some of one's co-workers or fellow activists can be petty assholes. Life is full of tradeoffs.)

5. Alternative Media: Focus on building alternative media outlets that can raise questions and discuss issues that the mainstream corporate media doesn't. (This can overlap with the other categories, of course, but it's more about stretching the boundaries of the overall discourse itself than any specific issue or party or election. It can be cathartic, but it's also part of the long game.) Some people may draw the lines differently as to what's "alternative" or not, but the usual list would include the Center for Media and Democracy, Democracy Now, the Real News, Consortium News, TruthDig, Alternet and FAIR, plus podcasts such as The Professional Left Podcast, This Week in Blackness, Liberal Oasis, and many more.

The one route I don't have any respect for is a rejection of all of these options (and any other worthy ones I've forgotten – perhaps self-sufficient survivalism). I can't respect sitting back and jeering at the people who are working to make things better for others. There are decent people who abstain from voting altogether or feel that "if voting could change anything, it'd be illegal," but they still tend to do some mix of #1 and #4. (Finally, morale is important for activism, and everyone needs to take a break at times. Burnout doesn't help anyone in the long run.)

Different Passions and the Division of Labor

For the most part, most of the paths above are not at odds, except for a given individual. No one can be an expert in everything, no one can be an effective activist for every worthy cause, no one has unlimited time, and not everyone shares the same passions.

Even working for different parties isn't necessarily counterproductive. Take three sensible people, one working to make the Republicans more sensible, one doing the same with the Democrats, and one building a stronger Green Party. All three of them are working to making the overall system more sane and responsive. Some activists would condemn that, and would want all three to pool their efforts, and there's a valid point to be made about where the aggregate puts the bulk of its efforts. Still, I'm inclined to support all three people. Contrary to some of the battles waging on the blogs, the chief problem holding back America is not that certain liberals haven't permanently rejected the Democratic Party. Nor is it that certain liberals have decided to support the Green Party (or another third party). We're talking about a pretty small group, after all. The one place this is a pressing issue is in battleground states in very close elections, where that small percentage might actually sway the outcome. (We'll get into this more below, but as mentioned above, some activists, including Noam Chomsky, are casting their presidential votes based on whether they're in safe states or battleground states.)

Activists with a few years on them might well allocate their energy differently than the newest crop. This diversity can be good, too – new blood and fresh perspectives, and personal history and experience, all have their value. Activists can have strong and divergent feelings about "noble causes" – that sometimes causes are hopeless; some hopeless causes should be fought anyway; some noble causes just take a really long time but do succeed; sometimes 'perfect is the enemy of good,' etcetera.

Everyone has different passions and strengths, and that, and the division of labor, can be a good thing. If one accepts this outlook, then not only does each individual vote become merely a capstone to greater political activism, but all political activism does not need to be unified. Cooperating on a few issues is important, as is building a power base. However, given that a diversity of passions and approaches is definitional of the left, it would be wise to try to make this a strength, not a weakness.

Prophets, Advisors, Wonks, Hacks and Zealotst

Another way to look at the division of labor is in terms of prophets versus advisors (or wonks, hacks and zealots). Basically, the prophets are the purists and the advisors are the pragmatists. Prophets stand outside an administration, and can deal with pure policy and ideas, relatively free from the constraint of politics (especially logjams). They can evaluate ideas on their merits. Academics in the "ivory tower" are the classic example, but many activists fall in this category as well. Prophets don't join administrations, or if they do, typically don't stay long. They may be brought in to offer counsel, but they don't typically deal with the day-to-day struggles or political jockeying. They can serve as critics and gadflies to an administration or party, trying to keep them honest.

In contrast, advisors work within the administration, or are otherwise allied. They may have their ideals, but they're more concerned about the day-to-day operations, specific votes, whip counts, what is politically feasible, and what will play well politically. The benefit of being an advisor is you actually get to weigh in and influence decisions, even if you lose some (or even most) of those debates. Ideally, advisors push for the best policies that are realistically possible, but political advantage trumps purity. They're trying to keep the administration or party in power, or trying to acquire it.

Here's the thing: Political progress requires both types. People temperamentally more suited to playing the prophet should go that route, and the parallel holds true for the advisors-at-heart. Moreover, both should recognize and respect that progress needs both types. The prophets may occasionally view the advisors as corrupt or sellouts, and the advisors may view the prophets as crackpots and pains-in-the-ass – and there may be truth to this. Not every would-be prophet is actually wise or insightful, and advisors tend to underestimate the political viability of good polices. But assuming we're talking about sincere, competent people, these two types do need each other.

These same general dynamics can also be discussed in terms of wonks, hacks and zealots. (I've used these slightly tongue-in-cheek terms far more frequently, for instance in "Diagram Madness," "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit," "Both Sides Do It: Partisanship Redux" and more satirically in "A Field Guide to Political Creatures.") Roughly, the prophets would be the wonks and the advisors would be the hacks, but there can be differences – the wonk-hack divide is over how they approach policy, while the prophet-advisor gap is more about outsider-insider status (the outsider status is often by choice). This graphic might also help:

From "Diagram Madness":

The wonks aren't always right, and a great deal of them aren't ignorant about politics, although many wonks retain the capacity to be stunned by really atrocious hackdom. However, the wonks tend to arrive at good policy answers more often than hacks because that's their aim. Obviously some political power, whether through elected office or a citizen movement, is necessary to enact good policies. And sometimes, the smart political move is also good policy, hence the overlap between the circles in the diagram. Still, pure hacks see power and political gamesmanship as their own ends, and their efforts often oppose good policy. Meanwhile, the zealots occasionally stumble upon a good policy, but they're far more likely to take a side in a power struggle framed by the hacks.

It's important to note that "wonk" does not mean "academic," although honest academics are indeed wonks; the term means someone who cares about good policy and good governance, and caring about something typically entails studying it and gaining some expertise. It also does not mean there's no passion. Plenty of knowledgeable activists are extremely passionate and fall into the wonk/conscientious citizen category.

Fox News and the right-wing echo chamber are powerful and unrelenting, and Democrats (certainly liberals) suffer from a hack gap (not surprising, since hackdom goes against the very nature of liberalism). Meanwhile, there's certainly a zealot gap, since conservatives believe so many things that simply are not true, and the left is simply not equivalent on that front. I'd argue that zealots are not truly necessary to the political process, but they are sadly inevitable, so they should be accounted for (if possible, pointed in right direction, or limited in the damage they can cause).


How do the two major parties stack up on various issues? (I'm assuming anyone going the third party route can find someone less compromised/more pure and more representative of their views.) This is a cursory overview only (and I'm not going to make exhaustive use of links due to lack of time). Feel free to judge any of these differently; the point isn't to agree with my take, it's more to point out that conscientious voters will be doing their own reflection, and weighing of issues (which inevitably overlap).

War and Imperialism: The leadership of both parties is either imperialist or accepting of imperialism. Obama did decrease the American military presence in Iraq, but he's increased it in Afghanistan, and there's no good reason for America to be there (humanitarian aid and basic security for it excepted). The most morally troubling aspect is drone strikes, both the very act of killing people remotely (often civilians) and the idea of a "kill list" where the U.S. can effectively execute someone without trial. Killing Osama bin Laden is widely seen as a success by Americans, although the question remains as how the supposed "global war on terrorism" will proceed in the future (at least after 2014, when American forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan). It bears mentioning that McCain's foreign policy was horrible, and while he might not have escalated the war in Afghanistan, he would have continued both wars, and has continually spoken about invading other countries. Similarly, in 2012, Mitt Romney's foreign policy is bad where it is even coherent, and his team includes many of the chickenhawk, war-porn-lovin' Bush neocons, including John Bolton, for whom no occasion isn't right for bombing Iran. None of these people are outliers; they are all mainstream representatives of the Republican Party. (Protesting war and imperialism, specifically drone strikes, is probably the most common and strongest reason given by people voting third party.)

Human Rights: While Obama declared an end to torture, and overall prisoner abuse may have subsided, "black sites" still exist that operate beyond the rules. The prison at Guantánamo Bay is still in operation, and the single greatest prisoner abuse is the denial of due process – holding prisoners without charges, and denying trials or postponing them indefinitely. The Department of Justice under Eric Holder has effectively declined to prosecute torture, and that's frankly depressing. This issue is among our greatest shames as a country. The best hopes now are international prosecutions and a civilian memory project. It does not exonerate the Democratic leadership, but it bears mentioning that the major abuses were committed by the Bush administration and they created most of the mess, that some conservatives have run for office on a pro-torture platform and many are still shilling it, and that Mitt Romney boasted that he would "Double Guantánamo" as if he was placing a fast food order. (Extraordinary rendition occurred under Clinton, too, however, even if it was less frequent and less extreme than under Bush. There's always been a contingent in the U.S. government that's believed in 'democracy for me, not for thee' if they even believe in American democracy at all; opposition to torture and prisoner abuse has been a mainstream value in the U.S. military for centuries, and is codified in the Army Field Manual, but certain factions in the intelligence agencies have been all in favor of violating human rights, unfortunately, especially overseas.)

Surveillance and Civil Rights: Among the party leadership, there seems to be bipartisan agreement in a national security state and broad surveillance powers. Many of the abuses of the Bush administration haven't been fully exposed to the general public, and certainly not prosecuted (for instance, the measures even Ashcroft felt went too far). You can find some congressional Republicans and more Democrats who oppose these measures, but they aren't calling the shots. The problem, as with the two issues above, is that governmental power, especially executive power, is rarely surrendered once acquired (certainly not voluntarily).

Wall Street Reform and Corporatocracy: As Matt Taibbi and others have shown, corruption is certainly not limited to one party, and both parties rely on Wall Street and other corporations to fund their campaigns. That said, while Dodd-Frank was weaker reform than activists desired, it's enough to annoy Wall Street firms, and the Republicans tried to block all reform whatsoever. They especially tried to block the creation of a Consumer Protection Agency, and then blocked the nomination of Elizabeth Warren and everybody else to head it. The Democrats are far from pure on this front, but between ALEC, the Kochs, and Boehner and Cantor's meetings on Wall Street, the Republicans are a wholly-owned subsidiary. Additionally, Citizens United and related decisions were decided by the conservatives on the Supreme Court, and congressional Republicans have twice blocked campaign disclosure laws they originally claimed to support.

Plutocracy and Wealth Inequity: The Democratic leadership will only push back slightly against the plutocrats, but they will push back in a world where Reagan's plutocratic policies have become respectable if not the norm. Obama has consistently pushed for slightly higher taxes on the rich (the Clinton tax rates). The rich should be taxed much higher, of course, but the freakout from the privileged wealthy over even this modest proposal has been astounding (and they're backing Romney, who's run an outright plutocratic campaign – well, apart from the times he's lied about his own positions). The Republicans have made increasing plutocracy and wealth inequality central to their party. They've created hostage situations to prevent even this slight increase on the rich, and also keep trying to abolish the estate tax, one of the most progressive taxes America has. (The next time Republicans control the Legislative and the Executive Branches, the estate tax will probably be abolished.) Don't forget Grover Norquist's pledge (no taxes ever, even in the face of Armageddon). Given the current extremism of Republicans, if a tax is lowered or abolished, it is not likely to come back any time soon, if ever. It's not incidental to Norquist's goals that this will make the functioning of government increasingly impossible. (More in "Attack of the Plutocrats" and other posts. Be sure to check out Chrystia Freeland's excellent work on the subject; she's done several articles and interviews recently about her new book.)

Economics in General: The conservative model since Reagan has been tax cuts for the rich and increased military spending, all of which increases the deficit and debt, which can be a side effect of recklessness or a desired goal in itself (the Starve the Beast ideology). As we've examined before, historically, every tax quintile does well under the Democrats, but really only the rich do well under Republicans. Meanwhile, Republicans opposed the stimulus (which was successful, but too small, and too weighted toward tax cuts) and they also champion austerity – so they oppose what's been shown to work and champion what's been shown not to. This is situational, though, since Rand acolytes such as Paul Ryan will champion Keynesian economics when it benefits themselves and their districts, but will publically denounce such policies when the Democrats are in power. Conservatives/Republicans keep pushing this crap despite knowing it doesn't work (they recently suppressed a study proving them wrong, not that they didn't already know that). While genuine stupidity is a factor, the amount of bad faith conservatives have shown on these issues cannot be overstated.

Jobs (Public and Private): There's certainly nothing wrong with the private sector, but it's demand, not supply, that creates jobs. Republicans have consistently sought to fire public employees, most of all teachers, but also policeman, firefighters and social workers. The only exceptions are military jobs – and public jobs in their own districts. Romney is merely the latest Republican to declare, in an amazing denial-of-reality move, that government does not create jobs. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have consistently blocked jobs bills, including Obama's latest, or attempted extortion for routine measures such as extending unemployment benefits and other automatic stabilizers.

Workers' Rights Labor doesn't have the power it once did (one of the reasons Democrats have pursued corporate money), and the Democrats haven't been impeccable in attending to labor's concerns. Still, there's no doubt that they support labor much more than conservatives, who have always hated labor. It's getting worse; Eric Cantor celebrated management on Labor Day, Maine's Republican governor, Paul LePage, removed a labor mural, and several Republicans have called for a repeal of child labor laws. (See "Let It Bleed: Libertarianism and the Workplace" for much more.)

Infrastructure: Similarly, Republicans who once supported infrastructure spending have opposed it under Obama. Gosh, what could account for the switch?

The Basic Functioning of Government: The Republican Party has attacked the basic functioning of government. It really is astounding. Obstruction of this sort is unprecedented, apart from perhaps the period preceding the Civil War. Abuse of the Senate filibuster has hit record highs. The Republicans holding the debt ceiling hostage was also unprecedented, and reprehensible. Steve Benen called it sabotage back in 2010 and conservatives attacked him for it, but in fact, leading Republicans met on the night of Obama's inauguration to make a pact to oppose every single measure of Obama and the Democrats. The Republicans have repeatedly chosen to put their party before their country. (I'm hard pressed to think of precedents of this degree.) On top of all this, multiple political figures, including David Brooks, David Frum, and Mitt Romney himself have made this hostage-taking dynamic central to Romney's campaign, arguing that Republicans will continue to sabotage Obama (although of course they don't call it that)… so Romney must be elected to get anything done. This approach is extortion and unconscionable. (See "The Four Types of Conservatives," "Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice" and "The Persistence of Ideology" for more.)

Health Care: True universal care would be far better, and personally, I'm not thrilled about the requirement to buy insurance, but the Affordable Care Act has several excellent provisions. Some of those won't go into effect until 2014, and only if Obama is re-elected. The ACA was based on Republican plans, yet Republicans turned around and opposed it, and are seeking to gut it. Republicans have alternatively run for and against Medicare cuts, and have lied about the Medicare reforms in the ACA that cut waste. As a whole, conservatives do not give a damn about health care reform, they've opposed it for over sixty years, and their bad faith on this issue as well cannot be overstated. (A 2010 post on health care around the world is my most extensive, and The Incidental Economist blog is an excellent source for health care analysis.)

Voting Rights: A major strain of conservatism has never liked democracy, and key movement conservative Paul Weyrich (who co-founded the Heritage Foundation) stated in 1980 that, "I don't want everybody to vote… As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." Conservative Southern Democrats once suppressed the black vote, but for the past thirty-some years, the Democratic Party has consistently worked to expand voting and protect voting rights while conservatives and Republicans have worked hard to suppress them. (This election cycle has seen some pretty repulsive efforts in that regard. I'm hoping that Ohio Secretary of State John Husted can be prosecuted for his repeated, egregious misconduct.)

The Supreme Court and the Judiciary: The Bush administration was aggressive in nominating as many right-wing judges as it could at every level. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have obstructed Obama administration judicial appointments as much as possible. In turn, the Obama administration hasn't been active enough pushing back (but didn't create the situation). The Supreme Court currently has a conservative majority with Kennedy as the swing vote, and has gotten bolder in its rulings. Citizens United is probably the worst of the past ten years, but there have been plenty of other bad ones. Right-wing judges have caused a great deal of harm and will continue to do so. (The same appointment problems plague other areas of government. Conservatives/Republicans do not care if the government functions properly.)

Education: This remains an essential issue. The Obama administration's "Race to the Top" program has received plenty of criticism. On the other hand, the Obama administration has worked to expand Pell Grants and cut banks out of the student loan process. (Republicans, who claim to abhor waste, fought that.) Republicans have doggedly attacked teachers for some time, but it seems to have gotten nastier recently. In their view, teaching is easy and anyone can do it, and teachers are lazy, overpaid, and liberal indoctrinators.

The Environment and Climate Change: This arguably trumps everything else. While the Democrats have been disappointing at times in how hard they push on this issue, they have invested in alternative energies, and they have a significant environmental faction. Republicans are really the only major party in the industrialized world that denies the realities of climate change. The Bush administration rolled back many crucial environmental protections, and the Republican Party is still committed to doing more in this regard. One of the Koch brothers' key goals, besides tax cuts for the rich, is eliminating environmental regulations. It also bears mentioning that, among the American public, conservatives' support for addressing climate change has dropped significantly in the past four years. (Unfortunately, they seem to support or oppose issues based on tribalism.)

Reproductive Freedom: Women of means have normally been able to afford safe abortions regardless of its legality, and country club Republicans has long used abortion as a fundraising scheme to whip up the conservative base while doing little to outlaw it. However, the anti-choice movement has always been deadly serious, and its members tend to be single-issue voters on abortion. Republicans have introduced, and in some cases passed, laws that restrict reproductive freedom for women. It's amazing (if perhaps predictable) that, in 2012, conservatives still are trying to overturn Roe v. Wade and outlaw abortion. But now they also want to effectively outlaw contraception, and that used to be a fringe position. Review some of the statements conservatives have made on abortion and rape – they are astounding and disgusting. (Obama can be fairly criticized over preventing the sale of Emergency Plan B to women under 17 without prescription. However, the Democrats are much better on these issues.)

Women's Rights: Along with reproductive freedom, it bears mentioning that it was conservative judges on the Supreme Court who ignored the clear intent of the law to deny Lily Ledbetter justice, Republicans tried to block the Lily Ledbetter Act, and conservatives are still seeking to overturn it. The varieties of bullshit conservatives have flung out to justify denying a woman equal pay have been amusing if noxious.

Freedom of Religion: I'm not going to recap every post from the annual Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm, but most of the time, when conservatives say "freedom," they really mean privilege. That's definitely the case for social conservatives and theocrats. The Obama administration has at times been too accommodating, but it remains much better than the alternative. If you follow the religious right at all, you can probably pick a dozen examples of full-metal crazy from any given week of the year. Some Democratic theocrats do exist, but they're relatively rare, whereas the theocrats form a significant faction in the conservative movement and the Republican Party. (Currently, their big cause is one of their perennial favorites: 'No sex without our permission!')

Immigration Reform: The Obama administration failed to pass immigration reform, but this was mainly due to calculated Republican opposition, including from lawmakers who had supported it in the past. The same goes for the DREAM Act. Arizona and Georgia's harsh immigration laws were passed by Republicans. The Democrats may be a disappointment in terms of results, but they're definitely better.

Race and Bigotry: Relatedly, while the Democrats aren't flawless, they are a big tent party on race, and have been for decades. Meanwhile, bigotry is a defining trait of modern conservatism and the modern Republican Party, and has been for decades. The virulent racism of conservatives, from dog-whistles to air raid sirens to unapologetic slurs, has been disgusting, and it's been sold by Republicans at every conceivable level of power, from the candidates and their surrogates to right-wing talk (Limbaugh most prominently) and the troglodyte conservative base. Rejecting all these assholes is a worthy cause on its own. (And check out Roy Edroso's weekly rightblogger roundups if you haven't been doing so already.)

LGBT Issues: It's still legal to fire someone for being gay in many states, and gay marriage isn't the law of the land. Still, LGBT issues have made major strides under the Obama administration, from ending Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) to ceasing to defend the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to hiring transgender employees into the administration to Obama declaring his support for gay marriage. In contrast, anti-gay ideology is absolutely central for many leading conservatives, including most if not all of their presidential candidates this election cycle. (It's important to note that this progress occurred in large part because of sustained outside pressure from activists, and that is a very good model to follow for other causes.) While some conservatives and Republicans are tolerant of gays, if you're a homophobe, the Republicans are your party.

The Arts: This isn't a pressing issue for most activists, but it remains an important issue for some (including me). The commercial arts thrive in the U.S. and need little help. Private organizations also do a great deal of good. But arts funding in the U.S. is embarrassingly low compared to other nations, and should not depend solely on commercial concerns or private charity. The National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities do a great deal of good despite their meager funds, including subsidizing theater tickets for students and promoting a national poetry recital competition in high schools. (Give each organization a billion apiece, for starters.) Numerous studies show that funding the arts stimulates the economy, and that arts education helps not only brain development in the young, it cultivates more creative thinking for people of all ages. Plus, the arts make the world a better place. Attacking arts funding became mainstream for conservative politicians with Reagan, and has been a staple ever since. Without fail, they'll attack the NEA, NPR and PBS as if they're budget busters; instead, these attacks are the unmistakable sign of an asshole, no matter how much conservative/libertarian bullshit is shoveled atop to try to make it all respectable. Funding the arts is a worthy cause, a proper task for government, and an important part of the Commons.

The Commons: As we've covered before, conservatives have been waging a war on the very idea of a social contract and the Commons. The Koch brothers' many organizations, and other conservatives, have attacked public schools, public libraries, public media, public employees and unions, and less often, public parks and public roads. Basically, they've been attacking the foundations of a well-informed electorate. This is not accidental.

To give some more detail, The Washington Monthly has a post of Obama's top 50 accomplishments that lists many specific measures (and also glosses over the abuses mentioned at the top of this issues list). Meanwhile, conservative flagship and loss-leader National Review compiled a list of "689 Reasons to Oppose Obama," and Wonkette picked out some of the choice items. ("So if you’re racist or sexist or hate Poors or really have a problem with education, then there is something in this list for you!")

Anyone's free to assess these issues differently, and regardless, not everyone will rank the importance of these issues in the same way. (My blurbs are more cursory than I'd like.) The critique varies on individual issues, but if we're talking general assessments, I'd say that the Democrats are partially corrupt and plutocratic, and the Republicans are entirely so, plus reckless and nihilistic. Discussing the parties' similarities on imperialism and corporatism is important, but it's also important to discuss their differences, as well as strategies for change. There's no reason why we can't discuss all of that. That's why I find it reductive and aggravating when someone says that there's no difference between the parties. As we covered recently, if such a statement is the start of a more in-depth conversation, it's not so bad. Otherwise, it's inaccurate and extremely simplistic. I can respect people who say, effectively, "on the issues I deem most important, both parties have bad positions and there is not sufficient difference between them." But trite declarations that "both sides do it" or "both sides are equally to blame" are staples of a shallow political discourse. (See the link above for more.) The issues above certainly give some voters fodder for voting third party. However, they also give a host of reasons to prevent conservatives from gaining more power.

The Nature of Politicians and Political Progress (Influence, Betrayal and the Rest)

It bears repeating: Voters who want to admire politicians whole-heartedly will almost always be disappointed. It's more realistic and fruitful to view politicians as tools for achieving goals, whether that's progress on a set of issues and/or blocking the other guys from their dreadful plans. No matter how noble or vile a particular politician may be, sustained political pressure from citizens is always necessary. Debate the best form and style of that pressure if you like, especially since that may vary according to the politician, region, local history and other factors. But sustained political pressure from the voters is always crucial. (At the very least, it can't hurt.) A corrupt politician may remain mostly awful, but may still cast a good vote or two if there's enough public pressure on that issue. Likewise, a seemingly good candidate cannot be trusted to fulfill all those wonderful campaign promises without voters keeping him or her honest. Voting is an essential part of representative government, but effective citizenship doesn't start or end there.

One of the key arguments for voting inside the two-party system is that one party may be slightly or significantly more amenable to voter concerns on a given set of issues. Historically, the differences between the parties have been stark on certain issues. If your elective officials are actually responsive to some of your concerns and reasonably sensible, it's pretty silly to jettison all that.

One counterargument is that, at least on certain issues, the parties are largely in agreement, and a party's rhetoric or "less evil" status snows voters, stalling activism and protecting the status quo. Additionally, having the supposedly "good" party in office can allow bad measures to be passed that might otherwise be opposed. The classic case is the financial deregulation agreed to by Clinton, pushed by Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers in his administration, and by conservatives in Congress. (See Robert Scheer's The Great American Stickup for more.) The big concern for Obama is his seeming willingness to strike a "Grand Bargain" which would gut the social safety net, most of all Social Security. These are legitimate concerns. (There's still the question of whether a Republican president and Congress could do more damage, and that partially depends on the state of the filibuster.)

Citizens who don't idolize politicians, and sustain political pressure regardless of the official or party, are less susceptible to stalling tactics. However, if you're civically-minded and certainly if you're an activist, you need to ponder your general approach (reform versus revolution), and the best specific means for effecting change. (How one assesses the specific political landscape at any given time can also play a big role.)

The obvious reasons to vote against Obama are some of the issues mentioned above in the "Diagnosis" section. Mike Lofgren sums up the three general rationales fairly well in a piece titled " The Case for Obama and Against Liberal Despair":

1. Obama is an unprincipled center-right politician who deceived us by campaigning as a progressive. Obama has implemented policies destructive enough to be "deal breakers" for principled voters. This objection focuses mainly on Obama's drone campaign, the surge in Afghanistan, indefinite detention, and his purported willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare.

2. Obama, by "normalizing" bipartisan acceptance of Republican policies, may in the long-term be worse than Romney. This argument ratchets up the indictment against Obama by asserting not that Obama is insufficiently better than Romney, as the first argument usually implies, but that he may be worse. In this argument, Democrats are the key "enablers" in the process of moving the American political spectrum inexorably rightward.

3. "The worse the better." I have not yet seen this argument in print, but I have heard some persons of a progressive or leftish tendency express it. They say they would prefer a Romney victory because it would administer a horse doctor's dose of emetic to a deluded electorate. By "heightening the contradictions" inherent in the American political system, a Romney victory would accelerate a crash whose pieces a reinvigorated left-populism would pick up.

Lofgren argues against these positions, and you can follow the link to read his take. (I'll discuss these issues more below.) I will add, however, that I've seen quite a few versions of #3 on blog posts and threads. (I think Lofgren's characterization of #3 is slightly pejorative, and some of his other prose is snide or off-the-mark, but that all three summaries are roughly accurate.)

I'll also add that conservatives have an inherent advantage in holding extreme positions without regard for consequences, because of the stupid-evil-crazy vortex. Liberals are defined by their concern with being fair and trying to prevent harm, so they tend not to do well with games of brinksmanship over important issues. Remember the debt ceiling hostage situation. Many Republicans wanted to cause a crash. They were too dumb to realize what it would entail, or thought it would be a good thing. Movement conservatives believe government is evil, and do not care if it works properly; they believe it can't. (As the saying goes, conservatives say government doesn't work, and then set out to prove it.) They can act recklessly, because someone else (normally the Democrats, flawed though they are) will swoop in to play the responsible adults. Additionally, privileged political figures, from pundits to members of Congress to the Kochs, can afford to play a long game, and think they can ride out any chaos they sow. (See "The Four Types of Conservatives" for much more.)

Purity Wars and Pet Peeves

I have several pet peeves about attitudes toward politics and holding politicians accountable. First up, there's "Don't blame me, I voted for [X]." It's fine as an expression of frustration with the voters who, say, ignored all the warnings about Scott Walker and Rick Scott and now have buyer's remorse. However, it's annoying if it means, "I'm not going to fight this crap anymore – it's your problem." (Luckily, I think it mostly just expresses frustration.) We all wind up on the bad side of an election eventually. (Some fringe activists never really wind up on the good side of one, in their view.)

Second, there's the argument that citizens shouldn't get upset if a politician (especially the president) does something bad they said they would do. This strikes me as silly, because I tend to vote for a liberal candidate in the primaries, who is often defeated, and then the more "centrist" candidate is up for consideration in the general election. I missed the part where I got to see my ideal candidate elected. I also reject the simplistic idea that voting for a candidate entails approving of all of his or her positions. An election normally involves picking the better of two imperfect options (more on this and "lesser evils" later).

Here's the thing: regardless of politicians' platforms, I think it's reasonable to expect them to either follow their conscience (rare) or represent their constituents' best interests (much more likely). For example, a dairy subsidy might be bad for the country as a whole, but if it benefits a congressman's constituents, it's not surprising if he votes to keep it (and the vote's somewhat defensible). What's not defensible is severe corruption or voting to screw over both the country and one's own constituents (a staple of the Republican Party, alas). Likewise, it's reasonable to expect the president of the United States to act in the best interest of the United States. This gets into semantics, and can be put a couple of different ways. The first way is to distinguish between reasonable expectations versus realistic ones. Another way is distinguish between expectations and standards. For instance, it was reasonable to expect that the Bush administration would not start an unnecessary war, and that Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and others would not abuse their positions so grotesquely, but it turns out it was not realistic. Similarly, given Obama's pre-election statements, it might have been silly to expect him to withdraw from Afghanistan and not escalate the war there, but those remain very good standards to hold him to. Obama was better on the issue of war than McCain, and there was not an ideal candidate available with a chance of winning. Plus, one's favored general election candidate doesn't always win. Voters still have the right to speak out; they don't abdicate the right to criticize bad decisions or policies even if a candidate ran on them. (It may be silly if they're surprised, but they can and should still protest.)

Third, occasionally I see pronouncements such as, "I went through that political phase, but now I believe [X]." These are fine if they're sincere, and the person explains why they used to believe what they did and why their views changed. Then it's an honest personal story, and maybe a conversation. It's awfully patronizing, though, if it's delivered as a way to dismiss the other person's views, with the premise that what the other person believes is just a phase they'll grow out of. In the liberal third-party-versus-Democratic-Party wars, there are some reasonable adult discussions, but you can also find people who find it unconscionable that some liberals haven't permanently rejected the Democratic Party, and others who find it unforgivable that some liberals haven't quit their third party dilettantism. (You'll also run across people who find slight liberal apostasy much more unforgivable than full-throated conservatism, which has always struck me as very poor outrage allocation.) You'll discover people accusing the other side of unforgivable naiveté simply because they don't share the exact same flavor of cynicism they do, or because their critiques differ slightly, so they only agree on an unpardonable 70–90% of things. Anyone can argue such critiques are accurate (and perhaps they are), but let's face it, they're rarely persuasive.

Fourth, activists can wield dueling accusations of privilege: 'it's easy for you comfortable bourgeois Americans (okay, not many people use " bourgeois," more's the pity) to dismiss the suffering of foreigners overseas'; 'it's easy for you affluent white males to ignore domestic attempts to oppress women or racial minorities,' etc. To be fair, some of these accusations may be perfectly valid and sound. (I've seen some convincing cases against worthy targets in my time. Making Andrew Sullivan a piñata is often a moral imperative.) However, these charges don't tend to be persuasive to the target, who tends to get pissed, so it's probably not the best opening move if one's going for the conversation versus the excoriation. (That's a style choice and judgment call; just make sure that if you dish it out, you can take it.) The reality is, among the liberal set, it's more likely that most people do care about all the issues under consideration; it's just that they might weight them differently, or they disagree about solutions. No one does infighting like liberals, and sometimes this is both inevitable and arguably necessary, but uh, perhaps sometimes it's not.

Fifth, there are arguments such as "the Democrats are as bad!" or "Actually, they're worse!" or "They deserve it!" For instance, I recently saw a commenter on a WaPo article about voter suppression say that the Democrats deserved to lose because… they hadn't fought back hard enough against such efforts. (I don't mean to nut-pick because I don't think this is the norm, but I do see such arguments from time to time.) This mentality amazes me, and strikes me as, well, petulant and childish. Such statements are like arguing that the current fire chief is too corrupt, and allowing too much arson – so the brilliant solution is to help elect his opponent, who's vowed to cut firefighter positions – and may be an arsonist himself. It suggests to me that the author is clinging to an idea that the Republicans are the bad guys and the Democrats are supposed to be the good guys. Maybe the Democrats are better, but this lets the Republicans completely off the hook for being scumbags. It also puts the citizen in the position of a passive consumer, where the Democrats are supposed to do all the work. Saying the Democrats are "just as bad" is almost always hyperbole to make a point (with some exceptions, discussed above). Saying they're "even worse!" is almost certainly hyperbole (with very few exceptions). I really, really dislike rhetoric like this (in part because I've worked/lived in places where it was the norm). What the speaker actually means is that the Democratic Party is a bigger disappointment to him or her. This relates to item #2 in "Preliminary Thoughts" above, that it's more fruitful to view an election as hiring someone to do a job, as opposed to treating it as a personal relationship. The latter approach does allow for some emotional highs, but also feelings of betrayal. Maureen Dowd, Andrew Sullivan and John Hinderaker have enough daddy issues to keep us all covered. (In any case, clearly the absolutely worst thing in the whole entire world is hyperbole.)

Sixth, I really don't care if a politician failed to deliver on a "promise." My question is whether the politician made a reasonable effort, if he or she fought for it. That is what all political promises implicitly entail. If a politician failed to fight, by all means, flame away. But if the opposition blocked those efforts, especially in bad faith, I find it absolutely childish and fucking imbecilic to blame the politician for a breach of promise (see, for example, failing to change the "tone" in Washington). Rewarding obstruction and assholes is not a sophisticated political outlook, all conservative, media and purity trolling to the contrary.

I do believe that most liberals weighing all this stuff tend to be reflective and earnest, which may be easy for some critics to mock, but that they typically do more good than harm. (I suppose it's all in the family.) Only a minority is voting out of vanity, fashion, or a sanctimonious assertion of purity and moral superiority. But in honor of all purity wars, remember the sage words of Emo Philips: "Die, heretic!"

The "Message" Received by Elections

Unfortunately, the message intended to be sent by protest votes is rarely received by the two major parties or the media. Clinton was warned in 1992, and again in 1996 – by the press! – that he didn't have a mandate. Voting for Nader in 2000 was supposed to send a message to the Democrats to reclaim their more liberal strains, but that message was largely lost thanks to the Florida recount, the Supreme Court, 9/11 and two wars. The Bush administration didn't hold back or try to govern in an inclusive way; they went for broke, and gave us divisive, conservative extremism. Bush was dropping in popularity by the 2004 election, but he narrowly won, and his administration – and the press – declared this meant he had a mandate. (Al Franken documented this groupthink well in one of his books.) Americans broadly rejected the Bush approach in 2006, but Republicans didn't accept this verdict. In 2008, even though Obama won, the Democrats won pretty handily, and this was a further rejection of the Bush approach, the Republicans – and the press! – declared that Obama didn't have a mandate, that America was a center-right country, and Obama had better watch his step. The Kochs and Fox News manufactured the tea party, and pretended that the same social conservatives who had supported Bush and opposed Obama from the very start were independent voters suddenly radicalized by a centrist Democrat's supposedly raging socialism. It was a brilliant piece of rebranding, and utterly dishonest. Bush who? (As usual, the mainstream press went along with most of this, because Drudge rules their world, everyone knows that real Amurkans are conservatives, and the angry people were white.) In 2010, disillusioned liberals and independents stayed at home, the Republicans picked up some seats, and surprise, surprise – they claimed it was a rejection of Obama, and a mandate for conservatism and the rejected policies of the Bush administration – or more extreme versions thereof. (And the press supported this interpretation – the same press that largely ignored the dishonest and hypocritical "Mediscare" ads Republicans ran, among other things.) A "message" simply isn't received by a vote alone. It takes a movement or sustained pressure to deliver it. (See the 2010 post "American Political Insanity Explained" for more.)

The divide between liberals on voting can be explained with word emphasis. Compare:

The lesser of two evils is still evil.

The lesser of two evils is still a lesser evil.

Which one you find more compelling reflects your vote.

Arguably, the Democrats have faced several "purity" elections before, with liberals fracturing as to whom to support: 1968, which resulted in Nixon's election; 1980, which resulted in Reagan and over thirty years of conservative economics that are still afflicting the country; and 2000, which resulted in Bush and multiple messes that are still afflicting the country and the world. I'd say the "greater evil" prevailed in all those cases. (In terms of Lofgren's three rationales above, if the "wake up" strategy was ever going to work, Bush was sufficiently awful he should have done the trick, but that hasn't been the case – and unfortunately, things can always get worse.) Meanwhile, McGovern in 1972 and Mondale in 1984 were arguably "purer" than their opponents, but they also lost in landslides. As liberals should know by now, it's not enough to have better policies or to be personally honorable, and elections are not lost simply because good policies weren't explained well enough. Most voters decide based on values, as well as other intangible (and sometimes very superficial) factors. Being pure is not enough to win an election. (That doesn't mean one shouldn't still vote for a seemingly "non-evil," more pure option, but if one cares about consequences and not merely symbolism, these issues bear consideration.)

If Romney-Ryan win in 2012, conservatives will claim it’s a rejection of "class warfare," of any responsibility by the rich to the middle class and certainly the poor, that it's a validation of Grover Norquist, Ayn Rand, the anti-factual 47% bullshit, the need to cut the safety net, etcetera, etcetera. It'll all be bullshit, but they'll claim a mandate as they always do, and Mark Halperin and other Beltway hacks will be happy to proclaim it as well. (This is why liberals need to continue to develop alternative media.)

Both Obama and Romney agree on drone strikes, and the same probably goes for the leadership of both parties. However, a vote for a third party ostensibly against drone strikes will still result in drone strikes. That's discouraging and depressing. That said, it does mean if one cares about the actual consequences of one's vote, the more important issue is what one's doing to stop all that. Otherwise, voting third party is merely a symbolic gesture. Third party voters excoriating liberals who are voting for Obama would do well to actually help build a movement on the issue. Similarly, liberals voting for Obama who are criticizing third party voters would do well to help build a movement on the issue. (Let's see if that actually happens, shall we? And of course, whether Obama or Romney wins could also change the landscape considerably.) Again, voting should be the capstone on political activism, not the extent of it.

The Long Game

As covered above, the Kochs and other right-wing activists can afford to play a very long game, and unfortunately, they've been successful at it in some cases. Eisenhower made his peace with the New Deal, and much of it lasted until Reagan (and some persists now), but the Kochs and their ilk have never accepted the New Deal or anything like it – that is, good policies that benefit the vast majority of Americans instead of a narrow, corrupt, would-be aristocracy. The truth is that the two parties are not exactly the same, and when right-wingers get in power, they make things significantly worse. If conservatives only made things slightly worse when they got in power, the case for voting third party would be much stronger. The thinking on Bush the younger was that he'd have a conservative bent and make some things worse, but Clinton had proved so successful and popular that Bush surely wouldn't kill the golden goose; a broad bipartisan consensus on good policy supposedly existed; after all, Clinton had co-opted many Republican ideas, and supposedly they had gotten their way and should be happy. But of course, Clinton got no credit for this, at least not from Republicans, and movement conservatives always try to push things as far as they can. (It comes with being raging assholes.) The Bush administration, especially Cheney and his entire cabal, had a very right-wing agenda. While it's unethical not to pressure the Democrats, it's folly to ignore that the Republican Party, and certainly conservatism, is much, much worse overall. While it's true that Republicans will eventually regain power, they can do less damage the more this is delayed, the fewer they are, the more they are challenged, the more their noxious, nihilistic bullshit is explicitly rejected, and the more the political climate is changed for the better. They will not stop voluntarily.

The Overton Window, Revolution, and Victory by Cycle

The approach one favors depends in large part on whether one believes in an Overton window approach of moving the contours of the dialogue, or a model of metaphorical revolution, or a model or letting everything going to ruin/burning it all, from whence the revolution can spring. (Substitute another model if you like.) When it comes down to political progress in America and how it's actually been achieved, I'd say it's mostly been the Overton window approach. Even when seemingly big jumps have occurred (and we can bring in the shock doctrine), it's been because the ground was set beforehand. As Rick Perlstein shows in "Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years," it's not that Reagan and other conservatives weren't crazy, it's just that they were constrained by the political climate. Eisenhower and Nixon didn't really challenge the New Deal (and the far right hated them for it) because the New Deal was popular and the Democrats held significant power,. Clinton didn't repeal Reaganomics; he enacted some modest reforms and merely practiced a kindler, gentler version of it. Obama is doing much the same. The key is to win a series of victories to move the window in the correct direction. Politicians will make better decisions when they are forced to do so. Realistically, that's the only time they can be counted to. Developing a political climate to accomplish that takes patience, discipline, and a sustained effort.

Regarding metaphorical revolutions, the Occupy movement was and remains heartening, but its main power has been as a protest movement. It gives people their voices and amplifies them. But by its very nature of being a broad consensus group, it doesn't have much focus and thus not much political power. That could change, and some activists will feel compelled to put their energy there or in similar efforts. (As discussed in the "Pathways" section, Occupy and non-Occupy approaches can reinforce each other rather than being at cross-purposes.) Literal revolutions have occurred in the Arab Spring, but that seems extremely unlikely in the U.S., despite the mutterings of right-wing militias or other groups (and not just because of American military and police power). For any left-leaning groups thinking along these lines – letting the U.S. become more of a dictatorship in the hopes that backlash will eventually emerge – it seems like dangerous folly to me. People are already pissed, but they don't always know how they're getting screwed and where to focus their anger. Some of the most pissed-off folks are right-wingers, who as usual, are blaming the wrong people. I tend to believe you play the hand you're dealt the best you can, and don't choose to lose. I'm not sure how the "monastery" approach that Chris Hedges and others advocate (build monasteries to preserve knowledge while the world burns) doesn't already exist to some degree. You don't stop fighting for education or human rights or any other worthy cause. You may suffer setbacks, or even be defeated, but you don't voluntarily give up. A large number of people tend to suffer that way – and more than would otherwise.

The "burn it down and build it again" approach reminds me of the Hindu cycle of the universe (basically, creation, destruction, and rebirth). I've never found this compelling or convincing; it seems like a very risky gamble, based on a unsubstantiated guess about the nature of the world. (In its way, it's as nihilistic the far right's attitude; after all, they want to burn everything down and institute theocracy or neo-feudalism or some other right-wing authoritarian dream.) To me, it's a pitch to stand by and let preventable suffering occur… on the chance that things might get better, eventually. I know some people view it differently, but for me, that is the opposite of a conscientious decision. Personally, while I have many concerns about a Romney administration, and all the concerns about Obama listed above (drone strikes, human rights, corrupt establishmentarianism, a potential grand bargain, etc.), I'm in a better spot than some to avoid any coming chaos. I won't claim I'm entirely selfless, but self-interest is far from my only motivating force. I personally know people who would suffer under a Romney administration, and because I'm a bleeding heart liberal, I know that many people I will never meet personally would suffer under a Romney-Ryan administration. Those bastards handily win the evil contest – Romney is a complete sleazebag, but Ryan is one genuinely evil, Rand-worshipping, conscienceless fuck, and he cannot be allowed to gain power. I know that if Reaganomics and plutocracy becomes more ascendant (among other things), things will only get worse. I also have a pretty good idea that more (extreme) conservatism will drive more imperialism. (More on that below.)

It's one thing to believe in making the best of a bad situation, quite another to induce a bad situation. I'm trying to think of successful examples of this approach in history. The abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and the end of Jim Crow didn't succeed because activists gave up – although they didn't depend on political parties to do all the work for them. (And the abolition of slavery in the U.S. was only achieved through a war – it was confrontation of the issue, not surrender on it, that made progress.) Perhaps I'm just cross-talking, because some third party activists would surely agree not to let political parties to do all the work for them. But I have seen explicit calls to abandon the Democratic Party, which for all its flaws, remains an important bulwark against conservative extremism on many issues. The argument is that things will get worse in the short run, but then eventually get better. I don't really buy this. When I hear this, I think: What makes you think you get to control the outcome? History does not always move in cycles, or to the degree that it does, those cycles are extremely long, and effectively meaningless to individuals. (To misappropriate the famous Keynes line, in the long run, we're all dead.) It depends on how one counts time, but I'd say giving up the fight means things will get worse in the short run, and in the middle run, and in the long run… but then maybe, and only maybe, they'll get better in the very long run… and not necessarily due to any decision decades or centuries ago, and certainly not due a few protest votes versus an actual, sustained movement. Historically, letting a bigoted, paranoid, militant political faction that hates half its fellow citizens gain more power has not worked out well for either the country or the rest of the world. (Also, Godwin, Godwin, Godwin.)

Life is not a fucking theoretical experiment, and human suffering is a reality that is meant to alleviated. I know that many third party activists truly believe that their route will alleviate more human suffering. As stated above, I support their ideals and even their efforts, and can join with them on many individual causes. However, I believe the Overton window approach is much more realistic, that it currently includes efforts to reform the Democratic Party, and that this will prevent more suffering. I believe a stronger Green Party can help move the window as well, but that efforts to "throw" the election to conservatives and Republicans are short-sighted and harmful for the long term and not just the short term. (Voting in a safe state is another matter.) Furthermore, I also believe that pouring energy into individual causes, basically pathways #1 (local), #4 (issue advocacy), and #5 (alternative media) can do far more good than simply backing any political party, whether blindly or with eyes wide open. Once again: voting should be the capstone of political activism, not the extent of it. And if purity or worthy causes are your thing, you're not lacking for outlets.

(Update: Erik Loomis, who has a great ongoing series on labor history, has a good post on the nature of political progress.)

Imperialism and Plutocracy

As Bill Moyers has pointed out, "Democracy and plutocracy don't mix." As the late Chalmers Johnson and other anti-imperialists have pointed out, democracy and imperialism don't really mix, either. Imperialism and plutocracy tend to be closely linked, and mutually reinforcing. (Substitute plutonomy, or oligarchy, or aristocracy, or the ruling class, or monarchy, or a dictatorship as needed – the point is rule by a few, for the few.)

If the goal is opposing or dismantling imperialism, there are roughly three pathways: 1) direct citizen activism protesting imperialism; 2) international pressure, especially from key allied nations; and 3) dismantling, curtailing or otherwise challenging the ruling class. This comes back to the division of labor issue; these approaches are not contradictory, they are complimentary. Basically, I'd suggest that dismantling the American plutocracy is a necessary but insufficient condition for dismantling American imperialism. It's necessary because the ruling class benefits from imperialism and is largely cloistered from its ill effects. They don't tend to serve in the military; instead, they own or invest in arms manufacturers. Dismantling plutocracy may be insufficient because, unfortunately, even in times of relative prosperity, a significant swath of the American public has supported imperialism and questionable wars abroad. However, good media, education, cultural exchanges, the arts and related efforts help raise awareness of, and opposition to, imperialism. Anything that helps foster general awareness, specific knowledge or critical thinking is a boon. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is not strictly true, but it does touch on the truth that average citizens tend to make bad decisions when they're scared (see the selling of the Iraq War), and tend to be less dickish and more generous when their basic needs are addressed and not a source of anxiety. (Meanwhile, the extremely wealthy and privileged tend to get more selfish and need to be curtailed. See again Freeland and related writers like Krugman, Stiglitz, Taibbi, Thomas Frank, David Cay Johnston, and Pierson and Hacker.)

Some of this is basic "guns versus butter" stuff, but in my experience, most activists focusing on domestic issues seems to get this, while the crowd focused almost exclusively on "guns" and foreign policy are more apt to miss that making strong pushes for "butter" actually helps decrease the guns. Rather than domestic issues being trivial or a domestic focus arising from short-sighted self-interest, these pushes can be absolutely essential. (Again, the division of labor issue applies.) Conservative economic policies have increased plutocracy as intended, and both that and conservative policies in general ("guns, not butter") have fueled the war machine. (Establishment Democrats are in on some of that, too, but both plutocracy and imperialism are conservative ideologies, and the military-industrial complex depends on the budget priorities of conservatives.)

I wrote earlier in the year about being dismayed to hang out with some fairly educated people who blithely discussed bombing Iran, who viewed American imperial prerogatives as both a given and a good, and who considered this all to be the height of political sophistication. (One praised the Shah and had never heard of the 1953 coup instigated by the U.S. and U.K., yet alone Iranian torture under the Shah.) Obviously there was some bullshitting and posturing going on, but it wasn't that different from what occurs on the Sunday political shows all the time. It was also a reminder to me that, unfortunately, I'm in a political minority in the U.S. To put it crudely, when it comes to foreign policy, there are the humanists, the haters, and the bourgeois (I've got a more detailed breakdown in the works). The humanists want prosperity at home and peace abroad, and are anti-imperialist; the haters despise about half of their fellow Americans, and are happy to bomb foreigners as well; the bourgeois want domestic prosperity, certainly for themselves, but don't really care about bombing foreigners, as long as they think it benefits America. The problems for the humanists – mostly liberals and a few conservatives and independents – is that we're vastly outnumbered.

The other huge issue is the corporate media and its control of the discourse, and that's why developing alternative media remains so crucial. If the mainstream national political discourse does not allow calling out even blatant bullshit, it's unlikely to call out more subtle bullshit – especially when the more subtle bullshit is viewed as natural and right by the Beltway establishment. A media establishment that does not challenge an unnecessary war, or torture, or illegal surveillance, or plutocratic economics, or laughably fraudulent budgets (Romney, Ryan, Herman Cain), or climate change denial, or false charges of socialism, or any of a thousand other irresponsible insanities and outright grifting, is not liable to question bipartisan agreement on imperialism. While it's not strictly an either/or proposition, I'd argue that managing to refute the most glaring pieces of bullshit, and establishing a national dialogue that actually recognizes significant policy differences and responsible partisanship, is a necessary precursor to challenging widely-accepted Beltway cultural norms such as blithe imperialism. I'm sure as hell not happy about that, but that's my assessment. (Meanwhile, as I've argued before, anthropology and the arts can often capture the pathologies of the chattering class and the ruling class better than straight journalism.)

Additionally, how did most American anti-imperialists develop their awareness? I'm guessing it was some mix of family, friends and acquaintances, study and travel, life experiences, independent research, the news, and education (formal and informal). For some, perhaps the Occupy movement or another rally played a role, or a guest speaker somewhere. A good college or even a good high school might have exposed them. At the very least, a good education gave them the tools to do their own research. With the internet, it's much easier to do one's own research than it used to be. But it's also important to note that for people with limited funds, access to the internet and books might only be available through the public library. Perhaps anti-imperialists attained their awareness through the arts, whether a play, novel, film or poem. Roughly speaking, these are all parts of the Commons, and this process embodies general liberal ideals about the exchange of ideas and the value of an education, both formal and informal.

I'm bringing this up to once again to point out how dangerous the Kochs and other conservatives are in their attempts to create a less-informed electorate. Let them win – and a Romney win would definitely be a move in that direction – and it makes the "revolution" harder, not more likely. I'm also bringing this up to point out, once again, that's there's more than one way to serve a cause, and many efforts are mutually reinforcing (even if they sometimes appear at cross-purposes). One of the reasons I'm inclined to support the Democrats and vote for Obama versus a third party is because of these dynamics. (If the estate tax and progressive income tax are abolished, and the Commons are enslaved, I may re-evaluate.) I value direct activism protesting drone strikes and imperialism, but there's an important intellectual infrastructure fight going on, too. To recap from "The Four Types of Conservatives":

I'd just suggest that different reform efforts often reinforce each other rather than being mutually exclusive or counterproductive. For instance, efforts to opposes imperialism are important, as are efforts to develop independent media. But it's hard to sell the notion of a general social contract and decent treatment in international relations, sell the idea of not hating and fearing foreigners, when roughly half the country not only hates and fears foreigners, they hate and fear their fellow Americans. It's hard to discuss more subtle issues (blowback, and the failures of bipartisan imperialist attitudes) when our national political discourse refuses to call out even glaring misconduct by one party. Challenging stupidity, craziness and evil in one arena generally has a positive spillover effect.

Meanwhile, I am not Emperor of America. The world is not as I would wish it. And honestly, there are times I struggle with burnout (as when following torture and reading through all those reports and accounts). If I could single-handedly reform U.S. policies, things would look very different. Given the current realities, though, and the activist's version of the serenity prayer, I'd rather work to change what I can… which also includes helping to create a climate that will allow making progress in the future on currently intractable issues. (If you see it differently, fine, but that's where I'm coming from.)

Protest Votes Don't Only Go in One Direction

Protest votes don't only go in one direction. Conservatives/Republicans aren't very keen on Romney, and are instead voting against Obama – or rather, against a fantasy Obama. They're voting against a socialist, the most liberal president we've ever had, a Muslim, a Kenyan, a black man, a black racist who hates white people, a traitor to his county, a non-American, and so on.

Liberal third party voters are voting against drone strikes, indefinite detention, surveillance, corporatism, the grand bargain, and all the other issues discussed above, plus the corporate media's virtual silence on these issues.

Meanwhile, liberal Democratic voters are voting against virulent racism and deliberate race-baiting from conservatives, against neo-feudalism and the ideology of Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand, against unabashed plutocracy, and against the bullshit of the Romney, Ryan and Herman Cain budgets, which in a sane world would have exposed them as scoundrels and made them laughingstocks. They're protesting the anti-factual 47% bullshit and attacks on the safety net (there's some overlap, obviously, with third party voters). They're challenging a potentially more militant foreign policy. They're protesting against the astounding 917 lies from Mitt Romney, against possibly the most cynical political campaign in history, against the post-truth campaign, against anti-empiricism, and against the shallowness of the corporate media and their insistence that both truth and policy do not matter. It's a protest against unconscionable voter suppression – and for John Lewis, Lily Ledbetter, teachers, women, and people who need health care. It's against the cruel and dishonest "mandate" that would be claimed by Romney, Ryan and the Republicans, and the very act of insulting, degrading bullshit such a move would be. It's a protest against every stupid, evil or crazy conservative asshole even skewered on the many fine blogs on my blogroll. There's a whole lotta bullshit there to vote against – and some positive causes mixed in there too – and damn straight that's conscientious.

If I truly thought voting third party would move the needle in the direction I want more than voting for Obama, I would do it. I think the opposite; I can prevent more suffering and send a stronger "message" by rejecting movement conservatism and the Republican Party, both of which are far bigger threats to America and the world. Voting third party also doesn't assuage me at all or do anything for my personal peace of mind. If anything, I feel more compelled to oppose imperialism because I'm voting for Obama (being raised in a culture of guilt has its pluses and minuses). Obviously, your mileage may vary on all this.

Noam Chomsky is voting for Jill Stein because he's in a safe state, Massachusetts, but if he were in a swing state, he'd vote for Obama. I know liberals in California who have made the same calculation. I can respect that. I can also respect a voter in a battleground state who wrestles with this choice and truly feels that Obama's faults are just too much, that voting for him would condone all that, and consequently votes third party. (I don't, however, have much respect for someone who makes a big show of voting third party and condemning others who don't, but can't be bothered to even read the candidate's website and be aware of his or her multiple crappy policies. It's fine to deem certain issues the most important, but sanctimony coupled with a refusal to do even basic research is bush league, poseur bullshit. Sorry; <./rant>.) Once again, voting should be the capstone of one's political activism, not the extent of it.

Rick Perlstein also weighed in recently, linking a news story about frostbitten kids at a Romney rally:

Romney's America. He must be crushed. I thought about voting third party for fifteen seconds, but for those of us not in swing states, the popular vote needs to be run up sufficiently to signal a mandate that Republicans have been REJECTED.

Morale, Burnout, Trees and Starfish

Morale is very important for activists. It's easy to get burned out.

As a teenager, I heard an activist give a talk on Earth Day about environmental activism. He made a great point: it's important to take a break from fighting for 'the cause' and all that and actually enjoy what you've been fighting for. For instance, take a hike in the woods, and enjoy the solitude and the wonder of nature. If you're fighting to give other people a better life, it's essential to also enjoy your own. Perspective is important.

Here's another tale that's probably familiar, and works for activists (regardless of how you're voting). It involves a man walking on the beach:

The beach is strewn with starfish, many of them cooking under the hot sun. As the man walks along the beach, he sees a second man, who stops to pick up a starfish, and chucks it back into the ocean. This second man then comes to the next starfish, and throws that one in too. The first man comes up to the second man and greets him.

"What are you doing?" he asks.

"Throwing starfish back into the ocean," replied the second man.

"But there must be hundreds of them along this beach." observed the first man. "Yup," replied the second, picking up another starfish. "But even if you spent the whole day doing this -- there are hundreds of them -- it couldn't possibly make a difference."

The second man looked at the first one and said, "It does to this one," and chucked the starfish into the ocean.

For those religiously inclined, a few weeks back Blue Gal passed on a nice prayer that's well-suited for activists (regardless of how you're voting). If you're not religious, the general sentiments still hold true (plus, there's always the Flying Spaghetti Monster):

A Franciscan Blessing

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.


Personal Judgments and Experiences

For what it's worth, to the degree I use a political label, I consider myself a liberal versus a Democrat, but I've admittedly mostly voted for Democrats, some independents/third party candidates, and a very few unusually good Republicans (before the party went insane). I have cast protest votes, but they have been in the primaries or when the election was not close. I do not donate to the Democratic Party directly, but I have donated to individual candidates I've liked through Blue America, and to causes or organizations I like (including the ACLU, my local food bank, the unsuccessful Walker recall, multiple blogs, my college, Kiva, etc.). I regret a few past votes and am proud of some, too. I'm also not arguing that everyone needs to approach voting the same way I do.

Anyone's free to disagree with my take, or to take me to task for occasionally being snide or dismissive, especially given my excoriations above. Feel free to think of this as a lengthy rationalization if you like. I could have written a much shorter piece just saying "here's why I'm voting for Obama," but I wanted to try to take a more thorough look at conscience and activism, at broader issues than this single election and one presidential vote.

Making the case for voting third party (with no caveats, or in a safe state), here's Susan of Texas, Crooked Timber (one more) and Noam Chomsky.

Making the case to vote Democratic, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, here's Charles Pierce, Tom Levenson, Jill, the LGM archive, Betty Cracker and TBogg (one more). CT, LGM and Susan also have long comment threads with plenty of dissent and discussion.

If there are other especially good pieces on the subject, feel free to link them in comments or e-mail me, although since I posted this much later than I'd have liked, it's pretty moot, we're probably all sick of the subject – and possibly drunk in either celebration or misery.

Obviously, there are much more pithy pieces on the whole issue of voting. (Sorry I didn't have more time to revise this.) Plus, I'd be surprised if anyone's not decided already. But if this piece is any help to anybody, great. Vote your conscience, and see you on the other side of the election. Peace.

(Read more xkcd. It's good for you. Promise!)

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