Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why I'm voting for Obama

(Note: It’d be exceedingly easy to write a “why I’m voting for Obama over McCain” article, but I figured most of the people who read my writing aren’t very likely mulling that question over. I do, however, know a lot of third-party supporters, anarchists and far-left types, as both fans and friends. This is for them I guess. I’ve been dreading actually posting this since it’ll probably just piss people off, but with only a couple of weeks until the election, it’s now or never. Hope it can spark some thoughts.)

As a far left-leaning person with a lot of far left-leaning friends, I’ve heard the arguments against voting for Democratic candidates; I agree with most of them. Yes, the party is weak-willed when it comes to asserting a truly alternative agenda. Yes, the party is as much in the pocket of corporations and special interests as the Republicans are. Yes, the party has supported and continues to support American imperialism and war. Yes, a vote for a more progressive candidate can pull the Democrats further to the left. Yes, one can break down the major parties and candidates, issue by issue, and not see a whole lot of difference.

And I really like the third party candidates. Cynthia McKinney, Rosa Clemente, Ralph Nader, Matt Gonzalez—these are real progressives with proven records and lots of great ideas. I hope they do well, and I definitely think they should have been allowed into the debates.

Yet I still plan on voting for Barack Obama. I have two main reasons why.

First, Obama the candidate is different from Obama the idea. Whether for the right reasons or not, Obama has energized and excited people from around the country (and beyond, which is important to note), many of whom had no interest in politics before, many of whom are just getting into politics for the first time and many of whom are cynical veterans reinvigorated by his campaign. An Obama win won’t solve all of our problems, but an Obama loss would almost certainly be devastating. Disillusionment would run rampant, moreso than ever before. All the people Obama has energized would likely fade away into cynicism and apathy.

Because sure, maybe a lot of people are naïve in their belief that Obama can really change this country. But they are excited. And civic engagement—activism, organizing, really taking an active part in democracy, going beyond voting—often starts with voting for many young people. Our challenge as progressives is to harness this power, not rip it to pieces in the name of absolute ideological perfection. Our goals should be to acknowledge these newly politicized people and welcome them into our various campaigns and organizations.

Most of us acknowledge the fact that real change comes through collective organizing, people working together to fight for what they believe in no matter who is in office. So why not make that job a little easier by electing someone who, while thoroughly imperfect, is at least a step in the right direction? In an ideal world, it wouldn’t matter who the president is because we’d be ready to pressure him/her with massive, multi-tiered movements in the streets. Unfortunately, we’re not. We need to be working on that, but in the meantime we need to be taking what we can get through the ballot box.

Related to that, my second reason for voting for Obama has to do with privilege. While Democrats and Republicans share many fundamental beliefs and agendas (and we need to continue to point this out), there are differences that truly matter. Obama might not stand up and fight for gay rights, for example, but he also won’t be actively trying to oppress the LGBTQ community. He might not stand up and fight for a woman’s right to choose, but he won’t be actively trying to overturn Roe v. Wade or appointing conservative judges to the Supreme Court. He might not stand up and fight for poor people, or public schools, or the environment or universal heath care, but he won’t be actively, enthusiastically implementing regressive, illogical policies to destroy them all. McCain will be.

Yes, the Democrats are weak when it comes to standing up for progressive ideals. But they’re also weak when it comes to stomping on them. If I have to fight someone, I’d rather fight the glassjaw than the prize fighter any day.

It’s just that it’s easy, as a straight, white, middle class male to say “I’m going to vote my conscience.” On the handful of issues where the Democrats do differ from the Republicans in significant ways, those most likely to be hurt by a Republican president tend to be from oppressed groups. An Obama victory may not fundamentally change the course of the nation, but it can make life measurably better for a lot of people.

Of course, Obama isn’t going to save us. But neither are any third-party presidential candidates, not this year anyway. Not when they’re polling in the low single digits, not when their candidacies aren’t taken seriously by a huge majority of the American people, and certainly not two weeks before a national election they’ve been completely shut out of (which is definitely unfair, but it’s also the reality on the ground). I know none of them expect to win, but even their secondary goal of influencing the major candidates is out of reach this time.

I’m a poet, and from a rhetorical standpoint, it’s much easier to advocate voting for third party candidates. “The lesser of two evils is still evil.” “A little bit better than the other guy isn’t much of a campaign slogan.” “I’d rather vote with my heart and conscience than play this stupid political game.” I even say in one of my songs: “the difference between Republicans and Democrats?/ One spits in your face, one stabs you in the back.”

And those statements are still valid. But to me, voting in a presidential election is a tactical decision, not a strategic one. We’re not going to usher in a new era of peace and enlightenment through voting alone. We take what we can get on that front, and then get back to work on the other fronts—organizing, building community and struggling for something better. If we can put a guy named Barack Hussein Obama into the White House while doing that, I can’t think of a good reason not to.


Renée Gasch said...

I agree with you on all the reasons why not to vote for Obama. But yah, I still cast my vote for him this week. (Early voting holla!) To me, I wasn't voting so much for the man as I was for the movement. For the friends and the folk who are organizing fundraisers, quiting their jobs to join his campaign, passionately arguing issues they once paid no attention to. There are a lot of people invigorated by this campaign and who have placed a lot of hope in it. And I voted for them.
I'd also like to give a shout out to intellect returning to the white house. Political views i can disagree with all day and night. But at the end of the day, if there is anything I can do to prevent a complete moron from being POTUS, I will fucking do it. There are serious repercussions on human life in this world when we allow incompetence that much power.

Mlekoday said...

Jeez--I'm on my way to class right now, so I have to keep this brief.

1. As an avid anti-Democrat/Republican, I'm voting for Nader. Yet I am very willing to admit that I pray Obama will win. Obama's economic policy in particular is certainly a step in the right direction.

2. Obama basically cannot lose. He has the momentum, the cash, the numbers, the swing states. When you talk of the risk of disillusionment to this new Movement, I say it's virtually impossible. In particular, you live in Minnesota--there is no way McCain wins our state. So you can vote for a third party candidate and not throw the election to McCain.

3. You talk about the difference between McCain's progressive-crushing policies and Obama's progressive-indifferent policies. This is all true. You left out a major one, though: war & American imperialism. Each candidate will actively work to continue the militarization of our country and send our children to die in other countries. Obama wants to remove some troops from Iraq, sure, but he wants to send them directly to Afghanistan--and don't forget Iran, we can't take any option off the table with them...oh yeah, protecting Israel is our biggest goal in the Middle East, so let's keep an eye on all the arab nations.

4. That last rant not withstanding, Obama's domestic policy is leaps and bounds ahead of McCain's.

5. I'm not sure that the Dems are weak when it comes to stomping on progressive ideals--maybe, but I don't know for sure. What did the Movement accomplish under Bill Clinton?

6. Your characterization of third party voters is at sometimes unfair. "It's easy as a straight, white, middle class male to vote my conscience" and "not rip [the Movement] to pieces in the name of ideological perfection." Third Party politics is not about voting your conscience or ideological perfection--it is about establishing a real electoral alternative to American Imperialism. It's not that Obama "isn't perfect"--it's that he is an imperialist. The only reason he criticizes McCain-style imperialism is because he thinks he can manage the empire better! Yeah, Third Parties won't win the presidency this time around, and probably won't even get major party status. But if we can't get 10% of the American populace to vote for an anti-war candidate, what makes you think we can build a grassroots movement strong enough to influence the president (especially when the presidential candidates of both parties keep shifting further and further to the Right)?

Voting Third Party, straight down the line (unless you live in a district with a Keith Ellison or a Russ Feingold), is the only way to build a competitive opposition party--and it has the same goal as our grassroots Movement as a whole--stand up for peace and social justice, oppose empire. The Movement needs an electoral outlet, and the Third Parties need the support of the Movement. Neither will succeed without the other. I can understand and appreciate that you're voting for Obama over McCain--but if you keep doing this, election after election, and keep trying to convince other progressives to do the same, you will be doing a great disservice to the Movement.

Renée Gasch said...

I think there needs to be a lot more done on the local level in terms of third party politics before we can responsibly vote for a third party president. That sort of change is not going to come from the top down. It's antithetical to the green movement and most third party movements. I do think it is smart strategy to vote to keep government out of conservative hands in the highest positions, while working your ass off at the local level to build a stronger multi-party movement. If McCain gets elected and does away with my abortion rights in this country, well then I can tell you all of my energy will be poured into getting those rights back. The third party activists are going to be spread thin putting out fires and that just might hurt the movement more than anything.

el guante said...

those are all good points mike.

and i've supported third party candidates many times before, particularly in local madison elections, where we had a very strong third party movement who routinely won seats in the city council and elsewhere.

but i think there comes a point where you have to look at a strategy that simply isn't working and walk away. third party presidential candidates just might be one of those strategies, unfortunately.

the fact that people hate nader so much for "costing gore the election" is bullshit, but it's also extremely widespread and i'm not sure there's much we can do about it, realistically. add to this the money and media advantage the major parties have, and pushing a green or independent presidential candidate isn't just an uphill battle, it's a near-pointless drain on resources, time and talent.

maybe that's too harsh though... i think THIS year, one of the major factors is that we have mckinney AND nader, who will be splitting a tiny vote to begin with. we can't afford to do that, not when their platforms are so similar. if we had a united front, maybe it'd be a different story.

and that's the crux of what i'm talking about: THIS year. i know a major lesser-of-two-evils talking point is that "this year we have to hold our noses and vote dems; maybe next time, maybe next time" said year after year... i didn't buy that before, but this time i think it might actually make sense. not election after election, but this time.

Mlekoday said...


I don't know what you expect a grassroots movement to do about war and American imperialism if that same movement can't even get an anti-war presidential candidate 5% of the vote.

If we're talking about "strategies that simply [aren't] working," let's talk about the Movement on the ground-level. Yeah, we have huge voter turnout drives right now. Yeah, many communities have won small but significant victories in any number of issues. But on the whole, we have done virtually nothing about corporate globalization & militarization--and there's virtually nothing that a grassroots movement can do about those issues without viable electable candidates at the national level.

Maybe you're right about THIS YEAR. But national politics is the only way we will be able to win major progressive victories, and the only way to win national political victories is to vote for true progressives--most of whom are not Democrats.

el guante said...

also, some words from Howard Zinn:

"Whoever is President, the crucial factor for change will be how much agitation there is in the country on behalf of change. I am guessing that Obama may be more sensitive than McCain to such turmoil, since it will come from his supporters, from the enthusiasts who will register their disillusionment by taking to the streets. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not a radical, but he was more sensitive to the economic crisis in the country and more susceptible to pressure from the Left than was Herbert Hoover.

"Even for the 'purest' of radicals, there must be recognition of differences that may mean life or death for thousands. In France at the time of the Algerian War, the election of DeGaulle—hardly an anti-imperialist but more aware of the inevitable decline of empires—was significant in ending that long and brutal occupation.

"I have no doubt that by far the wisest, most reliable, with the most integrity, of all recent Presidential candidates is Ralph Nader. But I think it is a waste of his political strength, a puny act, to expend it in the electoral arena, where the result can show only weakness. His power, his intelligence, lies in the mobilization of people outside the ballot box.

"So, yes, I will vote for Obama, because the corrupt political system offers me no choice, but only for the moment I pull down the lever in the voting booth."

Anonymous said...

Some major flaws in this writers reasoning.. his first point says that he is aware obama can't actually do much, but because of all the excitement, if he loses then people will turn away from politics and disengage.. hmm so he doesn't think the people will do the same thing when they find out that obama "the idea" has no substance or power. Doesn't he know that its more disheartening to support a winner that will later prove that he does not work or represent you. And how do we know that he prove such? Umm go back and listen to any one of his speeches for the past year.. go look at his voting record. He tells you and shows you over and over who he works for.. stop looking at the color of his skin and listen!!!

Now thats more discouraging than losing.

How about this piece of nonsense: "voting in a presidential election is a tactical decision, not a strategic one." hmmm buddy, that argument has been used longer then the lessor of two evils argument.. that strategy has failed time and time again.. so what makes it any different this time around? I ask you? Isn't this the definition of "insanity" doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome?

Lets see, what were some of the other nonsense arguments.. oh 3rd party candidates are pulling low numbers so they cannot save us this year.. umm yeah, the point is not to get them elected or even to influence any other candidates.. they give voice and engage folks, like myself who would not participate in this bullshit ass hustle if they were not running...

the point is... is to make a point, and not throw our vote away on imperialist, white supremacy power structure supporters. (i.e. the democratic and republican party's)... and on and on..

the piece misses the whole argument behind 3rd party candidates and admits the weakness of the this system and the democratic party candidate but still gives him a pass. Just as people of color did with Clintion (who by the way put into effect the crime bill that has lead to the 2.6 million people now locked up in US Prisons, an overwhelmingly large number of them Black and Brown).

For the rest of us, we Revoked the democratic parties "ghetto card" and will continue to either support humanity by supporting Cynthia, or we just won't participate at all. It's the more humane thing to do. : /


Brother OMi said...

I agree with your points about Obama. but i still have to scratch my head. if you know these things, then why press the button for Obama?

for the third party candidates, they only need 5% of the vote. the green party can pull this off.

if you say them in your poems, why not show and prove?

Toni said...

I applaud you for addressing this issue at all! No matter who is in the white house the executive position is only as strong as we allow it to be with our money. I believe in Obama as much as the next person. What excites me is the way he's encouraging people to participate. He wants the American people to be part of the government again. I've never heard that from any other candidate. Even the Green party. Like you said he's turning non-believers into activists. Isn't that the point of a participatory democracy?