(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.