Monday, October 8, 2012

Voting, Action, and Talking

My Salon column this weekend took up Conor Friedersdorf's argument about voting against Barack Obama (because drones and civil liberties violations are in his view dealbreakers even if Obama is still better than Romney on those issues)...there's been quite a bit of discussion of whether his conclusion is correct or not, but I argued that the whole discussion is framed wrong. Basically, my view is that if you conceive yourself as an individual outside of the political fray whose only choice is whether to vote for one candidate or the other, then you're basically marginalizing yourself anyway -- while if you're fully engaged in politics as an active member of a party or a group, then you won't really be making the type of decision that Friedersdorf is talking about. It's not just that voting isn't that important on it's own; it's that once you become involved in party politics, you're no longer the isolated individual that Friedersdorf posits.

It's not just, that is, that someone engaged in party politics (and again, interest group politics basically works in a similar way if it's to have any effect on policy) must sometimes swallow hard and support a candidate who is seriously flawed because only through compromise can you get anywhere. It's that becoming fully engaged risks changing the way one sees things in the first place. Obviously, there's a bad side to that -- groupthink, or party jingoism -- but there's also a very good side to it, which has to do with enlarging one's point of view by seriously grappling with the concerns and priorities and world views of others.

So that's what I'm trying to say over at Salon. But it occurs to me that this is also perhaps a bit unfair to Friedersdorf. The role he's playing is a legitimate one as well -- it's the role of the deliberate outsider, who chooses to step back from political action and can therefore point out important things which others do not see. Taken that way, we can think of his declaration of his vote not as a (futile) statement of his own intentions or as a (futile) argument for how others should vote -- again, vote "choice" is the wrong way to think about these things -- but as a device for screaming: Hey! Don't ignore these issues! This is what's important! And, as such, his defense of his position based on how much attention it received is exactly correct. Even if a fair amount of that attention came from people who foolishly romanticize third-party candidates or who misunderstand the importance of the vote per se.

Oddly enough, what he's doing is simply self-defeating if it results in people simply switching their vote from Obama to Gary Johnson (because on the issues he cares about, Mitt Romney is worse); but it's not at all self-defeating if it affects no ones vote but shames people who agree with Friedersdorf on the issues he cares about to act on their preferences and to give those issues a higher priority. If that's the case, it's a perfectly reasonable strategy. It just has, or at least should have, little or nothing to do with vote choice.


  1. I think there is a tremendous inferential distance between the position expressed in your article and that expressed by Freidersdorf. If you start from the point of view that politics is the means of compromise between rival claims, then being 'threatened to the core' is going to be an unavoidable part of being in that coalition, and it's a question of who 'we' vote for.

    But if you're a libertarian, then of course your slogan is "Lose the 'we'," and the kind of politics you are talking about is per se illegitimate. On this account, politics is emphatically not the means of compromise between rival claims, that's what the market and civil society are for. And if the kind of politics that you're talking about inevitably involved feeling 'threatened to the core,' then that's an excellent reason to avoid it, and denounce the whole enterprise.

    I agree that Freidersdorf doesn't think he's going to swing votes, but I also don't think he's trying to galvanise people into political activism. I think he's trying to show people, look how badly our totalizing politics sucks, that you find yourself so invested in shouting slogans that you know are awful, in support of a candidate you know is monstrous. Less government, less politics, less murder overseas; trifecta.

  2. Have you ever noticed how when people make this argument, the purported results will always favor the conservative side? We heard this argument against Gore, and now against Obama, but somehow never against George Bush?

    I think it's purely a muddy-the-liberal-waters technique.

    1. Not always. I heard plenty of libertarians swear that they won't vote for Romney because he isn't small government enough.

  3. This is what The Atlantic published on the issue of torture:

    "The Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter. Candor and consistency are not always public virtues. Torture is a crime against humanity, but coercion is an issue that is rightly handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy; it should be banned but also quietly practiced."

    Search the archives. You won't find any serious, on-going condemnation of the on-going process of ever more outrageous erosions of civil liberties and abuses of power in the name of security -- supported by both major political parties and the permanent military and intelligence establishment -- made in the name of the war on terror (or, before that, the war on communism) in the publication that employs Mr. Freiderdorf -- or elsewhere in the mainstream media.

    Johnson, the candidate Mr. Freiderdorf plans to support, is a fringe candidate in large part because his positions (his positions on national security and civil liberties especially) have long been deemed fringe and unacceptable by the American media -- by those who own and enjoy the means to widely expose, persuade and influence. That includes The Atlantic, one of the oldest and most popular of the nation's opinion publications (boasting the most affluent and educated readership of any domestic news publication).

    Mr. Freiderdorf congratulates himself on having slipped in some mention of civil liberties abuses by couching them in a condemnation of the President and a plea for the support of a minor candidate. But this is a cop out -- one that allows him to lessen the impact of unacceptable criticism (of the security state, and civil liberty abuses that are sure to continue under either major party candidate) by hiding it behind an acceptable one -- criticism of the President. Instead of "J'accuse" he has written a defense of his quixotic decision to tilt against windmills. Instead of opening a discussion of eroding civil liberties -- a process that will surely continue if and when the foreign policy mavens, including those who enthusiastically embraced torture, of the last administration are returned to power -- he's prepared a defense for casting a vote that he knows has no chance of influencing policy or changing the position of the opinion and policy influencing industry in which he works.

    Most of us only have the power of our vote, limited as that is. We cast that vote knowing that it is, will always, can always be a very, very imperfect expression of our civic desires and moral concerns. As much as we might like to believe it is so, we know that our vote isn't a "message" -- it is a choice. Most often a very, very difficult choice.

    As for crying, "Hey! Don't ignore these issues! This is what's important!" that's the job of a journalist, not the individual voter. Which, last time I checked, is Mr. Freiderdorf job description. If he wants to try to change the discussion about civil liberties, I'd welcome that -- but he has a much better and bigger platform to do that from than the ordinary American. To suggest we should throw our vote away on a candidate that the mainstream of his profession has marginalized, based in large part on positions and issues which they actively refuse to support or even engage, is absurd.

    1. I don't know where the quote you have is from, but I do know that The Atlantic published leading anti-torture blogger Andrew Sullivan for several years during which he was fairly obsessed with the topic; IIRC he had at least one cover story in the print magazine, too, about it.

      And this is ridiculous about Friedersdorf; he, too, have been writing about this stuff consistently.

      Look, I disagree with him about a lot of things related to this, but y'all are totally wrong to accuse him of insincerity on this stuff.

  4. esmense, you have this exactly right. Conor's not going to sway anyone with his piece.

    I'm voting for Obama, despite the fact that I wholeheartedly disagree with his actions on civil liberties. He has had four years to undo the abuses of the Bush years, but instead not only failed to undo them, he expanded them in some very insidious ways. I do not vote based on one aspect of a president's job. He has a lot of things to cover, and on the issues that matter to me, I find him more reliable than the liar on the right. The "third party" candidate doesn't exist, as far as I'm concerned. I would like there to be a third party, but until one emerges with an extremely compelling candidate, there will always be two parties for me.

    1. Here's why I distrust the third party candidate: it would make it possible for less than 40% of the population to elect a president.

  5. Matt Yglesias wrote a great post back when he was at CAP about Weber's ethic of responsibility in politics that is very relevant to these sorts of questions: (and JB linked to it in his "Hard Boards" post in the "Ones That I Liked" section over to the right). Weber's point was that there is a time for pursuing your goals in politics (the ethic of ultimate ends) but when engaging in politics you can't forget that your actions have consequences and you are responsible for those (the ethic of responsibility). Yglesias is writing about foreign policy and the Iraq War but his point is applicable to all sorts of political questions:

    "And a lot of what goes wrong in American foreign policy commentary, I came to see, was a refusal to adopt the ethic of responsibility. Instead, people would want to orient themselves in a way that expresses a sense of moralized outrage. So if some country is bad, a proposal to do bad things to that regime must be good, because what’s right is to be on “the right side” in some maximal way. Anything less is “realism” and a betrayal of ideals about human rights and democracy. The problem is that what’s needed, from a humanitarian point of view, is a foreign policy that does in fact make conditions around the world better not a foreign policy that expresses high ideals and a grand sense of purpose."

    I see this same dynamic happening a lot when people like Glen Greenwald or Friedersdorf write about drones and civil liberties. That is they want to substitute a moralized Hobson's choice, we can have either no drones at all or the status quo, for the real political choices that has to involve things like compromise and accommodation. Reality then intrudes on this set up in the form of the American political system and the actual views of the American electorate and the result is the status quo is strengthened because of the lack of a feasible alternative policy such as rolling back, but not eliminating our drone policies. In that sense people like Greenwald make changing drone policies even harder regardless of what the really think about them. You see this a lot in American history too, Stokely Carmichael thought he was making things better by jumping up on the hood of a car and yelling "black power!" but actually he helped marginalize the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed on his death bed in 1998 he had nothing for contempt about African Americans being involved in politics and getting elected to public office. We all know what happened 10 years later.

  6. I would call attention to the overall social changes of America (and the world) in the last 100 years or so.

    There has always been a tension between the idealisms of individuals and small groups, and social forces that would prefer to enforce conventional prejudices and moral codes of conservative institutions. As individuals we are always being pushed and pulled by both forces. As participants in larger institutions we are also always being pushed and pulled by both forces.

    The major development in the last 50 years has been, overall in a generalized way, a change in the balance that has increased the perceived importance of individual choices and individual idealisms -- for a less-serious example, check the wave of too-often-ugly tats on 20-year-olds these days. It's not surprising that young people manage to find individual choices that dismay their elders; what's surprising, when you talk to them, is the extremely high personal value and attachment young folks express for their mediocre personal artwork.

    Over the same decades, the perceived importance of social codes of morality and proper behavior has been, generally and relatively, decreased. This would include the phenomena of political partisans being willing to "hold their noses" and vote for a flawed candidate of their group.

    I do believe that a large part of this (vague, general) overall shift has been driven by technologies such as automobiles, television viewership, and the rise of the tech sector, which appear to bolster the importance of personal choice. I suspect that the coming crises (based on the unsustainability of our economic and military institutions and our inability to deal with physical and social waste-products of our institutions) will be bringing forth new social developments and conclusions that will reduce the perceived importance of individual idealistic choices, and increase the perceived importance of adhering to (new or reformed?)social codes in coming decades.

  7. I let myself be overcome by the principled emotion, or maybe just emotion, in a presidential vote, one time--in what would have been my first vote. Bobby Kennedy was dead, Humphrey was running as the LBJ surrogate and I couldn't bring myself to vote for him. I surely wasn't going to vote for Nixon. On election night I watched returns in a Chicago hotel bar, realizing I was rooting for Humphrey. Nixon won, and the darkness got thicker.

    I worked as best I could to make sure that wasn't going to happen to Gore in 2000, but it did--too many people I knew voted for Nader. I could see what a disaster Bush was going to be, though of course not quite the dimensions of that disaster.

    It's certainly galling to be voting for somebody who is or is not doing something you care about--it feels like you are perpetuating the problem. But this year for example neither guy is talking down drones or talking up the climate crisis. The presidential election at this point is a decision on who you are going to hire for the job, and there are two and only two applicants. That's the choice in the voting booth.

    Here's another element I think about: on your issue, who is more open to persuasion? In political as well as by facts and argument. Isn't it better in the end to have elected the candidate who is more likely to be persuaded? Politically as well as in other respects, Mitt Romney is a poor choice on these issues, and reducing the votes for President Obama simply invites disaster.

    1. This, ladies and gents, is the reality-based argument. +1

  8. Voting third party is not a wasted vote. It is not an act of foolish romanticism. Voting third party expresses the conviction that neither of the two dominant parties represent the people. They have both been co-opted by corporate interests. Both parties champion so-called "free trade" deals that kill American jobs but enrich folks like GE and Wall Street bankers who bankroll political campaigns.

    1. There is no difference between Bush and Gore, they said...

      I think voting third party is foolish if you have a clear opinion who is the greater evil, and your third party vote will throw the election to said greater evil. In the other states where the outcome is clear in the first place, you can go ahead and vote third party.

      But for the third party itself, I'd like to know if they've really tried to make themselves attractive to the majority, or if they're just preaching to the choir.

      Thought experiment: Imagine that one of the major parties isn't on the ballot (in this case, the Democrats), but all third parties are on it. How many states could your preferred third party win now?

      Thought experiment 2: Imagine that both major parties aren't on the ballot, but all third parties are. How many states could your preferred third party win now?

    2. I agree that the Green Party, for example, is worthy of some scorn for not attempting to make itself appealing to the mainstream. Ross Perot's first attempt was far more successful. I too was one of those people who cursed Nader for dimming Gore's chances, but that was then, and today I know that the enemy of democracy is the two-party duopoly. The two parties take money from the same corrupt organizations and both parties place the interests of multinationals ahead of the interests of the American people. If you want to see this country go down the path to a neo-feudal plantation, vote for one of the two major parties. Otherwise, commit yourself to a future in which other parties have a seat at the table.

    3. Have you looked at Obama's fundraising numbers? Ever? He's supported by millions of $200 donations from regular people all over the country.

      I was in El Lay in 2008. There's an old freehold north of Pasadena, called Altadena, which is still ~80% middle-class black/Jewish/mixed raced. We called it Obama-country, because his signs were on almost every lawn. Probably a quarter of a million donors in that town alone.

      Their payoff was in November, when all the little kids finally believed their parents that going to college was the key to success, that they really could be ANYTHING they wanted to be.

      Obama has to work within the constraints of the job, and I think he was shocked at the intensity of hatred still present in that shrinking minority of white supremicists. And it's true that all people can be corrupted by money. But it's not true that the money pouring into the Democratic campaigns right now is entirely, or even mostly, corporate.

  9. Friedersdorf's position is sincere and, from a certain perspective, defensible. He goes off the rails though when he accuses Democrats of insincerity for not reaching the same conclusion he does.

  10. What are the 3rd parties doing to get elected in places they can to wield power and build a base? If they are doing that and the American people are on their way to being served better than is the debate then about accelerating this process? Is Friedersdorf's plan of action doing that?

    Show me how not voting for Obama and allowing Romney to win accelerates the process of 3rd parties breaking the hegemony of the 2 major parties.

    If the 3rd parties aren't committed to building a power base in some fashion based on simple historic processes then why should anybody take them seriously at all?

    If they are committed to it and the duopoly that is apparently completely co-opted by the powers that be can't be broken by any traditional means then is revolution the only option? Are these adherents to 3rd parties willing to go that far?

  11. Its curious that, both here and elsewhere, commenters primarily object to Friersdorf's complaint in a tactical sense; that is, Obama's not quite what you thought but he beats the alternative. Friersdorf is making a darker argument; not so much that Obama has strayed from commitments but rather that powermongering exegencies have driven said straying. As a result, parsing the lesser of two evils in the election is like counting angels dancing on the head of the pin.

    What's a little person to do? Work within the machine, says Jamelle Bouie. Did you notice that Bouie's response basically has two arguments: first, work within the system for change, and second, Obama is not actually responsible for his transgressions because he has to kowtow to the system's prior interests. Well, that's great: Friersdorf should inculcate himself within a system that hates his ideas and will do whatever it wants anyway. Sounds like a good use of time!

    Five hundred years ago, a little German Augustinian monk raged against the machine in a manner similar to Friersdorf: Luther's rants changed the world, they led to a flowering of new ideas on the continent but also 250 years of horrible war in Europe. Friersdorf is no Luther, to be sure.

    But he can claim probably to be McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, from the famous "At Least I Tried" scene, while many of those patronizing Friersdorf seem a lot like the other assembled mental patients in that room.

    (Ex- The Chief, obviously).


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