On Tuesday morning November 4th I got up early. I had my usual breakfast of two cups of coffee and crackers, and went around the corner to the local Jr. High school and voted. After carefully examining all of the choices allowed me for president of the United States I took a deep breath and voted for the candidate of the Working Families Party, Barack Obama.
This was not an obvious choice for me. True, I had donated a number of times very early in his campaign, but after Obama had secured the nomination of the Democratic Party I felt my contribution was over. Then, for 5 weeks in June and July I worked regularly collecting some 360 signatures to help get Ralph Nader on the ballot. I handed out leaflets and flyers and volunteered at a Nader fundraiser at Cooper Union. My issue then was, and remains now, that shutting out third party candidates from the political process by keeping them off the ballot and out of the debates is dangerous and unhealthy for our democracy. I chose Nader over Cynthia McKinny because as long as there was a shot at getting into the debates I preferred Ralph. No one comes close to his on the spot command of the minutiae of policy details over the last 40 years.
The hostility to Nader that I and others received trying to get petition signatures in places like Manhattan and Park Slope shocked me for its bitter intensity so I began to explore elsewhere. This took me out to Nassau County and such towns as Lynbrook, Valley Stream, Merrick, Rockville Center, and Franklin Square where I was pleasantly surprised that these “middle Americans” were not so narrow minded as they are generally characterized to be. They don’t necessarily have the deep structural analysis of the system to explain what is wrong but they know instinctually that it isn’t working. I learned a lot talking to these people and trying to understand their concerns.
As I tried to cajole, exhort, persuade, and even entertain people to get them to sign the petition, I always reminded them that it was just to get him on the ballot and give them another choice on November 4th. What they did in the voting booth was up to them. For myself, it was important to have the Nader option there and important for the Democratic Party to see that it was there. I want my vote to be earned.
The conflict between voting your conscience or casting a pragmatic vote for the lesser of two evils is controversial. It is not going to go away anytime soon so it is worth discussing. It is not so easily decided, at least for me it wasn’t. I weighed it as best as I could but I never saw it as an abstract ethical conundrum. On one hand those who say you must take the pragmatic choice have to explain how they expect to exert any leverage over politicians if they know that your support is unconditional. A politician will always take you for granted if he/she knows you have no place else to go. Why do you think lobbys have such power? Easy, it’s because they make demands and put conditions on their support. It’s simple. Here’s what we want and here’s what we do if we don’t get it. For progressives, working within the system with little or no leverage has a terrible track record of failure and disappointment.
On the other hand those who say we are obliged to make the pure moral choice cannot run away from or minimize the real world consequences of that decision. We call it the “lesser” of two evils for a reason, it means less possible suffering. Isn’t that important? Last week both Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky advocated voting for Nader in states where an Obama victory was secure, but for Obama in the swing states. As much as I admire these two ethical giants of American life, I was not satisfied. It’s a copout. You’re either serious and accept the risk or you’re not. You gain no leverage if they know you’re not serious.
If you are going to run the risk of allowing the greater of two evils to win an election you are morally obliged to justify it on some ground other than personal gratification. In my view the strongest justification is that it is one step in a larger and much deeper process that requires a long range strategy beyond one or two electoral cycles. You suffer more pain in the short term but in the end you can win. The compensating positive result from a third party run that loses would be the development of a genuine national third party alternative that can grow and become a force. That is not going to come from Ralph Nader and it is not going to happen from the Nader campaign.
It was obvious for weeks that Obama would win New York by an overwhelming margin so I was lucky. I was relieved of the dilemma of making that hard choice. I had the luxury of voting for Nader, but in the end I didn’t. There were some very minor aspects of Nader’s presentation that I was not always comfortable with. I certainly couldn’t argue with his policy positions but there were some small things like the language or graphics on his flyers that stylistically didn’t resonate with me. In and of themselves they would not have dissuaded me from voting for him but something else was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on what.
Ralph Nader is not a racist, certainly not in the formalistic acceptance of the term. But his understanding of racism in the context of the history of the United States of America is remarkable only for its shallowness in this otherwise brilliant and dedicated public advocate. Several months ago he made the comment that the only thing that made Barack Obama different from other corporate democrats was that he was black. First of all, I don’t believe that is true, but more important is that he would so trivialize the enormous significance of the fact that indeed a black man was the nominee of one of the two major political parties. Racism is not only about skin color, it’s about history and the elaboration of one’s identity within that history. That fact was dramatically evident when many in the Black community did not immediately rush on board to embrace Obama. Yes, he was a black man in America but he did not have slavery in his personal history. It was controversial and they were criticized for this, but their point was very well taken.
Later on, Ralph Nader very clumsily tried to undermine Obama in the eyes of the Black community by suggesting that he wasn’t talking about issues that matter to them like lead poisoning from paint and asbestos in inner city schools. In a very rare lapse of discipline Nader had not done his homework. These were issues that Obama had worked on closely in Chicago and although in a national campaign they weren’t at the core of his message they did surface in his speeches.
These things bothered me subconsciously as this incredibly long marathon of a campaign wound its way through the debates. Obama handled himself with poise and admirable self assurance. At that point there could be no doubt in any critical mind that he was presidential caliber.
In April of 2008 the journalist/anti-war activist Chris Hedges wrote an op-ed piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer that was then circulated on the internet. It was a passionate and vigorous argument for voting one’s conscience and against the concept of voting for the lesser of two evils. He criticized the Left for not having the nerve to walk away from the Democratic Party and placing conditions on their support. I have a long history of voting for Third Party candidates that lose, so he didn’t need to convince me but I found his forceful, well reasoned argument comforting and supportive. How ironic then that on Monday November 3rd when he published another piece on Truthdig stridently declaring his intention to vote for Ralph Nader he more or less pushed me over the top and I knew I could vote for Obama.
The title of the article said it all: “Only Nader Is Right On The Issues”. Really? Only Nader? Listen to yourself Chris. You’re becoming overbearing and self-righteous. The tone was brittle and unusually absolutist. You grudgingly concede that there would be marginal improvements in an Obama presidency but that the essentials of the corporate state will remain undisturbed. Listing one by one all of the issues that you say Obama has either voted wrong on or has backtracked on was wasted energy for the audience that reads you; progressive activists. Everyone knew that judging solely by the record we had an imperfect candidate, and that now we have an imperfect president-elect. That was not lost on anyone I know.
The victory of Barack Obama should unquestionably be a cause for celebration, not for any specific details of his policy and certainly not because progressives now have a champion in the White House. We do not. It should be obvious by now that Barack Obama is going to govern for the most part as a very cautious centrist Democrat. He has managed to put together a coalition that has two distinct components; an impressive, grassroots, interracial, and internet savvy popular, but not exclusively progressive constituency and a very deeply entrenched financial oligarchy that sees its interests as being threatened more by the reckless belligerency of the neo-con Bush administration and the primitive backwardness of the religious right than it does by “spreading a little of the wealth around”, and I do mean little.
This coalition has proven to be successful to win a big important election but the real question is can it hold together as an actual governing coalition. Obama understands perfectly well that this is his problem and that his greatest challenge is to make it work. I think that he believes that he can make it work, that he can resolve or mitigate the obvious contradictions and have a successful presidency. But I think that the reason he thinks he can make it work is not because he thinks he has such exceptional skills as a politician that he can “bring people into line”. I think the real reason is deeper and springs from the fact that he himself, personally, has genuine sympathies in both camps.
What this means for progressives, and why we should celebrate, is that we are no longer shut out of government. But we must be absolutely clear that we are one component in a coalition government and that our coalition partners have traditionally been the targets of some of our most vociferous criticism. Barack Obama is the man in the middle. We must keep this in mind, we must work to grow our numbers on our side of the coalition and show him that he will have larger and larger support when he takes chances. We must avoid putting him in the position of choosing between us or them because as it stands right now we would lose that gamble. Obama is too smart a man to choose us and wreck his presidency and if I were in his shoes I would do the same.
The single most important effect of Obama’s victory, and one that Ralph Nader tragically felt compelled to minimize in order to bolster the legitimacy of his candidacy, lies in the powerful and beautiful symbolism that America is a multicultural and multiethnic society and that there will be no turning back from that. It is a triumph. Our national identity has been transformed and institutionalized at the highest level of political power. Now we must change our national dialogue. The most important collateral effect has been that the hard right talk radio lunatics have been dealt a powerful blow. Their danger came not so much from the number of their listeners but in the enormous leverage they’ve had on the media and how issues are framed and discussed. Just when you thought he couldn’t get any worse Rush Limbaugh floated the absurd story that Obama had visited Hawaii not because his grandmother was dying but to fix his “phony” passport that conceals that he was really born in Kenya. Finally, at last that level of depravity failed to get any attention in the media, even they are sick of “el Rushmo”.
We have an opening. I think that in the next few years we can work to activate and expand citizen participation in political affairs and bring words like “imperialism” “militarism” “economic exploitation” “socialism” “capitalism” etc. out from under the yoke of the Right and into the mainstream of political discourse to be talked about intelligently. I found it encouraging that in his first press conference as president-elect, Obama affirmed that his general approach to the economy was going to be more of a “bottom to the top” stimulus reaffirming his rejection of “trickle down”, supply side economics. What I found disturbing was his response to the question about Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s overture to him by a letter of congratulations. Before even responding to the question he felt he needed to firmly establish tough hawkish credentials by saying that Iran’s nuclear weapons program and support for terrorism was unacceptable. It really was gratuitous and not directly relevant to the question.
We have our work cut out for us. Before we can move our president we have to move our fellow citizens. In the meantime let’s enjoy our collective sigh of relief that a dark period in our nation’s and the world's histoy is coming to an end.
As I took that deep breath in the voting booth to make my decision, I thought about the marvelous radiance that beams from the eyes of the Obama children, Sasha and Malia. Their exquisitely gracious and dignified mother Michelle and their audacious father must have had something to do with that. I knew there was no way I could get them into the White House without Barack. I knew I didn’t have to vote for him, but I just wanted it to be a landslide.
Russell Branca in the borough of Queens