Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The perfect is the enemy of the less bad

Conor Friedersdorf and some Facebook political identity test have set off a conversation in the last week or two about whether liberals should vote for Obama. Drone warfare is traumatizing the citizens of Afghanistan something awful, and as we have discussed here before, Obama has been surprisingly bad on civil liberties, chasing down whistleblowers to a degree unmatched even by the Bush Administration.

Still, I have a few thoughts about this sentiment:

1. First of all, just to get it out there, Conor Friedersdorf is not a liberal; he's a right-leaning centrist with libertarian sentiments. Thus, there is an element of concern trolling going on here. Friedersdorf doesn't approve of much anything the president has done, including all the stuff liberals are (or should be) gaga over, so of course he doesn't plan to vote for Obama!

2. Conor Friedersdorf is not only not a liberal, but if I recall correctly he's also too young to have been suckered into this line of thinking in 2000. I wasn't too young, and I and many other idealistic rubes cast votes for Ralph Nader, which as we all now know turned out really to have been a vote for George W. Bush.

Sure, if you had told me at the time this would be the result, I might not have cared. After all, what does it matter which Republicrat gets into the White House, right? Except, as Kevin Drum points out today and which I've argued with others about since that fateful year, even if you make the worst possible assumptions about an Al Gore Administration, there would be one indisputable difference between it and what really happened: we would never have gone to war in Iraq. The Iraq War was a project of Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives, one which there was no reason for Gore to have any investment in. That's hundreds of billions of dollars, 4000-ish American troops, and Lord knows how many civilian lives that would have been saved had a few hundred Nader voters in Florida and/or New Hampshire voted more realistically.

I want to emphasize here, again, that we didn't know George W. Bush was going to be the disaster he turned out to be. He ran as a borderline isolationist, saying in one debate that he didn't believe the US should be in the business of "nation-building." He was an unremarkable governor, not good but not particularly bad, either, aside from his zeal in signing death warrants. He talked up a big game about "compassionate conservatism," about reaching out to Democrats. By all appearances in November 2000, a Bush Administration really wouldn't be all that different from an Al Gore Administration. 

Fast forward to 2008. I knew some LGBT and ally voters who considered not voting for Obama because he seemed squishier than they'd like on gay rights. I'm not sure any of us would have guessed that he would end Don't Ask, Don't Tell by the end of his 2nd year in office, and would become the first president to support marriage equality by the end of his 3rd. Meanwhile, we know from John McCain's reaction that he would never have signed DADT away.

What I'm saying, I guess, is that the major party candidates are generally more different, and your vote means more, than the cynics would have you believe, and often in ways that surprise us. While it really is impossible for Jill Stein to win the White House herself, it is certainly possible for her to hand it to Mitt Romney, just as Nader unwittingly did for George W. Bush. It turns out that the primary consequence of a vote for Nader was a vote for the Iraq War, while a nose-holding vote for Barack Obama was a vote to end DADT. 

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