By Alexander Reed Kelly
There is no single issue more frustrating to the cause of progress than the relative struggle the left has organizing voters and getting them to the polls. Republicans and conservatives, perhaps driven by a sense of duty, tend to turn out with ease. The American left, on the other hand, must overcome poverty, intentionally obstructive voting laws and a persistent apathy, often failing to take advantage of natural majorities to effect change. This electoral season, there is a new obstacle. Many on the left now view the system itself as so corrupt and distasteful, the process of voting has become uncool.
I was struck recently by the comments of a 17-year-old girl recorded by Thomas Hedges, who was reporting on the anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests: “Voting, punching a ballot every four years? That’s a sham after all of this. It’s a farce. By participating in it, it feels like you’re giving in,” she said.
Some of Obama’s policies, particularly with regard to the economy, the war in Afghanistan and the environment, have given cause for this cynicism. But this girl isn’t just saying politics are corrupt. This ineligible teenager seems to argue that the political process has become so septic, such a “farce,” that participation in it feels like collaboration with the corporate forces that have polluted it. Voting, then, isn’t a civic responsibility or a path toward progress, but a sin against social justice. Although that line of thinking has certainly been provoked, it’s a perversion of reason that threatens to hand the country to Mitt Romney or, hell, Barack Obama, if he’s not your lesser devil.
And it is Obama who has become the left’s obsession in this election. Instead of uniting disaffected Republicans, liberal Democrats and ex-Green Party idealists, as he did in 2008, the president now seems to have united the far right and the far left in joint contempt.
On the right, we can recognize by polling the same bloc of white men who never really fell for Obama and again resist him. Add to that the elderly voters who watch “Mad Men” and walk away with all the wrong kind of nostalgia for afternoon cocktails and docile women and racial minorities. But on the left, there is an intensity to the anger. Obama is a fixation and people speak about him the way they speak about conspiracies. The president has been transformed by his fallen allies. He is spoken of not as a man whose accomplishments and failures can be debated, but the figurehead of a national conspiracy to destroy American democracy. Voting for such a person, or his less preferable enemy, “feels like you’re giving in.” This has festered beyond disaffection, disappointment and disapproval. It’s hatred now. And it’s not going to help anyone.
Being an American citizen and having the right to vote—assuming your state hasn’t stolen that right through a felony charge, a voter ID law or a shifty election machine—is like having a golden ticket. The president of the United States is, for better or worse, the de facto emperor of the world, and you’re possibly one of a minority of people who gets to pick him.
Voting isn’t simply a civic duty or a right; it’s a jackpot, one that corporations, political parties and perhaps the ruling elite are constantly trying to take away from you. The choices you make, and that includes the choice not to be involved, will decide where the bombs fall, where in the developing world the HIV drugs get distributed, how poor you have to be to get health care and whether someone whose life experience amounts to horse racing is put in charge of managing our government’s response to natural disasters.
I identify with those progressives who say it is evil for President Obama to send robots across the night to bomb whole villages because someone’s name was added to a secret list we’ll never see. I think it is disgusting that a country that sings of the free and the brave would lock up and essentially torture Pvt. Bradley Manning for courageously defying the faceless imperial beast, as he is alleged to have done. President Obama has done many things in four years that make me grind my teeth.
But I don’t get the short- or long-term benefit of dropping out of the political process and dropping your winning lottery ticket of a vote in the gutter. Some people say they find other ways to participate. I recently found myself walking through downtown Los Angeles and nearly retched at the stench of an Occupier who was camped out in front of a glistening tower named after one of the big banks. Maybe this kind of performance art goes over my head, but I failed to draw the line from this dedicated transient to a criminal banker in handcuffs or the restoration of financial regulation.
I don’t mean to dismiss or belittle the sacrifices activists have made to put pressure on the administration. On the contrary, I think it’s worth noting where those efforts have been successful and where they have failed.
Certainly the original Occupy movement forced income inequality into the national discussion. Job well done. But now the camps are gone, tear-gassed off the streets and into online chat rooms where people talk about decentralized, nonauthoritative, deconstructed, self-policed communities that grow their own quinoa free of genetic modification. Somehow I think I missed the general assembly on that transition.
Let’s take two case studies. To start, The Advocate magazine is endorsing Obama. It hasn’t endorsed a candidate since the 1970s, but the bigwigs there are thrilled with how far the president has carried the gay rights agenda. It wasn’t always so. Obama made a lot of promises to gay rights groups, and even brought some more established organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign into the tent. But gays grew weary with another election coming and no action on same-sex marriage, “don’t ask, don’t tell” and other issues. Activists not on the White House guest list started showing up at gay-themed campaign fundraisers and embarrassing the president and even some of his allies in the gay community. The result of this pressure was immediate movement on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which had been left to the military’s indefinite timeline, and the first president in the history of the nation to personally endorse same-sex unions.
Labor unions, on the other hand, have not had such luck with this administration. A little known bill called the Employee Free Choice Act would have made it much easier for unions to form, revitalizing an institution that built the middle class but has been slowly dying off over the last few decades. The Democrats, led by Obama, let the free choice act die in Congress. This should have been the final straw for the labor movement. Why support a party that will not have your back when it counts? I asked this question of a friend who worked at the time organizing on behalf of the free choice act. Health care, he explained, is where labor unions spend most of their energy negotiating with management. They could not afford to abandon the Democrats with the Affordable Care Act on the table, and the Democrats knew it.
The lesson I draw from these two interest groups is that if you make him, to paraphrase FDR, the president will do it. Perhaps the hatred of Obama some of us feel is in fact guilt for failing so spectacularly to move him. In 2008, many of us took for granted that a community organizer born on Oahu would do the right thing. No pressure, no results. And the quickest way to take pressure off a politician is to promise him not to vote for anyone. If he really is a corporate shill, you just became his dream constituent.
So whether you vote for Obama, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, or even Mitt Romney if you have the tax shelter to justify it, please don’t give in to teenage apathy and sit this one out. Voting is sacred. People have literally died to make it possible. And billions of people around the world are counting on your decision. On Nov. 6, don’t just sit at home writing angry comments on the Internet. Oh, and here’s a secret: Voting in an election does not disqualify you from also taking direct action. In fact, the two work rather well together. Just ask the gays.
Photo by Devin Smith (CC-BY)