What a difference a century makes. A hundred years ago, in the presidential election of 1912, self-styled progressive candidates won three-quarters of the popular vote. Conservatives won less than a quarter. The Socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, got over 900,000 votes, which, with the growth of population and the doubling of the electorate by the enfranchisement of women, would be a good 5 million today. Five million votes for a Socialist? These days you can’t even find a liberal who’ll admit to being one.
So, if you’re a progressive today, whom do you vote for — or, to cut to the chase, do you vote at all? Even Ralph Nader isn’t endorsing a third-party candidate. The temptation is to virtuously sit this one out or to cast a symbolic protest vote. But there’s a vigorous debate on the left (the only one going at present, it seems) about whether refusing to back an admittedly flawed Barack Obama isn’t biting off your nose to spite your face.
Daniel Ellsberg, who became famous by leaking the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago and is still a name to be reckoned with among radicals of a certain age, recently posted an article warning progressives of an Armageddon should Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan be elected. Ellsberg makes it clear that voting for Obama is by no means the same as supporting him.
“I lose no opportunity publicly,” he writes, “to identify Obama as a tool of Wall Street, a man who’s decriminalized torture and is still complicit in it, a drone assassin who’s launched an unconstitutional war [presumably, Libya], supports kidnapping and indefinite detention without trial, and has prosecuted more whistleblowers like myself than all previous presidents in office.” Ellsberg might have added that Obama has deported record numbers of immigrants as well, declared open season on Social Security and Medicare, and claimed the constitutional right to execute American citizens without trial. But you get the general idea.
Ellsberg concedes that Obama has acted “outrageously” and goes as far as to say, “If impeachment were politically imaginable on constitutional grounds, he’s earned it.” So, progressives should vote for a president they think should be impeached?
I’ve heard some variant of this argument before. A friend of mine writes from Florida that she isn’t voting for Obama but for the Democratic Party, the party that gave generations of Americans collective bargaining rights, protection in the workplace, a floor under wages, and security in old age. I think it may be fairly doubted whether that party still exists, but that isn’t Ellsberg’s point. Progressives, he says, should not vote for either Obama or his party, but against Mitt Romney and his. As bad as the Democrats may be, the Republicans will be “much” if not “catastrophically” worse. We’ll drill, baby, drill until global warming suffocates us. We’ll see Roe v. Wade overturned and the abortion mills opened for business again. We’ll see Wall Street ride roughshod over us and prepare the next big crash — the one that wipes out whatever equity the middle class still has.
Ellsberg calls on Nader and Noam Chomsky, the dean of the American Left, who argues that the Republican Party is a clear and present danger to the Republic, for support. Ellsberg concedes that a vote for Obama will be repugnant for many. He allows that a vote may still be only optional in states where Obama’s majority is a safe call. But in swing states, like Pennsylvania, such a vote, he contends, is morally obligatory. Hold your nose, he says, but vote.
Now, I share certain ground with the left, although I have apparently endangered my country by voting for Republicans on occasion. But I can’t understand how progressives would find their cause as anything but undermined by Obama’s re-election. In four years, they have gotten nothing from Obama but a grudging and belated acceptance of gay marriage, which had no practical consequence in any case. The war in Iraq was prosecuted until the very day decreed by George W. Bush for its termination. The Afghan War was ramped up, and it will almost certainly be a theater of operations after the scheduled withdrawal of combat forces in 2014 (if that occurs). Guantanamo remains open for business, as do other detention sites. Surveillance of American citizens has been expanded well beyond the Bush parameters in our total security state. Claims of executive authority unparalleled in our country’s history have been openly made, and lethally enforced. Progressives can hardly expect that any of this will change for the better, nor can they imagine that social or environmental protections will change, except for the worse. The narrative for the latter has already been set by Obama’s first-term concessions to deficit hawks and energy interests.
All that Ellsberg can claim is that things will get worse at a faster pace under Romney. That really boils down to an argument over Supreme Court replacements, but Court nominees are subject to approval by the Senate, where the Democrats will still presumably hold the majority. If they don’t want more justices of the stamp of John Roberts or Samuel Alito, they can block them, as they blocked the appointment of Robert Bork a quarter century ago during the Reagan administration. It has long been clear that the Supreme Court is a thoroughly politicized institution, if anyone doubted it. It’s a game, though, that so far only one side has been playing. Democrats haven’t nominated a liberal, let alone a progressive, to the Supreme Court in decades. If they won’t play offense and they can’t play defense, why let them keep the ball? And, with the appalling attacks on civil liberties that Obama has countenanced or initiated, how can any progressive trust him with further Supreme Court nominations?
That, it seems to me, is the pragmatic counterargument to Ellsberg. If the progressive left is going to play any role in American public life, it can no longer be as an appendage of the Democratic Party. For progressives, therefore, a vote for Obama is a vote for cynicism and despair, if not a vote cast simply from fear. If that’s the best they can do, they might as well turn in their citizenship. At all events, they doom themselves to four more years of political irrelevance.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org