From the moment I hit the “Back” button, erased my vote for Ralph Nader, and recast it for Barack Obama in 2008, I’ve harbored a guilty conscience. I lived in Ohio at the time, always a key swing state. John McCain and Sarah Palin seemed a particularly frightening prospect, one to which even a center-right Democrat like Obama might be preferable.
Obama won the state handily, and would have without my vote, and I believe he’ll win this election handily, as well. But the only thing he’s done that’s really worthy of reelection is draw a particularly unseemly corporate representative for his opponent, a wolf in wolf’s clothing. To Americans who have felt the pinch of reduced benefits, late retirements, layoffs, unemployment, crushing mortgages, and bank swindling, Chairman Romney is a model of the enemy. When conservatives say “corporations are people,” it’s Romney they’re talking about. And to hear Romney and his cohorts speak of women must surely eliminate instantaneously half of the population’s support.
This, I believe, is the real key to Obama’s electoral success. For as long as Republicans present the likes of Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Allen West, Paul Ryan, and Todd Akin as the faces of the party, Democrats can coast into big elections without making any serious concessions to their left wing. Running down his four years in office, he isn’t a very compelling progressive candidate. Continued support of the war on drugs, the use of drones to assassinate citizens, failure to prosecute the criminals responsible for our financial crisis, a healthcare program that goes not nearly far enough and benefits private insurers as much as anyone, and nation-building in the Middle East and North Africa have defined his presidency.
Democracy can’t be about rewarding one candidate purely on the basis of the other’s un-electability. If Americans want real, tangible results, they are going to have to demand more of President Obama. The 2000 election ought to serve as a reminder of two things: one, that there is a voting left-wing contingency, and two, that contingency is willing to punish the Democrats for looking too much like Republicans. A big chunk of the vote went to Ralph Nader in 2000, and though I believe blaming him for Al Gore’s loss is cynical and wrong on every level, it isn’t hard to imagine Gore picking up some of Nader’s supporters if he’d only offered progressive voters the kinds of things Nader did.
Part of me wonders if Obama and the Democrats are deserving of a similar fate. It may be the only way to align them on a more progressive path. But a bigger part of me fears a Mitt Romney candidacy too much to chance it. So, many voters like me will probably pull for Obama just to stop it. And then in four years, we will find ourselves in exactly the same position – voting for a candidate we don’t like over the candidate who reminds us of Lex Luthor.
There are many things that won’t change if Americans allow Obama simply to govern as he has in his first term. Citizen action is the only thing that will affect real issues. If you want to protect trees, sit in one, or at least support the people who are as Green Party candidate Jill Stein has nobly done. She has also been arrested standing up for her beliefs, a thing Americans all too easily forget is a necessary component of social change. Voting for a candidate who seems marginally more in line with your beliefs is never going to be enough. Rampant corporate bullying has only escalated during Obama’s term, with many Americans under steady harassment of bill collectors. A mass boycott and refusal to pay sends a stronger message than the election of a moderate Democrat ever could. Police abuse and overreach will never wane, no matter how inclusive a candidate’s rhetoric sounds, unless ordinary people record and post on-line any and all instances of such unconscionable behavior.
Obama has lucked out that his opponents are Bronze Age fundamentalist evolution deniers, insecure and closeted loathers of the female body, Randian psychopaths who still believe in the trickle-down effect, and any other manner of crazy you can conjure up. But this says nothing about the man’s own merits. We can’t reward people simply on the basis that they aren’t these things.
In 2008, I believed Obama could be bent to the will of the people if the people’s will could be heard loudly enough. Apparently people in power believed it, too, because instances of police aggression, unlawful detention, and other efforts aimed at squelching citizen unrest have only escalated under his watch. And Obama has watched it all with seeming disinterest.
Vote for him on Tuesday, or vote for a third party in hopes of getting them to five percent and federal backing next election if your state is definitely going one way or the other. But know that all the work is still ahead. There is a much larger struggle against Democratic centrism and Tea Party reactionaries still to be fought. For as long the exercise of citizen power is restricted to the voting booth, far-right candidates will pull the Democratic Party further and further along, and liberals will reward Democrats for not going quite as far as the Republicans have. We can’t allow them to be the default alternative forever.