This election season is (or should be) an agonizing time for pacifists and other people in the United States who care deeply for peace on earth. Perhaps as much as any time in the history of this country, an uncritical embrace of militarism as a way of life is on display. We have a president running for re-election proudly trumpeting his success in one military intervention after another (including direct assassination of “national enemies”)—and being harshly criticized by his main opponent for being a wuss on national security issues.
Except for people like us on the fringes, Obama’s militarism is not seen as a problem in the national discussion. The country faces extreme economic difficulties and the two main options in this election are giving the military either a somewhat greater share of the national treasure or a much greater share.
Peace advocates’ discouragement with Obama
American peace advocates’ discouragement is heightened by the reality that we thought we might be getting something better four years ago. And we weren’t alone in the world—how else to explain Obama’s clearly premature Nobel Peace Prize (now a distant memory) other than as a statement of hope from the selectors that he truly would provide a new direction in American foreign policy? Yet, when all is said and done, what we see over the past four years is a slight decrease in the bellicose posturing that characterized the Bush administration, but overall a continuation of the trajectory of empire as a way of life.
So, it is understandable that many peace advocates who supported Obama in 2008 (with admittedly varying degrees of enthusiasm—no one I know or know of expected Obama to tack very far toward a truly new, peace-oriented national security agenda; but we did hope for some major positive shifts) are now asserting that they will not vote for him this time. None of these folks, of course, are remotely interesting in voting for Mitt Romney—they talk either of voting for a third (or fourth or fifth) party candidate or of abstaining.
This tendency became especially noticeable to me when at least seven of my Facebook friends posted a link to and endorsed a provocative article: “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama” published on the website of The Atlantic, written by Conor Friederstorff. I had not heard of Friederstorff before. As near as I can tell, he’s a person of the political right, tending toward liberatarianism—not someone I would expect my friends to share a lot of political convictions with. But he claims to have voted for Obama in 2008 and swears he won’t now (he supports former New Mexico governor, Gary Johnson, who is running on the Liberatarian Party ticket). The main reason he gives is that Obama has pursued terrible and extraordinarily violent national security policies. He certainly has a point—a strong point. If anything, I would probably state my critique of Obama on these issues even more strongly. [For the record, though, let me note a thoughtful critique of Friederstorff's article by Jamelle Bouie of The American Prospect.]
Another expression, similar to Friederstorff’s, has come from several friends of mine who have started a effort they are calling Voter Witness. They advocate abstaining from the presidential part of the upcoming election and making a public statement by signing the petition on their website. The point of the petition is to publicize people’s disenchantment with Obama’s militarism, in this case in the name of Christian peace convictions. And here’s just one more example, theological humorist Tripp York on his Amish Jihadist website references Friederstorff and reiterates his opposition on Christian grounds for voting for Obama.
On not voting for Democrats
As I have indicated, I am sympathetic with these arguments and probably have as sharp of a critique of Obama’s militarism as anyone. As I reflect on the issues, I think back to several previous presidential elections.
In 1980, I decided I could no longer support Jimmy Carter due, in part, because of his awful decision to boycott the Moscow Olympics (though I am less a fan of the Olympics now than I was then, I still think this was an extraordinarily bad idea that still has not been fully counterbalanced in my mind by Carter’s admirable post-presidential career). This was part of his beginning a sharp trajectory in a militaristic direction (a trajectory well underway prior to Ronald Reagan’s reign). I voted for Barry Commoner, an admirable environmentalist of the day who ran on a Citizen’s Party ticket (if I remember correctly).
Then in 1992, after candidate Bill Clinton flew home to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a mentally handicapped convicted murderer to bolster his tough guy image, I vowed never to vote for him. I can’t remember for sure if I voted for a third party person that time or just left my ballot blank.
In 2000, Ralph Nader ran a spirited campaign as the Green Party candidate. Virginia was not being contested that election, Al Gore having ceded it to George Bush. So rather than waste a vote for Gore (who I definitely thought was better than Bush), I voted for Nader in large part because of his claim to be working for the advancement of the Green Party and the hope that if he got enough votes the Greens would be strengthened for future work.
In retrospect, I now think I definitely should have voted for Carter. And probably should have voted for Clinton. I regret my vote for Nader only because he largely reneged on his promise to work for the furthering of the Green movement; I think my reasoning on that one was sound (and I can’t resist pointing out that Nader did not cause Gore’s defeat—Gore won that election and then he and the Democrats allowed the Republicans to steal it and to get away with stealing it).
Reasons to (nonetheless) vote for Obama
But now, I am clear that I will vote for Barack Obama—in spite of him being a warmonger (and I am using this term in all seriousness). These are some of the reasons why.
(1) The decisive reason for me is that this is one (very) small contribution to repudiating what has become of the Republican Party. As an Oregonian, I can well remember my early days of political awareness when I supported Republicans such as Governor Tom McCall (a strong environmentalist) and Senator Mark Hatfield (as consistent an advocate for peace as the U.S. Senate has had in my lifetime). Those days are long gone. All that needs to be said about the Republicans today is that Mitt Romney (with the unquestioning support of most of the Party faithful outside the fringe Ron Paul supporters) runs his campaign criticizing Obama for being too pacifistic.
It seems to me that none of the “I-won’t-vote-for-Obama” arguments I have seen take the utter corruption of the Republican Party nearly seriously enough. This baffles me. To say (most of) the Democrats and Obama in particular are terrible in their support for empire as a way of life is accurate—but to think this implies the Republicans are only just as bad seems misguided. With Obama, one gets the sense of a leader whose worldview is still linked (if somewhat tenuously) to reality (e.g., recognizing what a disaster as Israeli attack on Iran would be). Such a worldview does allow for the possibility of being dissuaded from disastrous policies before they actually happen. We can have no assurance of such a link with reality with Romney and his national security advisers.
I can’t actually think of an issue that I am happy with Obama about—even his great “achievement,” Obamacare, still seems way too much a pandering to the corporate medical/insurance establishment. Even so, there is not a single issue that I can think of that Romney and the Republicans are not significantly worse on.
So, a vote for Obama is mainly a vote against the Republicans. Such a vote would communicate this repudiation more clearly than a sure to be ignored vote for a third (or fourth or fifth) party candidate (at least in a state like Virginia that is actually being contested—if I still lived in Oregon or South Dakota I might consider a vote for the Green Party, though not for the largely ego-driven one-shot candidacies of Rocky Anderson or Gary Johnson or [in Virginia] Virgil Goode).
As on many other topics, I find the thoughts of Rebecca Solnit quite helpful in thinking about this election. She states: “I have a grand goal, and that is to counter the Republican Right with its deep desire to annihilate everything I love and to move toward far more radical goals than the Democrats ever truly support.”
(2) Part of the reason I will vote for Obama is, perhaps paradoxically, because I don’t think presidential voting is very important. I disagree with the idea that if I vote for someone I am complicit in all (or even most) of what they do in power. The big problem we face in this country is the mostly corrupt political system we live with that is getting worse and worse. Voting is one (little) thing we can still do that has (some small) effect. Perhaps it’s only the effect of repudiating the worse of the two evils we are asked to choose from. That’s not really very important. But if we are given the chance to do this, we should take it. We gain nothing at all by being part of what Solnit wittily calls “voluntary leftist voter suppression.” And our purity is not compromised by the contagion of voting for a warmonger—such a vote simply does not have that kind of power.
(3) Also the qualification I made above, that “most of” the Democrats are terrible in their support for empire as a way of life is important. There are a few Democrats in power who do resist empire (for example, two members of Congress in districts I used to live in, Peter DeFazio in Oregon and Barbara Lee in California, and a couple of young Senators, Jeff Merkley from Oregon and Sharrod Brown from Ohio). Obama’s election will give these peace advocates just a bit more leverage. And we do have (if only a glimmer) of hope that the Democrats as a whole could be moved in a more peaceable direction (contrary to the other party that truly is hopeless).
(4) Finally, is strikes me that a person who votes for Obama has a bit more standing to challenge his policies than one who does not. It seems silly to take the approach that you vote for someone and then you are locked in to support all their policies (or even most of them). I would prefer to see voting for someone as analogous to joining a church—this is actually just a step to join the conversation and an acceptance of responsibility to hold the politician (or church) accountable to their best convictions and commitments.
So, the kind of “voter witness” I would like to see peace people committing to is not self-initiated pacifist voter suppression. Rather, it would be to take the opportunity to vote as only one tiny step in acting in whatever way one can to further the cause of peace by constructive criticism of President Obama—and many other elements of political faithfulness. [For two essays where I reflect on political responsibility for Christian pacifists see "Core convictions for engaged pacifism" and "Anabaptist faith and American democracy."]
Maybe we peace advocates who vote for Obama should see such a vote as a pledge to extend our peace advocacy (not an admission that we must compromise it). We will vote and we will do what we can to challenge militarism in all its forms and resist empire as a way of life however we can.
[UPDATE: Here is a sequel, posted October 19—"More Thoughts About Voting (Or Not) For A 'Warmonger'"]