As we draw closer to election day, 2012, I continue to reflect on the voting issue. My October 1, 2012, post asked the question “Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?” [UPDATE: I posted a third installment on October 28: "Faith and Politics (Including Voting)"] I concluded that though indeed I believe that President Obama’s four years in office have been a time of increasingly distressing militarism, I still will vote for him. I posed this choice not so much as voting for a lesser evil but as voting against a greater evil. That is, I do not understand my vote to be an expression of support for Obama but to be an expression of opposition to the far more distressingly militaristic and destructive-in-many-more-areas policies I would expect from a Romney administration.
The original posts received many thoughtful and perceptive comments. Within the comments section, several other fascinating conversations that went beyond my own contribution emerged. With these responses and numerous conversations with friends and more reading and thinking, I want to take some time to say a bit more—mainly to try to restate and clarify the argument I am trying to develop.
What does “warmonger” mean—and does it apply to Obama?
I came up with the title for my post (“Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?”) mainly to be eye-catching. My intent was not to make the case that Obama actually should called a warmonger so much as to make that case that even if pacifists are unhappy with Obama’s policies related to war (as I most certainly am), voting for him is still a good idea (as far as it goes—I, of course, go on to say that a vote for Obama should be accompanied with a strong commitment to work however possible for peace, including voicing strong criticisms of the pro-war policies). My intended audience with the post was people who are already inclined toward pacifism—so the context is how a pacifist might view Obama and his administration’s policies.
However, I did say that I was “serious” in using the term “warmonger.” So I need to reflect a bit more on this use. The short definition from the Webster’s Online Dictionary seems to fit what I had in mind pretty well: “A person who advocates war or warlike policies.” In my mind, Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan war, increase in military spending (even though the U.S. already spends about as much on the military as the rest of the world combined), use of drones and other violent activities in places such as Pakistan, warfare against Libya, refusal to hold Bush-era purveyors of lawlessness accountable, continuation of the deterioration of civil liberties in relation to U.S. “security needs,” and the like, clearly qualify him for the description of a person who “advocates warlike policies”—and, of course, as president he is in the position to turn the advocacy into policy (or, just as problematic, to advocate de facto by implementing policies).
I’m a little more uneasy applying the longer definition from Webster’s to Obama: “A warmonger is a pejorative term that is used to describe someone who is anxious to encourage a people or nation to go to war. It is often used to describe militaristic leaders, or mercenaries, commonly with the implication that they either may have selfish motives for encouraging war, or may actually enjoy war. Some may even admit that their selfishness includes the lust for war for personal satisfaction.” This seems a bit strong, certainly insofar as Obama is not, in my mind, a cheerleader for militarism. I am troubled to read of his personal involvement in targeting some drone attacks, but in general he gives the impression of being subdued and seemingly cautious about the military actions, not gung ho (in contrast, to some degree at least, to his immediate predecessor).
So, now in this post I am using the word with quotes (“warmonger”) to indicate a sense that this is a qualified critique. Part of my argument, after all, is that a Romney administration would be even worse. I am sure of that. So it might be good to reserve the use of warmonger in an unqualified sense to a Republican administration.
Still, my bigger point is that I do not advocate voting for Obama because I am sanguine about his military policies. I am totally appalled. I think Obama’s first four years have only accelerated the descent of the United States toward a militaristic hell. So that is why I say I am not voting for a lesser of evils. I am not voting for Obama. I am voting against what I see to be an even greater evil.
Are the Democrats just as bad as the Republicans?
The point I made in my original post was stated clearly in a more recent article by Daniel Ellsberg (“Progressives in swing states vote for Obama”):
An activist colleague recently said to me: “I hear you’re supporting Obama.”
I was startled, and took offense. “Supporting Obama? Me?!”
“I lose no opportunity publicly,” I told him angrily, to identify Obama as a tool of Wall Street, a man who’s decriminalized torture and is still complicit in it, a drone assassin, someone who’s launched an unconstitutional war, supports kidnapping and indefinite detention without trial, and has prosecuted more whistleblowers like myself than all previous presidents put together. “Would you call that support?”
My friend said, “But on Democracy Now you urged people in swing states to vote for him! How could you say that? I don’t live in a swing state, but I will not and could not vote for Obama under any circumstances.”
My answer was: a Romney/Ryan administration would be no better — no different — on any of the serious offenses I just mentioned or anything else, and it would be much worse, even catastrophically worse, on a number of other important issues: attacking Iran, Supreme Court appointments, the economy, women’s reproductive rights, health coverage, safety net, climate change, green energy, the environment.
I told him: “I don’t ‘support Obama.’ I oppose the current Republican Party. This is not a contest between Barack Obama and a progressive candidate. The voters in a handful or a dozen close-fought swing states are going to determine whether Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are going to wield great political power for four, maybe eight years, or not.”
As Noam Chomsky said recently, “The Republican organization today is extremely dangerous, not just to this country, but to the world. It’s worth expending some effort to prevent their rise to power, without sowing illusions about the Democratic alternatives.”
Following that logic, he’s said to an interviewer what my friend heard me say to Amy Goodman: “If I were a person in a swing state, I’d vote against Romney/Ryan, which means voting for Obama because there is no other choice.”
I think Ellsberg just about nails it for me.
In the comments to my post, a friend argued that voting for a third party candidate in an “uncontested” state (which is most of them, itself a terrible comment on our “democracy”) could be a responsible act. I agree fully. I understand my vote in Virginia to be the most effective step I can take in the election to oppose the Republicans. It could be a way to repudiate and cause damage to the reprehensible politics that have taken over the GOP. It could help to buy a little more time for our society to (unlikely as it may seem) turn away from the kind of militaristic corporatist plutocracy we are becoming that a Republican victory would bring even closer. This is one little thing the system lets me do.
If I were in South Dakota or Oregon or California (all states where I have lived), I would not vote for Obama but for the Green Party candidate Jill Stein. But in Virginia, a third party vote seems less useful than a vote that might play a role in defeating Romney.
Shortly after I wrote my piece, I read an article in Time that strengthened my argument, I thought. The article described the extraordinary investment of millions of dollars that is being made by coal barons to defeat Obama. The article, which is basically an uncritical PR-piece for the coal barons, does point out that the EPA is estimating that new limits on coal-plant toxic emissions implemented in 2011 “will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma every year” (emphasis added). Now, Obama’s environmental policies have been tepid at best. His passivity about climate change is inexcusable. He repeats the oxymoronic fantasy of the possibilities for “clean coal.” But the choice here is about 11,000 premature deaths or not. You can bet the coal barons are spending $10s of millions so that these limits will be overturned immediately.
What really matters with politics?
My friend Robb Davis has been writing a series of highly thoughtful blogposts on why he is not going to vote in the presidential election (part one, excursion, part two—part three is promised soon). Robb’s general perspective is terrific, I think. He is anything but unengaged, anything but passive about social change and resisting the forces of domination in our world, anything but smug about how terrible the system is that he is staying free from by not voting. His conclusions about not voting in the presidential election are thoughtful and stem from his desire to be the most effective and life-enhancing agent for change that he can be. Still, I do not find his conclusions persuasive. This is in large part because I see voting in the presidential election as a small thing (here I agree with Noam Chomsky—it’s worth only a bit of our attention). But it doesn’t hurt us to do it and it may make a tiny contribution.
More specifically, let me mention a couple of Robb’s points. He understands voting to be a way of legitimizing the unhealthy patron/client relationship governmental leaders want with the populace. “By not voting I refuse to give them what they want.” However, in these days of active voter suppression by the Republicans and a general passivity toward that repression that is all too common among Democrats in power, I find it doubtful that voting is actually something people in power want. They seem happier with low turnouts.
Robb develops a sharp critique of Obama’s complicity in the spiral of violence that characterizes American national security practices. And I agree with the critique. Except I don’t believe that the Democrats and Obama are quite as bad as the Republicans (Bush in the recent past and Romney in the future if elected). I don’t find it helpful to equate the two parties with a pox on both your houses. As well, national security issues are not the only issues at stake. And on some of the other issues, Obama is even more clearly less bad (I repeat what I wrote in my original post that I can’t think of anything Obama’s administration has accomplished or stood for that I fully approve of—just as I can’t think of any issue on which a Romney administration would not be worse).
So, back to my key point. I am not voting in favor of Obama. I am voting against something clearly worse. To vote, though, is not the most important expression of political responsibility a citizen can take—especially in this especially depressing election season. It’s not even close to the top of the list. It’s just one small act. But one that is still worthwhile and meaningful in this small way. However, for a pacifist to vote for a “warmonger” should be a step that is taken with a concomitant commitment actively to resist the “warmongering” however one can. And, even more importantly, actively to create peaceable alternatives and countercultures that might be harbingers of a new political order that genuinely places the highest priority on human and creational well-being.
See PART III: Faith and Politics (Including Voting)