On Tuesday, as I knew for many months that I would have to, I will pull the lever, or push the button, for Barack Obama. I’ll do this despite my deep disapproval of his drone warfare strategy, his failure to take the United States off of permanent war status, his lack of leadership on climate change and economic justice, his frustrating inability to frame a meaningful discussion of how best to repair America’s broken social contract. I’ll do it without joy, without hope, like a child swallowing a wretched antibiotic. A little demon of an old leftist located in some attic of my mind whispers to me that a Romney win might, after all, be the very thing needed to galvanize a true socialist revolution in this country. If the non-union white working classes, or white formerly-working classes, who will continue to vote for Romney in flocks could finally be led to some kind of consciousness of how they screw themselves, time and again, through their continued immiseration, it might be better than four more years of Obama’s faux-liberalism. But the “it must get worse before it gets better” argument comes too easily to those who don’t really have to fear they’ll suffer the worst. I’m not on food stamps. I don’t live in a coastal flood zone, or on land earmarked for gas drilling. Instead of the old line, I’m trying to cultivate something I’ve started to think of as “post-democratic” subjectivity: my meaningful political actions will not occur in the voting booth. My vote for the Democrat is as politically meaningful as my decisions to buy locally grown produce and drive a hybrid car. I don’t expect it to solve more systematic problems like the continued rise to power of corporations and oligarchs. The key figure of this campaign season, for me, has been the billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, the Trump of the Jews. A world in which that man has as much influence over the outcome of an election as I do would be a fond hope and a better place, and it won’t come about if my vote is all I have to show for my political activity over the next month.
Someone once wrote that you shouldn’t confuse the process of writing somebody’s name on a piece of paper once every four years and dropping it in a box with emancipation. Voting has a part to play in political life, but a limited one, small compared to the importance of fostering communities based on mutual aid, deploying direct action, and practicing solidarity. In this respect, those who loudly insist on not voting or proclaim its meaninglessness are committing the old misty-eyed mistake in reverse: not voting will no more free you than voting will. And the energy spent asserting that the two parties are identical is only well-spent if it leads directly into building some further form of institutional counterpower. Voting is not an overly difficult or time-consuming process—neofascist suppression tactics notwithstanding—at least when compared to planning a march, a boycott, or any other kind of organizing. It’s really closer to making an excellent banner or attending a meeting, activities that probably have a similar return on investment, as individual expenditures, as a trip to the polls does.
Part of the problem lies with the collective pathology of presidential campaigns, which encourages individuals to over-identify with a candidate and in turn prompts activists and organizers to over-identify with the rejection of electoral politics. Voting is what it is: not nothing, not everything. Think of it this way: if Obama represents the sum-total of left institutional power in this country, then his failures can much more productively be seen as our own. This is depressing in the short term but empowering in the long. Whatever happens on Tuesday, don’t mourn—organize.
The difficult proposition that critics of the administration are likely to confront on the morning after the election is that, on the big strategic decisions of his first term, Obama has been right. If Chicago ekes out a narrow win, they will say this: the administration did everything it could to advance a progressive agenda on domestic and foreign policy, walking right up to the line of mainstream political acceptability without ever crossing it; legislatively, they had one major bullet, and they used it on health care, barely scraping together sixty senators to pass a bill which does more to help the working poor than any law has in a generation.
For this sin, the Democrats lost their House majority and nearly lost the Senate, much as Bill Clinton’s most important domestic achievement—the tax increases in his 1993 budget—resulted in the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. Could Obama’s White House have passed a single-payer plan? Certainly not. Did they have the votes for a public option? The evidence suggests they didn’t—not in the Senate, and not on the Supreme Court, which came within a hair’s breadth of striking down the bill, and very possibly would have done so had it been any more unpopular than it already was. Is Obamacare nonetheless a Trojan horse that will greatly expand the role of government and fundamentally reshape American health care, as Tea Partiers allege? It is and it will. Frustrating though it may be, this election is about the past four years, not the next four. It’s about ratifying the hope of November 2008, protecting the change enacted in March 2010, and rolling back the counterrevolution unleashed later that year. These goals may appear modest, but the effort has cost billions of dollars and has left almost no room for error.
On foreign policy, could Obama have ended the drone program or brought American troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan with greater haste? Not without blunting the Democrats’ newfound national security edge, an advantage that would have delivered the White House to John Kerry in 2004 if he’d had it.
During the financial crisis, could Obama have nationalized the banks, as he did the auto companies, instead of bailing them out? He couldn’t have. TARP was unpopular enough at the time, but not nearly as unpopular as the government’s purchase of GM and Chrysler. The auto rescue, though, is now bearing indispensable electoral fruit; nationalizing the banks would have risked transforming Romney’s image from greedy financier to hero of the resistance. Could Obama have done more to prevent climate change? In fact, the administration’s new fuel efficiency standards for cars do more to combat global warming than anything done by his predecessors—and the achievement depended on circumventing the legislative process through executive order. Could Obama have done more to transform Americans’ views of social justice? The President can’t flip a switch to end bigotry, but polling suggests he did roll back prejudice in the one place he really could: support for gay marriage has increased among African Americans.
On these and other issues, from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to mortgage modification to Palestine to the Supreme Court, the electoral evidence suggests that the President has pursued the correct priorities with nearly as much vigor and almost as much success as our system allows. If this realization leaves the left feeling deflated after four years, its discouragement may recede after eight, when a new—and probably worse—regime will come to power. We do not live in the best of all possible Americas, but we do live in a country whose politics, despite our disappointments, are getting better with each painful victory.
My dad has a great Joe Biden story. One weekday afternoon—around 2006, maybe—my dad was standing on a train platform in Washington DC, waiting for the Amtrak that would take him back to Philadelphia. And he’s just standing there on the platform when he looks to one side and notices Joe Biden, still a Senator, reading a newspaper and waiting for the same train. Now, my dad is an enormous Joe Biden fan, and the way he tells the story, he spent a few minutes wrestling with himself: should he go talk to this politician he likes, or should he leave Biden be? “No,” my dad eventually thinks, “he probably gets bothered all the time, and I should let him read.”
Then Biden dropped the paper, and when he bent down to pick it up my dad noticed that the Senator had a big rip in the seat of his pants. Joe Biden’s boxers had stripes, or spots, or whatever—the point is my dad could see Biden’s boxers and what was on them. Aside from the time when my dad said to Dennis Rodman, in the men’s room of a Las Vegas nightclub, that he was “a great rebounder,” that is my dad’s best encounter with a famous person.
I tell this story all the time, and I told it again watching the Vice Presidential debate a few weeks ago. The only way to enjoy a televised political debate is to adopt the same mindset one uses to watch sports: what happens on the field is basically meaningless, but damn if it isn’t fun to watch talented people do what they do, and then afterwards you complain about how the ref ruined everything. Biden broke up his performance into three neat little segments. First he was amused at the naiveté of his inexperienced opponent, then he was the indignant populist, and then he was solemn and Catholic. “Is he wearing pants at all underneath that desk?” I wondered aloud. “My dad can tell you it’s not always a safe bet for Joe Biden to wear pants.” Then I thought a little about Anita Hill. Biden chaired the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that heard testimony about her accusations of sexual harassment at the hands of Clarence Thomas, and it was Biden’s decision to leave a bunch of corroborating witnesses waiting in the wings, unheard. I hope he feels some Catholic guilt about that one. Then the debate ended. Biden won, my friend and I decided; we went outside to finish our beers. My friend told me about the job she’d be starting in a few days.
That was a nice evening. I like Joe Biden, basically. I can’t think of anything else from this stupid campaign that didn’t make me feel terrible.
A second Obama administration may accomplish pitifully inadequate but nevertheless real progressive change in domestic policy, even as it consolidates—through the perpetuation of the prison at Guantánamo Bay and the extension of the drone assassination program—presidential exemption from the rule or law. (Right now few Americans worry about the right the executive has conferred on itself to kill any citizen, at any place or time, without demonstrated cause: a recipe for massive state terror for which the future may supply the celebrity chef.) Another reason to vote for Obama, or at least to be glad that others do, is one recently advanced by Doug Henwood: “When a Democrat is in power, it’s easier to see that the problems with our politics . . . are systemic issues, and not a matter of individuals or parties.” Even so, to think too much about American electoral politics—as I’m ashamed to say that I do—is not only a vice, but a boring one. Campaigns have grown in length while shrinking a substance: you would think it violated the laws of physics to spread so little matter so thin. The project of the left remains the old one, beyond the rote mystique of the franchise: the creation of a cultural hegemony, or climate of belief, preliminary to the conquest of power. (How much the state should wither thereafter we can discuss with our anarchist friends.) There are, classically, two main ways to go about building hegemony. The first involves making arguments and feelings articulate, and disseminating them through every medium we can use. A second and related but much harder task is to create institutions that begin both to embody and to rehearse the practice of a better future society. We don’t need to say that the first institution of such a society should be a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat (as Lenin called for, though people usually forget the “democratic” part) to recognize that we live right now under a democratic dictatorship of capital. Our system of campaign finance formalizes this dictatorship as no other capitalist democracy has done: state power is not available except so far as it can be sponsored by wealth. It’s worth acknowledging and participating in the democratic aspect of our politics. But the dictatorial aspect is there too, even or especially when we get to vote.
The 2008 election was the first time I was given to understand that I was part of a political generation. It wasn’t my first election though, since I had turned 18 in 2004. On Election Day that year, on my way to class, I stood in line for thirty minutes and, when it was my turn, voted straight down the Democratic ticket, trying to guess the right answer to the list of ballot measures like it was a bad multiple-choice test. The elderly volunteer who checked my registration murmured that it was nice to see people my age. I think Bush won the state, but I don’t remember.
Four years later, I was out of school and living in Washington DC, a city where almost everyone I knew liked to quote the good bits from The West Wing to signal their emotional depth. The summer before the 2008 election, my Facebook news feed swelled with pictures of my friends grinning and waving in front of large neoclassical civic monuments. At bars, ten or fifteen phones would suddenly shiver and light up simultaneously with an automated text message from the Obama campaign. It was a real question whether to go door-to-door in Maryland or in Virginia—where could one do the most good? Some of my friends were Republicans; they volunteered at McCain’s national campaign headquarters in Rosslyn (named “The Danger Zone” after a song from the movie Top Gun) but they still liked The West Wing, too. We rose above partisan politics. The election analysis in the news told us that we were community-oriented, pragmatic, and responsible consensus-builders. But we also seemed to be progressive, maybe even revolutionary, because we were supposed to believe in the future.
Where did all these ideas, and the Shepard Fairey posters, and the change you could believe in, come from? What did we see in Obama but a vague outline of tolerance, of inclusion, and of possibility, refracted from images of our parents or the figures we wished were our parents? Now we have a vague outline of a President, whom we can only hope will be elected for another four years. By then, I’ll no longer be part of the youth vote.
My father grew up in a small town famous for its highway billboard: 596 Nice People and 1 Old Sore Head! Rip Snorting & Raring for Business. Rudyard, Montana has since dwindled to about 200 residents, and business never really lived up to the hype. Dad’s a party-line Republican, but he’s long since sold his grandfather’s guns; he even voted for Obama in 2008. He’s writing in someone this year, but I didn’t bother to ask who.
The population of Montana is growing, and our liberal politicians are getting Esquire profiles, which do much to distinguish the gentleman ranchers from the farmers. You count the fingers—that would be two on the left hand for the incumbent Democratic Senator Jon Tester, thanks to a meat-grinder. (A friend of mine who worked in his office in Washington will tell you that he conveniently grips his coffee mug with this hand.) It’s more important to us that a politician is “local,” I guess. I was in Grass Range in 2005, standing in line for some reason to shake Governor Brian Schweitzer’s hand, when he insisted that he knew my family in Montana—and any family for that matter—as long as he had the names and birthplaces of my parents and grandparents. He couldn’t name them, but that’s neither here nor there.
A record 216,000 Montanans registered for absentee ballots this election. (Last January, the population exceeded one million in the fourth largest state.) But I couldn’t tell you much about who they’re voting for. I did have several conversations about the washboarded North Fork Road, a 35-mile stretch of gravel on Highway 486. The locals that live “up the North Fork”—near the town of Polebridge, or rather the location of the Polebridge Mercantile—are adamant about not paving the road, to stave off development. It isn’t even on the ballot, but I care to the extent that a trail crew guy once drove me up there in his Chevy pickup on our first date.
I’m sort of reticent about telling stories from the dark farm, but I called my brother Lars to see what I could do for you. Last week he was outside of the capital working with the EPA, when a local kid in his mid-twenties approached their truck.
“You all work for the government?”
Lars paused. “No. I work for the state of Montana.”
This satisfied him. “Oh. For a second I thought you were government people.”
Obama has been the best president in my lifetime. I know people speak of their disappointment with him. I, too, could say I feel disappointed in the purely literal sense. I had hopes for more. But I didn’t feel certain that a President could do all that much good, though I knew a bad one could do unbelievable harm. I’m not disappointed existentially, and that’s essential. Obama has been a better President than any other I’ve known outside of history books. He has been better than Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II. Not just that: he’s been maybe forty to a hundred times better than Clinton, and something like a thousand to ten thousand times better than Bush II. I don’t remember Carter well; my impression is that Obama is either slightly better than Carter or doing better in some comparably terrible situations. Plus, when I wake up in the morning, I like getting up in a country where Obama is President. I like it a lot. I like thinking about him. I like his family. I like his style. Those are bonuses; but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that they make it easier to bear some strictly political “disappointments.” So, facing the decision: am I going to vote for the reelection of the best President of my lifetime, whom I also happen to enjoy seeing, every time I see him on television, which is something you have to suffer a lot of with any leader, or am I—what? Not going to vote? Certainly not; not after the stolen election of 2000. Or am I going to vote for Obama and not feel good about it? No. I feel pretty great about it. I’ve been looking forward to this Tuesday all year.
It feels like the important thing is to remind people why there’s no need for negativism about Obama. Certainly this depression and anger is something I remember with Clinton: my fellow Democrats, at least the commentators who share their thoughts whether we want to hear them or not, were disappointed and miserable with him, from about six months after his inauguration. Clinton, though, really accomplished very little. He held some lines, even as he continued wrecking a bunch of other things, specifically Aid to Families with Dependent Children and the last New Deal financial protections, to placate Republicans. He had been living surrounded by neoliberals, losing to them, for too long. Clinton really did stink in many ways, as far as policy went. Whereas Obama fucked up massively only once, when he first came into office: he trusted some of the worst white people on the face of the Democratic earth, like Lawrence Summers and the heads of very large banks, believing they would obey the law and rebuild the economic system with public stimulus. In my fantasies, Obama was just pretending to believe them—while they had a gun to his head!—but probably he really did still believe them, the blindness of a beneficiary of the meritocracy. I’m sure many of us might have gone down the same bad route, our first months in office! Because the system was melting down, and those bankers really were some crazy-ass people. Recent histories suggest they truly might have wrecked the whole system for spite, if they couldn’t get their payoffs; ultimately, they never suffer anything, except as paper losses—the Caymans or London always await them. That was Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis, right in month one. He blinked. But I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one, either, who let the crazy white people push the nuclear button on my watch, economically speaking. That was terrible, and the decisions he made in choosing economic advisors at the start have basically been terrible enough to overshadow the whole administration, to mean that history may not record Obama, overall, to have been a particularly great President, even if he’s been better than most, working with what he’s had.
But then he achieved one world-historical policy success, even though it doesn’t look like enough of one for us all. He managed to get Americans some idea that health insurance is something the American government will help provide for them. Sure, it’s not the ideal way to do it, the way we wound up with—but in the Congress it looked as if, in fact, the whole enterprise was going to fail, again, as it failed under Clinton. And here, there’s a bit of the get-the-puppy-through-the-door, then-even-the-evil-paterfamilias-will-learn-to-love-him effect: if you can finally give people a truly good thing, even almost just a couple of days of a really good thing, in their own lives—in this case, a realization that only society-wide insurance can make insurance cheaper for everybody, while pushing back against private insurers who want to pick and choose the healthy among us and dump the risks—well! It’s actually an amazing achievement.
I say that he’s been up against some crazy white people, because I do think it’s important that we finally have a President who identifies as an African American—as a black President—and that this is not simply “symbolic,” as people sometimes cynically say. I don’t think it’s symbolism to admit that there’s something truly politically valuable—valuable for decision-making, valuable for policy—in putting people in the White House who don’t take white supremacy for granted, who don’t experience white supremacy as the starting point of their whole worldview and life experience. If we can return to office the best President I’ve ever experienced personally, I think that’s tremendous, and if we can return to office the best President I’ve experienced who also is the only non-white-identified President we’ve yet had—that’s just like hitting the perfecta.
Since the Sixties, if not earlier, a lot of white people, or people who pass for white, have learned the value of trying to think outside of whiteness—even as we (us white people) get such incredible unfair advantages from it, and enjoy the endless white affirmative action of being favored. I can’t disown it, or deny how much I benefit from it, but that doesn’t mean I have to think there’s anything that’s not wicked in this whiteness. I’m grateful for anything politically systemic and national that helps undermine it. In an earlier age, my ancestors didn’t necessarily pass for white anyway. How many people are even left in America, all of whose ancestors could have passed, under every different regime of racism we’ve had, or every one we have still? I would much rather, just as a strategic, pragmatic, political preference, have a President today who doesn’t kid himself—as too many others can, and it seems the Republican candidates do—that nobody in his family tree, no easily imaginable incarnation of himself, wouldn’t have been racially profiled, jailed for no good reason, imagined to be (as Obama said well in the last debate) a “foreigner” when he or she was a citizen by birth or naturalization. The country has a chance, demographically and spiritually, to move past white supremacy, or at the least to be moving toward moving past it. I for one confess that it’s an incredible pleasure and satisfaction, while that is going on subterraneanly in the deep America, to possess, as a daily national leader (with limited powers, of course), someone other than one more smug self-satisfied “white” person of the most lethal kind. It’s a satisfaction—a real political pleasure of the rational sort—to be able to try to return a black President to power.
I don’t know that Obama has to become a prophetic President, fighting on behalf of those who are left out, and people or color first of all, to earn my undying loyalty (though it would be nice!); or even that he has to become another FDR. He’s doing all right. I mean, I’d like him to become a prophet in his second term and tell the rich they should stop counting on the government for so many preferences and favors, and I’d like him to ask, publicly, how come the justice system discriminates against African Americans and why we’re warehousing such a large part of our population in jails for using drugs (when everybody, from Rush Limbaugh and George W. down, uses drugs). But I’ll even happily accept Obama’s insistence on governing for everybody, insane folks included, and just hope he’ll be a bit more skeptical of heads-of-institutions and technocrats. If I’m going to embarrass myself by writing this at all, I might as well go all the way: Citizens—for once we really do have a presidential candidate to be proud of, all the more so now that we’ve seen his limitations, seen disappointments to our fantasies, and aren’t naively pinning hopes on a candidate we don’t know who has promised us the world. We know what we’re getting. It’s still good. Go out and vote!
This election season has been all about class, and one class in particular—the big one in the vaguely defined middle. Both candidates, and every state and municipal politician I’ve heard, claim to be fighting for the middle class, that historically large group in America—neither in possession of the “means of production” nor sellers of nothing but their own labor power—whose position has been endlessly said to be eroding, its members drowning in debt and wage-stagnation, their birthright parceled out among the nations of East Asia. But when Joe Biden holds forth sentimentally about his striving “middle class” parents, he pretty clearly means working-class. And when Romney grumbles about the crushing tax burdens on corporations, he’s certainly talking about the bourgeoisie. As Christopher Caldwell pointed out in his Sunday Financial Times column, no one actually means “middle class” when they say middle class: “When Mr. Obama claims to speak for the ‘middle class,’ he means the working poor. When Mr. Romney does, he means the working rich.” To speak of one’s fondness for the rich, or to exhort the working-class, is too scary for too many people, especially people who self-identify as middle class—which is to say, everyone.
Caldwell went on to suggest that this coded class language was a sign that the middle class had lost control of American politics. But is there anything more classically middle class than not being able to speak frankly about the middle class? Since the emergence of separate spaces for “nonmanual” workers in the nineteenth century—offices, downtown districts, business education—the trouble of defining the middle has been endemic to the class itself. More successful has been the attempt to distinguish that portion of the middle class which was directive and organizing—and also neutral, above politics and therefore, paradoxically, best suited for it. Early management theorists like Frederick Taylor identified engineers as the motor force of history. Later it was middle managers, the “organization men” of the 1950s. Then “knowledge workers,” “the professional-managerial class,” “symbolic analysts,” “the creative class.” This brand of middle class politics developed its distinct profile after the ‘70s, and it has been small-bore, “third way”: consumer protection, smart growth, government transparency, means-testing, targeted incentives. It was not antipoverty and pro-labor solidarity; nor was it about ruling class power and unfettered markets. It spoke for other classes, and, in doing so, affirmed its own inviolability. In the last twenty years at least, it became hegemonic. It has been tremendously boring, but, like a pliable desk chair, often rather comfortable.
The father of the office cubicle said in 1968, “we are a nation of office dwellers,” and nearly fifty years later Obama is our leader—the office-dweller President. No one has been a greater heir to middle-ness, or a more vigorous proponent of its virtuous neutrality. Sometimes he coddles bankers, sometimes he massages the poor, like a true professional, with no interests of his own besides shoring up his own authority. When anything truly extraordinary happens—eruptions of protest, lighting up the political scene like a sunburst—he is silent. His professional demeanor is what a professional country deserves.
Along with Arizona, Colorado, Montana, and Hawaii, my home state of California is one of five in the country that allows “permanent mail-in voting.” As of 2010, 40 percent of registered Californians voted this way, which is one way of saying that nearly half of the state’s voters are registered as “forever absentee.” I am one of them. Every election, the Los Angeles County Clerk automatically forwards a ballot to my current residence, and I cast my vote from a safe distance of three thousand miles. You can take the girl out of California, and the California out of the girl, but you can’t take away her permanent absentee vote. Not as long as her parents live there, anyway, and she remembers to participate in two consecutive statewide general elections.
There’s something disgraceful about the word “absentee,” never mind “permanent absentee.” It suggests negligence, laziness, a general diffidence about the political process. More shameful, voting in a state in which one no longer resides smacks of strategy (always suspect) and an unwillingness to take responsibility for what happens where one actually lives. (Perhaps California’s prolonged financial woes aren’t unrelated to the fact that half of the state’s measures are decided by people who may not live there, or intend to ever again.) And then there’s the fact that absentee ballots are a notorious source of voter fraud—which is why a good deal of mail-in votes aren’t even counted. According to one study by Charles Stewart III of MIT, which has been making rounds in the months leading up to the election, only 27.9 million of 35.5 million absentee ballots in the last presidential election were counted. Four million never reached voters, another three million didn’t make it back, and 800,000 were rejected for suspicious or incomplete signatures. Perhaps this is why “absentee voting” has been re-branded “vote by mail.” The new name scrubs the draft-dodger aura from the voter in absentia—one can “vote by mail” and still live in the state—and maybe, if only barely, it renews the promise that every vote counts. This matters especially now, considering the number of Americans voting by mail has more than tripled since 1980.
I don’t have strong objections to voting by mail, nor do my friends. Like me, they’re new arrivals to New York who haven’t updated their voter registration since moving here. Some talk a big game about voter ethics, but the general feeling among us who don’t come from swing states is that our vote for the President doesn’t count—not in New York, and not where we’re from. And so those of us who vote far away from home do so for the state ballot measures that get less press.
With few exceptions, everything politically imperative in this country is happening in the states or in the courts—and often enough, the courts via the states. When one’s presidential vote doesn’t count, and one’s home state presents more exciting and potentially influential ballot measures, why not vote absentee? Friends from Boston kept their Massachusetts registration to vote for Elizabeth Warren, to weigh in on an assisted suicide initiative, and to support a non-binding initiative that would instruct district representatives to support a Constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. Michigan voters had a chance to enshrine the right to collective bargaining in their state constitution. The California ballot had two initiatives I was happy to have a say in: Prop 34, repealing the death penalty, and Prop 37, requiring all foods made with genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such.
Some feel this kind of voting is morally suspect. In a 2004 ruling, Judge Richard Posner of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said that “absentee voting is to voting in person as a take-home exam is to a proctored one.” That makes it sound like cheating; but last I checked, take-home exams were harder than the proctored ones. You have no excuse for filling in the wrong bubble.