Why Obama’s Angry Prof Isn’t Crazy: The (Arguable) Logic of Voter Abstention

The man in the video above is Roberto Unger, and he is really pissed at Barack Obama. So pissed, in fact, that he says he wants Obama–once his student at Harvard Law School–to suffer defeat at the ballot box this November. This in spite of Unger’s leftist leanings, and in spite of the fact that Unger served as an informal advisor to Obama during his 2008 campaign. If you don’t feel like watching, HuffPo lists Unger’s complaints about his former pupil:

  • “His policy is financial confidence and food stamps.”
  • “He has spent trillions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests and left workers and homeowners to their own devices.”
  • “He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money.”
  • “He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice.”
  • “He has reduced justice to charity.”
  • “He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of access to health care in the mistaken belief that he would be spared a fight.”
  • “He has evoked a politics of handholding, but no one changes the world without a struggle.”

In a piece published yesterday by the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills reheats the Democratic Party chestnut that we have to elect Obama, because, hey, Romney’s worse, and if you don’t fall in line, then you’re an airy fairy purist who is going to tie us all to your high horse and drag us to political catastrophe. He writes:

The etherialists who are too good to stoop toward the “lesser evil” of politics—as if there were ever anything better than the lesser evil there—naively assume that if they just bring down the current system, or one part of it that has disappointed them, they can build a new and better thing of beauty out of the ruins. Of course they never get the tabula rasa on which to draw their ideal schemes.

Thanks for the lecture on realpolitik, Garry, but not every lefty pondering whether or not to cast a ballot for the President is ignoring strategy in an OCD-inflected effort to keep his or her political hands clean. For the record, I’m undecided as to whether I’ll be voting for Obama or for nobody this fall. Like Unger, I find it difficult to support the reelection of a man who refused to seriously rein in the financial sector that tanked our economy, wouldn’t bring up single-payer even as a position from which to negotiate during the health care reform debates, continues a deeply troubling campaign of drone strikes whilst defining “militant” as any young male that they happen to kill, extended the Bush tax cuts, etc. etc. etc. But my consideration of abstention in November isn’t (only) me pouting because Obama didn’t pursue aims congruent with my own, or the disappointment of having to compromise. Non-participation can be strategic, and if you listen Unger’s words, it’s clear that he knows this, too.

Wills describes supporting the GOP as “a vote for a plutocracy that depends for its support on anti-government forces like the tea party, Southern racists, religious fanatics, and war investors in the military-industrial complex.” (Why not include Northern, Western, and Midwestern racists, Garry? I promise you racism ain’t just a Southern thang.) What he fails to mention is how this posse solidified its control over half of our two-party system. It made demands. It became indispensable. It instilled serious fear in Republican candidates that unless they took seriously the concerns of the far right, the base would sit on their hands and said candidates would be out of a job. Grumble as they might about concessions to the right, progressives have proven more amenable to compromise. The result of this dynamic–one side negotiating in relative good faith, the other not–has been a rightward drift where today’s Democrats act like George H.W. Bush-era Republicans and Republicans act like Biblical/free market fundamentalists. While these shifting goalposts have been a constant source of anger on the left, leftists have largely sucked it up and voted for Democrats even as the chasm between their own priorities and those of the party’s lawmakers continued to yawn. And when small-scale revolts do happen–see Nader, Ralph, 2000 Presidential Campaign of–the Democrats use the fallout as a cudgel, blaming the defectors for giving away votes that party seems to think it owns by right rather than point the finger at their own candidates who, by and large, don’t even bother to pay lip service to leftist concerns.

To be taken seriously, you can’t be taken for granted, and that’s what the Democratic Party has done with the progressive portion of its constituency. Military adventures continue, corporate malfeasance goes unpunished, the gulf between rich and poor expands, but, hey, at least Obama isn’t McCain, amirite? A concerted abstention at the ballot box by progressives *might* make Democratic candidates wary of taking this group as a given and turn the party leftward, and since the “center” isn’t some ontologically secure position but a drifting point established through the negotiation of various political actors, it could slide to the left, too. This *might* reconfigure political discourse and then political reality, providing a mirror image to the right’s ultimatums that have given us what amounts to a bipartisan consensus in favor of scantly regulated plutocracy. Of course, it *might not*. If Democrats don’t respond and progressives don’t vote, we could be find ourselves in a right wing wonderland where a fanatical GOP seizes all three branches of government for the foreseeable future. The Democrats might successfully demonize and demoralize the insurgents as they did in 2000. Or even if such a scheme does rejuvenate a newly progressive Democratic Party, we could wind up with aggressive gridlock (although it’s hard to imagine it being substantially worse than what we have now).

My point isn’t necessarily that leftists shouldn’t vote in November, but that there is a pragmatic logic to abstention, not just a dogmatic one. In his caricatures, Wills falls prey to false necessity, a fallacy that, ironically, Unger has dedicated a substantial part of his career to exploring. According to the concept of false necessity–or, more pedantically, “anti-necessitarian social theory”–society is much more malleable than we typically give it credit for. The organization of our societies is not predetermined  by our genes, our histories, our geographies, our whatever. Our societies can change in radical ways, and these changes are not steered by immutable laws of social behavior, but by our own efforts. Through this lens, it criticizes the tendencies toward self-declared inevitability you find in liberal democracy, Marxism, and capitalism.

In his assumptions, Wills accepts the current political terrain as a given. These are the Democrats, these are the Republicans, and we can’t hope to remake them (or, god forbid, introduce other options).  He tells us we “should always vote on the party, instead of the candidate,” but doesn’t even ponder the possibility that forms of political action outside the ballot box–and refusing to vote is such a political action–could alter the shape of the parties themselves. To accept the two-headed hydra of corporately financed parties is to accept a false necessity as a true one, and to embrace defeatism. The game I’d like to play (and, I think, Professor Unger would join me in this) is a broader one, one where we don’t just slow the bleeding as moneyed interests continue their purchase of our democracy but instead hold our leaders accountable for their allegiances, whether or not a (D) or an (R) follows their name.


Sorry, couldn’t resist. Pic from Quick Meme.

Is a strategy of abstention the best course of action? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s not the unreflective tantrum that Wills makes it out to be. And while Wills is correct that you never get a complete tabula rasa, sometimes you get something close. The right-wing  Reagan resurgence established its intellectual roots in the aftermath of the seemingly suicidal campaign of Barry Goldwater. Might the Democratic Party require a similar self-immolation to actually become a source of meaningful change? I really don’t know. But if what we’ve seen over the past few years is really is the best the Dems can do, perhaps the left should at least consider the notion that the party’s best isn’t good enough and think about what steps might be necessary to quit being taken for granted.

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3 Responses to Why Obama’s Angry Prof Isn’t Crazy: The (Arguable) Logic of Voter Abstention

  1. Dear Friendo,
    I think you are super-wrong, and in the interests of a public discourse, here’s why I think that.

    There is no such thing as a neutral action, and I find it hard to believe that the negatives of sanctioning corporatist democrats by voting for them outweighs the negatives of having Republicans in charge. If you acknowledge those things, then the choice not to vote is a petulant reaction to your frustration, made against your own interests.

    The leftist is not the marginal voter that elects democrats. Democrats don’t need to win over leftists to win elections, and arguably can’t win elections if they try to. To change that fact, you need to change a lot of things about the political space in which the Democrats exist, not just demand a better politics from Democrats.

    Abstention provides no signal as to why you abstained, unless you make a public campaign of your abstention. It carries no force or credibility as a threat unless people are believably pledging to actually do this.
    But it still doesn’t articulate the circumstances under which you would not abstain, and hardly provides any force to channel politics where you want them.

    It ignores the time frame in which different types of change happen. Is the threat of abstention 6 months before the election going to lead them to change gears? If that kind of change happens over time, why punish them or disempower them in the time between elections. It’s one thing to engage in the leftist, fuck the whole system sort of non-voting. Which, whatever, maybe one day we’ll create a different politics outside the system. But you’re framing this as electoral-tactical, and as a tactic, its an ineffectual one.
    The evangelicals would hurt the Repubs when they stayed home, but the party didn’t really swing so far out to the right until the affirmative step of fielding candidates and creating challenges began with the Tea Party. I get that a lot of Occupiers find the idea of electoral anything distasteful, but I’m more convinced that will have to be some part of how we extend American political discourse to take up a further left space.
    I guess this is what I mean by petulant. It’s trying to engage electorally by not engaging, its system-rejection to obtain a within-system goal, its cake+eatingcake, and it’s cathartic value is no indication of its strategic value.

    Yes, Democrats are bad tacticians and consistently ignore their role in shaping the discourse. In a two-party system, general elections will always be about playing to the center. The Democrats have fallen into a trap where whatever they do is defined as the left pole, and so the “center” is further right with every iteration of this process. The absence of a visible, real left pole is partially their fault, but its also been pretty rare in American history to see a politically viable and visible electoral force on the left, and creating one is something bigger than generating a new partisan interest group.

    • Hi there!
      Thanks for commenting.
      Remember that I’m not advocating not-voting. I said that I don’t know what I plan to do, but I think that this is a conversation that needs to happen. You make some good points. However, I think what spurred this point is the use of terms like “petulant” to describe not voting for Democrats. People of good faith should be able to float ideas without having them caricatured and misrepresented (as Wills did to Unger) or have these ideas dismissed with as somehow childish.

      I think that an abstention campaign *could* (to continue my new-found habit of asterixing for emphasis) articulate circumstances in which folks would not abstain. A petition for instance, that says “We the undersigned will not vote for any candidate who does not pledge to do X.” If it garnered a lot of signatures, it could go somewhere. This is all just me thinking out loud on my blog. One can make purely moral arguments about not voting for a candidate who does X, but as you point out, that’s not what I’m doing here. It would take some number-crunching, some social science, and some serious consideration to determine what effect a coordinated abstention campaign could have in a strictly within-the-system legislative sense (and then we still wouldn’t know for sure until shit hit the fan). It might be possible that it could help redraw the center if a sizable number of people on the left were seriously threatening to not vote for Obama. Like I said in the article, the center is not fixed; it floats depending on the discourse. I think most centrists aren’t so much centrists because they have carefully considered all viewpoints and they feel their own views most closely match Olympia Snowe’s. I think that the idea of adhering to whatever is the centrism du jour just strikes them as the most reasonable in a golden mean kind of way. A vocal and militant fringe–as the Tea Party has shown us–can move the center. A well-coordinated abstention campaign could do similarly.

      I’m still not totally convinced, but I’m not unconvinced, either. Trusting the Dems hasn’t worked terribly well for us, and I think it makes since to at least earnestly consider other options. For that reason, I don’t want folks like Wills to succeed in tarring folks like Unger.

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