Saturday, June 28, 2008

Pragmatic Idealism

June 28, 2008, 9:30 a.m.

Don't Drop Out; Do Tune In

I received an email this morning from a reader following yesterday's blog entry that I think really requires a recognition and response from me.

While continuing to support Barack Obama, I have been sharing in this blog some of what I have been discovering about his history, actions and true positions -- positions that are somewhat at variance with what he has been willing for his supporters to assume.

Nicholas Johnson, "Change We Can No Longer Believe In," June 22, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Holding Obama's Feet to the Fireside Chat,"
June 24, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "The Bundling Business," June 26, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Will the Real Obama Stand Up -- For Us?" June 27, 2008.
Garry B. Trudeau, author of the widely popular Doonesbury comic strip, has been addressing the matter this week from his own insightful perspective. He's depicting a woman whose job involves an Obama Web site designed to promptly counter the untrue charges that move around the Internet at the speed of light.

On Thursday, for example, she's working at 4:00 a.m., having noted that "some slimbag blogger" is circulating that "Obama's back on Drugs." On Friday there was this exchange with her friend: "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff that's out there!" He replied, "Yes, I would. I've heard some pretty bizarro claims myself." "Like what?" she asks. He says, "Like he's the second coming of Lincoln." She smiles: "Oh, I checked that one out -- it's true."

Today . . .

she's saying in the first three frames, "Yup. A new post from a known bad actor." "This wingnut has put more lies into play than anyone on the Web . . ." "Oh, damn!"

"What is it?" her friend asks. She replies: "Legitimate criticism. We're not allowed to touch it."

Frankly, I wouldn't even consider what I've been writing as "criticism," legitimate or otherwise -- though I wouldn't expect rabid Obama enthusiasts to agree. I think of it more as a matter of sharing with others what I am discovering about the candidate I have been supporting and intend to continue to support. I just think the more full and accurate our perception can be of our candidates the better -- and the less likely to leave us with greater cynicism and buyer's remorse when we discover, after we've elected them, what we've done.

And I certainly would not want anyone to come to the conclusion that what I am leaving them with -- let alone encouraging -- is no option but to drop out of the political process, or vote for a third party. So here, with little or no editing, is the incoming email and my emailed response.

I've voted in every election, primary and general, since I was 18.

After reading your blog entry from today ["Will the Real Obama Stand Up -- For Us?" linked above] I'm done. What's the point?

We're doomed. OK, we're probably not doomed; we'll all most likely be dead before the grand experiment completely fails; but America is going the way of the Roman Empire. Things are going to get very ugly, especially for those who will be around after 2040 or 2050.

You said: "Does any of this mean that you shouldn't vote for and otherwise support Senator Barack Obama for president? Not at all."

Yeah, right. Are you serious? I'd say you laid down a very good case for not only not supporting Obama, but for not participating at all. Either that, or voting for a Green Party or write-in candidate.

Any shred of idealism I had left is gone.

We had a pretty good run -- 230+ years isn't too bad, relatively speaking. Maybe others will learn from our mistakes.
To which I have responded:

Want to know why you should still vote?

Consider the absolutely worst case. And no, I'm not suggesting this is a real portrayal of our political parties. It's exaggerated by many orders of magnitude to make a point.

Two criminal gangs are competing for control of your neighborhood. The police are corrupt and take money from both gangs in exchange for not interfering. One gang leader is notorious for burning down residents’homes (whether they are inside or not), tying up the parents, and making them watch as they pull out the fingernails of their children.

The other gang leader is campaigning in the neighborhood for your support. He says, “It’s true we’ll insist on stealing your car, and we may break your arm in the process if we have to, but at least we’re better than our opponent.”

Would you really not care, not express a preference, for one over the other?

In fact, I think the choices offered you by the two major parties are far, far better than that -- while still being very significant.

The Republicans may not do much to help you after your home is destroyed by natural forces, but the only ones they deliberately destroy, and the only people they torture, are civilians in other countries.

The Democrats may permit those who provide goods and services to raise their prices on you (pharmaceuticals, gasoline, and virtually everything else), and permit the banks to take your home from you -- in exchange for campaign contributions -- and they may not provide you universal, single-payer health care so you can fix your broken arms, but they are not personally participating in the thefts or intentionally causing you physical harm (if you’re willing to overlook workplace injuries that OSHA is supposed to be preventing, but is too underfunded and misdirected to do much about).

In short, there IS “a dime’s worth of difference” between Obama and McCain -- actually probably at least $1000 worth of difference. You may wish for more, but to paraphrase the former Senator Everett Dirksen, "$1000 here and $1000 there and pretty soon you're talking about a lot of money."

I really do believe that Senator Obama is more likely than Senator McCain to pursue diplomacy before going to war, more likely to shift the tax burden toward the wealthy, more likely to work with the other countries of the world, support treaties (like Kyoto, and land mines), and improve our international reputation and relations, more likely to provide a better health care plan, more likely to promote alternative energy sources, campaign finance reform and financial aid for college students, and less likely to give away public lands to private profiteers -- among a great many other things that could be mentioned.

It is true that third parties have, in the past (and can in the future), provide an incentive to changes in the positions of the two major parties. But I really do think the best approach for a rational voter, inclined in that direction, is the advice given by Molly Ivins regarding Ralph Nader (and repeated recently by Paul Street): In what may be a close election, only vote for a third party candidate if you live in a state where there is virtually zero likelihood that it will end up doing anything other than going overwhelmingly for either Obama or McCain -– in other words, if it is virtually impossible that you voting third party could make a difference in who gets the electoral votes from your state.

That is, don’t risk that your exercise of the luxury of voting third party might actually cause the Republican candidate to end up winning the national election.

Meanwhile, there is a rational basis for a rational idealism. The fact is that and other Internet efforts have, and do, and will continue to, make a difference; the recent Senate blocking of the FCC’s ownership rules expansion is only the latest example. There is not, yet, drilling for oil in the Alaska wilderness. Senator Grassley was embarrassed into withdrawing his $50 million grant of taxpayers’ money for his friends' "indoor rain forest” project. Locally in Iowa City, the SEIU was able to organize the nurses in the University Hospital; and Wal-Mart’s proposed expansion, normally a slam dunk, was stopped by organized local opposition.

I have recently been watching the DVDs of HBO’s series about President John Adams. It has been a reminder that from the birth of our nation until now there has always been a struggle between the forces of Jefferson and those of Hamilton -– a struggle that remains to this day (see, e.g., Paul Street’s noting Obama’s ties to what are still called Hamiltonian groups).

What is "democracy"? Democracy IS a struggle; it's a process not a destination. I’m calling my next book “Are We There Yet?” And the answer is, of course, that we are not. There is a "there there;" and we need to keep it always before us; but it's unlikely it's a destination we'll ever reach.

We’ve come a long way from the early days when the only folks who could vote were: (a) white, (b) males, (c) over 21, (d) who owned land and John Jay could assert that it was only right that “those who own the country should govern it.” Hell, we've come a long way from the 1950s when I was clerking for the U.S. Court of Appeals judge whose court covered the states from Texas through Florida, Jim Crow laws were enforced, and you had to pay a poll tax to vote.

And, lest it be overlooked, the Democratic Party’s two finalists this year were a woman and an African-American – candidates from groups that, not that many years ago, could not even vote, let alone realistically run for office.

So, don’t abandon your idealism. Just revise it from time to time to keep it realistic and pragmatic. And stay in the struggle. We need you.
If and when you, too, may despair try to reflect on these things, get a good night's sleep, and come back into the fray determined to make the most of what democracy makes possible.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why you continue to ignore the 800 lbs gorilla in this equation: The finances of the federal government.

Neither candidate has indicated any sort of willingness to take on the looming actuarial disasters in Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid. Instead we get promises of more spending or more tax cuts. This is unacceptable and completely irresponsible. I wish Warren Buffett would run for president as a 3rd party. I would vote for him in a second. We need a CEO of the federal government who will reverse the 30 year mismanagement by both parties. I have been a lifelong Democrat and voted for a Democrat for president from Mondale on. I won't be doing so this Fall. This is not a partisan issue. We are depending on the Chinese to fund our social programs and the War in Iraq. I am ashamed of the federal government, and I won't be a part of the problem by voting for Obama this Fall.