Ten Miles Square


September 27, 2012 11:21 AM Is It Moral for Lefties to Vote for Obama?

By Henry Farrell

Conor Friedersdorf (if Lot were to look for One Honest Conservative Commentator to save the tribe from divine wrath, he’d likely have to lump for Friedersdorf), says no.

Obama has done things that, while not comparable to a historic evil like chattel slavery, go far beyond my moral comfort zone. … Obama terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis. The drone war he is waging in North Waziristan isn’t “precise” or “surgical” as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. … Obama established one of the most reckless precedents imaginable: that any president can secretly order and oversee the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Obama’s kill list transgresses against the Constitution as egregiously as anything George W. Bush ever did. It is as radical an invocation of executive power as anything Dick Cheney championed. The fact that the Democrats rebelled against those men before enthusiastically supporting Obama is hackery every bit as blatant and shameful as anything any talk radio host has done. … Contrary to his own previously stated understanding of what the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution demand, President Obama committed U.S. forces to war in Libya without Congressional approval, despite the lack of anything like an imminent threat to national security.

The last of these seems weaker to me than the first two (I was, and still am, against the Libya intervention, but don’t think that the War Powers Resolution question is a moral one). But the first two are pretty damn awful. On key foreign policy and human rights issues, Obama hasn’t been a disappointment. He’s been a disaster. You can make a good case, obviously, that his main opponent, Mitt Romney, would be even worse. But it isn’t at all clear that the consequences of voting for Romney over the longer term, would be any worse than the consequences of voting for the guy who was supposed to be better on these issues, and was not. Indeed, the unwillingness of American left-liberals to criticize the opprobrious foreign policy of a Democratic president (and the consequent lack of real public debate over this policy, since most of the right tacitly agrees with the bad stuff) weighs the balance in favor of voting against Democrats who you know are going to sell out. Personally, I’m on the fence, if only because the current Republican party is so extraordinarily horrible. But I think that there is a very strong case to be made for not voting for Obama, and I wish that there were more publicly prominent lefties making it.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.


  • First_and_Ten on September 27, 2012 2:41 PM:

    You're right that "there is a very strong case to be made for not voting for Obama, and [on your] wish that there were more publicly prominent lefties making it," BUT lefties remember the argument from a true leftie like Nader that Bush and Gore weren't that different and so, threw their support behind Nader instead of Gore (myself being one of those people). Although the loss was not Nader's fault (Gore ran a crappy campaign and Bush stole it through the Supreme Court), reality showed that while Gore was not a true leftie, he would not and could not have run an administration as right wing as Bush did. Reality doesn't provide lefties with much of a choice in centrist commercialist America but it's still a choice and it's our responsibility to put pressure on Obama to lean more left.

    But this argument about morality within this context by Friedersdorf is inappropriate and merely a parlor trick to dissuade lefties from voting for Obama. What's more immoral, voting for Obama? Or, not voting for Obama as a protest and giving Romney the edge?
    (Hint: It's a rhetorical question)

  • Jasperinboston on September 27, 2012 2:48 PM:

    I think the question about the ethics of voting is tied up with the question about what is voting for. It it primarily for the purpose of expression one's moral concerns -- or for use as a form of protest? It seems to me there are methods of accomplishing this that aren't obviously less effective than voting. Such as writing critical blog posts. Or sending critical letters. Or supporting primary challenges. That sorta thing. But in a two party system, the choice to show opposition to a politician's policies by voting against him (or voting third party, or staying home on election day) inevitably helps the politician's Major Party Opponent. That's just basic consequentialism. Does any liberal seriously doubt a second Obama term (and Democratic control of Congress) would be better for the country than giving the White House to Romney (and Congress to the Republicans)?

    I don't consider my vote for Obama to be an endorsement of all his policies and positions. I consider it a simple, modest Act of Conscience. I can't/won't knowingly hurt my country or my planet, and that's exactly what making a Romney presidency more likely would be doing.

  • bluestatedon on September 27, 2012 3:21 PM:

    Yes, by all means, let's get up in high dudgeon and vote for Romney because of anger at some aspects of Obama's foreign policy. After all, Mitt Romney has made it clear he's opposed to war with Iran, supports a two-state solution in the Middle East, opposes the illegal settlements on the West Bank, and has on his team a wide number of foreign policy advisors who are strongly opposed to the foreign policy mindset of the George W. Bush administration.


  • Mitch on September 27, 2012 5:51 PM:

    I reject anyone who claims to be a liberal or a progressive, yet says, "But I think that there is a very strong case to be made for not voting for Obama, and I wish that there were more publicly prominent lefties making it."

    Sorry, professor. That is a foolish and dangerous statement. Period.

    There have been many times when I have been vocally disappointed in Obama, not the least of which are these instances of him continuing the disturbing practices of the Bush Years. I have complained about them on these and other forums, and been savagely insulted by certain Obama supporters for mentioning these disappointments (particularly during the debt ceiling debacle).

    But abstaining from supporting Obama as a form of protest is a not a good idea, and I must conclude that such people are the leftie equivalent to the Tea Party. They would rather watch the world burn than to admit that no dogma can be followed all of the time, regardless of the purity of one's intentions.

    You know what they say about good intentions, don't you? I have found that clichés are often clichés because they are true. Lefties who would suggest anything but support for Obama at this time are paving the highway to hell for the entire nation, and perhaps the world.

    I must ask if such people are aware of the constant effort of the Right to paint Obama as weak at best—a total anti-American traitor and left-wing extremist at worst. Are you "purists" aware that millions of Americans are exposed to lies that say that Obama apologizes for America left and right and that he cares more about appeasing our enemies than protecting us?

    Don't you think that he has to modify his positions in part to combat such lies and distortions? Don't you think that he has to go out of his way to attempt to prove that he is better for national security than the opposition?

    Statements like yours remind me of a friend who often complains that Obama has done nothing to legalize marijuana. Yes, all of the facts in the world support legalization. But Obama is plenty smart enough to know what would happen if the first African-American President were to legalize it. He would be crucified by the media, and would almost certainly lose in 2012.

    Frankly, this election is too important to risk having a Republican in the Oval Office (due to the economy, due to the Supreme Court soon needed replacements, due to the frightening extreme nature of the modern conservative movement), and nothing that Obama has done is heinous enough to change that fact. Are you not aware that any Republican President would be doing FAR greater atrocities, like starting another decade-long war in Iran?

    Finally, corporate media spends much of it's time on insulting Obama and the Dems, and making the GOP seem much more credible than it actually is at present. We don't need lefties making arguments that will do nothing but put the Republicans into power—this time even more extreme and less grounded in reality than the administration of Bush the Lesser.

    Get off of your high horse and plant your feet on the ground. This kind of arrogant moral superiority does nothing but place at risk all of the gains of the 20th Century, and all of the hopes for the 21st.

  • SadOldVet on September 27, 2012 5:57 PM:

    By all means, we should express our rightful moral indignation with Obama by helping elect a President Romney who is much more likely to involve us in more bogus foreign wars and whose priorites include massive increases in militarization spending and penalizing the working poor.

    Professor @sshole, you are an idiot! What the f*ck is Washington Monthly doing giving you column space?

    PS I will join in ongoing discussions and condemnations of the failings of The Obomination, AFTER the election is over.

  • hornblower on September 27, 2012 9:07 PM:

    Let me get this straight. It's ok for the rest of us to vote for Mr. Obama since we are not so moral but so-called leftists are on a higher plain so they can't. Give me a break!

  • Peter C on September 27, 2012 9:36 PM:

    Dear Professor Farrell,

    Conor Friedersdorf is an obvious concern troll. He may speak about Obama's human rights abuses after he's republished all his criticism of Bush's Iraq policy. When Cheney is on trial at the Hague, we on the left will listen to Friedersdorf if he makes a moral case for the prosecution, but not before. Nope, even Lot would pass him over.

    If you are going to blog on the internet, you need to learn to identify all types of troll.

    As @Jasper says above, the primaries are the appropriate time and place to make votes to express nuance. With the sort of extreme polarization we face this year, a protest vote is utterly immoral. Period.

  • v98max on September 28, 2012 12:49 AM:

    The President deserves reelection by about 53-47 in my opinion, but Romney deserves to lose by at least 15-85. So yes, it's moral but also real hard to get too excited about it.

  • 14All on September 28, 2012 10:18 AM:

    Believe me, I am horrified by the human rights abuses President Obama has perpetuated, and even intensified, since the Bush administration.

    If I believed that Mitt Romney would be better on those issues, I would be in a very serious quandary. However, since he is a walking civil rights and foreign policy disaster, the choice here is clear. And whether you vote or don't vote, you are helping to choose our next president. Not voting, if you would otherwise have voted for Obama, means you are helping to choose Romney.

    That being said, the only reasonable solution I can think of for quandaries like this is to support primary challenges from more liberal candidates whenever possible. It's a long-term solution, but it's possible.