Monday, November 12, 2012

I promised no political ramblings on this blog but here we go!

I've had a lot of angst about the fallout of the election lately among my social circle and friends on Facebook. While I'm happier with Obama as the victor than I would have been with Romney, it's still an ambiguous good from where I sit. What I sense is a lot of rightness from supporters of either side, and my irritation falls more strongly on Obama voters than Romney voters because so many more of my friends fall in the former camp.

A smaller point that I latched onto was the various infographics illustrating the sheer size of Obama's victory in the Electoral College. One post had the gall to describe this as a mandate. Well. It's been a while since 2000, but I don't think anybody was arguing then, least of all leftists, that the College was a trustworthy approximation of aggregate voter intent.

For that is arguably its purpose. I see the electoral college system, like any voting system, as an approximation of voter intent. There's research suggesting that no system can be a perfect such representation -- but as they go, this one is pretty problematic. We give the states, each one an arbitrary regional division of the country, proportional stakes in a secondary deciding body, the College. By a wide margin (Maine being a notable exception), they allocate their votes in a winner-take-all fashion. Those voters who don't vote with the majority in such a state are effectively silenced.

My state, New York, is a great example of this. We control an enormous number of electoral delegates, 29. In this election, they are all given to Obama. But by no means did even 28 of every 29 voters vote blue; in fact, more than 36% voted against, which is over 2 million.

States like this -- California is another obvious example, with a tighter margin and nearly twice the electoral presence -- are a big part of the reason Obama's formal lead in the electoral college does not reflect any notion of the support he really enjoys in the electorate. Of those that voted, the margin of those favoring Obama over those favoring Romney is probably no more than 3.5 percentage points (one current estimate, off of Wikipedia, is 50.6% to 47.8%, difference of 2.7 percentage points).

And thus we have a conversation about winning states, rather than winning voters.

Without a doubt, this winner take all thing is toxic in all areas of our voting. If we had some sort of alternative, the two party system could be a thing of the past within a decade. Instant-runoff-voting, for example, makes it possible to express marginal political preferences without the fear of wasting your vote on somebody unelectable. A switch to proportional representation could also be a change. What can we do to promote this conversation in the wider arena?


I should clarify that in some ways I have no standing to comment on this election. I didn't vote; I didn't contribute a dollar or an hour to any campaign; and I didn't much write or speak about any candidate. I didn't even pay substantial attention to any race except the presidential one. But during the course of that race, I couldn't help but take away the deep flaws of both sides. I suspect many of my readers require no reminder of Romney's flaws -- a fortune made off his incapacity to care for humans outside his immediate community more or less sums it up -- but I couldn't get over how many of Bush's terrible foreign policy missteps were codified, made bipartisan by his endorsement and frequent strengthening of them. Conor Friedersdorf eloquently summarized the feelings of people thinking like me.

I made a decision at some point that given the impossibility of voting in somebody preferable, I had no desire to take part in the contest, to vote for either the unpalatable status quo or a futile third party. And riding my bike home through Bed-Stuy at 11pm on Tuesday the 6th, hearing a community full of excitement and joy, I couldn't help but be reminded why so many people still considered Obama a triumph for America. But I was also newly seized by how awful it was that somebody with his policies could be so viewed. Returning home, I wrote the following on Facebook (no apologies for my rushed typography that night):
[...] let's not forget this dude also forgave torture, prosecuted far more government whistleblowers than his predecessor, commits drone attacks on foreign soil that kill civilians and destroy goodwill toward us where we need it the most, presided over the reinstatement and strengthening of the patriot act, maintains a claim that he can kill anybody he wants to, and as icing on the cake, has practiced and perhaps increased the same warrantless surveillance that had Bush-era Dems up in arms. This isn't to say the other guy would have done better, but by adopting these things so enthusiastically as a Democrat, the president has made them permanently mainstream -- radical as they are, they are no longer fringe policies. And as the biggest joke of all, he still gets to look like a progressive icon.
Most of all, as I noted later in the same post, I saw my own personal role in keeping the status quo.

I get why we are celebrating. We don't get to see all that many victories. We celebrated Obamacare despite losing single payer and any number of other priorities, because at least something got done. But when we are contemplating a leader, we cannot fail to hold him to account for the expectations he hasn't fulfilled.

In fact, one of the real praiseworthy elements of the administration, its many strides in dismantling state discrimination in favor of straight people, arguably owes its existence to exactly that kind of accountability. Obama's didn't really get around to being a real advocate until well into his term, and had the LGBTQ community rested with the satisfaction of electing a nominal advocate for their good, that might never have happened. It's been argued, by Glenn Greenwald if I recall correctly, that only through that community holding his feet to the fire -- via a real threat that he would not get the same support next time without actions to earn it -- did any progress take place.

So yes. Obama's the preferable guy. We "won". But we're not doing ourselves any favors by calling it that, because it suggests that all our work is done. Electing the right president is not an end unto itself - it's a means to any number of other ends, on many of which this president has a terrible track record or even an actively harmful commitment. And unfortunately, I -- and much of this liberal community -- have wasted our best chance to effect change in the near future. Politicians stake out positions based on what will win them votes, and they tend to hold to them more often than we give them credit for, for better or worse.  If he truly thought that standing by his kill list (to pick one example) would cost him support in his base, it's not hard to imagine a different conversation around that point.

We need to state our priorities to our political candidates. If we vote for somebody who's promised nothing except to wear a tie in our color at the debates, we've given our voice away to somebody else, somebody willing to push harder and speak louder than us. Enough of that. Let's be the squeaky wheel now.

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