Last month, [Obama's former Harvard Law Professor Roberto] Unger said that you “must be defeated in the coming election.”Ah, sending a message. Or creating an image, or presenting one. That sudden swerve into corporate-media PR gabble threw me.
Anything less sends the wrong message.
What's interesting about it is that, as I said, it ends there: Obama delenda est. No consideration of who would be defeating Obama. It's highly unlikely that Jill Stein will place her foot on his neck and cry victory. Nor will the masses, the glorious working people of America defeat him. It will be Mitt Romney, whose main selling point to Republicans is that he's Not-Obama -- just as Obama's selling point, when the faithful were confronted with his less than progressive politics, was that he was Not-Bush. This year he's Not-Romney. He's Not-Rick Santorum, Not-Newt-Gingrich, Not-Michele Bachman, Not-Herman Cain. Such a collection of negative virtues. Obama's a man of many faces, at least when it comes to who he's Not.
It's beginning to look to me, as I survey the present state of the campaign, that people like Russell Mokhiber are as unwilling to address the consequences of an Obama defeat as the President's devotees are to address the consequences of an Obama victory. They're just as apt to personalize the campaign (That'll settle his hash!) as Obama Democrats are (Don't let him be a one-term President!). Far from being a thoughtful radical strategy for bringing about political change, what Mokhiber demands sounds to me like the old "Throw the rascals out!" cliche that I keep hearing from the Right. We did that in 2008, though the Right prefers to forget that their boys were the "rascals" that time around, and look how well it's worked.
The trouble with voting is that it doesn't send a message. Whatever voters think they're doing, they're voting for candidates, not issues or policies, and their message isn't binding anyway. It was widely believed that when Lyndon Johnson defeated the right-wing wacko Barry Goldwater in 1964, he had a mandate for peace, particularly in Vietnam. In fact Johnson had already been planning to escalate the US invasion before the election, and he did exactly that. Exit polls showed that people who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 did so overwhelmingly because they liked him personally (in whatever sense you can "like" someone you know only as an image on a TV screen), not because they approved of his policies. What they got, of course, was Reagan's policies, which plunged the country into a serious recession with Depression-level unemployment. Barack Obama can be left as an exercise for the reader; just remember that what his victory signified was hotly contested in the Beltway media, who interpret every Democratic victory as a mandate to "move to the center."
What "message" will be sent by an Obama defeat -- and let's not kid ourselves, if he's defeated it will be by a Republican, not by a Green -- in 2012? Will he, and Democrats generally, conclude that they erred by not being "progressive" enough? Of course not. They have never drawn that conclusion from an electoral defeat. They've never even drawn it from a victory. The loss of the House of Representatives to the Republicans in 2010 was blamed on the Professional Left who'd stabbed the President in the back by keeping voters away from the polls -- by main force, apparently. It's as certain as anything can be that Democrats will say the same thing about a Romney victory in November; hell, they're already saying it, to get in practice. They'll probably be wrong, but how will voting (or not voting) tell them otherwise?
I also can't help thinking about Afghanistan. When the Taliban defeated the Northern Alliance, they were welcomed by most people, who'd suffered under the Alliance's violent and repressive rule. When the US and the Northern Alliance defeated the Taliban, they were welcomed by most Afghans, who'd suffered under the Taliban's violent and repressive rule. I admit that Mitt Romney's no Taliban, but I make no assumptions about what he'll do if he's elected. I didn't think Barack Obama could be as bad as Bush, but was I ever wrong.
You don't send a message by voting. You send it by other means: by writing letters and making telephone calls to your government, preferably in concert with other people. By demonstrations and protests. By joining groups that achieve enough clout to talk to elected officials directly. This makes the government uncomfortable, of course, so it enacts laws making demonstrations effectively illegal. (The latter law, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act, was passed with only three votes against it in Congress, and signed into law by our Constitutional Scholar in Chief. You see, bipartisanship can work!) It's true that Democrats and liberals / progressives generally will be more likely to organize in opposition to a Republican president -- it's virtually a cliche by now that Obama co-opted most of the left -- but as I've said before, I didn't notice that organized opposition to Bush II cramped his style much.
I've been hearing more eulogies on the importance of the vote lately, from Representative John Lewis on Democracy Now! for example. It's ironic that African-Americans didn't get the vote by voting: they had to use direct action. Chris Floyd, in the post I linked above, points out that the icons of human rights activism beloved by American Liberals -- Gandhi, Mandela, Solzhenitsyn, Thoreau, etc. -- didn't put voting at the center of their work, for very good reason. I'd add that it's arguable that to the extent that their societies embraced voting, they undercut the changes that people fought and gave their lives to achieve. Not always -- there have been some significant elections that had some effectiveness -- but over the long haul, yes.