Alexander Cockburn, that silver-tongued rhetorician of the far, far left (so far left, in fact, that he occasionally goes full circle and finds common cause with the far, far right) has come out foursquare against Barack Obama. He urges instead a vote for Ralph Nader, Bob Barr, or, had she not recently revealed herself once again as a paranoid lunatic, Cynthia McKinney.
That, coupled with the recurring debates that spring up with my own readers over whether or not Ralph Nader and his mostly well-intentioned but also somewhat deluded followers are partly responsible for saddling us with eight years of Bushism, led me to revisit this classic George Orwell essay in which the author argues, convincingly, I think, that British pacifists at the time of World War II were, despite their claims to be struggling for a higher, nobler cause by refusing to support the war effort, were actually and substantively supporting Hitler.
"This is elementary common sense," writes Orwell. "If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other." He goes on to rubbish "the idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle" as "a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security."
Now perhaps you see it as a stretch too far to make an analogy between all-out war against imperial fascism and a quadrennial election campaign. But while nobody is claiming that the Bush-McCain axis represents a reincarnated Nazism (well, nobody, that is, except some of the same far leftists who see Obama as merely the flip side of the same totalitarian coin) or that we are in danger of having our democracy and freedom overthrown by invading armies, I think the principle holds just as true for the struggle we are currently engaged in.
What if you honestly, sincerely believe, as Nader claims to, that there is no real difference between the views represented - and the outcome of putting those views into practice - by John McCain and Barack Obama? Well, in the first place, you'd probably be somewhat deluded, or more likely, so taken with the vehemence of your own rhetoric that you have confounded it with reality. A 12-year-old - and I mean no disrespect to the 12-year-olds of the world - could examine the two candidates' platforms and voting histories and provide you with numerous examples of where they differ.
No, what you really mean is that Obama doesn't differ enough, that because he doesn't espouse the full range of leftist political doctrine, despite the fact that views such that extreme are not and never have been shared by more than a few percent of the American public, you are willing to declare a plague on both their houses and, by either voting for a doomed third party candidacy or withholding your vote altogether, help elect John McCain.
Very well; under the rules of our democracy, you have that right. But in exercising that right, I fear, you are exhibiting what Orwell called "a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen." Your "moral stance" does not exist in a vacuum. You can not, as the events of Florida in 2000 amply demonstrated, vote for Nader without simultaneously voting against Obama and for McCain. The only way in which such an action could have neutral consequences would be if you could guarantee that someone on the right would match your action by refusing to vote for McCain.
There is no such level playing field, as Orwell pointed out, just as there was no equivalent pacifist movement in the fascist countries to balance the efforts of British pacifists to undermine the war effort. "But we are not at war," you might argue, "nor are we about to be invaded by a neighboring empire." The latter may be true, but the former is not: we most certainly are at war, and while there's no guarantee that the same wouldn't be true had not Nader and his supporters helped put Bush into office in 2000, it's most likely that the disaster Iraq was to become would have unfolded very differently had some of Florida's 97,000 Nader voters been willing to swallow their pride and/or stubbornness long enough to put Al Gore into office instead of George Bush.
That alone should be enough to illustrate that protest votes, no matter how innocuous they may seem here in our cocoon of material and political security, can have grim and awful consequences for those not fortunate enough to live in a land where battles are largely limited to the symbolic. The mindless carnage - and I say that as someone who was at least partially open to the case for the war - visited upon the people of Iraq by Bush's incompetence was aided and abetted by Nader's claim that there was "no difference" between Bush and Gore, and by those who, for whatever their reasons, chose to believe him.
Is there ever a time, you understandably ask, when one can in good conscience support a minor party candidate, when one doesn't need to be hamstrung by the often unfair and inadequate two-party system? Yes, of course there is. And for all my anger at the disaster that was visited on the world by Nader helping Bush into office, it's only fair to say that 2000 might have legitimately seemed like such a time. After all, we had no way of knowing the kind of events that were going to unfold once Bush took office, nor did we have more than a hint of how extraordinarily unequal to them Bush would prove to be.
But no such uncertainty exists this time. Economically, militarily, even philosophically, the United States - and by extension, much of the world, since America's is a far-reaching shadow - faces greater challenges and dangers than at any point in my life. I grew up in a time when the memories and traumas of the Great Depression and the Second World War were still very fresh, to the point where they colored the thinking and actions of my parents' generation in every way imaginable. My own generation and the generations that followed it have never had to confront difficulties on that scale, but something tells me that we may be approaching just such a moment.
No, Obama isn't the messiah, nor is he anywhere near flawless on many of the issues that strike me as important. And as with all politicians, there is always the risk that he will turn out to be something quite different from what he presents himself as, or that he will be unable to govern with the same vigor and clarity with which he has campaigned, or that his prescriptions for America will turn out to have been wrong after all. But while we can agonize over such possibilities - and given the magnitude of the disaster visited upon us and democracy by the Bush presidency, we'd hardly be human if we didn't - what's at stake today is too vital. We can not afford the luxury of wallowing in nihilism or quixotic protest votes. John McCain may be a perfectly nice, decent man at heart, but in the course of his campaign has repeatedly shown himself to be befuddled, incompetent, and willing to say or do almost anything to gain an office which he clearly does not deserve, and the same is even truer of the vice-president he has attempted to saddle us with.
If you disagree with the above, if you feel that Bush/Cheney/McCain-Palin have served us well and will continue to do so, then by all means vote for them. I respect your opinion even if I disagree with it. But if you claim to be opposed to them but are not voting today for Barack Obama, then you are deluding yourself and risk performing a great disservice to our country and the world. He may not share your views on everything, you may dislike the guy for one or many reasons, but there is no evading the fact that there is one way and one way only to ensure that John McCain and Sarah Palin will not rule this country for the next four years, and the specter of George Bush and the havoc he has wreaked will be put into a grave with a stake through its misbegotten heart, and that is to elect Barack Obama president. You may wish you had a greater range of choices, but you do not. You may spend the next four years protesting that President Obama is too far to the left for you or not far enough, and it is both your right and duty to do so if that turns out to be the case.
But right now there is is one overriding purpose that should transcend all doubts and quibbles: we must restore dignity, decency, honor and respectability to the highest office in the land, and while no man or woman can ever be perfectly suited to that position or perfectly conform to our individual views of how that office should be conducted, not in decades - again, perhaps not in my lifetime - has the choice between two candidates been so clear and obvious. Please join me today in helping to elect Barack Obama president.