Election Day 2012: It’s the Day After That Matters

Update I below:

This past weekend I talked with a philosopher friend about her conundrum over how to vote in Tuesday’s election. She was a woman of color and recognized the egregiousness of the policies put in place over the last four years. Her account was informed and clear-eyed. Yet she worried incessantly about life under a Romney Administration.

What I began to say to her was this: Your vote doesn’t matter much. This isn’t because there isn’t much difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates. It’s not because of the electoral college. It’s not because your vote won’t be tabulated. All of these may in fact be true.

But the primary reason that your vote doesn’t matter precedes all of these: between the previous two terms of a reactionary Republican Administration and one term of an anti-Constitutional Democratic Administration, the conditions that will make it easier to manufacture state-led harm have already been institutionalized. They have been made into laws and policies that will continue to wreak havoc on US citizens, foreign nationals, and other countries.  Many of those laws and policies will also now legally protect POTUS and his functionaries (Republican and Democrat) as they continue and expand the vicious economic and political harms, widespread death and destruction, and racial and moral injustice that the United States and the world have had to suffer through over the last decade.  Whether we wake up to a second term of President Obama or the first of a President Romney, whoever is elected will take office in January 20, 2013 with the tools and equipment needed to continue on our current disastrous course.

Voting to reelect the president will not change the course of the pernicious racial politics of the last four years (and the previous Republican Administration) that have devastated the wealth, livelihoods, and liberties of poor folks and folks of color. Voting may be a symbolic act for white folks and folks of color, a practice that represents their sense of solidarity with a Black president. Voting may serve as a symbolic act expressing one’s solidarity with a progressive or non-right-wing politics. I understand the need for expressions of racial- or trans-racial solidarity, even symbolic gestures.  However, it is difficult to interpret a vote for this president as an example of such a gesture. The incumbent administration has done almost nothing that expresses a progressive or protective attitude towards the vulnerable.

You should vote for whomever you want.  Still, it should be acknowledged that such a legacy of racial and political and economic injustice is NOT mitigated by this vote. If you are voting for the incumbent, then you are voting for a President who has quietly and openly waged a war on U.S. poor minorities, which includes increasing the number of African Americans in prison, securing thousands of Muslim men in detention centers without charges, and Latino migrants in deportation centers—for the simple act of migrating without papers. These are crimes only of being human and unwanted.  The current Administration has validated the worst elements of the Bush Administration in affirming that even as larcenous bankers will go unpunished, it is a great crime to be poor.  Even as war crimes go unpunished and its perpetrators retained or promoted to high office, it is a crime to expose their misdeeds. It is a crime to express moral protest. This message has been confirmed by the fates of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and John Kiriakou, among many other brave men and women, such as Occupy protestors who are fighting for the right to challenge injustice.

It is a crime to be Muslim, or Black, or Latino. This was true to for African Americans and some Latinos and Muslims before 2000. However, since 2001, and especially since 2008, that message has been amplified through the harms that have been wrought upon black and brown populations in the US and around the world. This message has been amplified through the expansion of the drug war; increasing incarceration rates for Black and Latino men and women. It has been confirmed through the endorsement and signing of NDAA, S.Comm, preventive detention, kill lists; by helping to expand drone wars on black and brown people around the world and greatly enhance domestic surveillance; by refusing to stop entrapment, FBI framing of foolish young men, by insisting on creating policies empowering the president to whimsically kill US citizens and foreign nationals without any due process or review. I have written about all of these all over this site.

The effects of decades of pernicious policies have taken their toll on a society that has fooled itself into believing that it is more racially liberal than ever before. And what a toll. The same US citizens who believe themselves to be racially and politically progressive with their votes must come to terms with the legacies of their willful blindness. One example: It remains an unforgivable crime to be a black woman in a time of crisis, as Glenda Moore learned last Monday night in Staten Island, as she tried to escape Hurricane Sandy with her two children, aged 2 & 4—and no neighbor would come to her aid as her young boys were washed out to sea. Glenda Moore lost her children and spent the night huddled in a door-step because not a single neighbor opened their doors to give her shelter.

That single story represents the horrors wrought by a society that must wrestle with its racial politics in the face of its first Black president. Voting for a Black president does not solve or alleviate any of these crimes – crimes associated with being human and black.  The same Democratic President has initiated and waged murderous drone wars on black and brown people around the world. Yes, people of color can accept the invitation into white supremacy and wage war on other people of color.  Yes, liberals can wage assaults on the poor and vulnerable in the name of national security.  This is a lesson we have (re)learned from our first Black Democratic President.

Still, if despite the fact-based columns and arguments—written by economists, black policy analysts, lawyerly pundits, former Congressional staffers, and former Inspector Generals of TARP, all reviewing the insidious effects of the series of policies knowingly and consciously pushed and endorsed by this Democratic Administration—don’t convince you that this administration has carefully entrenched the path of the previous Republican administration in abandoning those who are vulnerable and in need—then nothing will change your mind.  So if you are not interested in engaging in a protest vote and what you need to do to feel better is to pursue an unwinnable outcome in this election, then by all means vote to reelect this president.

Ah, but what of gender issues?  Surely there is a difference here worth protecting? It is a well-kept, but slowly leaking secret that President and his men (and women) have engaged in a vicious gender politics as well: the President has–by deciding to decimate the communities in which black and brown women are located—also decimated the safety, psychic/sexual/physical health of black and brown women –in the US and around the world. You may believe that your obligations only extend to other U.S. citizens (a convenient position that allows you to ignore a fairly murderous and heinous foreign policy). Even in this case, it is difficult to ignore the fact that there are already enough Supreme Court Justices to have a majority vote against abortion…if that is an overwhelming concern. We can guess this in part because Justice Sotomayor is already on record as having defending a Bush Administration decision in 2002 to prohibit funding of international organizations that provide abortions. We know this because POTUS pushed to enshrine the Hyde Amendment –which prohibits the funding of abortions— and other horrific effects for women in the Affordable Care Act as a “compromise” with Rep. Bart Stupak et al.  And what of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan?  Besides her support for the evisceration of Medicaid, her most prominent achievement with the Clinton Administration was to write the Welfare Reform Bill – enough said. Who does this affect more but poor women?  For more evidence of the Administration’s policies regarding the economically and politically and racially vulnerable, see my post of the other day. And Matt Stoller’s multiple posts. And Glenn Greenwald’s. And Margaret Kimberley’s. And Bruce Dixon’s. And Glen Ford’s. And Robert Kuttner’s. And Robert Prasch’s. And Bill Black’s. And Yves Smith’s. Just google and read.  None of this material is secret and it was done in the open and reported publicly.

For progressives the real work will begin the day after the elections: Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. As Murtaza Hussain explains, the conditions to ensure the ongoing tyranny of the presidency have been put in place.  With no counter-veiling forces in sight, we can be assured that we will see even more claims to increased executive authority.  That means—regardless of whether Romney or Obama “wins,” the United States Constitution and the rest of us will lose.  An increasing number of people at home and across the globe can be expected to lose our freedoms, lives, limbs, and even our minds — from years spent without charges or even a hearing in solitary confinement—for expressing dissent. Many more of us will be vulnerable to losing those same freedoms, lives, and minds.

None of this will change under either a President Romney or Obama. And if we don’t begin to protest, to challenge collectively, to recognize that our fates are intimately linked, then we cannot even hope for change under future presidents. The conditions of a repressive state have been institutionalized over these last 10 years (and really were already beginning to build well before that—by President Clinton).  What we need to do, over the medium term, is to reclaim what has been taken and is continuing to be taken.

In 2008, I gave public talks about Barack Obama’s fairly worrying centrism, which still appeared slightly preferable to John McCain’s political positions. I pointed to Sen. Obama’s history of extremely illiberal positions on various issues, most visibly to his promise to be aggressive in sending drones to Pakistan, troops to Afghanistan, and his campaign stop at the Congress to vote to renew FISA in August—2 months before the election. But whether I was seduced by the line that this was a racially progressive vote or whether I just hoped against hope that he would be better than his record illustrated, or that he would be better than any Republican, the fact remains that I voted for Obama in 2008.

Perhaps one or two or three of these lines—in the face of undeniable facts that betray that position—still work for you. But if not, then don’t be goaded by the disingenuous position that a vote for Obama is a racially or politically or economically progressive vote. A vote for Romney isn’t any of these things either. And don’t be seduced into thinking that your vote –Republican, Democratic, or Third Party, will make things any less worse.

It’s not our votes that matter. It’s our concerted, organizable, collective challenge–to increasing power, tyranny and devastating economic and racist politics in the United States and internationally—that will matter. That work, much more complicated, tedious, painstaking, and constant, begins the day after tomorrow.

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Update I: I had a great correspondence with @vastleft, whose message at vastleft.blogspot.com today to those who want to discuss “the real work beginning the day after” is to command them to work hard to engage themselves in a fairly awkward sexual act. According to @vastleft, the message is directed to those who are uninterested in pushing beyond the duopoly or to aim for third party votes. My message is different: I don’t endorse voting for either of the duopoly. Still, whether you vote for one of them, or don’t vote, or vote third party, do recognize that none of these decisions erases the problematic effects of a serious racially, politically, economically immoral Administration, which has pushed identical policies as those by the Bush Administration in some ways, and which in some ways has promoted even worse policies.

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Why do “Third Parties Never Work”? Collusion and the Presidential Debates

Regardless of what you thought of the first round of 2012 presidential debates, the spin job began well before 8:30 pm last Wednesday. If you opened up the New York Times Op-Ed page Wednesday morning, you might have found yourself gently lulled into believing all was good with the presidential debate world. Newton Minow, the former head of the Federal Communications Commission, and on the current board of the “non-profit” Presidential Debate Commission, assured us seductively—in true NYT statesman fashion–that the debates were the only thing left of what was good in the current round of politics.  Sure, Minow conceded, there was a little kerfuffle back in the 1980 debates when the League of Women Voters objected to the collusion between James Baker III and Robert S. Strauss to control the format of the debates, and withdrew its sponsorship.

Critics have sometimes charged that the debates, and their format and substance, are controlled by the two major parties and campaigns. This was once true.”
 

But since then, the debates have been on track. After all, Minow assures us, he’s been on the “bipartisan non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates since 1987,” and he’s been zealously guarding the debates—mind you, they resisted a collusion between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, which attempted to “force [them] to accept a 32 page ‘memorandum of understanding’ setting out debate details,” but luckily Minow and his esteemed statesmen colleagues refused and Kerry and Bush backed right back down.

Compare this story with the one told by George Farah, the founder of Open Debate and the author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. Farah’s version is a little different from Minow’s, which is why, I suspect, he interviewed with Amy Goodman rather than finding himself on the Op-Ed pages of the NYT.

Farah explains in more detail than does Minow the exact conflict of interest that lead to the break-up between the presidential candidates and the League of Women Voters: Farah’s version includes that fact that Walter Mondale AND Ronald Reagan “vetoed 80 of the moderators that the League of Women Voters had” suggested, leading to the ultimate breakup between the candidates and the civic organization.  Farah also points to the collusion between the Democratic and Republican candidates in 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2004 to exclude third party candidates. Only in 1992, when Ross Perot ran as an independent, was he allowed to join the presidential debates—and that was because George Bush Senior thought it would help him pull away votes from the Democrats. He was wrong. An interesting fact to ponder for naysayers who insist that third party politics can never work. Further confirmation? All candidates fought to exclude Perot from the 1996 debates.

Further, for anyone who wonders why third party politics, which seem so reasonable, are such an impossibility, Farah’s interview with Goodman provides some answers:  contrary to Minow’s narrative, the “Commission on Presidential Debates,” despite its name, is neither a governmental organization nor a non-profit. Rather, it is a private corporation sponsored by Anheuser-Bush and other companies. The move away from civic sponsors such as League of Women Voters, which organized it on a shoestring ($5k) budget, enables the CPD to engage in a series of nefarious collusions: private contracts that determine the exclusion of 3rd party candidates, to refuse to allow any serious questions to be asked, to include select audiences that would cheer for the candidates. Of course, CPD had bipartisan chairs: Frank Farendkopf and Paul Kird, the former heads of the Republicans and Democrats respectively. Bipartisanship—rather than evoking neutrality—suddenly takes on a new meaning: they worked together to exclude the possibility of third parties.

Even more astonishing was the response that Farah got when he asked Fahrenkopf how he felt about having “beer and tobacco companies [pay] for the most important election”: Fahrenkopf’s response? “Boy, you’re talking to the wrong guy. I represent the gambling industry.”

Farah, according to his own self-description, has spearheaded a campaign to divest the CPD from its affilations with various private corporations, including Philips Electronics and BBH, on the grounds that the encumbrance of corporations was “fundamentally anti-democratic.” But there remain seven other corporations, including Southwest Airlines, the International Bottled Water Association, several law firms and others who are still sponsoring the CPD.  Let’s be clear: None of these corporations are non-partisan.

The history of the CPD  in 1996 gets even more nefarious. Says Farah:

Bob Dole was desperate to keep Perot out of the presidential debates because he thought Perot would take more votes away from him. Bill Clinton did not want anyone to watch the debates. He wanted what George Stephanopoulos told me was a non event because he was comfortably leading in the polls. So they reached an outrageous agreement: Bill Clinton agreed to exclude Perot on the condition that one of the three debates was canceled, and the remaining two debates were scheduled opposite the World Series of baseball, and no follow-up questions were asked.They got not Perot, they got two debates at the same time as baseball and they had no follow up questions, and that’s exactly what President Bill Clinton wanted, by design, the lowest debate audience in the history of presidential debates. Who took the heat? Not the candidates. The candidates never paid a political price. The polls after the debate showed 50% of the public blamed the commission. Only 13% blamed President Clinton, and only 5% blamed the Bob Dole.

 

So the impression the public received was to blame the commission -not entirely inaccurately,  Notice also the rightward turn, which began at the beginning of Bill Clinton’s first term and kept going.  But the FCC, which apparently criticized the CPD in 1992 and 1996, dealt them some forces to be reckoned with: so the CPD changed some of the rules under pressure. They decided to invite third-party candidates who had 15% percent of the vote to come and debate with them. In other words, a complete impossibility, as Farah points out.  Even Congressional funding of candidates requires winning only 5% of the popular vote.

Clearly, collusion is the proper term to describe what the two presidential parties have done to manage the election framework: they have gotten together and figured out how limit the terms of entry, to limit the number of speakers, the content of the questions, and to tame/discipline anyone who manages to get out of line.

So, what does this anecdote tell us?  The reason “3rd parties never work” is not because God decrees it as such. In fact, third and fourth and fifth parties and their candidates, far from being impossible to sustain in the American voting system, are in fact so easy to sustain that the two major presidential organizations are fearful of them and will stop at very little to prevent them from joining the debates. The message to us should be that the ability to force the conversation to become more expansive, more diverse, more inclusive is much less difficult than we might have imagined.  The only thing that third parties make impossible is for the conversation to remain the same: they can force the conservatives and the neo-cons to listen to voters, to insist on the inclusion of awkward and difficult issues, and to require answers from the behemoths, even if it’s just in the short term.

But for these possibilities, we need to stop paying homage to “tradition,” and the trite line that “3rd parties have never worked”—and ask WHY that’s the case. We need to stop allowing elder statesmen like Minow to seduce us into the George and June Cleaver view that American politics is based on a nice, fair, innocuous playing field. The truth is far from it, as far in fact, as the NYT is…and is more likely to be found across town at sites like Democracy Now.

Race, Murder, and Mayhem in America: Considering the Links

Glenn Greenwald is right to be skeptical of any direct causal links between the horrific events such as the Sikh Temple Massacre or the Joplin Mosque and US foreign policy. As he pointed out yesterday,

there are usually a diverse array of complex motives (psychological, emotional, ideological, religious) that drive individuals to engage in violence of this sort, and an equally diverse list of complex causes (legislative, political, cultural) as to why our society fosters and enables it.

And to be fair, most white men who have grown up in the shadow of 9-11 do not shoot up theaters and temples or burn down mosques. But I want to try to be clearer about the links that I’m trying to argue for:

Dylan Rodrigues, a scholar in Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside and author of a great book on Black Radicals in prison, has argued that we need to pay attention to the parallels between the massive numbers of Black and Latino men who are in prison, and our tendencies to incarcerate Muslim men in Guantanamo, or Abu Ghraib. These parallels can alert us to a certain carceral mentality that is mirrored in a country’s international and domestic policies. A number of philosophers and sociologists have argued along similar lines, including Michel Foucault, Angela Davis, and Loiç Wacquant.

Similarly, in my last post and a number of others, that is what I’ve tried to argue that we need to consider: when Dharun Ravi sets up a camera to spy on his gay roommate’s trysts, or Wade Michael Page shoots up a Sikh temple, when US soldiers rape Iraqi women, urinate on dead bodies, and shoot civilians in cold blood in Iraq, we need to move beyond the level of shock and start thinking about the larger political and legal and cultural mentalities in which these events happen.

In particular, we live in a country in which the federal office that oversees the strict regulation of immigrants, visitors, and—yes—citizens, guards the homefront through border security, pre-emptive policing of people’s social, political and financial activity, their emails and phone calls, i.e., “counterterrorism.” That office, ceremoniously renamed the Department of Homeland Security six months after September 11, 2001, is an ostentatious chest-beating symbol of waging a war on “threats to national security.”

In the name of Homeland Security—a hallowed reference to Nazi Germany’s urge to purify their own “heimat”–we have seen the prevalence of United States’ domestic and foreign policies: state-led surveillance of its own people, of the decision to harass foreigners until they leave, i.e., “self-deportation,” of Muslim communities, to incarcerate Muslim men without habeas corpus or a serious legal defense, to outlaw political protest, to give the U.S. president full authority to assassinate and incarcerate “terrorists,” and to the fact of state-led mass destruction in the form of drones, rockets, bombs, chemical warfare and guns?

Why then, talk about white supremactists as if they are loners or part of private gangs? Shouldn’t we remember the US’ emphasis on the Homeland when we watch these shootings and mosque-burnings? When we see images of war and strife in the Middle East? Is it such a strange leap to think of US domestic and foreign policy as part of white supremacist, racial contract, as political philosopher Charles Mills argues (read his book for more on this; it’s clearly written, even for non-philosophers)?

As Greenwald says:

A country which venerates its military above all other institutions, which demands that its soldiers be spoken of only with religious-like worship, and which continuously indoctrinates its population to believe that endless violence against numerous countries is necessary and just — all by instilling intense fear of the minorities who are the target of that endless violence — will be a country filled with citizens convinced of the virtues and nobility of aggression. (the links are in his original piece).

He’s right. I think there’s something else going on as well. At the risk of stating the ridiculously obvious, we live in a country (and still at a time) that has a very difficult time with race politics: And it’s not merely about racial antagonisms having to do with Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis or South Asians and Arabs generally. It has to do with racial hostilities that are legislated against Latinos and Blacks (and by this term, I include all folks who are the victim of anti-black racism, not just African Americans)—and Americans turning a blind eye to these hostilities that are waged against black and brown folks, while expecting white men to act out the scripts of entitlement: declaring and waging war, AND deploying black and brown and working-class whites to war. Americans cheer when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts within the confines of state-led policies and laws—and are shocked when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts outside of those institutions and laws.

Again, Charles Mills calls this the epistemology of ignorance, that is when whites and elites are completely baffled by—and claim NOT to understand– the very same world that they (through slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, mass criminalization through anti-terror and drug laws)—produced. Mills coined this term, the epistemology of ignorance, hand in hand with the racial contract back in 1997. Can you imagine the furor he caused then?

I agree with Mills—mostly.

As importantly it has to do with the very difficult time we have in calling our political leaders to account whether they are white or non-white; but at the present moment, we are having an especially difficult time calling our current President, who is black, into account—especially for those of us who are politically progressive and constructively race-conscious. The tensions that lie in this political dilemma—during this election year—are enormous. But it doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s racially destructive policies: like deporting 400,000 migrants a year; like tearing apart families through forced deportation; destroying childhoods through indefinite detention and deportation of their parents without judicial review.

So, taking a page out of Mills’ book, I would suggest that another term that better describes what’s happening today: the epistemology of indifference. White and elites understand perfectly well the world that they have produced. And those liberals AND progressives who vote for them—despite this knowledge—are guilty of the epistemology of indifference: they know and they don’t care. At least, they don’t care enough to reject the false choices handed to them by the Democratic Party.

It doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s imperially expansive policies. It makes us callous, indifferent, and frankly, part of the problem. Calling him to account doesn’t necessarily make one a racist, unless you are calling him to account because he is black. Similarly, not calling him to account because he’s black is also problematic.

Race in America is an enormously tricky terrain to navigate carefully, justly, ethically. But it needs to be addressed alongside our policies of violence, of invasion, of mass murders in the name of a Secure Homeland, and in ways that don’t celebrate OR vilify single individuals. Rather, we need to clearly, firmly, effectively call those politicians and appointees to account: by voting with our feet to find leaders who share their moral principles, and reject officially sanctioned mass-murders and wars, instead of promoting them as solutions to the racial fears and xenophobia of Americans.

Guest Post: On Voting Strategically in 2012: The Ultimatum Game

Today, I’m putting up another guest post by Robert Prasch, analyzing the “ultimatum” politics of the Democratic Party, more specifically, of the Democratic National Committee. Important, timely, provocative. Read on…

 

On Voting Strategically in 2012: The Ultimatum Game

By Robert E. Prasch

Department of Economics

Middlebury College

Over the past year, many disappointed progressives and liberals have resigned themselves to voting for the president’s reelection, despite their full understanding that the Administration has nothing but contempt for all that they hold dear. They ask, “Well, what can we do”?  This is a reasonable question and it deserves a thoughtful answer.

What Can We Do In Light of the National Democratic Party’s Tilt to the Right?

Before formulating the answer, let us recall that this question has emerged on multiple occasions over the past thirty-five years.  Some might believe that this has been an unfortunate series of accidents, but it was not.  It can be ascribed to the strategy laid out in the early 1980s by Rep. Tony Coelho, who was then the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and to the powerful influence of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), founded in 1985.  Each of these groups worked long and diligently to end the Democratic Party’s long association with New Deal-type legislation so as to increase its appeal to economic elites.  Additionally, they worked hard to sever the Democratic Party’s association with anti-war causes and the extensive 1970s effort to expose and place limits on the executive branch’s capacity for war-making, covert action by the CIA, domestic spying, and associated “dirty tricks.”

By 1996, this effort had come to full fruition.  That year liberals and progressives were asked to support the reelection of a president who had spent his first four years working tirelessly to promote corporate-dictated “Free Trade Agreements,” the irresponsible de-regulation of finance, the vigorous privatizing of any and all government functions, the Defense of Marriage Act, and ever-more punitive measures against the poor and undocumented.  That candidate was, of course, Bill Clinton.  In 2000, we were asked to again validate these rightist policies by electing Clinton’s vice-president, with the sole modification being a commitment to forgo sexual antics with the interns.

In 2004, Senator John Kerry firmly promised a return to Clinton’s Neoliberal agenda while repeatedly telling us that, despite everything that had occurred or been revealed in the interim, he remained steadfast behind the 2002 vote that he, Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, and so many other Senate Democrats gave to support of George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure.  It goes without saying that Kerry was and remains an enthusiast for any and all corporate-directed “Free Trade” agreements, financial deregulation, imperial expansion, and – of course – the stripping away of Constitutional protections.  Believing that they had no choice, millions of anti-war voters nevertheless validated the script laid out by the now-DLC controlled Democratic National Committee (DNC).  It is, I would suggest, past time for liberals and progressives to question this learned response.  Despite the rhetoric coming from Washington, it is NOT true that liberals and progressives owe their vote to whatever pseudo-liberal figure happens to be favored by the major donors and associated grandees of the DNC.

On Voting Strategically

The good news is that we do have a choice.  The bad news is that it may not be the one that we would wish for, but it is a choice nevertheless.  Moreover, handled adroitly, it could pave the way to better choices in the future.  Stated simply, I believe that we should “vote strategically.”  However, strategic voting necessitates that we begin by analyzing the structure of the “game” that constitutes the elements of the increasingly-bitter contest between American liberals & progressives and the leadership of the DNC.  As it turns out, this rivalry mimics what is known as the “Ultimatum Game.”  Once the contours of this game are understood, we can revisit our strategies, and begin to think of a way out of our current dilemma.

The rules of the Ultimatum Game can be readily described.  Consider a game with two players and one round. The first player is given $10.00 in one-dollar bills to split with the second player according to any distribution selected solely at the former’s discretion (i.e. $10 & $0; $9 & $1; $8 & $2; … $0 & $10).  The second player’s sole decision is to “accept” or “reject.”  If the second player “accepts,” the distribution proposed by first player becomes the final distribution of the cash and the games ends.  If the second player “rejects” each player is awarded $0 & $0.  That is the game.  Now, what is the predicted solution?

If the game is known to be of only one round in duration, and the players are motivated solely by self-interest, then the “dominant strategy” of the first player is to offer a $9 & $1 distribution, and the “dominant strategy” of the second player is to “accept.”  Why do they accept?  Well, accepting renders the second player “better off” as $1 is unambiguously greater than $0.  Undoubtedly they will be irritated by the first player’s lack of generosity, but as their only way to express that irritation is to petulantly “reject” the offer, thereby causing a distribution of $0 & $0, they find themselves without a substantive alternative to “accepting.”  So far, so good.

Now, let us reexamine the Ultimatum Game in the event that play is extended beyond a single round.  Let us suppose that all players understand that the game will be played for an indefinite number of rounds.  Under this changed situation, the second player has an opportunity to “discipline” the first player for treating her unfairly.  If the first round offer is an ungenerous $9 & $1, the second player can say “reject.”  Yes, she will give up $1, but her refusal “costs” the first player $9.  Ouch.  The first player, recognizing the possibility of a punitive refusal, and knowing that they will be playing against the same rival for the foreseeable future, has a clear incentive to improve the initial offer they make to the second player.  Depending upon her aversion to risk, traded off against her desire to earn as much as possible before the game ends, she may initially offer $7 & $3, or even $6 & $4.  If she is anxious to achieve a rapid agreement, the first player might even appeal to our widely-shared ideal of “fairness” by offering an initial distribution of $5 & $5.  Please note, as this is important, that the improved offers made in a repeated game are not induced by a commitment to “fair play,” but by self-interest.

The Ultimatum Game in Practice: The DNC vs. Rank-and-File Democrats

With the above in mind, let us return to the “game” played between the grandees and donors who dominate the DNC and the overwhelming majority of registered party members whose preferences, interests, or dispositions are liberal, progressive, anti-war, anti-Too Big To Fail financial institutions, or simply pro-U. S. Constitution and supportive of the rights of habeas corpus.

The DNC, as we have repeatedly seen, is pre-disposed to neglect or despise the hopes and wishes of their core voters.  Nevertheless, the DNC must retain their votes if they are to win elections, which is a necessary condition for achieving plum executive branch postings and the lucrative post-political careers as lobbyists and deal-makers that follow seamlessly to those who have been blessed with such appointments.  For that reason, they must convince anyone who will listen that all elections are – in the language of game theory – contests featuring a single round.  For this reason, the Administration, its spokesmen, and their proxies on MSNBC are “playing the game” correctly as they try to convince wavering or disappointed liberals and progressives that this election is the most critical in living memory.  Once this premise is established, any and all discussions with malingerers and discontents can be devoted to highlighting the relatively modest differences between the major party candidates.  And, let me be the first to agree, there may be some differences.  Drawing again from the example above, $1 is unambiguously greater than $0.  But, let us be honest, how big are these differences?  On the Constitution?  On Overseas Wars?  On corporate-scripted trade agreements?  On ongoing criminality and malfeasance within our bloated and broke Too Big To Fail banks?  Seriously, does anyone who is not a senior executive at a failed and corrupt financial institution benefit from keeping Timothy Geithner or Eric Holder in office?  I think not.

This, then, brings us to the 2012 election.  What should we do?  In light of profoundly right-wing tilt of the DNC and the Administration on such a vast range of the nation’s most pressing issues, how can liberals and progressives avoid wasting their vote?  I submit that we should recognize that the DNC has long been playing the “Ultimatum Game” with its supporters.  Moreover, in an era of big money politics they will be playing this game for the foreseeable future.  In all honesty, it is past time for liberals and progressives to refuse to cooperate with the DNC’s powerful political insiders who have repeatedly demonstrated nothing but contempt for them, their ideas, and their ideals.  We did not set up this “game.”  The DNC did.  But that does not mean that we have to play along with them.

Consciously turning our back on the Neoliberal, pro-war, and anti-Constitution DNC does not mean that we should stay home this fall.  On the contrary, we should devote our energies to rebuilding the base of liberal and progressive politics in our towns, cities, and states by working ONLY for local candidates that we like, admire, and trust.  If the above analysis of the game is reasonably accurate, and I believe that it is, the DNC will forced to present us with better “distributions” in future years once they come to learn that substantial number of liberals and progressives are willing to “reject” bad offers (but, before that occurs, expect a torrent of abuse from them).  This year, as with so many times in the recent past, we will be expected to participate willingly and happily in our own political irrelevance.  Enough is enough.  This time, make your vote count.  Don’t play along.

Guest Post: “Where is My Half Glass?”

The brilliant Robert E. Prasch, an economist at Middlebury College, reflects on the Obama Presidency.

President Obama, Where Is My “Half Glass”?

By Robert E. Prasch

Since deftly managing the Congressional “debate” over health care to eliminate the public option, the White House has found itself criticized increasingly by voices from within the Democratic Party. President Obama and his spokespersons were irritated to discover the following: those Democrats who wrote the checks, pounded the pavement, and got out the vote for “Change You Can Believe In,” really wanted change.  Who knew?  Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod and the President himself have all made it clear that they view such critics as childish “purists” unsatisfied with a “glass half full.”  I have only one question.  “Where is my half glass”?

Let us briefly review the administration’s performance on four areas of great concern to those who supported Barak Obama in 2008.  These include the financial crisis & economy, the endless Bush wars, the shocking erosion of civil liberties, and increasing unaffordable health care.

Less than one month after the historic November 2008 election, we were informed that “Hope and Change” would include neither the financial sector nor the economy. This occurred on November 28th with the announcement of two critical appointments.  The first was that of former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, a chief architect of the policies that set the groundwork for the 2007-2009 financial crisis, to head President Obama’s National Economic Council.  The second was that of Timothy Geithner, former Clinton Undersecretary of the Treasury and then President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (NYFRB), as the new US. Treasury Secretary.  Geithner informed the US. House of Representatives –very truthfully– that he “had never been a regulator.”  The sad part is that the Federal Reserve and specifically the NYFRB has a substantial role in bank regulation and regulatory policy, a role in which he clearly and most publically failed. Several months after taking office, President Obama declared that he would reappoint Ben Bernanke to chair the Federal Reserve System.  With these three leading the way, can we be surprised that the Obama Administration never devised serious policies or took substantial action on financial reform, Too Big To Fail banks, rampant mortgage and bank fraud, high and persistent unemployment, or mortgage relief?.  Can we be surprised to learn that his idea of a jobs program was to push through President Bush’s “Free Trade” agreements?  Is anyone surprised to learn that he is now considering cuts to Social Security?

By contrast to the economy, candidate Obama frequently stated his commitment to Bush’s Middle East wars.  His attachment to the status quo was signaled the day after the Summers/Geithner announcement when it was revealed that he would reappoint Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates (This, of course, was the same Robert Gates who narrowly avoided indictment for lying to Congress over his role in the Reagan Administration’s Iran-Contra Affair).  Officially, the US war on Iraq ended this past summer, but that event occurred according to a timetable set up by Bush–and only because Obama could not negotiate blanket immunity for US soldiers in the wake of the Wikileaks revelations.   Before shifting to another topic, I would also advise readers to take a moment to review the size of the “training” and “security staff” that have been left behind in Iraq, along with the size of the forces stationed in Kuwait and the other Gulf States.  Do not think for a millisecond that anyone in the Middle East is unaware of the size and lethality of the army and naval armada the US has stationed in their midst.  (For those who may imagine that this is about “promoting democracy” in the region, I have a one-word refutation – Bahrain.  YouTube has numerous videos featuring Bahraini police, and their ally, the Saudi Arabian army, shooting peaceful protestors.  And let us refrain from discussing the almost daily atrocities occurring in Egypt, or the out-of-control predator drone program).

What of civil liberties?  Here the record is genuinely appalling.  The prisoners of Guantanamo Bay continue to languish without proper judicial hearings, and the extended pre-trial treatment of Bradley Manning is criminal by any standard of measure.  Obama’s vigorous attack on whistleblowers who shed light on the idiocy and mendacity of the bloated bureaucracies associated with the national security apparatus is an ongoing scandal.  In fairness, candidate Obama did “tip his hand” on these issues when he suspended his campaign so that he could fly to Washington to vote in favor of retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies that violated the law, and profited mightily from, working with Bush and Cheney on illegal wiretapping programs.  Moreover, he has never deviated from Nancy Pelosi’s early insistence on blanket immunity for all Bush administration officials who lied to Congress, promoted or engaged in torture, war crimes, etc. The record, apparently, is not sordid enough.  On December 23rd 2011 Obama signed a bill co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain granting the President, on his own whim, the ability to imprison anyone, anywhere — American citizen or not — for an indefinite period without an attorney, charge, jury trial, or any other kind or variety of review.  Goodbye 4th Amendment, you will be missed.

Finally, a word about “health care reform.”  This bill neither “gives” nor “provides” anyone with health care or health insurance.  On the contrary, it mandates that everyone purchase his or her own policy.  There is a some commitment to providing subsidies to those who cannot afford a policy – but anyone who has ever followed politics knows what will happen to it when budget cutting season returns (they also know that when the subsidies go, the mandate will surely stay).  The bill also embodies a vague commitment to reducing health care costs that is not worth the paper upon which it was written.  Elementary economics tells us that if health insurance policies are subsidized they will rise in price.  This tendency will be even more pronounced if people are forbidden from deploying their single greatest negotiating tool – the threat to leave the market altogether.  Obama’s “accomplishment,” if we can call it that, is to provide even more money and market power to the single largest obstacle to affordable health care – the private insurance companies.

Alarmed by trends in the then-new administration, columnist Bob Herbert called attention to them while identifying a core flaw in the thought processes of its apologists, “Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barak Obama is in the White House” (New York Times, June 22nd, 2009).  Two years have passed since Herbert wrote these words.  So I ask again, if Obama’s 2008 supporters have received a “half glass” on the four issues summarized above, then where is it?  At this point, I can’t even see the glass.

Robert E. Prasch is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College where he teaches courses on Monetary Theory and Policy, Macroeconomics, the History of Economic Thought, and American Economic History.  His latest book is How Markets Work: Supply, Demand and the ‘Real World’ (Edward Elgar, 2008)

Voting Model #3: The “Lesser of Two Evils”

This one gets trotted out around March of every election year. And around March of election year, I stop reading, or even casually glancing, at the Nation and every other pseudo-liberal magazine whose writers stuff their critical perspectives deep into the back of their closets—you know—the perspectives that they used to criticize the incumbent for the prior three years—in order to jump on the “lesser of two evils” bandwagon. And the chorus goes something like this: “Who would you rather have? The Democratic candidate who’s pro-choice (see VM #2) or the Republican candidate who’s anti-abortion?” This refrain is usually followed up by, “He (the Democrat) is the lesser of two evils,” after all.

Here’s the translation on the chorus: “Who would you rather have? The good looking, charming, suave, well-dressed, ivy-leaguer with New England reserve and Northern accent? Or the ignorant fratboy with the menacing smile, crude manners, and vacuous personality who so reminds me of the bad guy in any James Bond movie that I’d rather jump off a bridge to my death than be forced to shake hands with him (again, see VM #2)?” And just in case y’all think I’m picking on Obama, go back and reread the Nation in 1992 (Bill Clinton v. George Bush I), 1996 (Bill Clinton v. Bob Dole), 2000 (Al Gore v. George Bush II), and 2004 (John Kerry v. George Bush II).

And here’s the translation on the “lesser of two evils” refrain: Sure, there isn’t much distinguishing them: they’re both neo-liberals on economic policy[1]; they both want to cut Social Security and Medicare; they’re both pro-war, pro-imperialist expansion, pro-warrantless surveillance, pro-rendition, pro-indefinite detention.

But still, we have to vote for the Democrat, because there are some IMPORTANT differences, after all: The Dem is pro-choice (see VM #2), he’s pro-environment (see VM #2)[1]; and the Democrat wants healthcare reform.

At bottom, the refrain really means: “Hey, Bill/Al/John/ is one of us (see VM #1). He talks like us; he went to school where we went/wanted to go (even though the Georges did also); he seems like someone I’d be friends with, and after all, I’d vote for my friend if he was running, so….” Huh? This is what counts as “the lesser of two evils”?

Evil is evil. Period. It can’t be quantified, unless you’re a Benthamite utilitarian and you’re ok with selling out black and brown folks overseas for some more time to rest nice and comfy in your own house. Black and brown folks—especially poor black and brown folks– at home have not been sold out; they’ve just never been allowed to buy in. The reproductive rights of black women have been taken away time and time again—through forced sterilization, through the absence of access to reproductive service and medication, and through the absence of access to affordable healthcare—and no, Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts’ mandatory purchase-healthcare (which was the model for national healthcare) does NOT solve that problem. What about the civil rights of black men, you ask? Wait, I’m don’t understand. What are those? Are those the ones that the Democrats signed away in the 1996 “3-strikes You’re out” bill, which managed to find a way to put away an even larger swath of black men and other men of color. As of 2002, over 2 million were imprisoned–remember, this is before the War on Terror was well underway. What about the civil liberties of brown and Muslim men? Umm, have you not been paying attention?

So to folks who buy into this model: please don’t pretend that you are voting for someone who will enable better possibilities for someone other than you–certainly not for migrants and U.S. indigent, poor, or working-class folks of color. You may be voting for someone who will maintain the status quo for yourself and others in your socio-economic class. That’s fine. But imperious self-righteousness is hardly a good argument. And don’t worry, you’re being sold out, too.

A vote for a “lesser” evil is still a vote for evil. And the 12th hour urge/guilt-trip/admonishment to vote for the Democrat is a bit like hurling a bucket of water at a house that’s going down in flames because you surrounded the fireplace with parched Christmas trees and then started a blazing fire. Yes, it’s an emergency, and supposedly some water may be better than none, and yes, I understand that we’re supposed to band together to put out the fire. But we let the damn fire happen in the first place. That election fire can’t be put out by a few buckets of water (aka, a last-minute capitulation to the “lesser of two evils” guilt-trip).

Look, the Democrats have been kicking liberal/progressive types in the teeth for at least the last twenty years. “Vote for us,” they say, “else this country will be sold out.” Vote for us, or else you’ll have a deregulated banking industry. Vote for us or else you’ll have spies everywhere, warrantless surveillance, bankers gone wild, payoffs to the rich, and your reproductive rights will be peeled back. Vote for us, or else you’ll lose your civil liberties. So, we’re supposed to vote for Democrats in order to be protected from the havoc that the Republicans could cause. Hm. But as I recall, Bill Clinton signed a series of bills into law— Immigration Reform, Anti-Terrorism, Welfare Reform, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Glass-Steagall Act–among others, that heralded much of the bleak world in which we now live. Al Gore, John Kerry, and even Hilary Clinton were on the same bandwagon (remember the “are you tough enough to push the button ads?)

Hand in hand with this argument, is the loyalty supposedly articulated by George Clooney, which has been righteously circulating around Facebook: “I’m a firm believer in sticking by and sticking up for the people whom you’ve elected.” (Is it too coy to point out that this quote comes from a man who just dumped his umpteenth lover?) Unconditional loyalty is for sports teams, your family/friends, and your pets.

Ah…if only the Democrats could heed the loyalty argument for their constituencies. Stick by us and we’ll stick by you. Anything else is nothing short of an abusive relationship: you kick your voters in the teeth and then insist you love us and that we can’t throw you out.

So, what to do? I’ll respond more in a future post, but in the meantime, let me just say this: the national elections don’t matter at this point. We need to work on local races, local elections, alternative institutions. And why do we need to accept the “two-party option” that grounds the “lesser of two evils” vote? In the short term, we have no options. But we need to retain a historical memory, and build with a view to the long-term future. Abusive relationships need to be abandoned.


[1] see NAFTA (1993), Glass-Steagall Act (1999), Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking Act (1994), Colombia, South Korea, Panama Free Trade Agreements (introduced by George II during his time in office, but remained unpassed. These free-trade agreements were passed recently in October 2011), the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (2000), among others.

Voting Model #2: The “pro-choice/environmentally friendly” vote

In this post, I continue down my list of problematic presidential election voting models. Today’s model, #2 on that list, seems to have become a very popular one over the last two decades.  Most people who consider themselves progressive think it’s a good idea to look for candidates who are pro-choice or environmentally friendly. I find it to be a fairly problematic one for several reasons.

1. It’s not clear that this category is an accurate or satisfactory litmus test of the political credentials of the candidate. I want to be clear: I am furiously, firmly, steadfastly, immovably in favor of reproductive rights and active protection of the environment. But a presidential candidate who claims to be pro-choice does not necessarily have a commitment to support legislation that protects reproductive rights.  In fact, the very language of “choice” is a regressive language, as Marlene Fried reminds us: it recalls a language of individualism. One can be pro-choice and against abortion (yes).  It allows a broad and ambiguous base of support for “reproductive rights.”

2. Being pro-choice or green can be a social stance without any structural teeth. One can be pro-choice and still not be an active advocate for the distribution of public monies to support reproductive rights for women who may not have funds or transportation easy access to the services.  It would be important/enlightening to scrutinize the candidate’s pro-choice platform with regard to her/his position on the following: social services; the allocation of government monies for social services; public aid; health insurance (and remember health insurance doesn’t guarantee access to reproductive services), the endorsement of better access to social services (like public transportation, location of clinic  in rural areas, the availability of advocates and medical personnel who can be comforting supports to women seeking reproductive services, etc.).

3. A pro-choice candidate is not automatically a progressive candidate; it’s possible to be pro-choice and environmentally friendly and be a libertarian or liberal (without ever naming him/herself as such). A libertarian pro-choice candidate might say that the state needs neither to interfere  nor prohibit nor support a woman’s reproductive decisions (as reflected by the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits monies for abortion services to be extended through Medicaid). By extension, the liberartarian also need not endorse legislation that distributes monies or services that enable access to reproductive decisions.  A liberal pro-choice candidate might articulate a “strong” commitment to reproductive rights, again, without endorsing legislation to enables women to make use of those rights.  A liberal pro-choice candidate can still subscribe to conservative family ideologies that limit access to reproductive rights.  Similarly, a self-described “pro-environment/green” candidate need not be progressive; they can be libertarian or liberal –or downright conservative, endorsing anti-immigration policies on the dubious grounds that immigrants that destroy our environment (and if they do so, it’s in order to provide services to wealthy Americans). One also wonders how immigrants become the villains, while DuPont, Dow, and BP are seen as real environmental heroes.

4. Pro-choice/green candidates typically don’t describe themselves as liberal or libertarian. This is a no-brainer: they/their handlers are trying to cast as wide a net for voters as possible, and it’s easier to insinuate one’s pro-choice/green politics in order to attract a wide constituency. I mean, really: can any one ever seriously “be against” the environment? In many ways, a “green” (and often, a pro-choice) stance is more of rhetorically appealing than it is informative.

Rather than be taken in by a candidate’s “pro-choice” stance, it’s probably more effective to explore whether a pro-choice candidate iis also pro-social services, pro-civil liberties or whether they are pro-corporation, pro-banks, against progressive taxation for the upper 1%, might give us a better sense of how substantial or facile their pro-choice/green stance really is.

By the way, there are women in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan (countries formerly or currently under assault by the United States). I’m betting those women also care about reproductive rights.  When considering a pro-choice candidate, it might be important to ask what their position on invading those countries is. It might also be informative to ask what 10 years of cluster bombs and depleted uranium deposits have done to the reproductive systems of women in Iraq? It might be equally as informative to find out how 10 years of bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan, oil fires in Kuwait and Iraq, and other chemical assaults have affected women.

This issue brings up the additional question of “which constituencies” one aligns oneself with when one votes.  It may not be a conscious alignment, but it forms the contours of our voting preferences.  Voting for a candidate on a single (seemingly uncomplicated) issue such as reproductive rights or the environment, when his/her stance on issues such as war, invasions, and empire is credibly supportive tells us that the voter (that’s you) has chosen certain constituencies to favor (e.g., “women” qua women in the United States) to protect over others such as international civilian population (who include women of color, non-wealthy women, children) who will be innocently subjected to drone attacks, bombs, covert wars. These international civilian populations will surely also include black and brown men, and if the last decade is any indication, often Muslim men and women.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a cost-benefit vote. One calculates the cost of voting for a president who has promised to be pro-“choice”/”pro”-environment while also promising to invade other countries with the anticipation of large casualties. If this is your model, then okay. But keep in mind that you are trading hostages in the process, and the casualties will still be casualties as the result of your political choices.

Can these casualties be mitigated? Hard to say. It’s not clear whether a presidential candidate who puts forth pro-choice/environmentally friendly in lieu of/without committing to progressive stances on structural and foreign policy issues will actually support pro-choice or environmental issues. Over the last few decades, we have become all too familiar with this trade-off.

A more effective approach would be to explore whether a presidential candidate who claims to be in favor of protecting reproductive rights is also in favor of protecting social services, access to health care, and civil liberties or whether s/he is aligned with protecting corporations, banks, health insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies.  This might give us a better sense of whether a pro-choice/green stance is really substantial or merely facile.